“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.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

This is a bad translation of the Kalama Sutta — so bad, in fact, that it contradicts the message of the sutta, which says that reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth.

And it’s very common as well.

Here’s the original version, from Access to Insight:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha is talking to some people who live near his home country. These people, the Kalamas, are confused by the multiplicity of teachings that they hear. Many teachers arrive, who extoll their own teachings and disparage the teachings of others. And the Kalamas want to know, “Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

The Buddha’s reply is very full, but it’s clear he says that “reason” (logical conjecture, inference, analogies, agreement through pondering views) and “common sense” (probability) are not sufficient bases for determining what the truth is. It’s not that these things should be discarded, but ultimately it’s experience and the opinion of the wise that is our guide.

So this brings up at least two questions:

1. If experience is to be our guide, does that mean we have to test out every theory and practice? No. If a teacher says something like “taking drugs is the path to happiness” you don’t have to try drugs. Your experience includes observation of other people’s experience, so that if you have seen others suffering through taking drugs you don’t have to repeat their mistakes.

2. Who is to say who the wise are? You are. Through your experience (see point 1, above), whom have you found to be reliable and insightful in the past? Those people are “the wise”. Now you don’t have to take everything they say as being the absolute truth. You can use your reason, your common sense, and your experience as a guide. Not all of “the wise” will agree, for example, so you’re still going to have to figure things out for yourself ultimately.

It’s this second criterion that is often overlooked.

The first instance of this version of the quote that I’ve found is in a libertarian book by the pseudonymous author, “John Galt” — Dreams Come Due. I strongly suspect that Galt’s libertarianism caused him to alter the quote in order to make it supportive of his position.

Incidentally, the “no matter where you read it” is an anachronism, since spiritual teachings were orally transmitted at the time of the Buddha.

“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”

This one’s on Brainyquote.com. It’s also often quoted on Twitter:

That didn’t look at all like something the Buddha would have said, especially since fate is an alien concept to Buddhism. The Buddha taught the doctrine of karma, which people often think of as being a kind of fate-like external agency. But in Buddhist terms karma is not like that at all. Karma is the action we take that shapes our personalities and predisposes us to future suffering or wellbeing.

The Buddha also, as far as I’m aware, never talked about what he “believed.” He talked about what he had seen, knew, or realized. Buddhism is not a belief system. So this one is all wrong.

A quick search revealed that the quote is actually from an essay by G. K. Chesterton, “A Visit to Holland.”

The essay was originally published in the Illustrated London News, and then printed in a marvelous collection of essays under the title “Generally Speaking.” The whole book is available as a (scanned) PDF here.

“Virtue is persecuted more by the wicked than it is loved by the good.”

Found on Twitter: “Virtue is persecuted more by the wicked than it is loved by the good. — Buddha”

From time to time I’m blown away by the strange things that get passed around as Buddha quotes. This particular one is a lovely bon mot of a style completely foreign to that found in the Buddhist scriptures. If I had to guess, I’d have thought this might be by Voltaire, or Rousseau, or perhaps Montaigne. I definitely had in mind French writers of a few hundred years ago.

But actually this isn’t by a French writer. It’s straight from Don Quixote, and the words are from the Don himself:

“I am held enchanted in this cage by the envy and fraud of wicked enchanters; for virtue is more persecuted by the wicked than loved by the good.”

The irony, of course, is that in trying to stem the flow of Fake Buddha Quotes, I’m probably tilting at windmills. But at least this one hasn’t yet made it into any books that I’ve found, although it is on one quotes website. In fact, that particular site could keep me occupied for quite some time!

Not a bad first week

So the new Fake Buddha Quotes site has been up for a week and things seem to be going well. Yes, some of the posts date back several years, but that’s because when I launched this site I copied over Fake Buddha Quote posts from my personal blog, bodhipaksa.com.

In this first week we’ve had 1,000 visitors, which is not bad for a start.

Neville Evans asked on Facebook, “Why are you spending time with this work?” to which my reply was “Because it’s fun?” I don’t know if his question was meant to be a rebuke, although I suspect it was. Some people do get bothered by my pointing out that some of the quotes attributed to the Buddha are not genuine.

Dhammarati commented, also on Facebook: “great site bodhipaksha: a public service. worryingly, i find myself liking some of what the fake buddha said.” The Fake Buddha is indeed often both wise and poetic.

Zippy Mon-Kai commented, “lovely thank you so much. Frustrating, the need in this day and age to reduce everything to convenient soundbites.” and added, “Oh and of course all best wishes and saddhu for your practice.”

And there was a lovely comment on Twitter:

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I dream that one day I can have a bot that spots Fake Buddha Quotes on Twitter and sends the author a link to the appropriate page on FBQ.com. Is that doable? Anyone out there have the skills to do this?

And last, but most certainly not least, Eric Wentworth of Winter Crow Studio added the lovely header images you see above. He’s a good buddy, and if you need any design work done, please give him a shout.

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.”

Or as they say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, misquote him.”

This one’s a puzzle. I’m 100% certain it’s not the Buddha. As usual, the language is all wrong. But I haven’t found a definitive source. I’m always more comfortable pronouncing Buddha quotes to be fake when I can find an original source, but in this case I’m stymied.

It appears in a magazine called Network World from January 16, 1989, as:

There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

It’s not attributed to the Buddha, but there’s no source given. It’s not even in quotation marks, but since it’s an otherwise unrelated comment prefacing an invitation to contribute to the magazine, it’s almost certainly a quote from somewhere.

But where?

In a book published two years earlier, Healing of the Planet Earth, by Alan Cohen, the quote is attributed to the Buddha, although it’s in a slightly different form:

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: 1 . Not going all the way. 2. Not starting. – Buddha

Here we have “along the road” rather than “on the road” and we have the two mistakes handily numbered.

But how did Cohen come to think this was a quote from the Buddha? The internet was barely active at that time, so it was probably a book or magazine — or perhaps a faulty memory of a talk he’d heard. It’s conceivable that the quote evolved from something said by Chogyam Trungpa:

“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” ~~~ Chögyam Trungpa

The core concept here is similar, although the words used are very different.

Another candidate for the original is verse 47 from the chapter on Virya (vigor) from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. This reads:

After first examining one’s means, one should either begin or not begin. Surely, it is better not to begin than to turn back once one has begun.

It’s possible that this is also what Trungpa was referring to, this text being very well-known in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, although there’s a similarity in theme, the presentation of the concept isn’t a close match.

Perhaps as Google scans more books, the original source will be revealed.

The quote then reappears, once again credited to the Buddha, in 2000’s Treasury Of Spiritual Wisdom: A Collection Of 10,000 Powerful Quotations For Transforming Your Life, by Andy Zubko. After 2000, the quote starts springing up in many, many books. It seems unstoppable. But perhaps some publisher or author doing some fact checking in the future will stumble across this site and pause before spreading this quote any further. I can only dream.

“The instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

This one struck me as being off. The language of “striving for ourselves” is too idiomatic and modern for the Buddha. Was it a rather too free translation, perhaps? Maybe another one of Jack Kornfield’s paraphrases of Buddhist teaching from his lovely little book, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book?

It was quite easy to track this quote to Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay “Voltaire,” and more fully it reads:

A wise man has well reminded us, that ‘in any controversy, the instant we feel angry, we have already ceased striving for Truth, and begun striving for Ourselves.’

You may note that the version ascribed to the Buddha has “anger” for “angry” (the former does sound more Buddha-like) and has “the truth” rather than Truth.

But who is the “wise man” who Carlyle is quoting?

According to the Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) it’s from Goethe, but that’s the only attribution to Goethe that I’ve seen. A Fake Goethe Quote, perhaps?

According to Day’s Collacon: an Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations (1884) these are the words of a Rev. A. Alison, although again this is the only source on Google books that connects him with the quotation. Interestingly, however, Carlyle mentioned having heard Alison preach in Edinburgh, and complimented his clear elocution and eloquent style. It seems not unlikely that Carlyle might have been recounting a quotation he heard at a sermon, which would explain the difficulty of tracing the ultimate origins of the quote.

The Rev. Archibald Alison, however, published in 1790 an “Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste,” and in 1814 two volumes of sermons. I’ve found neither of these books online, but perhaps one day they’ll be scanned and the quote’s origins found. Or perhaps the quote is from another source altogether.

My money’s on Alison. But I’m quite sure this is not a quote from the Buddha.