“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”

This one was just passed on to me, and is also found as:

  • “Life is so very difficult. How can we be anything but kind?”
  • “Life is so very difficult, how can we be anything other than kind?”

The version that I’ve used as the heading for this article is perhaps the definitive version of this quote, while the rest are later variants. The original is from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” which is, as I’ve explained here many times, not a book of quotes from the Buddha but of adaptations and distillations of teachings, some canonical and some not.

The message of “Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?” is in fact very Buddhist, although I’m not aware of any scriptural quotes that come anything close to saying this.

There is the following, which is from the Pali Dhammapada (verse 129): “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

There’s also “‘As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I.’ Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill,” which is from the Sutta Nipata.

Those both convey the sense that others suffer just as we do, and so we should therefore not cause suffering.

These aren’t very close parallels, and I suspect that Kornfield wasn’t paraphrasing any specific text but creating a statement that be understood to reflect the gist of the Buddhist teachings.

Incidentally, one of my own sayings is, “Life is short; be kind,” which isn’t that different from Kornfield’s saying.

“Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment, know the sweet joy of the way.”

When this was first passed on to me I thought it was probably from Thomas Byrom’s version of the Dhammapada. He’s fond of short, declarative sentences (in this case “look within” and “be still”) and he tends to be poetic (“know the sweet joy of the way”). Unfortunately, his Dhammapada and the original text often bear little to no resemblance to each other.

And my guess was right. This is Byrom’s attempt at Dhammapada verse 205.

In Buddharakkhita’s translation this verse is:

Having savored the taste of solitude and peace (of Nibbana), pain-free and stainless he becomes, drinking deep the taste of the bliss of the Truth.

I’d put it a little differently (and I think more literally):

Having drunk the nectar of solitude and of tranquility,
[And] drinking the nectar of the joy of truth, he becomes free from sorrow, free from evil.

The verse starts with the phrase Pavivekarasaṃ pītvā of which pitvā is a gerund, “having drunk.” “Pavivekarasaṃ” is an accusative noun, and it breaks down into paviveka (solitude) and rasa, which can mean taste, juice and a few related concepts. Since we talk of drinking a liquid and not drinking a taste, I thought that “nectar” worked better for rasa than Buddharakkhita’s “taste.” There is of course legitimate leeway in creating any translation, however.

Byrom, however, goes well beyond legitimate leeway. There is nothing corresponding to “look within” in this verse. And it opens by talking about what happens once we have drunk the nectar of solitude. Byrom renders this as an imperative, “Be still.” This is simply not what the passage is saying.

And although the Buddha does talk a lot about “attachment,” that concept is not mentioned in this verse. Byrom has simply thrown it in.

As usual he’s essentially just making it up as he goes along. He produces a sense that is emotionally much warmer than the actual Dhammapada. Contrast the intimacy of having someone tell you (presumably in a kind way) “Be still” with the much more distant and abstract “Having drunk the nectar of solitude.” Now Byrom’s version (like the publisher, Shambhala, I don’t call it a “translation”) is very popular because of its warmth and gentleness. But the fact is that the Dhammapada has, for the most part, a rather austere and ascetic tone, and to soften this is to distort the text.

Critiquing Byrom is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (admittedly I’ve never attempted that sport — I suspect it’s more difficult than it’s reputed to be). Virtually the whole of his rendering is a mistranslation, much of it much worse than this. Here at last he doesn’t introduce any non-Buddhist concepts, which he does elsewhere.

“The teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure.”

This is fake. It’s from Thomas Byrom’s appalling* rendition of the Dhammapada, although it’s found there as “Yet the teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure.” Sometimes the quote ends with “At the end of the way is freedom.”

Now the Dhammapada is a scriptural text, so you might wonder why I regard it as fake. Of course it’s not the Dhammapada itself that I think is fraudulent, but Byrom’s version of it.

As far as I’m aware, Byrom didn’t know any Pali, which is the language the Dhammapada is written in. So he didn’t translate the text, but more likely used other people’s translations and perhaps a Pali–English dictionary in order to make up some inspiring poetry that bore little if any resemblance to the original. Even his publisher, Shambhala, doesn’t call Byrom’s Dhammapada a translation.

“Yet the teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure” is supposed to be Dhammapada verse 183, which is one of the most well-known verses from this well-known work.

Here are a few other translations of verse 183, all of them fairly literal:

Mine: “Ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, purifying the heart — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Buddharakkhita: “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Thanissaro: “The non-doing of any evil, the performance of what’s skillful, the cleansing of one’s own mind: this is the teaching of the Awakened.”

Fronsdal: “Doing no evil, Engaging in what’s skillful, And purifying one’s mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Narada: “Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind, this is the Teaching of the Buddhas.”

If you’re at all familiar with Buddhist teachings you’ll almost certainly have heard this verse. The fact that you probably didn’t recognize Byrom’s quote as being related to Dhammapada verse 183 shows you what a bollocks Byrom made of it.

Byrom’s “The teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure” is a complete outlier (I accidentally typed “outliar” at first, and was tempted to leave it!).

This isn’t, by a long shot, the worst fakery that Byrom pulled off in his Dhammapada. At least, unlike some of his other inventions, this one doesn’t conflict with what the Buddha taught (although he stressed how profound and subtle, and not how simple the Dhamma was). It’s just a terrible, terrible translation.

Th words, “At the end of the way is freedom,” with which this quote sometimes ends, are actually the start of the next verse of the Dhammapada in Byrom’s version, which reads “At the end of the way is freedom. Till then, patience.”

In Buddharakkhita’s very literal translation this is: “Enduring patience is the highest austerity. ‘Nibbana is supreme,’ say the Buddhas.” As you can see, there’s no meaningful connection between Byrom’s words and the original text.

Sometimes I wish that Shambhala, Byrom’s publisher, would just pulp the beautiful mess they’ve created.

* It’s an appalling work of translation, although a beautiful work of literature.

“Don’t judge others, because you are not perfect.” – Buddha

Someone recently wrote to me asking if he could contribute to my meditation blog at Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. In checking out his work I saw he’d posted an article on his own blog called “79 Zen Quotes that Will Help You Choose the Right Path.” Aha! An opportunity to check out his research chops!

There were five quotes on his list attributed to the Buddha, not one of which was actually by him. Two are on this site, while three were completely new to me.

This one — “Don’t judge others, because you are not perfect” — so far only appears on two places on the internet, which means it might be possible to nip it on the bud, or at least slow its growth a little.*

Of course one of these instances is in the “Zen quotes” article, while the other is on me.me, where it’s not attributed to the Buddha. This suggests that the author of the Zen Quotes article created that attribution.

Anyway, it’s not a Buddha quote. The closest I can think of offhand is verse 50 from the Dhammapada: “Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.”

Verse 257 of the Dhammapada reminds us that judgement can be appropriate, as long as it’s done in the right spirit: “He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.”

So we don’t have to be perfect to judge others; we just need to be impartial and to respect facts.

Of course forgiveness and patience are important as well, and remembering our own fallibility is very helpful in tempering our judgements. So I’m not going to be too hard on the gentleman who wrote the “Zen Quotes” article. We all mess up.

*In the form “Don’t judge others. You’re not perfect” it’s found in other places, but so far I haven’t seen it attributed to the Buddha.

As Gruff points out below, “Don’t judge others, because you are not perfect” resembles Matthew 7:1, which is “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (New International Version). Matthew 7:3 is “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”, which has a similar message. Our fake quote may be an adaptation of those verses.

Fake Buddha Quote book

I have some good news!

I have a contract with Parallax, a noted publisher of Buddhist books, to put together a book about Fake Buddha Quotes. Work is going well, and in fact I’m close to having finished the first rough draft.

I understand it will be published in October of next year, just in time for Christmas.

“If we destroy something around us we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves.”

This quote seems to come from a document explaining Buddhist teachings, put together by an organization called The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a monastery in Talmage, California.

In that text we find the following, which refers to the Buddha:

He discovered three great truths. He explained these truths in a simple way so that everyone could understand them.

1. Nothing is lost in the universe

The first truth is that nothing is lost in the universe. Matter turns into energy, energy turns into matter. A dead leaf turns into soil. A seed sprouts and becomes a new plant. Old solar systems disintegrate and turn into cosmic rays. We are born of our parents, our children are born of us.

We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us, we are the same as everything. If we destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves. Understanding this truth, the Buddha and his disciples never killed any animal.

I could quibble with the statement that the Buddha formulated a truth that “nothing is lost in the universe” — I suspect that insight is borrowed from modern physics, and that the BUddha said no such thing — but my point here isn’t to critique the article, just to show it as the probable origin of this quote.

We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us, we are the same as everything” is a quote I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

“If we destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves” certainly strikes me as a wise perspective to hold.

However, this document clearly isn’t a Buddhist scripture, and isn’t claiming to represent what the Buddha said. It seems that someone has taken this quote and either accidentally or deliberately presented it as something the Buddha said.

It’s of course impossible to create without destroying: in order to grow food, for example, we have to clear the land, break the ground, and (no matter how careful we are) kill worms and insects. Rules for monks and nuns were stricter, since they didn’t have to work.

Lily de Silva has an article on Access to Insight on Buddhist attitudes to nature that gives a hint as to the care that monks were expected to take.

The Buddhist monk has to abide by an even stricter code of ethics than the layman. He has to abstain from practices which would involve even unintentional injury to living creatures. For instance, the Buddha promulgated the rule against going on a journey during the rainy season because of possible injury to worms and insects that come to the surface in wet weather. The same concern for non-violence prevents a monk from digging the ground.

De Silva also talks about attitudes to plants:

Buddhism expresses a gentle non-violent attitude towards the vegetable kingdom as well. It is said that one should not even break the branch of a tree that has given one shelter. Plants are so helpful to us in providing us with all necessities of life that we are expected not to adopt a callous attitude towards them. The more strict monastic rules prevent the monks from injuring plant life.

Householder Buddhists were of course in a different position. Many of them would have been farmers and would had to cut down trees, harvest crops, etc. And it would have been unavoidable that they killed small creatures while plowing the land and so on. But even then they weren’t supposed to kill or cause to kill animals. The general idea would have been to minimize the amount of destruction to living things in order to prevent suffering:

All tremble at violence,
All fear death;
Comparing oneself with others
One should neither kill nor cause others to kill.
(Dhammapada Verse 129)

“The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I was asked about this one today: “The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I immediately remembered a discourse from the Buddha where teaching is described as the highest miracle. The Buddha outlines, in some detail, the miracle of psychic power, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.

Here’s the part about instruction:

And what is the miracle of instruction? There is the case where a certain person gives instruction in this way: ‘Direct your thought in this way, don’t direct it in that. Attend to things in this way, don’t attend to them in that. Let go of this, enter and remain in that.’ This is called the miracle of instruction.

The Buddha himself doesn’t say that this is the highest miracle: that’s left to his interlocutor, the brahman Sangarava. The Buddha doesn’t say that this assessment is correct, but he doesn’t contradict that part of what Sangarava said, so I presume he did agree.

I think that Jack Kornfield may be responsible for this quote. It’s not in his “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” whose title has led many to think that the contents are scriptural, when actually they’re Jack’s distillations and adaptations of various Buddhist and non-Buddhist sayings, but all of the Google results for this quote are connected with him. For example it’s found in this article he wrote.

Perhaps Jack was quoting from memory and mixed up “teaching” and “learning.” Or perhaps there is another sutta somewhere that describes learning as a miracle — which it is, I guess. But for now I’m categorizing this as fake.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, although the internet is generally convinced that this this is a saying of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. A couple of outliers attribute this to the philosopher Aristotle, which may have happened because someone either didn’t read a citation very carefully or thought that the two men were the one and the same.

The attributions to Onassis don’t start until around 2009, which makes it very suspect, given that he died in 1975. Dead men rarely coin inspiring aphorisms.

Anyway, this is certainly not from the Buddha. I don’t think the metaphor of a “dark moment” can be found anywhere in the early scriptures.

The metaphor of darkness itself is quite common, though. For example there’s a common pericope put in the mouths of those who had just received teachings from the Buddha:

The Dhamma has been made clear in many ways by Master Gotama as though he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing the hidden, showing the way to one who is lost, holding up a lamp in the darkness for those with eyesight to see forms. (See here,
for example.)

And the Buddha described his own awakening thus: “Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose.”

And we’re told there are four kinds of people in the world: “One in darkness who is headed for darkness, one in darkness who is headed for light, one in light who is headed for darkness, and one in light who is headed for light.” You can read more about that here.

Anyway, it’s not the Buddha. And it’s probably not Aristotle Onassis. There is however another attribution that predates the Aristotle Onassis ones: Taylor Benson. The earliest Benson citations I’ve found so far on the web have been from 2007, and the earliest in a book is from 2004, in “365 Prescriptions for the Soul: Daily Messages of Inspiration, Hope, and Love,” by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel.

But who is Taylor Benson and did he/she actually say this? Unfortunately I’ve no idea.

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! The competition for “Worst Fake Buddha Quote of All Time” has been categorically won by the following:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

This particular quote is like one of those “Alpine Meadow” car air-fresheners: simultaneously sweet and putrid, and it bears as much resemblance to how the Buddha taught as the smell of one of those air-fresheners does to a genuine flower.

The quote is so awful that I expected it not to be very widespread, but in our post-fact world it turns out that in fact it’s all over the place. Many graphics have been created and the quote is listed in the usual quotes sites (as a writer on Wired said, “They misattribute everything, usually to Mark Twain.”) It’s even in an article in the Guardian, although so far I haven’t seen it in any books.

I don’t yet know where it originated. A review of a book called (brace yourself for another wave of nausea) “Mom, Dad, U R Wonderful” says that the book’s author, Salma Prabhu, attributes the quote to Osho, although there the quote is given, more sensibly, as:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying, as every child is a little Buddha who helps his parents grow up.”

(The quote in the review ends with an exclamation mark. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

It’s possible that this quote is from Osho, but I haven’t found it in the online library devoted to his writings. Perhaps it was in a talk, or perhaps Ms. Prabhu was mistaken.

Osho, incidentally, has been responsible for a few Fake Buddha Quotes.

“I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

Also found as “I am but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

The first version is found all over the web. The version with “but” seems originally to come from Carolyn Myss’ 2002 book, “Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential.” She’s repeated the quote in another of her books. In the earlier book she ascribes it to the semi-mythic 5th to 6th century Buddhist missionary, Bodhidharma, while later she states this was something that both the Buddha and Bodhidharma said.

Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake.

I haven’t found any record of Bodhidharma having used this analogy, and in any event I’m pretty sure he would have stuck with the tradition of saying it was the teachings that were like a pointing finger, and not himself.

The historical Buddha did compare his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. But he said nothing about the Dharma being a finger pointing at the moon or anything else. It’s a good analogy, though, and I’d imagine he would have used it had it occurred to him.

In the Mahayana Sutras the Buddha is portrayed as having used this or a similar analogy. In the Lankavatara (compiled in something like the 3rd to 4th centuries — that is, hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha) there are two relevant passages. The first is as follows:

Be not like the one who looks at the finger-tip. For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at; in like manner, Mahāmati, the people belonging to the class of the ignorant and simple-minded, like those of a childish group, are unable even unto their death to abandon the idea that in the finger-tip of words there is the meaning itself, and will not grasp ultimate reality because of their intent clinging to words which are no more than the finger-tip to them.

There’s no mention of the moon here, but this is essentially the same analogy.

The second reference (and thanks to a reader for pointing this out to me) refers to both the finger and the moon:

As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth. (p.193, of the Lankavatara Sutra, translated by DT Suzuki)

In an even later scripture, the Shurangama, we also find the entire analogy:

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Although the Lankavatara and Shurangama both have their origins in Indian Buddhism, the finger/moon analogy really took off in the world of Zen Buddhism. There’s a Zen text called the “Finger Pointing at the Moon” (Shigetsu Roku) and almost always when you hear this quote it’s associated with Zen.

If you’re a traditional Mahayanist who believes that the Buddha literally uttered the words of texts like the Lankavatara and Shurangama, then the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy is a genuine Buddha quote. But these are not words that, as far as we know, the historical Buddha used.