“He is able who thinks he is able.”

Seeing a Fake Buddha Quote on Twitter is pretty much a daily occurrence, but this one retweeted by a Buddhist particularly struck me this morning:

He is able who thinks he is able. #Buddha

What interests me about this one is that it’s being passed on by people who have “Buddha” or “Buddhist” as part of their Twitter usernames, and yet it strikes me as being profoundly unBuddhist. I’m always open to correction, but the Buddha didn’t strike me as being an advocate of “positive thinking.” The Buddha’s actual position seemed to be more, it doesn’t matter what you think you are, what is important is what you do.

The Buddha of course encouraged the development of ethically positive thinking, which is thinking free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and imbued with wisdom and compassion. But the idea that you can do something just because you think you can is one he’d have seen as being itself delusional.

In fact when we look around at the world it seems self-evident that it’s full of people who over-estimate their abilities. And this has been well-studied by psychologists. Here’s an article on Why we overestimate our competence, for example.

It’s curious that so many Buddhists promote views as being the words of the Buddha when actually they’re in an idiom that’s completely foreign to actual Buddhist teachings, and when the content is also alien to Buddhist thought and practice. I wonder if a lot of Buddhists aren’t very familiar with actual scriptures, and rely on books about Buddhism. This would explain why so many non-Buddhist sayings are passed off as being the word of the Buddha.

Where does that quote–“He is able who thinks he is able”–actually come from? It’s not actually New Age at all. The earliest uses I’ve been able to find have been from books published in 1965 and 1972, where it’s described as “an ancient Roman saying.” It does have that muscular ring of empire about it! (It’s apparently in a book from 1937 as well, but I can’t view that in Google Books).


I’ve lost track of where I found this out (I think it was in a reader’s comment, but I can’t find any such comment) that the Latin phrase was “Potest qui vult,” which is he who wills, is able. That’s entirely different from “He is able who thinks he is able.” “Potest qui vult” is an school motto, often translated as “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Perhaps the latin phrase was contrived as a translation of that famous English saying, in which case it would be ironic to have the Buddha given the source of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” translated into Latin, translated back into English as “He is able who thinks he is able.”

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21 thoughts on ““He is able who thinks he is able.”

  1. I think a lot of people just associate ‘affirming’ with ‘Buddhist’ these days – especially as the more challenging sayings of the Buddha are the least quoted, mysteriously :).

  2. Just today I saw this quote on Twitter myself, and it could very well be the source of yours:

    “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it will achieve.”

    It’s supposedly by that pioneer of the Think and Grow Rich idea, Napoleon Hill.

  3. Yes, and this is from Nate over at Precious Metal: “A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” – Buddha

    I can’t say for sure that it isn’t the Buddha, but pretty sure :)

    I appreciate you’re grabbing these and discussing them; perhaps a good topic for further/wider discussion at some point. For instance, is this just a continuation of the Mahayana’s ‘stretching’ of Buddhavacana?

  4. Interesting post. There are a ton of quotes that are not the Buddha. I think the construction sometimes gives them away.

    I’m not so sure the Buddha exclusively emphasized what we do. In fact, how we shape our volitional thinking, or intention, determines the outcome of our actions, positive or negative. Although it does not come packed as a motivational aphorism, it does point to “intention” and how it informs actions:

    “It is the virtuous or unvirtuous intention that makes the difference,
    Not the extent of the physical manifestation of virtue or vice.”
    —The Buddha, The Essence of Merit Sutra

  5. Some of it’s just down to typos, of course – like the bit where the Buddha exhorts us to rein in unskilful responses to double-glazing salesmen: “Those who think such thoughts as: he beat me, he robbed me, he insulated me…”

    Seriously, there’s a new meme out there on facebook etc. of attributing any damn quote you like to Gandhi, so I think you’re swimming upstream here – people are going to attribute whatever to whomever, as the mood takes them.

    • Padmavyuha, thanks for a really good laugh (“he insulated me”) – it’s a good job I wasn’t drinking tea when I read your post!

      Trouble is, I probably won’t be able to read that verse of the Dhammapada ever again without substituting your version. Mind you, that means more laughs, so probably a bonus now I think it through!

  6. @Apuleius Platonicus: Ah, and complete with culturally inappropriate gothic script to make it look more biblical. Sweet.

    @Sean Yes, “How we shape our volitional thinking, or intention, determines the outcome of our actions, positive or negative.” But merely thinking one is able does not make one able. If the thinking is divorced from the reality of one’s actual capabilities, then we have a volitional act (of thought) that’s imbued with delusion. Of course there are times when we need confidence, and telling ourselves we can do something that we can actually do will help in those situations, but no amount of positive self-talk will magically transform us or our abilities.

    @Padmavyuha: And as the Buddha said to the heating engineer, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the heat.”

  7. Smacks of Stoicism, but I don’t think of it as being particularly anti-Buddhist, it just doesn’t have the same scope as something the Buddha would’ve said in regards to ‘thought.’

    We are what we think.
    All that we are arises with our thoughts.
    With our thoughts we make the world


  8. Hi Justin,

    “A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another…” Man, that’s an astonishingly bad one, but it is indeed attributed by many books and websites to the Buddha. It seems to originate in a 1977 book, “The Teaching of Buddha,” by Bukkyoo Dendoo Kyookai. It’s only available in snippet view in Google Books, but I assume that the words are Kyookai’s (assuming that’s his last name) and that after the 1987 book, “Children and Nonviolence” used it as a chapter epigraph attributed to “The Teachings (sic) of Buddha,” people took that to mean it was the word of the Buddha. And thus is spawned a particularly egregious Fake Buddha Quote.

    • I love your Fake Buddha Quote blogs! Keep up the good work!

      As a follow-up to your response to Justin (March 7, 2010):

      ““A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another…” Man, that’s an astonishingly bad one, but it is indeed attributed by many books and websites to the Buddha. It seems to originate in a 1977 book, “The Teaching of Buddha,” by Bukkyoo Dendoo Kyookai.”

      If you check out http://www.bdkamerica.org/ you will find that the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (BDK) was founded by the Reverend Dr. Yehan Numata in December 1965. Dr. Numata was a successful manufacturer and a major Buddhist benefactor who was educated in the US. Their website says: “Working with a community of like-minded people, including leaders of each Buddhist sect in Japan and eminent Buddhist scholars, Dr. Numata established the BDK in order to “to transmit the Buddhist religion to as many people in the world as possible, without expounding the doctrines of any particular sect or denomination.””

  9. Apparently the original Latin reads “Potest qui vult,” which is he who wills, is able. That’s entirely different from “He is able who thinks he is able.”

    • Did you catch the video I posted yesterday — the Facebook Buddha Quote one? It’s good that even some non-Buddhists recognize the utter vapidity of some of the quotes attributed to the Buddha.

  10. Pingback: Fake Buddhism Quotes « Buddhism

  11. If anyone says,
    that the Tathagata sets forth a Teaching,
    he really slanders Buddha
    and is unable to explain what I teach.
    As to any Truth-declaring system,
    Truth is undeclarable.

    – Buddha

    To be attached to a certain view
    and to look down upon others’ views as inferior,
    this the wise men call a fetter.

    – Buddha

    One may desire a spurious respect and precedence
    among one’s fellow monks,
    and the veneration of outsiders,
    This is a fool’s way of thinking.

    – Buddha

    “O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
    For preacher and monk the honored name!
    For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
    Such folk see only one side of a thing.”

    – Buddha

  12. I also will appreciate the original in pali . however, the Buddha teaches that one is one’own master; whoelse can be one’master.
    Good luck

  13. But why do you assume Buddha couldn’t say it? I really do not have such impression. Buddha spoke a lot about importance of human intention and states of mind (“mind is everything – what you think you become” – that’s another famous quote of him), I would say his teachings was varied and addressed to different kinds of people and situations. He teached about the doctrine of sunyata and he teached about every day life as well.

    Besides, what so “naive”, “stupid” or “unchallenging” do you find in this quote? I don’t think it is; I find some vital truth in this as well. Maybe Buddha assumed, this thought is addressed to intelligent people who don’t take words too literally and know what they find inspiring about them? I used to find it very inspiring myself when I was stuck in difficult life situation – it helped me to belief in myself, in my own abilities.

    That’s the intention of the listener what’s most crucial – and that’s important part of the Buddha teaching as well. And that’s why I think it’s prety possible Buddha is the true author of the quote.

    What I really don’t understand is that why there’s so many people around who think they know what’s best (or not) for the others… That is really sad.

    • Hi, Bart.

      I don’t believe anyone used the words “naive”, “stupid” or “unchallenging” to describe this quote. I’m curious where you got that from.

      The Buddha, as far as I’m aware, never said that “mind is everything” or “what you think, you become.” I deal with these two statements here.

      The problem is that people see these Fake Buddha Quotes and assume that they’re genuine, but not only are they not genuine, they don’t even reflect what the Buddha taught. What you’ve done is tried to support one Fake Buddha Quote (“He is able who thinks he is able”) with two others.

      I think it’s better to read the Buddhist scriptures and become familiar with what the Buddha actually did teach. There’s a lot of material available on Access to Insight, and I’d suggest starting there.

      All the best,

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