“Life is suffering.”

It’s taken me a long time to get around to tackling this old chestnut.

What prompts to me write today is a discussion on Google+ where this supposed quote cropped up. In this discussion, someone of a Taoist persuasion referred to the Buddha having said that life is suffering. He referred to Benjamin Hoff’s “The Tao of Pooh,” in which there is a story about Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao Zi, tasting vinegar—which represents, we are told, “the essence of life.” Confucius has a sour look on his face because the heavens and earth are out of balance, the Buddha wears a bitter expression because “life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering,” but the Lao Zi is smiling because he accepts that sourness is a part of life.

The story doesn’t actually quote the Buddha as saying “Life is suffering,” although the person quoting it did. And so do plenty of other people, as you can see from the results of this Google search:

The most ironic one of these is the BuddhaNet article on “Common Buddhist Misunderstandings,” which tries to prevent people misinterpreting the Buddha’s supposed statement that “Life is suffering” by pointing out that it “should not be generalised to “all life is suffering.” But the true “common misunderstanding” is that “life is suffering” is not something that the Buddha ever said. And yet you’ll find this statement everywhere.

One of the people in the Google Plus conversation said:

I have been to many Buddha mediation/lecture sessions where it is readily stated that ‘life is suffering.’ Perhaps that because it’s a more dramatic thing to proclaim than simply life includes suffering, which could easily inspire the response, “What? Life includes suffering? That’s all? But I know that. Everyone knows that! I want my money back!!!!”

Indeed! The Buddha never said that “life is suffering,” just that there is suffering in life. His teaching is about accepting inevitable suffering (the vinegar) with grace and with a peaceful mind, while allowing joy to arise naturally when conditions allow.

“Life is suffering” is often quoted as being the Buddha’s first Noble Truth. And yet the scriptural version of this does not say that life is suffering:

Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.

So there are a lot of things here that are pointed to as being sources of suffering—in life. But life itself is not one of them, and it’s pointed to as necessarily involving suffering. And nowhere—not in that scripture or in any other—does the Buddha said that life is suffering or that everything is suffering.

The Buddha seems to have believed (although he didn’t say it directly) that some kind of pain was inevitable in life, and that the thing was to learn to accept it gracefully. The teaching of the Two Arrows is on that very theme. It illustrates the difference between how the “untaught worldling” and the “well-taught noble disciple” respond to pain. The first grieves and laments, or tries to escape suffering through the pursuit of happiness, and in doing so merely causes themselves more suffering. The latter accepts suffering without reacting: that is, without lamenting or trying to escape.

The Buddha not only didn’t see life as suffering, but he saw life, well-lived, as a source of great joy. Pleasure and happiness are important components of the path to awakening. They are part of the process of meditation, arising naturally as distractions fall away from the mind.

One problem is that usually by the time people start reading the Buddhist scriptures, they have read dozens of books on Buddhism. Those books say that the Buddha said “Life is suffering” (and a whole bunch more false ideas besides) and those ideas take root in the mind to such an extent that often by the time people encounter the scriptures their pre-existing ideas become a powerful filter through which they interpret everything they read. They can’t see what is actually there, and their preconceptions remain unchallenged.

And then when you tell them that the Buddha never said “Life is suffering” they argue with you or send you hate mail, illustrating the Buddha’s second Noble Truth, which is that suffering arises from clinging…

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, And you will be filled with joy.”

I was asked about this quote this morning, and thought I’d do a quick write-up in case anyone else was in doubt about it:

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, And you will be filled with joy.”

This immediately made me think of a Dhammapada verse, which in Buddharakkhita’s translation on Access to Insight is:

Should a person do good,
Let him do it again and again.
Let him find pleasure therein,
For blissful is the accumulation of good.

So you’ll see that our suspect quote has the same essential meaning, even if it’s been shifted from a general statement about what “a person” might do to a more imperative instruction.

The quote in question is from Byrom’s Dhammapada. In general his rendition (I can’t call it a translation) of the Dhammapada is very inaccurate. It’s really quite dreadful, even if the poetry is nice. This verse is one of his better efforts.

I have three categories for quotes on this site: fake, fakeish, and verified. This one is somewhere between the last two categories, but closer to being an accurate translation, so with slight misgivings I’m classifying this as verified. It may have taken liberties with the grammatical form of the verse, but otherwise it sticks close to the original meaning.

“Everything that happens to us is the result of what we ourselves have thought, said, or done. We alone are responsible for our lives.”

This one appears to come in part from a book by Venerable Master Chin Kung, called “Changing Destiny: Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons.” The first edition seems to have been printed in 1999.

The book contains a glossary which in turn contains the following entry:

causality (also know as cause and effect). Everything that happens to us is the result of what we have thought, said, or done. What we undergo in this lifetime are the consequences of what we had done in our previous lifetimes, while what we do now will determine what we undergo in our future lifetimes.

I don’t know where the second sentence, “We alone are responsible for our lives,” comes from. It’s a common expression found in many places. I assume that someone cobbled together two separate quotes, or perhaps simply made up the last part, and it’s just coincidence that it was a preexisting saying. After all, you can find that expression here, here, here, and here. These each appear to be independent, and yet identical, statements.

Now it’s not uncommon to hear Buddhists to say that everything that happens to us is the result of our previous actions (karma). But that’s not what the early Buddhist scriptures teach. In fact that view is one that the Buddha argued against, for example by saying “it’s not proper for you to assert that, “Whatever a person experiences — pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain — all is caused by what was done in the past.”‘

Some Buddhists get very angry and call me names when I tell them that the Buddha, from what we can tell, argued against the idea that everything that happens to us is the result of karma. Presumably their own teachers say otherwise, or for some other reason they hold to that idea strongly. The other way to be unpopular with Buddhists is to say you’re agnostic about rebirth. It’s notable that the things Buddhists most readily get annoyed about are things they can’t verify in their own experience.

One problem with this notion of karma controlling everything is that it tends to lead to a blame the victim mentality. People I know who have been to see certain Tibetan teachers espousing this view have asked if, say, the Jews who were annihilated in the Holocaust supposedly deserved their fate, and the answer has been “Yes.” That horrifies me.

“Silence is an empty space. Space is the home of the awakened mind.”

I wish I could find an original source for this quote, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to. I’m 100% sure that this does not come from any Buddhist scripture, but is of very recent vintage.

I’ve found it in a couple of books, but the oldest of these is a self-published work called “Inspiration to Mankind,” by Bendalam Krishna Rao . This book is a collection of quotes attributed to the Buddha — many of them fake. There is no publication date in the book itself, but based on information in Google Books and Archive.org I believe it was published in 2014.

It’s all over the web. The earliest instance I’ve found so far is from approximately 2009, on a Yahoo Questions page where it’s not attributed to the Buddha but is simply described as a “proverb.”

If you find any earlier references, please let me know.

So at the moment I’ve no idea where this quote is from, who wrote it, or how it became attributed to the Buddha. The only thing I’m confident of is that the Buddha never said it.

The Buddha was a fan of silence. He said to his monks that when they gathered they should either talk about Dhamma (the teachings) or remain silent.

A particularly nice quote from the Sutta Nipata discusses how it’s the wise that are silent, while the foolish talk much:

Know this from waters’ flow—
those by rocks and pools—
such rills and becks gush noisily,
great waterways flow quiet.

What is unfilled makes noise
but silent is what’s full,
the fool is like the pot half-filled,
the wise one’s like a lake that’s full.

There’s much mention of space in the scriptures, largely because there is a meditative attainment called “the sphere of infinite space.” That’s not described as being the home of the awakened, however. In fact the Buddha found it unsatisfactory.

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.”

This one was brought to my attention recently as a quote I haven’t written up. My correspondent was very suspicious of it, and in a way he was right: it’s not at all typical of how the early scriptures quote the Buddha.

It was however from a sutta (Buddhist scriptural discourse) that I know very well, although I’d characterize it as a good paraphrase rather than an actual quote.

It’s from the Karaniya Metta Sutta:

Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.

You can find the entire sutta (which isn’t very long) on Access to Insight.

Lawrence Khantipalo Mills’ translation on Sutta Central is as follows:

Just as a mother at the risk of life
loves and protects her child, her only child,
so one should cultivate this boundless love
to all that live in the whole universe.

The original stresses the mother protecting rather than loving her child, so a better paraphrase would be “Love the whole world as a mother protects her only child.” Still, it’s not too far off as it stands. I can’t bring myself to call this “fake” but it’s also not an actual quote, so I’ve put it in my “fakeish” category. No disrespect is intended by this categorization.

“What’s done to the children is done to society”

On the grounds of style and content this is certainly not by the Buddha.

I don’t know the actual origins at the moment, but it looks like a variant on “What’s done to children, they will do to society,” which is usually attributed to Karl Menninger, an American psychiatrist who founded the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.

Menninger is often cited as having said this, but so far I haven’t been able to confirm that he actually did. The earliest reference I’ve found is in a 1979 book by Barbara Rowe, called “The Book of Quotes.”

I can’t offhand think of anything the Buddha said that relates to the idea that the way we treat our children becomes the way they treat others. But so that you can get a sense of how the scriptures are phrased, here’s part of the Sigalovada Sutta, where the Buddha gives a series of teachings to a householder, Sigalaka, whose spiritual practice involved paying reverence to the six directions (the four cardinal points, plus above and below):

In five ways should a mother and father as the eastern direction be respected by a child: ‘I will support them who supported me; I will do my duty to them; I will maintain the family lineage and tradition; I will be worthy of my inheritance; and I will make donations on behalf of dead ancestors.’

And, the mother and father so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, training you in a profession, supporting the choice of a suitable spouse, and in due time, handing over the inheritance.

In this way, the eastern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

Spotted in the wild!

Someone wrote to me today to let me know that they’d received a copy of the book from Parallax. I was surprised, since the release date is Nov 6. Hopefully this means I’ll have a copy in my hands soon.

If you don’t have yours, you can order it from:

The excitement is building!

I just received this email from Amazon…

Do pre-order! Even if I say so myself “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha” is a great read, and would make a fantastic holiday gift.

You can pre-order “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” from:

“The only way to bring peace to the earth is to learn to make our own life peaceful.”

This one is also found as “The only way to bring peace to the earth is to learn to make your own life peaceful.”

This is one I hadn’t ever come across until it was sent to me, but it seems it’s fairly comment and is even found in a few books.

I’m not disputing the meaning of this quote at all, and neither would the Buddha. But it’s not the kind of thing that the Buddha said.

It’s yet another quote from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” (page 87).

Although many people have assumed from the title that the quotes in Jack’s books are from the Buddha, they are actually adaptations and distillations of wisdom from many sources.

I don’t know where Jack adapted this one from. Perhaps one of you guys knows?

In case you’re curious about why I say this isn’t the kind of thing that the Buddha said, it’s partly because of the language being too contemporary. The language of “the Earth” isn’t typical of language from that era, although it’s not unthinkable, since the word for the substance earth, which comes from a root meaning spreading out, also refers to the earth in the sense of the world. The Buddha would more commonly have talked of “the world,” although he tended to use that term in a fairly negative sense — as the experiential realm of pain and delusion

Also, “world peace” wasn’t one of the Buddha’s explicit aims, as far as I can see. His focus was mainly on encouraging individuals to escape suffering and find peace. He aimed to create a community that lived in peace:

Among hostile people,
free from hostility we dwell. (Dhammapada 197)

There is one long passage where the Buddha envisages a world that is peaceful and harmonious, and that is governed by a righteous monarch, so the Buddha talking in terms of world peace isn’t unthinkable — it’s just not likely and so acts as a bit of a red flag.

“Fan mail”

If you’re still on the fence about buying my book on Fake Buddha Quotes, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha, which you can preorder now, check out the following comments from fans of this blog!

“This commenter knows nothing of Buddhism.” Mauriku Valentinus

“If you are a Buddhist and believe in the law of kamma you should be more careful by making statements about the Buddha that are factually not true. You harm yourself and those who believe you.” Sebastian

“Fuck you.” Anshul

“You seem like a stuck in the mind, egotistical, scholarly charlatan.” Warren

“Why do you feel the need to be judgemental, especially with things that are positive change and help people?” Apollo

“What makes a person who is interested in Sanskrit and the Buddha also possess a feeling of anger and superiority at others who have given a loving attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s work?” Crescent Rose

“Oh please go sit in silence, then go out and do something real to relieve as much suffering as you can.” Liz

“You seem willing to pull Buddha down, but not look at what was really said. To me this betrays an agenda – although I suppose that’s obvious seeing as you bothered to set up a website about it.” Tiny

“Clearly, you have no mindfulness or personal affinity for and understanding of Buddhism.” Amy

“You are so wrong on so many levels it’s not even worth proving it to you.” Teeto

“I think your ignorance has become fairly prominent.” Brandon

“Ignorant idiot.” Shankaran

“This is a club for like-minded sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals who are here to argue ad infinitum … I’m not in the contest that you want me to be in. My ego is not involved.” Greg

“Pointless junk.” Jesse

“Your article delivers your ignorance on the subject.” Benjamin

“I will try to force you to leave this road to hell.” Johann

“Some things you will never understand my friend. You are just a little kid who try to find write and wrong in the world.” Tharindu

“U are presenting hateful writings.” Samar

“All your Prejudices and stereotypes show how ‘poor’ you still are.” Dave

“Could have gotten it all out in a sentence or two.” Jayla

“Everything you’re saying on here is outright false.” Sara