“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”


The graphic above has the distinction not only of attributing to the Buddha something he never said, but also of having a picture of someone who is not the Buddha.

First, the figure: He’s often known as the “Laughing Buddha,” but he’s not the Buddha — i.e. the historical Buddha, Gautama. He’s Budai (Chinese) or Hotei (Japanese), and is a “Chinese folkloric deity,” as Wikipedia puts it. He may be based on a historical character who lived 1100 years ago in China. Budai often carries a sack and dispenses gifts to children. So although he’s a Buddhist figure, he’s rather like Santa Claus: a fairy-tale figure who is based on a historical figure (as Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas) and who is adored by kids.

Imagine someone in Asia posting “Jesus quotes” (which are actually AA slogans) under a picture of Santa Claus, and you’ll get a feel for what’s going on here. No wonder Budai is laughing.

Then there’s the quote itself. Its origins are obscure, but it seems to come from the 12-step tradition, as does the wonderful Fake Buddha Quote, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

And since the keynote of the 12-step recovery program is anonymity (as in Alcoholics Anonymous) it’s unlikely we’ll ever know who coined it.

The earliest attribution I’ve seen, from 1983 (“The Promise of a New Day: A Book of Daily Meditations,” by Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg), is to M. Kathleen Casey. I haven’t been able to find out anything about her. Possibly she was related to Karen Casey (her mother, perhaps?)

The phrase “suffering is optional” was used as the title of a 1976 book by Morris L. Haimowitz and ‎Natalie R. Haimowitz, suggesting that the quote goes back a long way. Even earlier formulations include the variant “misery is optional,” which is found in “The Search For Serenity” (1959) by Lewis F. Presnall — a book that was (or perhaps is) used in AA.

The message itself is very congruent with the Buddha’s teachings. There is a wonderful sutta called the Sallatha Sutta, which points to the distinction between “feelings of pain” and the secondary suffering that arises from our response to that initial pain. Here’s the relevant part of the sutta:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

Although the sutta talks about the first kind of pain as being physical, the same principle applies to emotional pain, although the distinction between physical and emotional pain is questionable anyway. Emotional pain is felt in the body, to the extent that painkillers have been shown to reduce the pain of social isolation, for example. So this principle is applied to things like having our feelings hurt. When our feelings are hurt, this is “pain.” We often respond to hurt feelings by blaming the other person, or ourselves, and this results in more pain (“suffering.”)

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” is a very valid teaching, and consonant with the Buddha’s teaching. But it’s not something that was said by the Buddha, or Hotei, or Jesus, or Santa Claus.

30 thoughts on ““Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.””

    1. Murakami may have quoted these words, but are you sure he’s their originator? Do you have a reference for his having used this quote prior to 1983 (which is the earliest use of this phrase that I’ve found in a book)?

  1. “Oliver Queen” is just trolling – Ra’s Al Ghul is a comic book villian. Oliver Queen is “The Arrow” and Malcom Merlin is his nemisis.

    Come to think of it, he may have used this quote somewhere, though. Seems in character.

  2. I’ve seen it attributed to M. Kathleen Casey, a Canadian politician. The saying is pithy and valuable, does it really matter where it originated? Would that knowledge make it any truer or wiser?

    1. There are two things going on when a quote is attributed to someone. There’s the quote itself, which has a meaning that’s independent of the attribution (although it’ll be taken more seriously if it’s attributed to a great thinker). And then there’s the attribution itself, which is a statement saying “Person X said this.” If the attribution is wrong, then misinformation is being disseminated. Isn’t it better to have accurate information in circulation than inaccurate information? Isn’t truth better than bullshit? Or as Einstein said (and he really did), “Whoever is careless with truth in small matter cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

  3. The “Buddha” is a person on the path of enlightenment. This quote is one which had been made by an someone who is enlightened. So, I guess that pretty much destroys the relevency of this website as a whole, huh?

    1. That’s about as meaningful as saying, with respect to a quote falsely attributed to George Washington, “George Washington is a human being. This quote was made by a human being. Therefore this quote was made by George Washington.”

      When we talk about a quote being from “the Buddha,” we mean it’s from the historical individual called Gotama, whose teachings are purported to be recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, just as a Shakespeare quote is from the historical playwright. So unless a quote is in the scriptures, it can’t validly be ascribed to the Buddha.

      Also, a Buddha is not someone on the path to enlightenment. A Buddha is someone who has rediscovered the path to enlightenment after it has been lost. Traditionally there can only be one Buddha in any era. Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddha for our era.

      It does puzzle me how many people there are who seem threatened by the concept of accurate citations.

      1. True Bodhipaksa! But what about when we talk of Buddha vaccana. What is well said is the word of the Buddha (not historical, but in principle) I´ve heard that from our teacher Sangharakshita. So we cannot say it was a quote from The Buddha, but could we say it is a quote of Buddhahood? Or is Buddha-vaccana?

        1. Hi, Ruchiramati.

          I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times we’re facing together.

          The saying “What is well said is a saying of the blessed one” does not mean that anything that’s well-said by anyone can be attributed to the Buddha. That’s a misreading of the quote, which only gains this extended meaning when taken out of its original context.

          That context was a monk being asked whether what he’d just taught was his own words or the words of his teacher, Gotama. He replied that whatever he’d said that was well said was the word of the Buddha. In other words he was being modest and saying that the best parts of what he’d communicated were, quite literally, quotes from the Buddha. He wasn’t saying that words someone else had said could be regarded as quotes from the Buddha. In that period of time such a suggestion would have been outrageous.

          Unfortunately Sangharakshita fell into the trap, along with a good many other people, of accepting the revised, de-contextualized meaning of the quote.

          Also the Buddha didn’t say that all worldlings are mad. He also didn’t say that we should test his words as a goldsmith tests gold. These are other Fake Buddha Quotes that are in wide circulation in Triratna.

          It’s always good, I think, to go back and check primary sources.

          With metta,

      2. One of the ironies of the web is that, as quotes are shared ever more widely, there seems to be less concern for the accuracy of their attribution! It’s quite possible for an anonymous quote to convey as much truth as a well attributed one. But when we attribute accurately, we not only give credit where due, but we also provide a certain context. That a given statement about God was made by Einstein, for example, is quite different than if it had been made by a theologian or religious figure.

  4. Thank you for your research aND insight. I get disheartened when I see social media memes by well intentioned people spreading untruths. I received a “warning” last week for women to look out for crying children bc it’s a trap for gang members to lure you into a dangerous situation. I commented that it was untrue. She snapped back with its better to be safe than sorry! To wichelp I replied No, you are breeding fear and could cause someone to ignore a weeping child who really needs help. She didn’t like it and that’s okay, but I try to play a small part in demystifying untruths if I can. Namaste.

    1. I used to in the media.. And now since there are SO many fluff “news” websites, it’s getting much worse, many, (not all) of the new “journalists” don’t even need to leave the house. They just regurgitated old online stories, thus giving the untruths more life. “Do your own research before believing anything “! – Abraham Lincoln.. 😉

  5. i heard Thich Nhat Hanh say this quote in one of his youtube videos. i believe it was titled “on nondiscrimination” but i could be mistaken on the name of the video.

  6. Thank you all for reducing my confusion. I have this quotation up in two places in my home, one attributed to THE Buddha, and one to Murakami. I am now (somewhat) enlightened.

  7. Even if the Quote was real and by the actual Buddha. Sound bite quotes are no help when someone is in real pain. Like telling someone who is fat, they should work out more.

    It must take immense training to accept/emotionally detach from great pain in the body. If you have ever had the pain of kidney stones, you will know that quotes such as these are of no use.

    Great pain is like a massive weight placed on top of you, it crushes you – and then some well wisher comes along and say “Oh, they pain is real, but the suffering is optional”

    Keep the quotes for those who have trained for 100 years.

    1. Certainly short quotes might not make much difference to someone’s life. Often people just get a nice glow from them and then move on to the next cat video or whatever. But sometimes they resonate in a deeper way and can represent the beginning of a different way of seeing things. Someone reading “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” might gain an insight into the fact that their own thoughts and reactions to their pain are themselves a source of pain, and that those thoughts and reactions are optional.

      I’m more optimistic than you in terms of the amount of time it takes to train in order for an insight like that to make a difference in your life. People taking a course in meditation show significant reductions in the amount of pain they experience in just six-weeks. And that’s because of the application of the principle encapsulated in this quote.

      1. I saw this quote on the Soundscapes channel on Music Choice from my cable TV provider. It was attributed to the Dalai Lama. I came here to find out if that was a correct attribution and learned that it wasn’t even close. I’m beginning a pain therapy group soon which includes physical therapy, meditation and pain psychotherapy. I intend to apply the principle in this quote.
        Thanks for the information that meditation provides significant pain reduction – and especially for keeping me from embarrassing myself with an incorrect attribution.

        1. “Thanks … for keeping me from embarrassing myself with an incorrect attribution.”

          My work here is done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.