“Life is a bridge. Don’t build a house on it.”

Someone called Nizar asked me about this quote today:

“Life is a bridge. Don’t build a house on it.”

This is often just called an “Indian proverb,” but several books, including “Human Life and the Teachings of Buddha” (1988), by Mandar Nath Pathak, attribute this to the Buddha. In “Buddha and the Rasava” (1958), Kumaraswamiji offers an extended version, which he also attributes to the Buddha:

Life is a bridge, build no house upon it; it is a river, cling not to its banks; it is a gymnasium, use it to develop the mind on the apparatus of circumstance; it is a journey, take it and walk on.

A version of this saying (“Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but don’t build a house on it.”) is attributed to the late Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the Buddhist scriptures that this is not a canonical quotation. The directness of the metaphor and the wording are completely off.

The earliest use of this maxim that I’ve found so far is in “The Bridge-Builders, and Other Poems” (1908), by H. Harrold Johnson:

“Life is a bridge: pass over it, but build not houses upon it.”—Old saying.

No further reference is given.

The English Buddhist writer Christmas Humphreys used essentially the same quote in several of his books. For example in “Studies in the Middle Way: Being Thoughts on Buddhism Applied” (1940), he has

“Life is a bridge: pass over it, but build no houses on it.”

This he attributes to Akbar — presumably Akbar the Great, or Akbar I, who was Mughal Emperor from 1556 until his death in 1605. But elsewhere Humphreys says this is an old Chinese proverb.

The attribution to Akbar is probably correct, however, since in the biographical work, “Clendon Daukes, Servant of Empire” (1951), written by Lady Dorothy Maynard Lavington Evans Daukes, we read:

We also visited Fatehpur Sikri, that deserted city of a byegone age, built of red sandstone by the Emperor Akbar. We mused over the Arabic inscription on the great gateway: “Life is a bridge, a bridge that you shall pass over. You shall not build your house upon it.”

That version is found in many other books, although it’s not clear that the quotation can be attributed directly to Akbar himself.

The Buddha did use metaphors regarding bridges: sometimes emphasizing their fragility, as in when he talked of blotting out the conceit “I am” as the wind demolishes a fragile bamboo bridge, and sometimes emphasizing their utility, as when he talked of crossing “the flood” by means of a bridge while others scrambled to get frail rafts together.

“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightning, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

Sanjiv Desai passed this one on to me today. I’d never seen it before, although it seems it’s everywhere…

“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

I thought that one might come from Thomas Byrom’s kinda-made-up “translation” of the Dhammapada, or from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book.” It turns out it’s a bit of both.

Byrom has:

Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
You too shall pass away.
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

This is meant to be a translation of verses 5 and 6 of the Dhammapada, which in Buddharakkhita’s quite literal translation is:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Byrom’s version is actually pretty accurate by his standards. A lot of the time he just wrote his own poetry, more or less ignoring what the Pali text actually says.

Jack Kornfield, in his Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (page 19), turned Byrom’s loose translation into:

“Life is as fleeting as a rainbow, a flash of lightning, a star at dawn. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?”

Then in “A Lamp in the Darkness,” Jack altered this further to:

“Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening (sic), like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?”

The imagery almost certainly comes from another text altogether: the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

So you should view this fleeting world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

So it’s an interesting conglomeration, this one! It embodies things the Buddha said (and even though the Diamond Sutra was composed long after the Buddha’s death, the concluding verse is similar to some things he’s recorded in the Pali scriptures as having taught).

For example this:

“Just as a dewdrop on the tip of a blade of grass quickly vanishes with the rising of the sun and does not stay long, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a dewdrop.”

Or this:

Form is like a glob of foam;
feeling, a bubble;
perception, a mirage;
fabrications, a banana tree;
consciousness, a magic trick —
this has been taught
by the Kinsman of the Sun.
However you observe them,
appropriately examine them,
they’re empty, void
to whoever sees them

But despite these similarities, “Your days pass like rainbows, like a flash of lightening, like a star at dawn. Your life is short. How can you quarrel?” is definitely not a direct quotation.

The man who spit on Buddha’s face

Here’s a long story. Brace yourselves:

The Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came and spat in his face. He wiped it off, and he asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?” The man was a little puzzled because he himself never expected that when you spit on somebody’s face, he will ask, “What next?” He had no such experience in his past. He had insulted people and they had become angry and they had reacted. Or if they were cowards and weaklings, they had smiled, trying to bribe the man. But Buddha was like neither, he was not angry nor in any way offended, nor in any way cowardly. But just matter-of-factly he said, “What next?” There was no reaction on his part.

But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for it, otherwise everybody will start doing things like this!”

Buddha said, “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is new, a stranger. He must have heard from people something about me, that this man is an atheist, a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track, a revolutionary, a corrupter. And he may have formed some idea, a notion of me. He has not spit on me, he has spit on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me because he does not know me at all, so how can he spit on me?

“If you think on it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man must have something else to say because this is a way of saying something. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that language is impotent: in deep love, in intense anger, in hate, in prayer. There are intense moments when language is impotent. Then you have to do something. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person, you spit on him, you are saying something. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking, “What next?”

The man was even more puzzled! And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react.”

Puzzled, confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. When you see a Buddha, it is difficult, impossible to sleep anymore the way you used to sleep before. Again and again he was haunted by the experience. He could not explain it to himself, what had happened. He was trembling all over, sweating and soaking the sheets. He had never come across such a man; the Buddha had shattered his whole mind and his whole pattern, his whole past.

The next morning he went back. He threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? This, too, is a way of saying something that cannot be said in language. When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said ordinarily, for which all words are too narrow; it cannot be contained in them.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here, he is saying something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”

The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”

Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.

“And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”

This is from a “Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other” (pp. 60–62) by Osho, the guru formerly known as the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, who loved collecting white Rolls Royces, and who ran a commune in Oregon that launched the first biological warfare attack on US soil (they were trying to influence an election).

Osho wasn’t above making up stories about the Buddha. Now generally this is unobjectionable, as long as the general points being make by the storyteller are in line with the scriptures. After all, Buddhism started off as essentially an oral tradition, and oral teaching is still an important component in the transmission of the Dharma (as a lived reality, not just as a collection of teachings). It would be ridiculous to say that no teacher could ever put words into the mouth of the Buddha in passing along the teachings in this way. Anyone who’s taught has dramatized a sutta or two. I know I have. And in telling a story dramatically we end up inventing dialog. But I think the words we put into the Buddha’s mouth should at least not conflict with his teachings, and should preferably be paraphrases.

Unfortunately Osho had none of these scruples. The teaching given here is one that the Buddha would call “nihilistic” — that is, the belief is that the person who acts is not the same person who experiences the consequences of his or her actions, because of the action of change.

The Buddha was in fact once asked this very question by a Brahmin priest:

The brahmin: Is the one who acts the same one who experiences [the results of the act]?

The Buddha: ‘The one who acts is the same one who experiences,’ is one extreme.

The brahmin: Then, Master Gotama, is the one who acts someone other than the one who experiences?

The Buddha: ‘The one who acts is someone other than the one who experiences,’ is the second extreme. Avoiding both of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by means of the middle.

So the teaching that Osho puts into the mouth of the Buddha is one he’d explicitly rejected.

The message of non-resentment and non-reactivity is certainly true to the Buddha’s teachings, although not on the basis that “The man you spit upon is no longer here.”

Verses three and four of the Dhammapada read:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

The Buddha taught mudita (appreciation) as a way to counteract resentment:

It’s impossible, there is no way that — when appreciation has been developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken as an awareness-release — resentment would still keep overpowering the mind. That possibility doesn’t exist, for this is the escape from resentment: appreciation as an awareness-release.

He also taught the practice of lovingkindness as a way of avoiding resentment, using a rather extreme example:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

Ultimately, though, it’s non-clinging to any idea of the self (including the idea that the self does not exist) that leads to the kind of equanimous mind is which resentment doesn’t have to be dealt with because it simply doesn’t arise. This teaching is from the Alagaddupama Sutta, in which the Buddha says that grasping the Buddha’s teaching wrongly is like grabbing a snake by the tail: you’re going to end up bitten:

Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress. And if others insult, abuse, taunt, bother, and harass the Tathagata for that, he feels no hatred, no resentment, no dissatisfaction of heart because of that.

“Remembering a wrong is like carrying a burden on the mind”

Edwin Ashurst sent this one along today:

Remembering a wrong is like carrying a burden on the mind

I don’t have much to say about it, unfortunately, because I haven’t yet been able to track its origins. The earliest reference I’ve found on the web dates from November 23, 2006. It’s in several books, but none I’ve found was published prior to 2010, and the words “Buddha is quoted as saying…” are used.

I’m fairly sure it’s not canonical (i.e. that it’s not from the Buddhist scriptures) just on the basis of the language.

There’s nothing wrong with the message, however. The Buddha is recorded as having said:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred. (Dhammapada, verse 4)

Clearly, harboring resentments is seen here as a kind of mental burden, but the suspect quote isn’t close enough to be even a bad paraphrase.

Hopefully more information about this quote will come to light in due course.

The hate mail is getting more polite

Well, perhaps this is better termed “passive-aggressive mail,” rather than “hate mail,” but in a comment, Tharindu wrote:

Buddha was the most greatest person in the world. what he was say is so true..! some things you will never understand my friend. you are just a little kid who try to find write and wrong in the world dear Bodhipaksa. so please don’t put this kind of post unless you don’t know what your are talking. just observe the Buddhist and then say some thing. this is the most friendly advice i can give to you.

See? “Dear Bodhipaksa” and “my friend.” That’s polite :)

He also wrote:

yes. there are lot of books about history things that said by the Buddha. try to read the old books and learn some thing my friend. you have lot of things to learn before you die.

Not only is that polite, but it’s excellent advice, since I do like to read old books and to learn things.

“Tune as the sitar neither low nor high, And we will dance away the hearts of men.”


From time to time there are Fake Buddha Quotes that just make me shake my head in disbelief. This is one of them:

It’s not just on Twitter, but on Goodreads, and in a fair number of books.

The idea of the Buddha talking about “dancing away the hearts of men” is stunningly out-of-character with the Buddha. It’s the equivalent of Moses saying “Party people, are you ready to dance?” or Jesus saying “Get on down, like a sex machine.”

In a fuller version the original quote is:

Fair goes the dancing when the sitar’s tuned;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high,
And we will dance away the hearts of men.

The string o’erstretched breaks, and the music flies;
The string o’erslack is dumb, and music dies;
Tune us the sitar neither low nor high.

The fake quote has substituted “as” for “us.” Presumably this is taken to mean “tune yourself as the sitar.”

This isn’t, as you probably already worked out, from the Buddhist scriptures. It’s from Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem, “The Light of Asia,” which is a Victorian biography of the Buddha. To be fair, the Light of Asia is loosely based on the Lalitavistara, which is a Mahayana Sutra. But the speaker here isn’t even the Buddha, but a temple dancer. (Arnold calls her a “Nautch Girl,” although those were more along the lines of erotic dancers.)

With the mention of the sitar there’s an obvious reference to a sutta in which the Buddha gives advice to the Bhikkhu Sona, who is having problems living a monastic life, despite putting great effort into his practice. The Buddha compares Sona’s erratic striving as being like a lute (vina) which is sometimes too tight and sometimes too slack.

“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”

“Yes, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the faculties, and there take up the object [of meditation].”

“When you meet your ‘soul mate’ you’ll feel calm.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 2.03.51 PMA reader passed this quote on to me this morning:

“The Buddhists say if you meet somebody and your heart pounds, your hands shake, your knees go weak, that’s not the one. When you meet your ‘soul mate’ you’ll feel calm. No anxiety, no agitation.”

Obviously this is not described as a quote from the Buddha, who was not noted for being a fount of dating advice.

In fact Buddhists generally are not noted for talking about “soul mates.” The word “soul” doesn’t sit very easily within a tradition that teaches that we have no permanent essence, or atman (Pali, atta). The website Tiny Buddha does have an article on soul mates for Buddhists. Spoiler: your soul mate is you. Ram Dass points out that in the Buddhist view, samsara (the endless round of rebirth) is so inconceivably vast that we have each been in every conceivable relationship with each other. We are all each other’s soul mates.

The Buddha didn’t entirely steer clear of relationship advice, although he talked more about married couples than about those looking for a mate. He said, for example, “If both husband & wife want to see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come, they should be in tune [with each other] in conviction, in tune in virtue, in tune in generosity, and in tune in discernment. Then they will see one another not only in the present life but also in the life to come.” In some rare dating advice he pointed out that one who gambles “is not sought after for matrimony,” although this was in the context of arguing against gambling rather than saying what one should do to get hitched.

The source of our quote seems to be a novel by Monica Drake, published in 2007, called “Clown Girl” (page 57). She also says that “every good Buddhist” knows that the Buddha was yellow, which (I admit) I did not actually know. (Another spoiler: it’s not true.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “the Buddhists” (taken as a whole) don’t actually say that when you meet your soul mate you’ll feel calm. I don’t take offense at Drake for introducing this rather odd concept; after all “Clown Girl” is a novel, not a treatise on the Buddhadharma!

“Real peace and happiness has to come from the heart, from within.”

I don’t think this one is very widespread yet, but it appeared on a Facebook page called “Spreading Buddhism,” with an attribution to the Buddha. Perhaps we can nip it in the bud.

The full quote is:

Real peace and happiness has to come from the heart, from within. So therefore, to eliminate wars and destroying each other, to eliminate famine, disease and earthquakes, and to eliminate all other disasters an unfavourable experiences, all this can be stopped by having loving kindness toward each other. From having a good heart with loving kindness, negative action cannot arise.

The language (happiness coming from within — negative action) is all completely wrong for something said by the Buddha.

The quote is generally attributed to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, but I haven’t yet found an original source, so I can’t be 100% sure that’s correct. But it does sound like something a Tibetan Buddhist like Lama Zopa would say. The idea that lovingkindness can stop earthquakes is rather touching.

The Spreading Buddhism page offers an eclectice mix of genuine canonical quotes, quotes by other non-Buddhists such as Lao Tzu, contemporary teachers like Pema Chodron, and a good number of classic Fake Buddha Quotes.

Recommended site: Antiviral

There’s an amazing amount of, ahem, bull excrement on the internet, and especially on social media, where many people seem to function with their critical faculties permanently disabled.

It doesn’t help that there are entire websites devoted to producing fake news, and by that I don’t mean obviously satirical sites like The Onion, which I love, but sites peddling articles like this one, claiming that Charles Manson is about to be released from prison. Articles like this are designed to enrage people and have them forward the story to their friends, the benefit for the publisher being that they get more traffic, and therefore more revenue. It’s also possible that they wish to keep a political base in a state of ignorance and outrage. I’ve been fooled by a couple of stories like that myself.

Anyway, it’s good to see that Gawker Media has a blog devoted to exposing fake stories and images that are circulating on the web. The blog is called “antiviral,” and it’s worth a visit.

“Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful”


Two people emailed me within an hour or so of each other this morning with queries about this quote : “Change is never painful, only the resistance to change is painful.”

It’s a wonderful quote. It’s true, and it’s neatly packaged in a way that makes it resonate strongly. It just happens not to be something that the Buddha said.

It’s all Demi Lovato’s fault! The American actress, singer, and songwriter included the quotation, attributed to the Buddha, as the epigraph to one of the reflections in her book, Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year, published by Macmillan in 2013.

“Change is a part of life and there’s no way of getting around it. So accept that your life will be filled with all kinds of change, and even though it can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it’s what builds our character and keeps us moving forward,” Ms. Lovato goes on to tell us. It’s wise advice, even if it was, in all likelihood, ghost-written.

This isn’t the first time that Lovato and the Blessed One have crossed paths. In 2012 the songstress announced that she’d taken up meditation in order to help her with an eating disorder, self-harming, and bipolar disorder. I wish her well.

But I also wish she hadn’t attributed this quotation to the Buddha, since her popularity means that it’s now found all over Twitter, Facebook, etc.

What are the quote’s origins? I confess that I don’t know. Perhaps we’ll never know.

In Michael Erickson’s Recovery Cells: Small Groups for People in Recovery (2007) we find a similar quote: “Change is not painful—resistance to change is painful” (page 291). The saying was recorded many years before the book’s publication by a “Patty W.” (now of San Antonio, Texas) who had recorded it in an AA meeting. AA has been the source of other Fake Buddha Quotes. As an essentially oral tradition, these sayings get passed on, refined, and polished, until they become pithy zingers. But we’re often left with no neat citation that we can append to the finished product.

We don’t know the date that Patty W. recorded the quote, but it was almost certainly current by November 28, 1995, when it was recorded in the Los Angeles Times:

“I don’t think change is painful, I think resisting change is painful,” said Kerry Harr, a fourth-grade teacher from Pomelo Drive Elementary School in Canoga Park.

I suspect that Harr had picked up the quotation somewhere, and doubt that she was the originator.

What about the Buddha? He certainly talked a lot about change. Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā [All fabrications are impermanent] is one of the key teachings of Buddhism. (I don’t actually think that the Buddha was fundamentally saying that all things are impermanent — I think he was talking about fabricated mental states — but I won’t go into that here.)

Recognizing change is important in bringing about insight:

For one who remains focused on the inconstancy of all fabrications, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing [vijja: wisdom] arises.

The Buddha also talked a lot about pain (dukkha), and sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā (all fabrications — or fabricated mental states — are painful/unsatisfactory) is another key teaching.

One of the ways that we suffer is when we experience resistance to change.

“Resistance” isn’t a terribly common term in the Buddhist scriptures. Bhikkhu Thanissaro often uses that translation for dosa, although a more common translation of dosa is “ill will” or “hatred.” The Buddha seemed to have something a bit stronger in mind than “resistance” when he talked about dosa.

But Thanisaro also translates paṭigha as resistance, which is much better. Paṭigha is the tendency to push against some painful perception, and it’s paṭigha that leads to ill will (dosa):

And what is the food for the arising of unarisen ill will, or for the growth & increase of ill will once it has arisen? There is the theme of resistance [paṭigha]. To foster inappropriate attention to it: This is the food for the arising of unarisen ill will, or for the growth and increase of ill will once it has arisen.

So, certainly when we perceive change, or the possibility of change, and experience resistance to that change, we end up creating suffering for ourselves.

Once again, there’s nothing un-Buddhist about this quote. It’s just not something the Buddha said. And for those who say “Who cares who said the quote as long as it’s true?” I counter with this: “Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” It’s by Albert Einstein