“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

holding onto anger

There are many variants of this quote. Sometimes they’re attributed to the Buddha, and sometimes to the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, or to Nelson Mandela. I haven’t found anything resembling this quote in the Buddhist scriptures.

Until a friendly reader helped me out, I had found the quote in books by Anne Lamotte, Alice May, and Malachy McCourt, but I suspected they were all quoting someone else. The earliest references I’d found were from Alcoholics Anonymous, and that organization seemed like it might have been the original source, although I wondered if the saying may have existed in an orally transmitted form for some time before being committed to print.

Here are some of the examples I found, including two from the 12-Step tradition:

  • “In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
  • Hanging on to a resentment, someone once said, is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill someone else. Alice May, Surviving Betrayal (1999)
  • Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Malachy McCourt (1998)
  • “Charles had once remarked that holding onto a resentment was like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Anne Lamotte, Crooked Little Heart (1997)
  • “I think resentment is when you take the poison and wait for the other person to die.” M.T. A Sponsorship Guide for 12-Step Programs (1995)
  • When we hang on to resentments, we poison ourselves. As compulsive overeaters, we cannot afford resentment, since it exacerbates our disease. Elizabeth L. Food for Thought: Daily Meditations for Overeaters (1992)

Given that two of our earliest sources by M.T. and “Elizabeth L.” are from the 12-step traditions, it seemed possible — likely even — that the quote had “Anonymous” origins.

And this vague suspicion of an AA origin for the quote remained with me for a long time until Joakim (see the comments below) helped me out with a reference, telling me that the quote was to be found in a 1930’s book called The Sermon on the Mount, by Emmet Fox. That didn’t seem to be quite the case. The exact quote isn’t there, but there is a passage that is an obvious prototype:

No Scientific Christian ever considers hatred or execration to be “justifiable” in any circumstances, but whatever your opinion about that might be, there is no question about its practical consequences to you. You might as well swallow a dose of Prussic acid in two gulps, and think to protect yourself by saying, “This one is for Robespierre; and this one for the Bristol murderer” [who had previously been cited as objects of hatred]. You will hardly have any doubt as to who will receive the benefit of the poison.”

It’s not exactly pithy, but it certainly looks like the prototype of our Fake Buddha Quote.

But where’s the AA connection?

Wikipedia says Fox’s secretary was the mother of one of the men who worked with Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W., and partly as a result of this connection early AA groups often went to hear Fox. Wikipedia says “His writing, especially The Sermon on the Mount, became popular in AA.”

This explains how the more polished version of the quote first emerged in AA. It’s easy to imagine how the same image, being used in speech over and over, would tend to be smoothed off, like a pebble rolling around in a river.

There’s an interesting Buddhist twist on all this. Gems of Buddhist Wisdom (1996) from the Buddhist Missionary Society, contains the following: “Hatred is like a poison which you inject into your veins, before injecting it into your enemy. It is throwing cow dung at another: you dirty your hands first, before you dirty others.”

The “dung” part of that quotation is from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, but as far as I can see the first part is not, and it may well be borrowed from the AA tradition.

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105 thoughts on ““Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

  1. Hello Bodhipaksa, what an useful website! I’ve been having fun “testing” myself to see if I can tell the fake ones apart :)
    This particular quote reminded me of what I think could be a variant:
    “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
    Am I right in thinking it’s fake as well? I always found this quote a little odd because what is logic of the message? To throw the coal at the other person? Joking aside, I’m going to start checking this place regularly.

  2. “I am highly skeptical…”

    So… who the fuck cares what you think? Why is your opinion so important that you feel the urge to blather it on the internet, with no supporting facts?

    • Apparently you care a great deal, Mark, judging by the anger you express.

      I don’t think my opinion’s necessarily “important,” nor was I aware that there was some test of “importance” that we had to pass before we can dare utter our opinions online. I suspect a lot of other people didn’t get the memo either.

      But I have spent decades reading the Buddhist scriptures and have never encountered anything ressembling this quote either in content or style.

      • Thank you for maintaining this is a wonderful website – in this day and age lot of misinformation and untrue statements attributed to many prominent people -Buddha included- are spreading through the Internet like wild fire.
        Wishing you all the strength to keep up the good work. Metta.

        • Thank you. It’s interesting how polarized opinions of this site tend to be. As someone commented to me the other day, “I really struggle with why accurate citation seems such a difficult concept.” So do I.

          • I could not agree more!! Accuracy appears to be an after thought in most things these days. Very sad.

      • I am writing a talk about anger for a zen and recovery meeting and looking up quotes that I’ve heard over the years. Love that Mark Warner got so pissed off. Anger and I have been most intimate over the years. My first realization about it was getting that I was suffering and the person who was the focus of my anger was going about her life many miles away.

  3. In Shantideva and some Mahayana sutras, it’s the poison that gets delivered to us by the rat that is the problem. That’s what “rat poison” means when they use the term. And it’s used as a metaphor for latent emotional content that might require a trigger before you even know it’s there. It’s because they say that it may take months after being bitten by the rat before the symptoms of poison set in all of a sudden. This kind of rat bite fever was well known in India, where it is first recorded in literature, I believe, although nowadays it’s better known by the Japanese name sodoku. We discussed this on http://hridayartha.blogspot.com earlier this year. Perhaps the ‘rat poison’ misquotes that you quote resulted from misunderstanding those Mahayana sutra passages, that are anyway about the anushayas. Just my 2¢!
    I’m looking forward to your book. Too bad “What the Buddha Never Taught” has already been used as a book title. It’s an interesting job, and really, there is so much misquoting going on, and not just of the Buddha. Did you ever do a bit on “The only thing that never changes is change itself”? You can find it attributed to quite a few famous figures of the past if you search for it. And it’s very popular in the corporate movitational speakers’ circuit.

    • Thanks for that, Dan. I’d forgotten that bit from Shantideva, although it seems to be to do with the connection between memories (the lingering poison) and the events that trigger them, (the bite) and doesn’t really connect with the theme of resentment. I doubt if this saying had a source in any Buddhist scripture, but then you never know.

      I haven’t actually come across “The only thing that never changes is change itself” as a quote attributed to the Buddha. I’ll look into it. Thanks.

    • I realize this is an old post, but Dan, if you are still interested: the origin of the idea that change is the only constant comes from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus ~500 BCE who famously (and accurately!) said “you cannot step into the same river twice”. Although we only have fragments of his writings, Heraclitus’ views were a precursor to many subsequent belief systems, religious and other: his conception of the balance of opposites, the notion of a unifiying “Logos” and so on are abiding ideas.

  4. I was watching Super Soul Sunday this morning on OWN and Oprah was talking with Deepak Chopra. He said ” Being resentful is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” but he did not say who he was quoting, so I came online to try and track it down. I have yet to find the original source for this. ;)

      • And are you assuming that a fictional police procedural is an accurate source of information on the origins of quotations?

        • I just heard in a movie that St. Augustine said the quote too, Thomas. I have also looked up many of the quotes from the show Criminal Minds and haven’t found them to be wrong. Then again, I never delved that deep into researching the exact origin of a quote either. I understand it’s a fictional show, but I never thought that they would be ones to say – so and so once said… knowing that the quote or the person who supposedly said it, was incorrect.

          • That’s a great illustration of the power of the media or, more precisely, people’s willingness to believe what they hear on films and television. I’m afraid that when scriptwriters are putting together a TV show or film, they’re very unlikely to pay a scholarly interest to the origin of quotes, any more than they’re concerned about historical or scientific accuracy.

          • That is very true Bodhipaksa. Apparently I too was zoned out to even recognize and realize it.

          • I think the movie was “Bad Country” at the 1:35:40 mark. I’m not saying its accurate, just that that is one of the movies that gives St Augustine credit for the quote.

  5. Pingback: Citazione Fake “Trattenere la rabbia è come bere del veleno e sperare che l’altra persona muoia” | La Pillola Rossa di Luca Pilolli

  6. I got this first Google search. Is this not true?

    Saint Augustine of Hippo (BC 354 to 430), has written: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

    • It seems highly unlikely. A search on Google Books for that exact quote (in quotation marks) plus the name “Augustine” brings up two hits, both of which are self-help books published in the last four years. Without quotation marks a few variants appear, like “Resentments are like taking poison and hoping the other person dies,” but again, published in the last few years. If St. Augustine actually said these words then you’d expect, since he lived 1600 years ago, that the quote, or something similar to it, would have appeared in print a long time ago, and would be found in books from at least the 19th and 20th centuries, and probably before. This is also one of the signs of a Fake Buddha Quote — that it has a recent appearance. Another is that it’s mainly found in Self Help books rather than in specialist books on the subject (although if it does appear in specialist books that’s still no guarantee of authenticity).

      Of course one problem is that a quote may have been modernized or in other ways had the wording changed, so perhaps there was another saying by St. Augustine that used some synonym of resentment, for example. However the chances of this being by St. Augustine are very remote.

    • I don’t think so. The quote strikes me as being much wittier than the sutta. A paraphrase of the sutta might be something more like “The bad that you wish for your enemy becomes your own affliction.” One of the things that sometimes makes fake Buddha quotes stand out is that there’s too much of the bon mot about them.

  7. A Christian honors the Virgin Mary for her suffering in birthing and raising her child, but worships Jesus for the acts and burdens he took upon himself as an adult. All the same, His story is reinforced by the memory of her role in His life. Your efforts seem to be a similar process regarding original thought and its parents, regardless of who they may be. While the idea at the root of a proverb is of paramount importance, it strengthens their memory to acknowledge those who laboured to give them to us. It’s sad that Mark doesn’t understand your motivations.

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  10. While I appreciate the knowledge that we can’t attribute this quote to Buddha I am quite sure he wouldn’t be angry for being misquoted like that. The difference between Christianity and Buddhism is that Christians want to follow ancient scriptures literally while Buddhists look around and adapt.

    • There were really only two things that seemed to annoy the Buddha, one being noisy monks and the other being misquoted. I doubt if he’d be annoyed by this one, though, since its not at all in conflict with his Dhamma.

    • I think it is important to not perceive of any one religion’s adherents as monolithic entities – it dehumanizes the individuals, paving the way for prejudice, discrimination… And more pertinent to the point you make, not all Christians take a literal reading of the bible.

      I hope this does not come off too harsh, but over-generalizations are a pet peeve of mine :)

  11. Thanks for your quick reply to my email asking about the quote. It’s doing the rounds on Facebook with a very nice image of the Buddha. And I confess to having passed it along. Now I wonder if I have an obligation to tell my peeps? Yes, I’ll do that and link it to your excellent website.
    Einstein quotes and Mark Twain quotes also need some oversight!

    • Not to mention Gandhi quotes. In fact, how much of what gets passed around on the internet is just feel-good storytelling with no basis in fact?

      • I too encountered a web posting with a nice picture of the Buddha with this quote. I have heard the saying many times with out attribution. Attributing this to the Buddha made me highly suspicious (as do many things I find on the WWW.

        The good thing is that it lead me to this site! :-D

      • Einstein, Mark Twain, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela have been the most popular repositories for social media attribution of many random quotes. And apparently now the Buddha. There’s an ubiquitous Marianne Williamson passage, “who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous, etc…” that is more often attributed to Nelson Mandela than MW. Imagine Mandela calling himself “gorgeous and fabulous”? Of course that’s not the ultimate message of the quote but it’s amazing to me that people don’t read these things and say, “really??? teacher X said that???” The resentment quote is just so not in the style of any of the Buddha’s transmissions.
        Why does attribution matter? Lots of reasons, including trust, respect, integrity, scholarship and much much more. It matters because there’s coherence in a body of work/thought/teaching, and those of us who are trying to learn from someone who has something to say, have the right to know what, in fact, that individual did say and believe was worth sharing. Not to mention the simple ethical issue of not saying someone said something they didn’t say. No wonder it annoyed the Buddha to be misquoted. If he had seen facebook he might have resembled Jesus with the moneylenders :) OK maybe not.
        Anyway it’s not just an issue for type A people who care about precision and accuracy for personal nit-picky reasons. It’s a big deal.

  12. Pingback: Fake Buddha Quote: Anger › Jens Nähler

  13. you have written of pondering views.. etc.. and was from a better direct source….. what can you do as the same for resentment? peace of mind?

    • Just a few to get you started:

      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. (AN 6.13)

      “Develop the meditation of good will. For when you are developing the meditation of good will, ill-will will be abandoned.
      “Develop the meditation of compassion. For when you are developing the meditation of compassion, cruelty will be abandoned.
      “Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned.
      “Develop the meditation of equanimity. For when you are developing the meditation of equanimity, irritation will be abandoned.” (MN 62)

      “If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?” (DN 1)

      He who without resentment endures abuse, beating and punishment; whose power, real might, is patience — him do I call a holy man. (DhP 399).

      Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only suffering and the cessation of suffering. And if others insult, abuse, taunt, bother, & harass the Tathagata for that, he feels no hatred, no resentment, no dissatisfaction of heart because of that. And if others honor, respect, revere, & venerate the Tathagata for that, he feels no joy, no happiness, no elation of heart because of that. And if others honor, respect, revere, & venerate the Tathagata for that, he thinks, ‘They do me such service at this that has already been comprehended.’ (MN 22)

  14. Hello Bodhipaska, came across your site first time today when i was searching for this exact quote’s real source. you do immense research, i wonder why people still criticize. anyway, great work :)

  15. This quote can be found in the book “sermon on the mount” bye Emmet Fox , published In US in the 30s , thats the earliest i can found and my guess that Emmet was the origin of this quote. /joakim A

    • By golly, Joakim. Thank you. The quote there is as follows:

      No Scientific Christian ever considers hatred or execration to be “justifiable” in any circumstances, but whatever your opinion about that might be, there is no question about its practical consequences to you. You might as well swallow a dose of Prussia acid in two gulps, and think to protect yourself by saying, “This one is for Robespierre; and this one for the Bristol murderer.” You will hardly have any doubt as to who will receive the benefit of the poison.”

      It’s not exactly pithy, but it certainly looks like the prototype of our Fake Buddha Quote. Thank you again. Can you tell me how you came across this?

      Added: Wikipedia says Fox’s secretary was the mother of one of the men who worked with Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W., and partly as a result of this connection early AA groups often went to hear Fox. His writing, especially “The Sermon on the Mount,” became popular in AA.

      This explains how the more polished version of the quote first emerged in AA. It’s easy to imagine how the same image, being used in speech over and over, would tend to be smoothed off, like a pebble rolling around in a river.

      • Would you kindly clarify this for me. I read the passage you posted from the sermon on the mount. So that is the origin of the quote that over the years has been modified/reworded. Even though the variations all lead back to the same meaning, when quoting one of those variations aren’t you suppose to say who said That variation because the wording is different?

        • I think properly speaking the contemporary quote should be fitted as “Anon” since we simply don’t know who came up with it. But I’m not quite sure I get your meaning, Samantha, so I don’t know if that addresses your question.

          • I do believe you understood my meaning because your response makes total sense. Thanks for your time.

  16. As a 35 year participant in recovering communities I have heard the resentment/poison quote about a bazillion times and always assumed it was one of the many many pithy slogans that are used for teaching in 12 step programs. I have seen the quote in books by Anne Lamott, Malachy McCourt, Carrie Fisher and a few other recovering writers/celebrities, and I always assume they are simply quoting AA wisdom since the line seems to have been in use “in the rooms” and in AA literature since the earliest days. Much of AA wisdom comes from the early 20th c Christian groups that the 12 step program grew from so it makes sense that a New Thought/Unity/Science of Mind writer such as Emmet Fox would have influence even in the absence of the direct Bill Wilson connection; the 12 step program was based on many of these ideas (combined with the practical experience of sober alcoholics of course).

  17. Are you in some way proving with some evidence that such quote doesn’t come from Buddha or are you just assuming that from some point of view?

    • I don’t know about “proving” — but I have provided plenty of evidence that this quote doesn’t come from the Buddhist scriptures. If you fine this quote in a scripture — Pali or Mahayana — please be sure to let me know.

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  20. I too am guilty of posting this quote & I’m new to Buddha’s teachings(real and fake).
    I should have done a little research but its still a good sentiment.
    How about passing on the statement with no author attached?
    Sounds innocent enough, right?
    I am really looking forward to reading your book!
    Oh, and the irony with Mark did not go unnoticed!
    Thanks for your informative work!

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  23. I’m seeing a lot of Internet people attributing this to Mandela now that he has passed away. It’s interesting how these sentiments accrete around great people like this.

    • There’s something very unsatisfying about attributing a quote to “Anon.” or to someone who isn’t well-known, so I can understand the temptation to re-attribute them to someone famous. Doing so also allows us to give the impression we rub intellectual shoulders with the famous — “Loook how smart I am; I’m familiar with the thought of Einstein/Gandhi/Buddha/Mandela.”

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  25. Respected Bodhipaksa.

    I’m writing to seek your assistance in finding the message of not harboring anger and protecting people from harm from the Buddhist tradition. It is for work that i am doing in Counter extremism.

    Your website is an important one. I paraphrase from a saying in the Muslim tradition that is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, “You have done enough wrong in this life if you simply repeat what you hear.”

    This all said and with every due respect, I feel that your website is a noble effort that is only half complete. With each quote you debunk, i believe the frustrated souls who respond rudely would be given peace if you share with them actual quotes attributed to Buddha, even if they are removed from the exact wording.

    With peace and thanks,

    Dr. Rushdi Cader.

    • Hi, Dr. Cader.

      I do, where possible, try to provide scriptural quotations. You can find them here, as well as in the body of many of the posts, and there’s also a Real Buddha Quotes site as well.

      For your project, you might want to take a look at a post I wrote on Wildmind a while back on the theme of resentment. It outlines a number of traditional methods (12, I think) of dealing with hatred.

  26. Re the “Harboring anger is like taking poison ….” quote. Around the time of his death there was a tribute to Nelson Mandela on TV during which I heard this quote recited in Nelson Mandela’s voice. I thought nothing of it. It certainly seemed like something he would have said.

    About a week later I was reading Elle Newmark’s book entitled The Sandalwood Tree. Lo and behold on page 350 the main character says “Harboring anger is like taking poison and hoping it will kill the person who has made you angry.” No mention of whether she was quoting anyone or not, yet it was word for word what I had heard Mandela say on TV. So that is what got me interested in its origin.
    My book club friends suggested it could have been the words of someone like Ghandi, Buddha, etc. and that Mandela (and now Newmark and those other authors noted above) “borrowed” it. Thank you for clarifying that it was neither Buddha nor Augustine and helping shed some light on this matter.

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  28. Stumbled upon this page while looking for that quote. The site is certainly bookmark worthy and I appreciate the time and effort you put forth so that people, such as I, are educated properly on things like this.

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  30. Anthony de Mello uses this phrase in his book “Awareness. ” He died in the 80s. It’s one of my favorite books.

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  32. Who really cares about the origin of a good quotation…..it’s the words and the meaning that count and not the author…..

    • You’re absolutely right, Funkleburger, the author or speaker’s identity should NOT matter so long as the quote, statement or observation is useful.

      However, over the ages, certain notable speakers have been bestowed with reputations of infallibility, and that their statements are sometimes viewed as irrefutable… like those Buddha, Mohammad, Joseph Smith or myself.

      So, when one misapplies a notable speaker to be the creator of a quote, you give that quote undue respect. THAT is the harm in misquoting the Buddha or me.

      And you can quote me on that.

  33. Why care who said it if it holds true?

    The Buddha DID say something to the effect of “Do not follow my teachings simply because they came from me. Take only what works for you and discard the rest. Question everything. Find your own light.”
    The Buddha claimed to have achieved enlightenment and revealed only the path HE took to achieve it but at the same time insisted it wasn’t the only path, merely what worked for him.

    “There is no religion higher than the truth.” -Ghandi

    So I ask again, why care who said it if it holds true?

    -Awake since June 14 2010

    • Did the Buddha really say that? Do you have a citation?

      Awake since I’m-Not-Sure-When-Because-I-Forgot-To-Mark-It-In-My-Calendar. (By the way, were you mentioning your awakening because you thought it would lend more credibility to your words? That doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid.)

      • 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.

      • Yes I do remember a quote similar to this, however it was through watching the discourses at a 10 day Vipassana course. Goenka as he speaks quotes that Gautima the Buddha had said this (or something similar).
        I’m sure if Goenka quoted it, he would have taken it from reliable texts, since he spent his whole life dedicated to Dhamma and reading all the available texts.
        Although in saying that, he didnt “site” a reference or book title, because that may come across a little silly at a meditation retreat ;)

  34. 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.

  35. Hello Bodhipaksa,
    I just stumbled across your website while I was looking for the quote cited above. I’ve heard many variations of it but, I confess, I like the Gems of Buddhist Wisdom’s version best. It is graphic and gets down to the nitty gritty of that longstanding quote. I love your site and glad to have found it.

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  38. So history shows Augustine penned it yet your article holds absolutely FALSE info…yet it still remains unchanged.

    Thanks for the reminder Buddaist such as yourself remain mired in untruth.

    Thanks, buddy

    • I hardly think a TV show constitutes “history.” If you believe that St. Augustine coined this quotation, kindly show me where it’s found in his works.

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  40. I was brought here while looking for the correct source of the ‘resentment’ quote attributed erroneously around the web to Carrie Fisher, Nelson Mandela etc. Your site has proven both reliable and educational, so thank you very much.

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