“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I found this one on the Facebook page of a South Jersey Buddhist group. Most of the Buddha quotes they have shared are fake. It seems that some people are preferentially drawn to the fake stuff, probably because it’s more literary and pithy than the actual Buddhist scriptures tend to be.

So this one’s not really the style the Buddha (or at least the early scriptures) used. And I can’t think of anything closely resembling this message, although I’ll continue thinking about that.

The earliest I’ve found this quote so far is from 1982, although there it’s “If you do not change direction, you are most likely to end up where you are going.” There (in “Science & Public Policy,” by the Science Policy Foundation) it’s said to be a Chinese proverb.

Later it was said to be by Lao Tsu. The writer Alan Cohen used that attribution in a number of his books and he may have invented it. Only later did it become ascribed to the Buddha.

The scriptures do have things like this:

It’s as if there were two men, one not skilled in the path, the other skilled in the path. In that case the man not skilled in the path would ask the man skilled in the path about the path. The second man would say, ‘Come, my good man, this is the path. Go along it a little further and you will see a fork in the road. Avoiding the left fork, take the right. Go along a little further and you will see an intense forest grove. Go along a little further and you will see a large marshy swamp. Go along a little further and you will see a deep drop-off. Go along a little further and you will see a delightful stretch of level ground.

As you can see, this is clunky and repetitive, which is what a lot of the scriptures are like. It’s not neat, polished, and ironic like our suspect quote. Having seen the contrast, you might have a better appreciation of why some people are drawn more to fake quotes than to real ones.

If I find anything similar to our suspect quote I’ll let you know, but I think we can safely assume that it’s fake.

“It is better to do nothing, than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself.”

I just came across this one on Facebook, on the page of a Buddhist community in New Jersey.

Most of the quotes I saw on their page were fake. Unfortunately this is rather common. It seems that many contemporary Buddhists aren’t very familiar with their own scriptures and don’t recognize when quotes are strikingly different in style and content from canonical teachings.

Most Buddhists seem content to rely on books by modern Buddhist authors. These often provide excellent guidance in life, but really we should be going back to the earliest sources so that we can develop a feel for how those modern teachings are related (or if they’re related!) to what the Buddha (probably) taught.

This particular quote — “It is better to do nothing, than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself” struck me as being a little off. The first sentence seemed fine, but the second one sounded suspicious.

It turns out that this is from Thomas Byrom’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad translation of the Dhammapada, which also happens to be one of the most popular versions of this text.

It’s from the chapter on “Hell” (niraya) which Byrom renders as “The Dark.” Niraya is from nis+aya, meaning “to go asunder, to go to destruction, to die.” There doesn’t seem to be any etymological connection to darkness. But that’s Byrom for you.

These particular words are from Dhammapada verse 314. In Buddharakkhita’s translation this is:

An evil deed is better left undone, for such a deed torments one afterwards. But a good deed is better done, doing which one repents not later.

Byrom simply omits the second sentence of the original from his translation altogether. Again, that’s Byrom for you.

The part he does include isn’t as bad as many of his efforts. The original (of the whole verse) is, with my own translation, which makes no effort to be elegant:

Akataṃ dukkataṃ seyyo (A bad deed [is] better not-done)
pacchā tapati dukkataṃ (One is tormented by a bad deed afterwards)
Kataṃ ca sukataṃ seyyo (And a good deed [is] better done)
yaṃ katvā nānutappati. (Which, having done, one does not regret)

Compare those first two lines with Byrom’s “It is better to do nothing, than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself.”

The first part is not entirely awful, although the original just says that it’s best not to do a bad deed, which Byrom’s statement, while true, loses this simplicity.

The second part is bad, though. The original is suggesting that you’ll be tormented by regret after doing a bad deed. It’s not saying that you’re doing the bad deed to yourself. Of course we could interpret the Dhammapada’s statement in terms of the consequences of your actions being something that choose for yourself when you choose the bad action. But that’s not what the verse actually says.

Thanissaro’s version of the whole of verse 314 is:

It’s better to leave a misdeed undone.
A misdeed burns you afterward.
Better that a good deed be done
that, after you’ve done it,
won’t make you burn.

You’ll notice that Thanissaro goes for “burns” rather than “torments,” which is fair enough. The verb tappati means to burn, to be tormented, to be consumed. Although on the whole I prefer Buddharakkhita’s translation, Thanissaro’s connects more strongly with the theme of hell. Although at the same time we shouldn’t make too much of the chapter titles of the Dhammapada, since its verses were originally independent sayings and were only later arranged thematically, and this “reframing” can change the way we interpret the word. It’s possible that in talking about remorse the Buddha wasn’t thinking about hell at all.

Anyway, to repeat myself, this is not Byrom’s most egregious mistranslation, although it’s very far from adequate. And if you’re a Buddhist, read the scriptures and buy good translations. Gil Fronsdal’s Dhammapada seems excellent.

“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” is now available for preorder!!!

Yay! After many weekends and evenings of slaving over a hot MacBook Pro with 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3, and 256 GB SSD, my book on Fake Buddha Quotes is now on its way to the printers and available for preorder!

  • “I couldn’t put it down!” — Winston Churchill
  • “I never tire of reading Bodhipaksa.” – Abraham Lincoln
  • “So this is why you’ve been too busy to call? You’ll be sorry when I’m gone, Mr. Fancy-Pants Author!” — Ethel Fischbaum

If there’s a mildly pedantic Buddha Quote Fan in your life (and we both know I’m talking about you) this will make the perfect gift! And if you have friends who annoy you by sharing Fake Buddha Quotes on Facebook you can annoy them right back by giving them a copy!

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

“Love is beauty and beauty is truth, and that is why in the beauty of a flower we can see the truth of the universe.”

Little known fact: the words “A Fake Buddha Quote all ’bout truth” were originally in Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” but she took them out when she realized that this actually was an example of irony, unlike most of the other images in the song.

No, that’s not true.

But isn’t it ironic?

This one has its origins in the first translated Buddhist text I ever read: Juan Mascaró’s translation of the Dhammapada for Penguin Classics. I was deeply impressed by this at the time, although now I realize that Mascaró, like other Hindu translators of the Dhammapada, seriously misrepresented what some key passages say.

But that’s a story for another day. Here we’re not talking about the translation, since these words are from Mascaró’s introduction. On page 21 of my edition we find:

“Love is beauty and beauty is truth, and this is why in the beauty of a flower we can see the truth of the universe.” (Note that we have here “this is why” and not the “that is why” of the quote in the image above.)

My copy of Mascaró’s Dhammapada is ancient and yellowed.

The fact that Mascaró makes an abrupt transition from these words to “This is how the Buddha speaks of love in the Majjhima Nikaya” (a Buddhist text) and has “From the Samyutta and Digha Nikaya” (two more Buddhist texts) immediately before them may have mislead some people into thinking that those references pertained to the quote in question. Which of course they don’t.

These are Mascaró’s own words, and they are a mashup of Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” from his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and the general idea of Tennyson’s poem, “Flower in the Crannied Wall.”

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Although I believe that Tennyson borrowed this from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, written much earlier than “Flower in the Crannied Wall” but published in the same year:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.

There’s a similar Fake Buddha Quote, “If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe” which comes to us from Borges, and which I discuss here.

The language of “Love is beauty and beauty is truth, and that [or this] is why in the beauty of a flower we can see the truth of the universe” is completely different from anything found in the Buddhist texts. But those who are unacquainted with the scriptures couldn’t be expected to know that.

“If you let cloudy water settle it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear”

Jeremy O’Kelley contacted me this morning about the following quote:

If you let cloudy water settle
It will become clear
If you let your upset mind settle
Your course will also become clear

This was one I’d never seen before, although I’m very familiar with the image, which is very popular among meditation teachers. In fact in teaching young children about mindfulness it’s common to get them to make a jar filled with glitter. When the jar is shaken up then you see a lot of swirling bits of shiny plastic. Just let the jar sit for a while, and the water naturally clears.

This represents how our turbulent thoughts will settle down and the mind will clear if we simply sit and refrain from stirring up the waters of the mind. It’s a great teaching tool and a wonderful metaphor.

I also recognize the image as canonical. There’s a well-known sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya where the Buddha uses metaphors for the five hindrances, which are sense desire, ill will, laziness and tiredness, worry and restlessness, and doubt. The five hindrances are in fact a remarkably complete inventory of the kinds of distraction we experience both on and off the meditation cushion.

The Samyutta Nikaya passage says that sense desire is like water tainted with dye, ill will is like boiling water, laziness/sleepiness is like “water covered over with slimy moss and water-plants” (i.e. stagnant water), worry/restlessness is like water whipped by the wind, and doubt is like “water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place.”

Here, in full, is the passage on doubt:

Again, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering, and does not know, as it really is, the way of escape from doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, nor can he know and see what is to the profit of others, or of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied.

“Imagine a bowl of water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place. If a man with good eyesight were to look at the reflection of his own face in it, he would not know or see it as it really was. In the same way, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.

Doubt in this sense is not honest skepticism, where we’re not sure what the truth is and are making a good-faith effort to determine it through questioning. It’s more a state of confusion and of low confidence. Clinical depression is a good example of extreme doubt. When we’re depressed the mind lies to us. It tell us that we’re useless (making us forget our accomplishments), that no one cares about us (causing us to ignore the many instances where people have expressed love and concern for us), and tells us that we’ll never be happy again (even though we have ample experience of unpleasant mental states having previously arisen and passed away). Doubt is a liar. It does the opposite to seeking the truth.

In this sutta the Buddha is talking about doubt regarding teachings or practices. The Brahmin who questions him is asking about why sometimes he is unable to make sense of the “mantras.” Here too, doubt lies. We can find ourselves believing, for example, that meditation doesn’t work, or that we can’t meditate. In that state of unclarity we are unable to recall instances where we’ve felt happier after meditating, and lose faith that we’ve changed as a result of our practice, even though we’ve noted that fact many times before. Our ability to see our practice, ourselves, and our memories is obscured, just as our vision is obscured by muddy water.

The quote in question is from page 119 of Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” the title of which has led many people to assume it’s a book of scriptural quotations. Actually it’s Jack’s own adaptations and distillations of wisdom from various traditions.

In turn it seems to be based on a saying in chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching, which in Mitchell’s version is:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

I’m told that Mitchell doesn’t know any Chinese and that his rendition of the Tao Te Ching is the result of him playing around with other translations, so this may not reflect what the original says, but nevertheless it may be the basis of the quote in question.

I’m in no position to assess the relative accuracy of translations of Chinese texts. But this same verse, in Philip J. Ivanhoe’s translation, is rather different:

Who can, through stillness, gradually make muddy water clear?
Who can, through movement, gradually stir to life what has long been still?

In Moeller’s translation this is:

If that which is turbid is kept still, it will gradually clear up.
If it is moved, it will gradually come alive.

So our fake quote is apparently a contemporary Buddhist’s recasting of a Daoist saying, rather than something the Buddha taught. That doesn’t call the wisdom of the quote into question, of course. It just means we shouldn’t call it a quote from the Buddha.

“Love is a gift of one’s innermost soul to another so both can be whole.”

This, like “The price of freedom is simply choosing to be,” which I discuss here, comes from an article called “The Four Elements of True Love According to Buddha.” And, like “The price of freedom is simply choosing to be,” this quote is falsely attributed.

In fact, of the five quotes in the “Four Elements” article said to be by the Buddha, four are fake. This provides more evidence for my theory that some people are preferentially drawn to fake quotes.

The idea that the Buddha would talk about an “innermost soul” is hilarious. Despite this, it’s wildly attributed to him on the internet.

It’s also attributed to “Tea Rose” — for example in the 2007 book by Varla Ventura, “Wild Women Talk About Love,” where the attribution is “Tea Rose, generous wild woman.” Unfortunately the book says nothing about who this “Tea Rose” is, and I haven’t been able to find any information about her. I’ve contacted (or as people like to say these days, “reached out to”) Ventura to see if she can offer information about Tea Rose’s identity.

Incidentally I’ve seen this quote both with “innermost” (correct) and “inner most” (incorrect).

[Tip of the hat to Jonathan Chalmers, who passed this quote on, and who was rightly suspicious of the others in the article.]

“The price of freedom is simply choosing to be.”

I found this one in an article on intimate relationships and the Buddhist teaching of the “four Immeasurables” or “Divine Abidings.”

I also found it elsewhere in an expanded form: “The price of freedom is simply choosing to be; liberation is in the mind.” It’s widely attribute to the Buddha.

This is absolutely not something from the Buddhist scriptures, although I haven’t yet found the original source. I’ve seen several places where is’t presented without attribution, but accompanying an image of the Buddha. It’s possible that someone made the leap to assuming that the Buddha was therefore the author of the quote.

“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”

This one was just passed on to me, and is also found as:

  • “Life is so very difficult. How can we be anything but kind?”
  • “Life is so very difficult, how can we be anything other than kind?”

The version that I’ve used as the heading for this article is perhaps the definitive version of this quote, while the rest are later variants. The original is from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” which is, as I’ve explained here many times, not a book of quotes from the Buddha but of adaptations and distillations of teachings, some canonical and some not.

The message of “Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?” is in fact very Buddhist, although I’m not aware of any scriptural quotes that come anything close to saying this.

There is the following, which is from the Pali Dhammapada (verse 129): “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

There’s also “‘As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I.’ Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill,” which is from the Sutta Nipata.

Those both convey the sense that others suffer just as we do, and so we should therefore not cause suffering.

These aren’t very close parallels, and I suspect that Kornfield wasn’t paraphrasing any specific text but creating a statement that be understood to reflect the gist of the Buddhist teachings.

Incidentally, one of my own sayings is, “Life is short; be kind,” which isn’t that different from Kornfield’s saying.

“Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment, know the sweet joy of the way.”

When this was first passed on to me I thought it was probably from Thomas Byrom’s version of the Dhammapada. He’s fond of short, declarative sentences (in this case “look within” and “be still”) and he tends to be poetic (“know the sweet joy of the way”). Unfortunately, his Dhammapada and the original text often bear little to no resemblance to each other.

And my guess was right. This is Byrom’s attempt at Dhammapada verse 205.

In Buddharakkhita’s translation this verse is:

Having savored the taste of solitude and peace (of Nibbana), pain-free and stainless he becomes, drinking deep the taste of the bliss of the Truth.

I’d put it a little differently (and I think more literally):

Having drunk the nectar of solitude and of tranquility,
[And] drinking the nectar of the joy of truth, he becomes free from sorrow, free from evil.

The verse starts with the phrase Pavivekarasaṃ pītvā of which pitvā is a gerund, “having drunk.” “Pavivekarasaṃ” is an accusative noun, and it breaks down into paviveka (solitude) and rasa, which can mean taste, juice and a few related concepts. Since we talk of drinking a liquid and not drinking a taste, I thought that “nectar” worked better for rasa than Buddharakkhita’s “taste.” There is of course legitimate leeway in creating any translation, however.

Byrom, however, goes well beyond legitimate leeway. There is nothing corresponding to “look within” in this verse. And it opens by talking about what happens once we have drunk the nectar of solitude. Byrom renders this as an imperative, “Be still.” This is simply not what the passage is saying.

And although the Buddha does talk a lot about “attachment,” that concept is not mentioned in this verse. Byrom has simply thrown it in.

As usual he’s essentially just making it up as he goes along. He produces a sense that is emotionally much warmer than the actual Dhammapada. Contrast the intimacy of having someone tell you (presumably in a kind way) “Be still” with the much more distant and abstract “Having drunk the nectar of solitude.” Now Byrom’s version (like the publisher, Shambhala, I don’t call it a “translation”) is very popular because of its warmth and gentleness. But the fact is that the Dhammapada has, for the most part, a rather austere and ascetic tone, and to soften this is to distort the text.

Critiquing Byrom is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (admittedly I’ve never attempted that sport — I suspect it’s more difficult than it’s reputed to be). Virtually the whole of his rendering is a mistranslation, much of it much worse than this. Here at last he doesn’t introduce any non-Buddhist concepts, which he does elsewhere.

“The teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure.”

This is fake. It’s from Thomas Byrom’s appalling* rendition of the Dhammapada, although it’s found there as “Yet the teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure.” Sometimes the quote ends with “At the end of the way is freedom.”

Now the Dhammapada is a scriptural text, so you might wonder why I regard it as fake. Of course it’s not the Dhammapada itself that I think is fraudulent, but Byrom’s version of it.

As far as I’m aware, Byrom didn’t know any Pali, which is the language the Dhammapada is written in. So he didn’t translate the text, but more likely used other people’s translations and perhaps a Pali–English dictionary in order to make up some inspiring poetry that bore little if any resemblance to the original. Even his publisher, Shambhala, doesn’t call Byrom’s Dhammapada a translation.

“Yet the teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure” is supposed to be Dhammapada verse 183, which is one of the most well-known verses from this well-known work.

Here are a few other translations of verse 183, all of them fairly literal:

Mine: “Ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, purifying the heart — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Buddharakkhita: “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Thanissaro: “The non-doing of any evil, the performance of what’s skillful, the cleansing of one’s own mind: this is the teaching of the Awakened.”

Fronsdal: “Doing no evil, Engaging in what’s skillful, And purifying one’s mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Narada: “Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind, this is the Teaching of the Buddhas.”

If you’re at all familiar with Buddhist teachings you’ll almost certainly have heard this verse. The fact that you probably didn’t recognize Byrom’s quote as being related to Dhammapada verse 183 shows you what a bollocks Byrom made of it.

Byrom’s “The teaching is simple. Do what is right. Be Pure” is a complete outlier (I accidentally typed “outliar” at first, and was tempted to leave it!).

This isn’t, by a long shot, the worst fakery that Byrom pulled off in his Dhammapada. At least, unlike some of his other inventions, this one doesn’t conflict with what the Buddha taught (although he stressed how profound and subtle, and not how simple the Dhamma was). It’s just a terrible, terrible translation.

Th words, “At the end of the way is freedom,” with which this quote sometimes ends, are actually the start of the next verse of the Dhammapada in Byrom’s version, which reads “At the end of the way is freedom. Till then, patience.”

In Buddharakkhita’s very literal translation this is: “Enduring patience is the highest austerity. ‘Nibbana is supreme,’ say the Buddhas.” As you can see, there’s no meaningful connection between Byrom’s words and the original text.

Sometimes I wish that Shambhala, Byrom’s publisher, would just pulp the beautiful mess they’ve created.

* It’s an appalling work of translation, although a beautiful work of literature.