Today a non-Buddhist friend, trembling no doubt at the thought of incurring my wrath and scorn by posting a quotation erroneously attributed to the Buddha, asked me on Twitter whether “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” was a genuine Buddha quote.
This is an interesting one. I’ve seen it around a lot on quotes sites and in books, mostly attributed to the Buddha (but once to Confucius and another time to Colin Powell) and it’s never rung any alarm bells. My instant gut response was it sounded like something the Buddha might have said.
In the exact form given above, the quote first appears in Google Books in a 2003 work, A Way Forward: Spiritual Guidance for Our Troubled Times, by Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury. The recent provenance made me wonder if this was still a genuine quote (it did more or less ring true), but with altered wording.
I did a bit of digging around and found the canonical original sitting on my bookshelf, in the Pali Text Society’s Gradual Sayings, Volume I. It’s in “The Book of the Threes,” and in full it runs like this:
Monks, there are these three things which are practiced in secret, not openly. What are they?
The ways of womenfolk are secret, not open. Brahmins practice their chants in secret, not openly. Those of perverse views [that’s philosophically rather than sexually perverse views] hold their views secretly, not openly. These are the three things…
Monks, there are these three things which shine forth for all to see, which are not hidden. Which three?
The disc of the moon shines for all to see; it is not hidden. The disc of the sun does likewise. The Dhamma-Discipline [dhamma-vinaya] of a Tathagata [Buddha] shines for all to see; it is not hidden. These are the three things.
For various reasons I prefer Bhikkhu Sujato’s more contemporary (and less misogynistic) translation from Sutta Central:
Mendicants, three things are conveyed under cover, not in the open. What three? Females are married with a veil, not unveiled. Brahmin hymns are conveyed under cover, not openly. Wrong view is conveyed under cover, not in the open. These three things are conveyed under cover, not in the open.
Three things shine in the open, not under cover. What three? The moon shines in the open, not under cover. The sun shines in the open, not under cover. The teaching and training proclaimed by a Realized One shine in the open, not under cover. These three things shine in the open, not under cover.
So “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” has its origins in a genuine Buddha quote. I’m pleased to have my instincts validated.
However the meaning has been changed. The original quote has nothing to do with things escaping the condition of being hidden, but is to do with the fact that the Buddha’s teaching was not a tradition where secrets are passed on from teacher to student. Instead it’s a tradition where the teachings are openly available for all to see. And it’s not truth generally that the Buddha says is open to view (truths may well be rendered permanently invisible) but the liberating teachings and practices that he offers.
A contracted paraphrase of the canonical version dates at least to the early twentieth century. For example in The Essence of Buddhism by Pokala Lakshmi Narasu (1907) we see:
Three things shine before the world and cannot be hidden. They are the moon, the sun, and the truth proclaimed by the Tathagata
The resemblance is obvious, especially if we highlight the parts that the contemporary quote and the 1907 version have in common: Three things shine before the world and cannot be hidden. They are the moon, the sun, and the truth proclaimed by the Tathagata.
The word order in our suspect quote has been rearranged (we nearly always say “sun and moon,” not “moon and sun”) and the word “long” has been inserted, but otherwise the two versions are identical. The quote in question here is almost certainly an edited version of the Pokala Lakshmi Narasu paraphrase.
Despite the version I was originally asked about having its origins in the scriptures, I can’t accept as a canonical quotation. It’s more in the category of “not particularly accurate paraphrase,” which is why I’ve classed it as “fake-ish.”