“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”

I’ve seen this one a lot, and here’s an example from Twitter.

As far as I’m aware, this isn’t an actual quote from the Buddha, but a paraphrase of something said by Buddhaghosa, the 5th century commentator, in his great work, the Visuddhimagga. It’s perfectly in keeping with Buddhist teachings, but not canonical (again, as far as I know), and if Buddhaghosa had been quoting the Pāli canon I think he would have given a scriptural reference.

Buddhaghosa, in discussing anger said,

“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.”
Visuddhimagga IX, 23.

As far as I can tell, the source of our FBQ was the 1987 book, “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind,” by Joan Borysenko. There the simile is put into the mouth of the Buddha, and the words become very close to our FBQ:

“The Buddha compared holding onto anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.”

It’s a short hop from that to:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.”

which by 1995 is found in at least two books.


A friend on Google+ thought it was a shame that the poop part of Buddhaghosa’s analogy hadn’t caught on rather than the hot coal part. Part of me agrees.


There is a similar simile (I like saying “similar simile”) in the Pali canon (both in the Majjhima and Digha Nikayas), although the intent is rather different:

Householder, suppose a man took a blazing grass torch and went against the wind. What do you think, householder? If that man does not quickly let go of that blazing grass toch, wouldn’t that blazing grass torch burn his hand or his arm or some other part of his body, so that he might incur death or deadly suffering because of that?

You might think that that was talking about anger, but actually it’s an image meant to convey the dangers of sensuality.

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Bodhipaksa

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13 thoughts on ““Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”

  1. What a different world it might have been if the excrement version of this quote was the one that caught on….

    • That’s just what I was thinking!
      “Holding on to anger is like grasping a fresh turd intending to throw it at someone else — you are the one who smells like shit.” (If you don’t like my version, attribute it to Confucius.)
      It reminds me of Epictetus: “If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”

  2. This may not be an exact”quote”,but it is one of my favorites.It has helped me alot.I think it’s amazing how deeply you know the teachings!Your dedication is beautiful and inspiring!

    • This quote inspires me as well, Misti. And thanks for your kind comments. I don’t “know” all this stuff, but after years of studying the Buddhist scriptures I find that the Fake Buddha Quotes stand out. And then I do the legwork to track down, if possible, the actual source.

  3. I believe it evolved from the Visuddhimagga quote you provided. Not surprising for Buddhist quotes to end up being attributed to the Buddha.

    The closest possible source to the Buddha seem to be from Dhammapada 125:

    Whoever harasses
    an innocent man,
    a man pure, without blemish:
    the evil comes right back to the fool
    like fine dust
    thrown against the wind.

    trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.09.than.html)

  4. This sutta seems almost identical to the fake buddha quote. The first time I read it I was actually expecting the Buddha to say something about hot coals (having seen the quote before).

    SN 7.2: Bharadvaja the Abusive

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn07/sn07.002.than.html

    In it Akkosaka Bharadvaja is insulting the Buddha and when he’s done the Buddha tells him that, like a guest who doesn’t accept snacks or a meal, the Buddha wasn’t going to accept his anger and insults, leaving them only with Akkosaka. The Buddha is basically refusing to argue with him.

    My theory is that Buddhaghosa was referring to this in his original quote, although it’s easy to miss the point of the sutta with just the quote — by refusing to argue with his abuser he is not trying to make him mad; it’s not rhetoric intended to “win” an argument, instead the Buddha says he is acting for the welfare of both himself and of his abuser.

  5. I just came across this while doing some research on mindfulness. In a commentary on The Satipatthana Sutta by Soma Thera, a paragraph about anger includes this quote:

    “Getting angry with another is comparable to the state of him who wishes to strike another with glowing coals, red-hot crowbar, excreta and such other damaging things after taking them up in his bare hands.”

    This is the whole paragraph found under the section of The Five Hindrances:

    Anger vanishes in one who reflects thus too: “What will you do to him by becoming angry?” “Will you be able to destroy things like his virtue?” “Have you not been born here just by your own actions and will you not also by your own actions get reborn hereafter?” “Getting angry with another is comparable to the state of him who wishes to strike another with glowing coals, red-hot crowbar, excreta and such other damaging things after taking them up in his bare hands.” “And what can another who is angry with you do to you?” “Can he destroy your virtue or any other similar thing of yours?” “He, too, has been born here as a result of his actions and will be reborn hereafter just according to his actions.” “Like a present not accepted is that anger of his and like a handful of dust thrown against the wind, that anger of his alights on his own head.” In this way one reflects on one’s own action as one’s own property and also another person’s action as that person’s own, and puts out anger.

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html

    It seems to be nestled among a collection of authentic Buddha quotes. However unfortunately there are no footnotes pointing to which sutta the quote originates from.

    Hopefully this is worth further enquiry, as it is a quote I was most fond of! :)

    • Thank you, Mindah. I suspect that this passage is based on a commentary rather than on a sutta. Just a couple of paragraphs earlier Soma Thera refers to the “commentator,” saying something! although it’s not clear where his paraphrase of the commentator ends.

  6. Pingback: Bye Bye Baggage? | Living the Life I Imagined

  7. Pingback: Aversion as a Form of Attachment: Why Holding onto Anger is a Recipe for Getting Burned | Inbound Buddha

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