“You only lose what you cling to.”

I came across this one on Twitter. It’s also found on a number of blogs and websites, with the earliest occurrence I’ve found being on James Ure’s The Buddhist Blog, on May 19, 2006. Although he says he got it from another website, it’s no longer available there. And as you can see it’s available on a T-shirt, so that you can proudly display a Fake BUddha Quote with “Buddha” spelled with two B’s: “bbuddha.”

The origins of this quote are unclear. I can’t find any books that predate the Buddhist Blog mention. The earliest book mention I’ve found is in a novel, The Book of Lies, by Brad Meltzer, which was published in 2008:

“Just remember, though, Cal: You only lose what you cling to.”

“That’s nice. That Native American?”

“Buddhist,” she calls back, ducking into her white rental car.

I found a variant, “What you cling to, you ultimately lose” in a Christian book, The Abingdon Preaching Annual: 1995 Edition, which was published in 1994.

I doubt that this is more than a coincidence, but in the edition of Health Magazine published by Dr. Burke’s Sanitarium, of Sonoma County, California (sanitarium rates, $25 per week, but less if you share a room) in December, 1905, there is the following intriguing saying:

“This is what we mean as we turn aside from our daily round to give at Christmas-time. We are meaning then, with all our hearts, the wonderful paradox of human existence, that what we cling to, we lose; and what we give, we have; and when we die, we live.

I rather like this “you only lose what you cling to” quote. It suggests to me that there’s no concept of loss if there’s no act of clinging. There’s a nice saying about this in the Pali canon, from Sariputta rather than the Buddha:

Ven. Sariputta said, “Friends, just now as I was withdrawn in seclusion, this train of thought arose to my awareness: ‘Is there anything in the world with whose change or alteration there would arise within me sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘There is nothing in the world with whose change or alteration there would arise within me sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair.’

In Buddhist thinking this idea of non-clinging doesn’t just apply to material possessions — we’re so materialistic that that’s the first thing we think of — but to everything, including the idea of having a self.

Epictetus said, in regard to a stolen lamp, “A man can only lose what he has.” I can’t say I’m confident I know what he meant. Perhaps he meant “A man can only lose what he clings to.” Anna Wierzbicka, the author of What Did Jesus Mean wrote:

Epictetus concludes that if one practices being indifferent to one’s possessions, one will not be angry at those who snatch them away, and in this way one will become ‘invincible.’

This certainly seems very Buddhist, as much Stoic writing does.

In Luke 17:33, in the New Living Translation version, we have “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.” That’s remarkably Buddhist in tone.

3 thoughts on ““You only lose what you cling to.””

  1. I’ve just discovered this site as I’m trying to find a legit quote to go with a piece I’m writing on letting go. This is GREAT! I appreciate how you provide alternatives and keep a list of ‘actual’ Buddha quotes – in as far as we can say given nothing was written down until 500 years after his death.

    Thank you!

  2. So if I cling to suffering I will lose it? Doesn’t sound very Buddhist. Clinging in all forms must be abandoned.

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