Spotted on Twitter:
The quote in question comes from “The Teaching of Buddha: The Buddhist Bible : A Compendium of Many Scriptures Translated from the Japanese,” published in 1934 by The Federation of All Young Buddhist Associations of Japan.
It’s in a section titled “Sacred Aphorisms,” many of which are recognizable as quotes from the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada quotes are unnumbered, which makes them tricky to identify at times, but this seems to be a rendition of verse 348:
Munca pure munca pacchato
majjhe munca bhavassa paragu
na punam jatijaram upehisi.
My literal translation of this would be:
Let go of the past, let go of the future.
Let go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
with mind completely freed,
you will never again come to birth and aging.
Buddharakkhita’s translation is:
Let go of the past, let go of the future,
let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.
This is very different from “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The first two clauses (“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future”) , although poetic, are accurate, but the third (“concentrate the mind on the present moment”) is a significant distortion of what the Dhammapada literally says. I’m not arguing there’s anything wrong with concentrating the mind on the present moment — far from it. But the essential message, that none of our experience is to be clung to, gets lost.
It’s no doubt surprising to many people, since the terminology is a standard part of modern discussion about Buddhism, but the Buddha didn’t often talk in terms of “the present moment” or “concentrating on the present moment.” The closest I know to the quote above (although see my “Postscript” below) is a single reference in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, which says:
“You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there.”
There is also however a passage where a disciple of the Buddha, Samiddhi, says the following:
“I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment.”
Or in Thanissaro’s translation, this same saying is:
“My friend, I’m not dropping what’s visible here-and-now in pursuit of what’s subject to time. I’m dropping what’s subject to time in pursuit of what’s visible here-and-now.”
Thus, the message of the suspect quote is not something to quibble with. It’s always a judgment call when it comes to translations that take liberties with the text. Sometimes I’m happy to go with a translator’s creative take on the original. But in this case I regard this quote as different enough from the original that it’s effectively a Fake Buddha Quote.
However! Niklas (see comment below) pointed me to the Arañña Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, which includes the following verse:
They do not mourn for the past,
They do not yearn for the future,
They live on the present;
Therefore they are of good complexion.
The Pali is:
Atītaṃ nānusocanti nappajappanti’nāgataṃ,
Paccuppannena yāpenti tena vaṇṇo pasīdati.
This is a reply to a question put by a deva to the Buddha, in which he is asked why the forest dwellers, living on one meal a day, have such good complexions.
The reply is something of a pun, since “yāpeti” means “to go” or “to dwell” (a synonym of viharati) but it can also mean to “live on” food. So the deva who asks the question talks about the monks eating one meal a day, and the Buddha responds by talking about how the monks “live on” the present moment. As far as I’m aware this isn’t a common usage, and the pun doesn’t really work well in English.
The suspect quote in question (“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”), while close in meaning to the Arañña Sutta, isn’t a translation of it. But this is an interesting moment in the excavation of Fake Buddha Quotes — where we find a quote from one sutta that is not faithful to the original but which accidentally ends up being close to another sutta.