Someone on Facebook asked me about this one today:
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
At first I thought this was a spurious quote, but it does in fact have a canonical origin, although it’s heavily modified. In a Chinese text known as the Sutra of 42 Sections, there’s the following passage:
10. The Buddha said, “Those who rejoice in seeing others observe the Way will obtain great blessing.” A Sramana asked the Buddha, “Would this blessing be destroyed?” The Buddha replied, “It is like a lighted torch whose flame can be distributed to ever so many other torches which people may bring along; and therewith they will cook food and dispel darkness, while the original torch itself remains burning ever the same. It is even so with the bliss of the Way.”
A similar expression is found in the Mahayana Gandhavyuha Sutra, translated by Thomas F. Cleary as “Entry Into the Realm of Reality.” There we find the following:
Just as millions of lamps can be lit from one lamp, without the one lamp being exhausted or diminished by all the lamps taking their flame from it, in the same way from the one lamp of the aspiration for omniscience the lamps of aspiration for omniscience of all buddhas of past, future, and present are lit, yet the one lamp of aspiration for omniscience is not exhausted, and shines undiminished by the lights of the lamps of aspiration to omniscience proceeding from it.
There’s nothing about happiness in here, though. Also, being a Mahayana text, this quote does not come from the historical Buddha, but was composed hundreds of years after his death.
The exact wording of our quote, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened, comes from a Japanese book on Buddhism called “The Teaching of Buddha.” This book does contain translations of Buddhist sutras, but it also includes a lot of explanatory commentary, of which this is a part.
A fuller version reads:
“An act to make another happy, inspires the other to make still another happy, and so happiness is aroused and abounds. Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. Those who seek Enlightenment must be careful of each of their steps. No matter how high one’s aspiration may be, it must be attained step by step. The steps of the path to Enlightenment must be taken in our everyday life.”
This seems to be, in part, a paraphrase of Section 10 of the Sutra of 42 Sections. It’s not an exact translation, but it’s pretty close. It certainly seems to preserve the meaning and the image, even if the exact wording has been tweaked.
The quote “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared,” isn’t, I believe, quite close enough to the Sutra of 42 Sections to be considered genuine, so I’ve classed it as “fakeish.”
Several well-known Fake Buddha Quotes originate in this book. The problem may be that quotes appear with the attribution “The Teaching of Buddha,” and people then misinterpret this to mean that they are the “word of the Buddha.”
The Sutra of 42 Sections is said to be a compilation from Indian sources. According to legend, the Emperor Ming sent a delegation west looking for the Buddha’s teachings. The delegation encountered Kasyapa-Matanga and Dharmaraksha in India, and they were brought back to China along with many sutras. The Sutra of 42 Sections was one of the works they translated.
I’m not aware of any text in Pali (or Sanskrit) that corresponds to Section 10. That doesn’t mean that an original didn’t exist. There were originally several different collections of texts in India. What we now call the Pali canon was just one of these, and is significant because it’s so complete. When pilgrims took the teachings to China for translation, it wasn’t just Pali texts that they took with them, and so we often end up with passages in the Chinese Tipitaka (“Three Baskets” – the traditional name for the scriptures) that don’t have any parallels in the Pali texts.
The Buddha did talk about lamps (I’ve never seen any mention of candles, which I don’t think existed) and said things like:
“Just as an oil lamp burns in dependence on oil & wick; and from the termination of the oil & wick — and from not being provided any other sustenance — it goes out unnourished; in the same way, when sensing a feeling limited to the body, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to the body.’ When sensing a feeling limited to life, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to life.’ He discerns that ‘With the break-up of the body, after the termination of life, all that is sensed, not being relished, will grow cold right here.’”
As you can see, this isn’t very pithy or quotable!
A bit more quotable is:
As a flame overthrown by the force of the wind goes to an end that cannot be classified, so the sage free from naming activity goes to an end that cannot be classified.
But then this is rather hard to comprehend.
A later teaching — the Questions of King Milinda, has a similar analogy in reference not to happiness but to the teaching of rebirth:
The king asked: “Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and [yet] one is reborn?”
“Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”
“How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy.”
“Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”
This isn’t the Buddha speaking, but it’s one of the best-known Buddhist quotes.