This is a fascinating one. I’d never come across “The greatest prayer is patience” attributed to the Buddha or otherwise. Fortunately “Syamophile” brought it to my attention saying that he or she had seen it on many sites, including this one. I immediately thought of the 184th verse of the Dhammapada, “Patience is the highest asceticism,” based on the similarity of phrasing. “Bad translation?” was my thinking.
Sure enough, it’s quite common. And old. And it does turn out to be a bad translation, although by an interesting route.
But before that, how can one tell at a glance that this is fake? This one’s easy. There’s absolutely nothing in the Buddha’s teaching that corresponds with the word “prayer.”
My first search on Google Books brought up a record from 1901. Some further digging around found it even earlier, in 1883, in Gems for the Fireside, by Otis Henry Tiffany. It’s unusual to find a Fake Buddha Quote this old. It certainly seemed plausible that a 19th century translator might have rendered “Patience is the highest asceticism” as “The greatest prayer is patience.”
I then found an even older variant, from 1868, in a book called God in History: or, The Progress of Man’s Faith in the Moral Order, Volume 2. This book, by Freiherr von Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, was an attempt to show that the religious impulse is universal, and that its expressions have evolved. For its time it’s typically snarky about India, the Indians, and the “Hindoo” religion, with references to “the effects of a climate at once heating and enervating,” etc. But it presented an early translation of three chapters of the Dhammapada, including verse 184 (I was right!):
“The best prayer is patience.”
This certainly seems like the prototype of “The greatest prayer is patience.” But who was the translator? Alas, I don’t know, although the introduction to this part of the book mentions Fausböll’s 1855 translation. Viggo Fausböll (1821 – 1908) was a Danish pioneer of Pali translation and scholarship. He was such a pioneer that he translated the Dhammapada not into English or Danish, but into Latin. So he certainly never said “The greatest prayer is patience,” or “The best prayer is patience,” but his translation of verse 184 includes
“Patientia optima devotio.”
To say that my Latin is rusty would be an understatement, but I can see how the Pali “Khantī paramaṃ tapo” — “patience (khanti) is the supreme (parama) ascetic or religious practice (tapo)” — would make sense in Latin as “patience is the best devotio (devotio meaning “piety, devotion, zeal”). And I can further see how “patientia optima devotio” could be translated as “patience is the best prayer.”
So I think we have our answer. “The greatest/best prayer is patience” is a Fake Buddha Quote resulting from the Pali tapo (asceticism) being translated into the Latin devotio (piety, devotion, zeal), and the Latin devotio then being translated in turn into “prayer.”
Before we go any further, this is actually a translation of a fragment, the original Pali verse being “Khantī paramaṃ tapo titikkhā.” The extra word, titikkhā, means both endurance and forgiveness. Khanti and titikkhā are both the subjects of the sentence, which could be translated as “Patience and forgiveness is the highest ascetic practice.” But what did the Buddha mean by this?
In the Buddha’s day there was a strong, although by no means universal, current of belief that ascetic practices could purify past karma and free the mind from the passions, which were associated with the body’s needs. Dealing patiently with the pain of ascetic practices could be a way of “atoning” for past bad actions, and also could demonstrate the mind’s mastery of the body’s appetites. Some non-Buddhist schools believed that liberation could be attained by mortification alone. The word tapo comes from a root meaning to heat, and in fact one form of ascetic practice involved exposing oneself to extreme heat by sitting surrounded by fires at the hottest part of the day. This sounds crazy, but many people today will sweat buckets in a sauna, swearing by its “purifying” effects, and thinking that poisons will be sweated out of the body. Other forms of ascetic practice included starving oneself, holding one’s breath, standing still for prolonged periods, and even (horror of horrors) bathing three times a day.
The Buddha is reported to have tried many of these ascetic practices before his awakening, and found that all they did was weaken his body almost to the point of death. So he gave them up.
However, many of his disciples were attracted to tapo, and so he had to find a way to deal with its allure. One thing he did was to allow certain ascetic practices that he thought were not too extreme. When his cousin Devadatta [I’ve replaced the link with one pointing to archive.org since the original site is currently infected with malware.] suggested making a list of ascetic practices compulsory for the monks, the Buddha allowed that these practices could be adopted on a voluntary basis: “that monks should only live in the forest, that they only eat food that they had begged for, that they only wear robes made out of rags, that they should not live in monasteries and that they should be vegetarian.”
That was one approach. The other was to attempt to redefine tapo. The Buddha, in saying that “patience is the highest form of asceticism” is playing a trump card. Why seek out pain, when pain comes to us? Isn’t patient and equanimous acceptance of life’s inevitable pains enough? It was a good argument, but it wasn’t apparently enough to stop asceticism from becoming an established part of Theravadin Buddhism, in the form of the 13 dhutangas, which go a bit further than the Buddha’s (or rather Devadatta’s) five points allow.