“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.”

Or as they say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, misquote him.”

This one’s a puzzle. I’m 100% certain it’s not the Buddha. As usual, the language is all wrong. But I haven’t found a definitive source. I’m always more comfortable pronouncing Buddha quotes to be fake when I can find an original source, but in this case I’m stymied.

It appears in a magazine called Network World from January 16, 1989, as:

There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

It’s not attributed to the Buddha, but there’s no source given. It’s not even in quotation marks, but since it’s an otherwise unrelated comment prefacing an invitation to contribute to the magazine, it’s almost certainly a quote from somewhere.

But where?

In a book published two years earlier, Healing of the Planet Earth, by Alan Cohen, the quote is attributed to the Buddha, although it’s in a slightly different form:

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: 1. Not going all the way. 2. Not starting. – Buddha

Here we have “along the road” rather than “on the road” and we have the two mistakes handily numbered.

But how did Cohen come to think this was a quote from the Buddha? The internet was barely active at that time, so it was probably a book or magazine — or perhaps a faulty memory of a talk he’d heard. It’s conceivable that the quote evolved from something said by Chogyam Trungpa:

“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” ~~~ Chögyam Trungpa

The core concept here is similar, although the words used are very different.

Another candidate for the original is verse 47 from the chapter on Virya (vigor) from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. This reads:

After first examining one’s means, one should either begin or not begin. Surely, it is better not to begin than to turn back once one has begun.

It’s possible that this is also what Trungpa was referring to, this text being very well-known in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, although there’s a similarity in theme, the presentation of the concept isn’t a close match.

The quote then reappears, once again credited to the Buddha, in 2000’s Treasury Of Spiritual Wisdom: A Collection Of 10,000 Powerful Quotations For Transforming Your Life, by Andy Zubko. After 2000, the quote starts springing up in many, many books. It seems unstoppable. But perhaps some publisher or author doing some fact checking in the future will stumble across this site and pause before spreading this quote any further. I can only dream.

My money’s on Shantideva being the original inspiration for the quote, with some as-yt-unknown intermediary having repackaged it neatly in the form above. Perhaps as Google scans more books, the original source will be revealed.

12 thoughts on ““There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.””

  1. Thank you for your clarification. I saw this sentence from a computer wall paper, doubted if it is said by Buddha and led by Google to this page.
    Happy to know some one keeping telling the fake Buddha quotes from the genuine ones.
    I’m from China and there are also many fake Buddha quotes on the Chinese internet which conceal the real Sasana of Buddha.
    Thank you again and best wishes!

  2. I bought a kindle book, Quotes of Wisdom – 99 Buddha’s quotes Kindle Edition by Raja Vishupadi (Author) and the first quotes I read, randomly were not from the Buddha.

    1. This is what people do these days — scrape garbage information from the internet, package it as a book, and sell it on Amazon. I hope you give the book a review to deter other people from wasting their money :)

      1. I left a review too, on Amazon. I hope it works. Others have left similar reviews but I didn’t look. It is sad what gets put online as truth, and worse that people use misinformation to try and make money.

  3. I believe the source of this quote is L Ron Hubbard on a lecture called, The Road to Truth. He did believe he was the reincarnation of the Buddha, the Maitreya. You might look in this direction.

    1. Interesting, thanks. On the Scientology listing for the CD there’s the following quote, which has some similarities: “There is no short stop on the road to truth. That is the only track that you have to go all the way on. Once you have put your feet upon that road, you have to walk to its end. Otherwise, all manner of difficulties and upsets will beset you.”

  4. mission accomplished. Was looking for a quote “on the road” and came across this “Buddha” quote. Something was off. Did more research, found your site. Thanks for doing the more detailed research! :)

  5. Thank you for doing this research! I love this quotation and was going to use it but knew it couldn’t be Buddha. I’ll still use it but credit it as unknown. Can you tell me from what book or lecture the quotation by Chögyam Trungpa comes?

    Thank you!

    1. In “Recalling Chogyam Trungpa,” Fabrice Midal wrote,

      At one large talk in Berkeley, when many people came to listen to him, he was as usual very late in arriving. He told us, “If you want your money back, it’s all right. Just go to the door and ask for it back. It’s quite fine. In fact, if you haven’t started the spiritual path, best not to begin! It’s difficult, it’s terrible, and you have to face all kinds of things that you won’t like. As far as the ego is concerned, it is one insult after another.” And so he said, quite seriously, “If you don’t even start, you’ll probably be better off. Best not to begin. But if you do start, best to finish!”

      Unfortunately I don’t know which talk this was.

      The version here, which is different, is via Jack Kornfield. It can be found on page 55 of “Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics,” edited by Allan Hunt Badiner and Alex Grey.

      I’m inclined to suspect that Midal’s version is closer to what Trungpa said — it makes sense in the context of his arriving late. Hopefully there’s a recording of that talk somewhere.

  6. Thanks for your passion and work on debunking false Buddha quotes. I always loved Chögyam Trungpa! His book “Cutting through spiritual materialism” was an eye-opener for me in my early 20s.

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