Scott Baseler wrote with a query about a suspect quote:
I have seen a quote attributed to the Buddha that seems like a misquote from the bible. “Work on your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” I know the first sentence is one word different from Philippians 2:12. Is there any quote from the Buddha simular to this?
In the King James Version, Philippians 2:12 is:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
And actually the most common form of the suspect quote that Scott sent me is also “work out your own salvation.”
The Buddha’s last words were appamadena sampadetha, which is literally “strive diligently,” but which an early translator, Paul Carus, rendered rather liberally in his Gospel of Buddha as “work out your salvation with diligence.” I know from dipping into his translation (and it’s even obvious from the book’s title) that Carus was concerned to make Buddhism resemble Christianity, so it was interesting to learn that he was echoing a Christian verse. Scott’s find sounded like a loose rendering of Carus’ loose rendering, so I suspected that Carus was involved in this somewhere.
“Do not depend on others” also had echoes in Carus. The Buddha said, also at the end of his life (in a standard translation):
“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”
Carus “translated” this as:
“Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and so not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not for assistance to any one besides yourselves.”
The lamp versus island thing may seem odd, but dīpa, in Pali, means both, although it’s generally accepted that in this context the Buddha meant dīpa to mean “island,” fitting in with a common metaphor he used of life being like a flood or a dangerous river to be crossed.
An example from AN 3.51 makes this clear, where the Buddha talks about “restraint here by way of body, speech, and mind is the shelter, protection, island [dipa], refuge [sarana], and haven…”
So this second sentence from our quote again sounded like a modification of Carus. Carus’ translation is really highly distorted. The Buddha certainly never encouraged his followers not to look to each other for assistance. In fact they were directly encouraged to do so, and the Sangha, or spiritual community, is the third of the Refuges that Buddhists are to rely on, the first two being the Buddha and Dharma, or teaching.
A little more digging around revealed that the precise form of the quote, “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” comes from a 1961 book, Wisdom For Our Time, by James Nelson, and are from an interview with the Japanese Buddhist scholar, Daisetz Suzuki. D. T. Suzuki was presumably paraphrasing from memory Carus’s rendering of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which is where the “last words” and the “be a light unto yourselves” quotes both come from.
So here we have an interesting chain of events. Carus, bless him, mangles the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in order to make the Buddha’s words resemble the New Testament, and then Suzuki, quoting from memory during an interview, slightly simplifies Carus’ rendering. And then Suzuki’s version is plucked out of the interview and becomes a genuine Fake Buddha Quote.
This quote, “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” is now found on many quotes sites, including Brainyquote, Thinkexist, etc. It’s also found in dozens of books.