“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”

You know, in all the years I’ve been reading the Buddha’s teachings, I’ve never once heard him talk in terms of the “secret of life” or the “secret of existence.”

This quote is actually from a talk given by Swami Vivekananda in the US in 1895, in which he is recorded as having said:

The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you. Depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you free.

The fact that the talk was delivered over a century ago made me wonder when people started talking about a “secret of existence.” It struck me as being rather a 19th century expression.

Google Books only gives one result from the 18th century for that phrase, one more (excluding duplicate results) from 1800 to 1820, and then dozens from 1820 to 1830. Even allowing for sample bias in Google’s database, it seems that the phrase only came into vogue in the early 1800s — earlier than I’d thought.

The phrase “the secret of life” seems to have become common much earlier, and is found in books throughout the 1700s.

Even earlier was the phrase “secret of Nature,” which I’ve seen in many books as far back as the 1500s.

When the Buddha talked about “secrets” or things being “secret” he seems to have done so in quite a literal way. He’d talk about people doing evil deeds in secret, and about friends keeping your secrets and sharing their own. But he doesn’t seem to have talked about a “secret of life” or a “secret of existence.”

Nowadays “secrets of life” abound. It seems that many people have discovered this secret and will sell you it in paperback, hardcover, or in ebook format.

Thanks for Bhikkhu Pandit for sending me this quote, which he found on Facebook.

This Fake Buddha Quote also crops up from time to time on Twitter:

“The heart is like a garden: it can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. What seeds will you plant there?”

A friend drew my attention to this on Facebook, and then two people emailed it to me on the same day. Ever had the feeling that life is telling you to write up a Fake Buddha Quote?

This of course is nothing like the language or imagery that the Buddha is recorded as having used in his teaching.

In fact it’s from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, page 11. BLIB is not a book of quotations from the Buddha, as the title seems to suggest to many. Instead, it’s Jack’s rather lovely renderings of the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching into a contemporary style.

The Buddha did use the imagery of seeds, at times. He said things like this:

Just as when seeds are not broken, not rotten, not damaged by wind & heat, capable of sprouting, well-buried, planted in well-prepared soil, and the rain-god would offer good streams of rain. Those seeds would thus come to growth, increase, & abundance. In the same way, any action performed with greed… performed with aversion… performed with delusion — born of delusion, caused by delusion, originating from delusion: wherever one’s selfhood turns up, there that action will ripen. Where that action ripens, there one will experience its fruit, either in this very life that has arisen or further along in the sequence.

As you’ll see, this is a similar message, but expressed very differently.

“To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.”

I’d seen this one a lot on Twitter, recently. It’s fake.

To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.

It’s not from the Buddha, but from a Japanese book called The Teaching of Buddha. Titles such as this do tend to lead to confusion.

The Teaching of Buddha is the Japanese Buddhist equivalent of the Gideon Bible, except that the Gideon Bible can be taken as, you know, Gospel, while the Japanese book, as far as I’m aware doesn’t contain any Buddhist scriptures. I’m just about to order a copy, so I’ll soon find out. Several other Fake Buddha Quotes come from this book, and I’m curious to take a look at it. So far all I’ve seen is snippets on Google Books.

Here’s an example from Twitter.

The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (1)

“Whatever is well said is a saying of the Blessed One.” Well, maybe not.

From time to time I receive critical messages from people, claiming that the Buddha was too spiritual to bother about things like being misquoted, or having words put in his mouth. How they know this, I don’t know. Perhaps they have some kind of mystical communion with deceased enlightened beings.

Not having such powers, I have to read the Buddhist scriptures for clues to his attitude. There I find the Buddha, at times, facing people who say “I heard you said such-and-such,” and when their information is incorrect I see him putting them straight, in no uncertain terms. But there’s also a passage in the Digha Nikaya where the Buddha explicitly talks about being misquoted. (Thanks to Arjuna Ranatunga for reminding me of this sutta).

There the Buddha runs through various scenarios where one might hear that the Buddha is reported to have said something or other. What’s our response meant to be?

Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.

That’s what this blog is about, although generally I try to find where non-Buddhist quotes have originated and, being human, I sometimes fall into scorn. I’m working on it, though.

There’s another sutta that Arjuna reminded me of, which comes not from the Buddha but from his disciple, Uttara. That sutta contains this oft-quoted saying:

“…whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One.”

This would seem to suggest that if the Buddha’s quoted as having said something, then as long as the quote is “well-said” we should accept it as his word. This is a rather odd idea, on the face of it. It’s hard to imagine someone as ethical as the Buddha being prepared to take the credit for others’ bons mots.

Take a look at the context of the sutta, though. Uttara is in a conversation with Sakka, the king of the devas (or gods). As an aside, what does this mean? I tend to assume that such conversations are the recordings of inner dialog. In this case Uttara would have been musing on the nature of authenticity. He’s just given a teaching, and a note (perhaps of doubt) creeps into his mind: “Whose teaching is this, mine or the Buddha’s?” And an answer comes to him: It’s basically the Buddha’s teaching; I just go to the grain pile and carry away basketfuls of Dhamma as I need them. I’d suggest reading the following passage in that light.

“But is this Ven. Uttara’s own extemporaneous invention, or is it the saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One?”

“Very well, then, deva-king, I will give you an analogy, for there are cases where it’s through an analogy that observant people can understand the meaning of what is being said. Suppose that not far from a village or town there was a great pile of grain, from which a great crowd of people were carrying away grain on their bodies, on their heads, in their laps, or in their cupped hands. If someone were to approach that great crowd of people and ask them, ‘From where are you carrying away grain?’ answering in what way would that great crowd of people answer so as to be answering rightly?”

“Venerable sir, they would answer, ‘We are carrying it from that great pile of grain,’ so as to be answering rightly.”

“In the same way, deva-king, whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One. Adopting it again & again from there do we & others speak.”

Or maybe you believe in gods.

But it’s obvious from the context that what is “well said” refers to that which is taken from the grain pile of the Buddha’s teaching. It seems likely that Uttara was actually saying “whatever I have said that is well said is the word of the Buddha.” This is not unlike a common line that is found in book acknowledgements, along the lines, “Whatever is of value here comes from my teachers; the errors are all my own.” Uttara was not saying that if Voltaire or Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf happens to say something neat it can be co-opted as Buddha-vacana — the utterance of the Buddha. So ultimately Uttara’s utterance doesn’t contradict the Buddha’s teaching that we should scrutinize supposed Buddha quotes and reject those that aren’t genuine.

“If anything is worth doing, do it with all your heart.”

When I first saw this quote on Twitter, my suspicious were aroused. It just seemed too neat and “literary” to be a genuine Buddha quote. But having researched it I’ve concluded that it’s a translation that’s just close enough to the original to be considered genuine.

“If anything is worth doing, do it with all your heart.”

It’s from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada, which is generally held in high regard, although I confess I haven’t read it. This particular quote is part of verse 313, from the chapter on “Hell.”

Here are some variant translations:

  • If anything is to be done, let one do it with sustained vigor. (Buddharakkhita)
  • If something’s to be done, then work at it firmly. (Thanissaro)
  • If aught should be done, let one do it. Let one promote it steadily.(Narada Thera)
  • If you have something to do, attack it vigorously. (Sangharakshita)

The Pāli is Kayirā ce kayirāthenaṃ daḷhamenaṃ parakkame, which is very literally “If something is to be done, one should do it; one should undertake it firmly.”

Eknath’s “with all your heart” is to my mind a bit of a stretch, but it does idiomatically cover the same territory as “do it firmly.” So this is one of these times when my instincts were slightly off.

“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

Sometimes it truly baffles me that some people think a particular quote comes from the Buddha. This is a case in point, because it’s so unlike the tone and language of any Buddhist scripture.

But this particular one is found on Goodreads, in the books Which God Should I Choose? (page 62), by Ben Kniskern, and The Little Red Book of Yoga Wisdom (unnumbered page), edited by Kelsie Besaw, and on numerous quotations sites and blogs.

The quote is actually from Walpola Rahula’s well-known book, What the Buddha Taught (page 3).

Granted, if you’ve never actually read any Buddhist scriptures then you’d have no understanding of the kind of vocabulary and idiom that the Buddha used (or is recorded as having used) and so you perhaps wouldn’t know that the Buddha didn’t talk like a 20th century intellectual — but yet I’m still surprised that the modernity of the phrasing and vocabulary didn’t trigger some kind of alert in the minds of the many people who have passed this on.

The word “political” stands out for me. I don’t recall the Buddha using any language similar to that. My Pali-English dictionary tells me there is a term, khattadhamma, which means “the law of ruling, political science,” although it’s not clear that the Buddha used this term in any of his discourses. Rather than using concise terms like “politics” or “political” the Buddha’s suttas are far more expansive, and so when “unedifying talk” about politics is condemned it’s talk “about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars” etc. that is mentioned.

I wholeheartedly agree with what Rahula has to say, incidentally. Buddhism is not principally a belief system, but a system of practice. Belief is not absent in Buddhism, and faith is reckoned as an important spiritual faculty. But faith in Buddhism is more like trust or confidence. That trust or confidence is based on experience, and is in turn the basis for practice and exploration. It’s not unlike taking on a hypothesis in a scientific sense and checking it out. The hypothesis is not believed blindly, either in Buddhism or in science, but is the starting point in a search for the truth.

Rahula points out that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to voice their doubts or uncertainties about the teaching, and said that if it was out of respect for him, the teacher, that they didn’t ask questions, they should get a friend to ask for them. It’s this kind of spirit of openness and inquiry that attracted me to Buddhist practice in the first place.

“Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts. You are what observes, not what you observe.”

This is a Fake Buddha Quote.

It seems to have a hybrid origin. The first part — “Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts.” — comes from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada. I put the word translation in quotes because Byrom’s rendering is less translation and more “look at the Pali original and make up something poetic vaguely based on what you see there,” as you’ll see below.

In this case the original Pali (Dhammapada verse 237) is:

Appamadarata hotha sacittam anurakkhatha.

A literal translation would be:

Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind.

There’s no “awake.” There’s no “witness.” The root of the verb translated as “witness” is rakkh-, which means “to protect.”

The second part — “You are what observes, not what you observe” — seems to come from Robert Earl Burton’s Self-Remembering (1995), p. 23.

Byrom appears to have been a Hindu, and this may have affected his choice of words, which is rather non-Buddhist. In the Hindu tradition they talk about “witnessing consciousness.” You are not your thoughts, emotions, or other experiences. You are instead that which is aware of those experiences. That is your true Self, your atman. The Buddha’s approach was of course one of anatman, or not-self. One recognizes that neither our experiences nor what experiences (which is really just our experience of experiencing) is the self. Over and over in the Pali texts we’re told to note that “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self.” We are never told to identify anything as being the self. To the Buddha, any view of the self — even the view that there is no self — was a form of clinging that would lead to suffering. The ideal is to live free from any views on the self whatsoever.

Here’s a quote from the Sabbasava Sutta of the Middle Length Discourses. I’ve added emphases to highlight the important differences between our Fake Buddha Quote and the Buddha’s teaching:

In a person who thus considers improperly there arises one of the six [wrong] views. The view ‘I have self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I have no self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive non-self through self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, the view ‘I perceive self through non-self’ arises in him really and firmly. Or, he has the view thus: ‘That self of mine speaks, knows and experiences the results of wholesome and unwholesome actions. That self of mine is permanent, stable, durable, incorruptible and will be eternal like all things permanent.’

Bhikkhus! This wrong view is called a false belief, a jungle of false beliefs, a desert of false beliefs, a thorny spike of false beliefs, an agitation of false beliefs and a fetter of false beliefs. Bhikkhus! The ignorant worldling who is bound up with the fetter of false beliefs cannot escape rebirth, ageing, death, grief, lamentation, pain, distress and despair. I declare that he cannot escape dukkha.

Burton, incidentally, was neither a Buddhist nor a Hindu but a teacher of the “Fourth Way” in the tradition of Gurjieff and Ouspensky.

I don’t know where, when, or how these two separate quotes became cobbled together, or how they became ascribed to the Buddha. But by 2008 the two are found combined in a book, Awake Joy: The Essence of Enlightenment, by Katie Davis, and presented as a Buddha quote. It’s likely that the amalgamation of the two quotes took place on the web, although we may never know.

This adoption of the “witness” as the self seems to be seen sometimes in certain Buddhist schools, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, despite its being profoundly un-Buddhist. It’s also a feature of the teaching of the popular spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle.

Fake Deepak Chopra quotes


There’s now a site available that will generate random fake quotes in the style of Deepak Chopra. This pseudo-spiritual word-salad is cobbled together from words found in Chopra’s Twitter stream. One can generate gems such as:

“God is reborn in positive self-knowledge.”

“Imagination illuminates karmic space time events.”

“Good health is inside existential silence.”

“Evolution is in the midst of boundless choices.”

“Knowledge is the ground of cosmic silence.”

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”

I’ve come across this one on Twitter a few times. It’s very much in tune with the Buddha’s message as expressed in the Dhammapada:

Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others — he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.

And it’s the kind of thing I could imagine the Buddha saying. But it didn’t quite ring true for me, and so I did a little investigation.

And it turns out that this is in fact a Daoist quote, from the sayings of Chuang Tzu. You’ll find it, for example, in the 1906 book Musings of a Chinese Mystic: Selections from the Philosophy of Chuang Tzŭ by Herbert Allen Giles.

The first book I’ve found this in that attributes the quote to the Buddha is 2006’s Undue Diligence (how ironic!) by Paul C. Haughey, making this one of our more recent Fake Buddha Quotes. A limited-date Google web search — although it has to be said that their dating is often off — suggests that this quote first became attributed to the Buddha just a few years before this — possibly in 2001 or 2002.

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

There are many variants of this quote. Sometimes they’re attributed to the Buddha, and sometimes to the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, or to Nelson Mandela. I haven’t found anything resembling this quote in the Buddhist scriptures.

Until a friendly reader helped me out, I had found the quote in books by Anne Lamotte, Alice May, and Malachy McCourt, but I suspected they were all quoting someone else. The earliest references I’d found were from Alcoholics Anonymous, and that organization seemed like it might have been the original source, although I wondered if the saying may have existed in an orally transmitted form for some time before being committed to print.

Here are some of the examples I found, including two from the 12-Step tradition:

  • “In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
  • Hanging on to a resentment, someone once said, is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill someone else. Alice May, Surviving Betrayal (1999)
  • Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Malachy McCourt (1998)
  • “Charles had once remarked that holding onto a resentment was like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamotte, Crooked Little Heart (1997)
  • “I think resentment is when you take the poison and wait for the other person to die.” M.T. A Sponsorship Guide for 12-Step Programs (1995)
  • When we hang on to resentments, we poison ourselves. As compulsive overeaters, we cannot afford resentment, since it exacerbates our disease. Elizabeth L. Food for Thought: Daily Meditations for Overeaters (1992)

Given that two of our earliest sources by M.T. and “Elizabeth L.” are from the 12-step traditions, it seemed possible — likely even — that the quote had “Anonymous” origins.

And this vague suspicion of an AA origin for the quote remained with me for a long time until Joakim (see the comments below) helped me out with a reference, telling me that the quote was to be found in a 1930’s book called The Sermon on the Mount, by Emmet Fox. That didn’t seem to be quite the case. The exact quote isn’t there, but there is a passage that is an obvious prototype:

No Scientific Christian ever considers hatred or execration to be “justifiable” in any circumstances, but whatever your opinion about that might be, there is no question about its practical consequences to you. You might as well swallow a dose of Prussic acid in two gulps, and think to protect yourself by saying, “This one is for Robespierre; and this one for the Bristol murderer” [who had previously been cited as objects of hatred]. You will hardly have any doubt as to who will receive the benefit of the poison.”

It’s not exactly pithy, but it certainly looks like the prototype of our Fake Buddha Quote.

But where’s the AA connection?

Wikipedia says Fox’s secretary was the mother of one of the men who worked with Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W., and partly as a result of this connection early AA groups often went to hear Fox. Wikipedia says “His writing, especially The Sermon on the Mount, became popular in AA.”

This explains how the more polished version of the quote first emerged in AA. It’s easy to imagine how the same image, being used in speech over and over, would tend to be smoothed off, like a pebble rolling around in a river.

There’s an interesting Buddhist twist on all this. Gems of Buddhist Wisdom (1996) from the Buddhist Missionary Society, contains the following: “Hatred is like a poison which you inject into your veins, before injecting it into your enemy. It is throwing cow dung at another: you dirty your hands first, before you dirty others.”

The “dung” part of that quotation is from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, but as far as I can see the first part is not, and it may well be borrowed from the AA tradition.