“In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

Today, my skills as a Fake-Buddha-Quote-ologist were called upon once again. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

A Twitter friend asked me what I thought of this quote:

In seperateness [sic] lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength ~ Buddha

My gut response was that it stank. In my fairly extensive reading of the Pali canon (not to mention Mahayana Sutras) I don’t recall the Buddha ever talking about our “separateness.” It’s a popular topic of discourse in modern Buddhist writing (I’ve written about it myself in Living as a River) but the Buddha just didn’t use that language (or if he did, it’s not been recorded). He talked a lot about misery, but he talked of the origins of misery lying in greed, hatred, and delusion. Now I know you can interpret greed, hatred, and delusion in terms of separateness (again, I’ve done so) but the point is that the Buddha didn’t use that language.

And the Buddha just didn’t use language like “in compassion lies the world’s true strength.” The “world’s true strength”? I’m not even clear what that would mean, anyway. So my gut feelings tell me this is a genuine Fake Buddha Quote.

This one has murky origins, and the “quote has thickened” over the years, it would appear.

My first recourse in investigating such matters is Google Books. The first appearance I could find of “In separateness lies the world’s great misery” was in 1993, in Wayne Muller’s “Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood” (p. 155). But the second part of the quote is absent.

“In compassion lies true strength” (without “the world’s”) crops up first on page 108 of “Human Values and Abnormal Behavior: Readings in Abnormal Psychology,” by Walter D. Nunokawa: a book from 1965. But the Buddha isn’t mentioned. Of course it could be a complete coincidence that this phrase is similar to our Fake Buddha Quote. In fact I think it’s likely that it is a coincidence.

The full quote puts in an appearance in “Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun,” by Ani Pachen and Adelaide Donnelley (2002), where Gyalsay Rinpoche is quoted as saying, “Remember the words of Buddha: ‘In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength’” (page 79). Here it’s “greatest” rather than “great” misery.

The version with “great misery” rather than “greatest” appears first in “Let It Begin with You: Your Personal World Peace Guidebook,” by Viki Hurst, which has a quotes section at the back. I think we can assume that Hurst was the originator of this version, although she may have picked it up from a magazine or some other publication that Google has not yet scanned. I’ve found seven books that appear to have copied Hurst’s misquotation of “Sorrow Mountain.” These things metastasize rapidly once they get into circulation, and Google currently lists more than 4,000 web sites that contain that quote, the majority of which attribute it to the Buddha.

It’s possible that Gyalsay Rinpoche in “Sorrow Mountain” is quoting a Tibetan source, but I think it’s more likely he’s simply teaching what he understands Buddhism to be, and putting words in the mouth of the Buddha.

At present, therefore, I see no evidence suggesting that this quotation is canonical, and I’m reasonably confident in declaring it a Fake Buddha Quote.

“In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create the distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”

This is another of the Fake Buddha Quotes that appeared in Tricycle’s blog yesterday. Tricycle managed to pull off the feat of having every single one of the Buddha quotes in an article be fake (some I’ve already covered, and the others I’ll tackle later), although Tricycle was in turn citing the work of an artist who combines quotations with images.

“In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create the distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”

To be honest, this only barely registered on my inner Fake-osity Meter. The Buddha did use sky metaphors, but the second part, about creating distinctions in the mind and then believing in them, didn’t seem typical of the way the Buddha’s recorded as speaking.

Sure enough, the original source appears to be a book called “The Teachings of Buddha,” which is a Gideon Bible-type publication by a non-profit organization called Bukkyo Dendo Kyonkai, which puts copies in every hotel room in Japan.

Now the problem with citing a quote from “The Teachings of Buddha” is that people are inclined to think that the quote is literally one of the teachings of the Buddha (i.e. something the Buddha said) rather than an explanation of the kinds of things that Buddhism teaches.

If I quote a bit more of the passage, you’ll recognize that on the whole it’s absolutely contemporary and not the kind of thing we find in Buddhist scriptures:

In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create the distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.

Mathematical numbers from one to infinity are each complete numbers, and each in itself carries no distinction of quantity; but people make the discrimination for their own convenience, so as to able to indicate varying amounts.

Only a mention of quantum physics could render it more obvious that this isn’t a genuine Buddha quote.

“In every trial let understanding fight for you.”

Another Fake Buddha Quote has surfaced. It’s funny, but I don’t see as many of these as I used to. It may be that I’ve pounced on transgressors so often that people are now scared to post anything attributed to the Buddha until they’ve held the palm-leaf manuscripts in their own hands, and painstakingly translated every word themselves.

Anyway, this one’s all over the net:

“In every trial let understanding fight for you: Buddha.”

Jnanagarbha brought it to my attention.

Sometimes I don’t know how I know a particular saying is a Fake Buddha Quote. You just feel it in your bones.

This one wasn’t hard to track down. First I found it attributed not just to “The Buddha” but to a specific text that I know well: the Dhammapada. And it was in the context of a verse I know well, from chapter three, “The Mind.”

But where the verse will normally say something like:

Perceiving the body to be (fragile) like a clay pot,
(and) fortifying the mind as though it were a city,
with the sword of wisdom make war on Mara.
Free from attachment, keep watch over what has been won.

(that’s from Sangharakshita’s translation), here we have:

Know that the body is a fragile jar,
And make a castle of your mind.
In every trial, let understanding fight for you
To defend what you have won.

So it’s that third line that’s been mangled. In the original Pali it’s “yodhetha māraṃ paññāyudhena” which translates literally as “fight against (yodhetha) Mara (māraṃ) with the weapon of wisdom (paññāyudhena).”

Sangharakshita is being a little poetic in using “sword” for “āyudha” (weapon), presumably for the sake of alliteration (wisdom/war) and to evoke the image of Mañjushri, the bodhisattva of Wisdom who holds a flaming sword above his head, ready to destroy delusion. That seems well within the bounds of reasonable translation.

Our fake quote entirely omits Māra, which is unfortunate. The original quote is not about using wisdom “in every trial” but about confronting delusion, as personified by the demon Māra.

So, were some translator’s words mangled on the internet? No, this is a straight quote from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada, published by Shambhala.

This is a neat example of Fake Buddha Quote by Mistranslation. I’m guessing that Byrom thought that mention of Mara (the Buddhist personification of wily ignorance) would be offputting, and that “wisdom” was too high-fallutin, and decided to dumb the text down a bit.

PS. Star Wars fans may be interesting to know that the name “Yoda” is apparently a reference to the Pāli/Sanskrit word “yodha,” which means “warrior.” You’ll find the same root in the verb “yodhetha” (from “yodheti,” to fight) in the Pāli verse above.

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Thanks to Tricycle, a whole new batch of Fake Buddha Quotes has appeared on the same day, including the following:

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Sadly, there’s no indication that Monty, who posted this (and others, including at least one I’ve blogged about before) recognized the bogosity of the quotes, but then that’s not uncommon. Every single one of the quotes on that Tricycle page that are attributed to the Buddha is in fact a fake Buddha Quote.

I suspect most contemporary Buddhists have read very little primary literature (a.k.a scripture) and rely on books about Buddhism. They therefore aren’t in a position to know whether a particular quote sounds like something the Buddha might have said, because everything they’ve read has been filtered through Jack Kornfield, or Sharon Salzberg, or Lama Surya Das. And I mean no disrespect to those fine teachers; they’re giving poetic and contemporary expression to the Buddha-Dharma, after all. It’s just that if you only read books about Buddhism you don’t get that sense of when something is “off.”

And “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart” is most definitely off.

This is another from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada, which I’m quickly coming to realize is one of the two worst translations around, or that I’ve encountered. And by “worst” I mean taking a look at the original Pali, and making up something nice-sounding that’s loosely based on the words but totally disregards the literal meaning.

Comparing Byrom’s verse with other translations and the original Pali is most instructive. Here’s the Pali:

akase padam natthi
samano natthi bahire

This is a straightforward translation (the Pali being very unambiguous):

“There is no track in the sky;
There is no ascetic outside [of this teaching].”

The language is straightforward, even if the sense if a little compacted (this is verse, after all). Here’s an expended version of the sense: In the sky, it’s impossible to leave a track. Birds fly through the sky and leave no trace of their coming and going. There is nothing in the sky that supports a track. Similarly, outside of the dhamma, there is nothing to support genuine spiritual practice.

Whether you compare the expanded meaning or the bare words, Byrom’s “translation” really has no relation to what the Buddha actually is quoted, in the Dhammapada, as saying (and we have no real reason to doubt that he said this, or something very similar). There is nothing about “the way” in the original. There is nothing about “the heart” in the original. Of course a translator may take liberties in order to communicate the essence of the original text, but here the essential message is entirely lost.

But of course “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart,” is beautifully resonant, and contains those evocative words “sky” and “way,” and “heart,” and so I’m not surprised that this mistranslation has gained wide acceptance as a Buddha quote, even though it’s utterly fake.

Here, by the way, is some information about Byrom, courtesy of Barnes and Noble:

Thomas (Billy) Byrom, Ph.D., was born in England and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard. He taught history and literature at Harvard and Old and Middle English language and Victorian and modern literature at Oxford, where he was first a fellow of Exeter College and then a fellow in American studies of St. Catherine’s College. His translation of The Ashtavakra Gita was published under the title The Heart of Awareness. In 1976 he moved to Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, where he served as president of the Kashi Foundation and as a spiritual elder and counselor for the whole community. There he cofounded the Ma Jaya River School, which he directed until his death in 1991.

It sounds as if he was a Hindu, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does leave open the possibility that he might see Buddhism through a Hindu lens. And there’s no indication in this brief bio that he actually studied either Sanskrit or Pali, although I suppose it’s possible he did and it was such a minor part of his studies that it escaped mention.

“When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”

I came across this one in the feed of someone who started following me on Twitter. Here’s a link to the original status update.

When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky. ~ Buddha

This of course bears no resemblance to anything the Buddha’s recorded as having said.

With some Fake Buddha Quotes it’s possible to trace the origins to a bad translation or some other obvious misattribution (for example a quote appears in a book called “The Teaching of the Buddha,” is subsequently quoted and attributed “The Teaching of the Buddha,” and is then requoted as attributed to “the Buddha”). But this one’s rather mysterious.

The origins of this quote are slowly being pushed earlier in time.

At first the earliest use of this quote I cold find was from a blog post from Nov 29, 2005.

I then found an earlier example on a forum post dated November 30, 2004, as a signature.

But then an astute commenter (see below) found an example from the Usenet group, alt.quotations, from Nov 27, 2001, where it had been posted by a Robert Muhich. Muhic didn’t attribute this to the Buddha, but simply described it as “Buddhist.”

In 2007 it appears in a book, “A Year of Questions,” by Fiona Robyn, and (in a slightly different form) in “Hell in the Hallway,” by Sandi Bachom. This of course lends the quote a false air of legitimacy, and it’s now found in most of the quite appalling quotes sites that litter the web.

If you come across any references to this quote earlier than November 2001, please let me know.

Thanks to George Draffan, we have a potential original from which this quote might be derived. George wrote, saying:

Sounds like a stanza from a Tibetan Dzoghcen text:

thams cad mnyam rdzogs sgyu ma’i rang bzhin la//
bzang ngan blang dor med pas dgod re bro//

Since everything is but an illusion,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
One might as well burst out laughing!

This is from chapter 1 of “The Great Perfection’s Self-Liberation in the Nature of Mind,” by Longchenpa (1308-1364)

That sounds like a good candidate for the origins of this quote. It’s certainly possible that someone paraphrased Longchenpa’s saying, and that this was first described as a “Buddhist” quote, which was then taken to be a quote from the Buddha himself.

Some readers will recognize an added irony in the image above, which is not even of the Buddha. The graphic is akin to a quote being attributed to Jesus when it’s actually by Duns Scotus, and illustrated with a picture of Santa Claus. There’s more info on this happy chappie here.

“In order to gain anything you must lose everything.”

Also seen as:

To gain heart you must lose everything. ~Buddha

I’m not entirely clear what this one’s trying to say, but the interesting thing is that it appears to be freshly minted. I’ve searched on Google for this quote with and without quotes, and haven’t found a trace of it. Usually these Fake Buddha Quotes have an extensive internet history, and often you can even find them in books. But this one seems to have no history. That makes it interesting, since it may have been newly minted or, perhaps, is so seriously garbled that a Google search doesn’t easily bring up the text it’s supposed to be based on.

@Lotuspad, who passed this on, attributes it to @rock_my_soles, but I haven’t been able to find the quote among the latter’s tweets. I suppose Lotuspad may have made it up, but that seems too good to be true.

It’s a strange case. The closest I’ve found has been "It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.," attributed to Brad Pitt in the film Fight Club. But intriguingly, the poet Jane Hirshfield trots out a similar phrase — "In order to gain anything, you must first lose everything" in a preview to the recent PBS special, The Buddha.

And sure enough, @anniebissett Tweets, the night of the PBS special, "In order to gain anything you must lose everything. -Buddha." Something said by a woman on a PBS program is now promoted to Buddhasāsana — the word of the Buddha — and a Fake Buddha Quote Is Born.

But how, or even if, we get from that to "To gain heart you must lose everything," I just don’t know.

Update: With a bit more detective work, and a chat with the very charming @rock_my_soles, I’ve found that she was actually quoting the PBS show, although evidently she misheard the quote. @rock_my_soles suggested that I have a Real Buddha Quote category on my blog, in which I cite my sources. I think that’s a smashing idea, and I’ll take her (I think it’s a her) up on her suggestion.

“We’re the same as plants, trees, other people, the rain that falls. We consist of that [which] is around us, we’re the same as everything.”

“I saw it on Facebook; it must be a real Buddha quote!”

DesireeGrace posted the following on Twitter this morning:

We’re the same as plants, trees, other people, the rain that falls. We consist of that [which] is around us, we’re the same as everything.Buddha

This is so totally alien to the idiom the Buddha used — and the concepts he used — that I assumed Desiree had made some kind of slip in attributing it to the Buddha, especially with the word “Buddha” tacked on awkwardly at the end.

But I wrote to her and she replied:

@Bodhipaksa But it is really a quote from the Buddha. 🙂 I found it here: http://ktotheb.com/blog/2009/03/29/everything-is-spiritual/

Although she was probably joking, I describe this as the “I saw it on the web so it must be true” argument.

This is an interesting quote since it seems to be relatively new. At least so far I haven’t been able to find it in Google Books, where a lot of Fake Buddha Quotes have their origins. However, Google says that there are 490 web pages that contain the first words of the quote: “”We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls.”

I think it’s quite possible that the quote started life here, an SFSU web page, mainly because it’s not attributed to the Buddha, but is part of a paraphrase of the Buddha’s teachings. This web page (according to archive.org) goes back at least to 2000, which probably makes it old enough to be the urtext for this particular Fake Buddha Quote. We may never know who the first person was to lift this quote and mistakenly attribute it to he Buddha himself.

It’s only a matter of time now until this Fake Buddha Quote makes in onto one of the many Quotes sites that deface the internet. Once it’s on one, it’ll be copied to the others. And then it’ll start appearing in books, lending the quote a false air of authority.

“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.”

I came across this ripe Fake Buddha Quote today:

The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground. ~Buddha

You’ll see this on Twitter, Facebook, and many web sites, as well as on incestuous and careless quotations sites like these:


I call quotes sites “incestuous” because they appear to copy one another’s quotes quite relentlessly. Think about it: what’s the easiest way to build up your quotes site? Easy. Copy the quotes from another site. It’s easier than doing actual research involving primary text, or even reputable sources.

Anyone half-way familiar with the Pali canon will know that the Buddha isn’t recorded as having said things like that. The idiom is completely foreign.

So where’s it from?

A bit of searching revealed that it comes from Ernest Wood’s 1971 “Zen Dictionary” (page 91-92) where it’s part of the essay explaining the term “Naturalness.” The words are Mr. Wood’s, and not the Buddha’s.

Then the sloppy attributions start.

We have 1978’s “Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes,” by Patrick Hughes and George Brecht, which attributes the quote to “The Buddha.”

And then of course other authors start repeating the misattributed quote. “Slowmotional Meditation” by Colin F. Howard (1987) is at least careful to say that the quote is “attributed to the Buddha” but most others simply claim that “The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground” is the word of the Buddha.

The Fake Buddha Quote is taken up by a sloppy quotations book (Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Issue 42) in 1990, hastening its dissemination and lending it an air of legitimacy.

Google lists over a dozen books that use the quote. When people see something in a book they may assume that there’s been some kind of fact-checking, but sadly it often seems that authors can attribute quotes without providing any source (except, perhaps, some other inadequately fact-checked book or a website).

Then Hollywood steps in, and the quote is attributed to the Buddha in A Wrinkle In Time, which I understand is an excellent movie. It’s a shame about the fact-checking, though.

And so a quote makes its way from books to websites, and to Twitter and Facebook, and into movies. Rinse and repeat. And thus another Fake Buddha Quote circulates endlessly.

“He is able who thinks he is able.”

Seeing a Fake Buddha Quote on Twitter is pretty much a daily occurrence, but this one retweeted by a Buddhist particularly struck me this morning:

He is able who thinks he is able. #Buddha

What interests me about this one is that it’s being passed on by people who have “Buddha” or “Buddhist” as part of their Twitter usernames, and yet it strikes me as being profoundly unBuddhist. I’m always open to correction, but the Buddha didn’t strike me as being an advocate of “positive thinking.” The Buddha’s actual position seemed to be more, it doesn’t matter what you think you are, what is important is what you do.

The Buddha of course encouraged the development of ethically positive thinking, which is thinking free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and imbued with wisdom and compassion. But the idea that you can do something just because you think you can is one he’d have seen as being itself delusional.

In fact when we look around at the world it seems self-evident that it’s full of people who over-estimate their abilities. And this has been well-studied by psychologists. Here’s an article on why we overestimate our competence, for example.

It’s curious that so many Buddhists promote views as being the words of the Buddha when actually they’re in an idiom that’s completely foreign to actual Buddhist teachings, and when the content is also alien to Buddhist thought and practice. I suspect a lot of Buddhists aren’t very familiar with actual scriptures, and rely on books about Buddhism. This would explain why so many non-Buddhist sayings are passed off as being the word of the Buddha.

Where does that quote–“He is able who thinks he is able”–actually come from? It’s not actually New Age at all. Originally, the earliest uses I was able to find were in books published in 1965 and 1972, where it’s described as “an ancient Roman saying.” It does have that muscular ring of empire about it! It’s also in a book from 1937 as well, “Guiding Your Life with Psychology as a Key,” by Josephine Agnes Jackson but no citation is given.

The Latin phrase being translated here is “Potest qui vult,” which is he who wills, is able. That is of course entirely different from “He is able who thinks he is able,” so the saying being ascribed to the Buddha is also being mistranslated from the Latin.