“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

Quotation-Gautama-Buddha-wisdom-force-knowledge-truth-understanding-Meetville-Quotes-74997“To force oneself to believe and to accept a thing without understanding is political, and not spiritual or intellectual.”

Sometimes it truly baffles me that some people think a particular quote comes from the Buddha. This is a case in point, because it’s so unlike the tone and language of any Buddhist scripture.

But this particular one is found on Goodreads, in the books Which God Should I Choose? (page 62), by Ben Kniskern, and The Little Red Book of Yoga Wisdom (unnumbered page), edited by Kelsie Besaw, and on numerous quotations sites and blogs.

The quote is actually from Walpola Rahula’s well-known book, What the Buddha Taught (page 3).

Granted, if you’ve never actually read any Buddhist scriptures then you’d have no understanding of the kind of vocabulary and idiom that the Buddha used (or is recorded as having used) and so you perhaps wouldn’t know that the Buddha didn’t talk like a 20th century intellectual — but yet I’m still surprised that the modernity of the phrasing and vocabulary didn’t trigger some kind of alert in the minds of the many people who have passed this on.

The word “political” stands out for me. I don’t recall the Buddha using any language similar to that. My Pali-English dictionary tells me there is a term, khattadhamma, which means “the law of ruling, political science,” although it’s not clear that the Buddha used this term in any of his discourses. Rather than using concise terms like “politics” or “political” the Buddha’s suttas are far more expansive, and so when “unedifying talk” about politics is condemned it’s talk “about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars” etc. that is mentioned.

I wholeheartedly agree with what Rahula has to say, incidentally. Buddhism is not principally a belief system, but a system of practice. Belief is not absent in Buddhism, and faith is reckoned as an important spiritual faculty. But faith in Buddhism is more like trust or confidence. That trust or confidence is based on experience, and is in turn the basis for practice and exploration. It’s not unlike taking on a hypothesis in a scientific sense and checking it out. The hypothesis is not believed blindly, either in Buddhism or in science, but is the starting point in a search for the truth.

Rahula points out that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to voice their doubts or uncertainties about the teaching, and said that if it was out of respect for him, the teacher, that they didn’t ask questions, they should get a friend to ask for them. It’s this kind of spirit of openness and inquiry that attracted me to Buddhist practice in the first place.

Radical honesty in Buddhism

The Rev. Genryu posted a comment today that I think deserves to be amplified:

For those who keep raising the point that a quote that is misattributed to the Buddha is somehow fine because it’s nice or noble or whatever, that is entirely irrelevant. Honesty is a radical practice in Buddhism. Not just honesty when it suits us but being honest when things are misrepresented (even in a seemingly well intentioned manner).

One thing that the Buddha is recorded as saying is that when teachings or sayings are ascribed to him which he did not say, it is the duty of those who practice the Dharma to correct such misattributions. By asking Buddhists to allow misattribution and misrepresentation, once a quote is known not to be from the Buddha, you are asking them to be deliberately dishonest and to misrepresent the Buddha and the Dharma. That is not acceptable. Hold yourself to a higher standard – one of being as accurate and honest as you can be – and you will find it a far more transformative practice than making excuses for misattributed platitudes.

I’m deeply grateful for this clear expression of Dharma.

“There is pleasure and there is bliss. Forgo the first to possess the second.”

This quotation, “There is pleasure and there is bliss. Forgo the first to possess the second,” is from Thomas Byrom’s “rendering” of the Dhammapada, which is a classic Buddhist scripture. Since this quote is from a scripture, you might think that it automatically would qualify as a genuine saying from the Buddha. But there’s a problem with the word “rendering.” “Rendering” a text is apparently what you do instead of translating when you don’t know the original language.

And as far as I’m aware, Byrom didn’t know any Pali. I assume that he worked from other translations, from the Pali dictionary, and from his own creative urges. Certainly, his “renderings” often have little to do with the original language of the Dhammapada. And although this particular verse isn’t his worst, it’s certainly not very faithful to the original (which is Dhammapada 290):

If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize [lit. "see"] a greater happiness, let the wise man renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater. [Buddharakkhita's translation]

In Pali this is:

Mattāsukhapariccāgā passe ce vipulaṃ sukhaṃ
Caje mattāsukhaṃ dhīro sampassaṃ vipulaṃ sukhaṃ.

The verse is not split into two declarative sentences, “There is pleasure and there is bliss,” and “Forgo the first to possess the second.” Instead it is a conditional statement. First there’s the setup, “If by giving up a measure of happiness one might see a larger happiness…” followed by the statement of what, having seen this, one should do, i.e. “…the wise one, considering the larger happiness, should renounce the lesser happiness.”

One problem with using “pleasure” and “bliss” is it sounds like two qualitatively different phenomena are being discussed, while the actual Dhammapada verse is quantitative: there are smaller and larger happinesses. There’s nothing in the original about “possessing” bliss. We’ve also lost “the wise.”

I actually like Byrom’s “rendering.” It’s just not in any way an accurate translation.

Even Byrom’s chapter title is rather odd. In the Pali it’s “Pakiṇṇakavaggo” (Miscellaneous Chapter) but Byrom renders this, for some reason, as “Out of the Forest.”

“If you want to know the past, look at your present. If you want to know the future, look at your present.”

This one was passed on to me this morning by a reader who had spotted it on Facebook.

It’s all over the web, and in several books as well.

The earliest occurrence of it that I’ve seen in a book is from 1992, in Tarot of the Spirit, by Pamela Eakins, page 314. Rather handily, Eakins gives a reference, and points us toward the late Roshi Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The page she gives as a reference (294) doesn’t contain the quote, but the glossary at the end of the book contains the following in its definition of “karma.”

“Thus our present life and circumstances are the products of our past thoughts and actions, and in the same way our deeds in this life will fashion our future mode of existence.” (p. 408)

I don’t know how Eakins came to take this to be a quote from the Buddha, but it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, something that the Buddha said.

The Buddha is often hard to quote, and that’s especially the case when it comes to technical points like the operation of karma. So I’ll offer you here some words from Bhikkhu Thanissaro, who explains the Buddhist teaching of karma in relation to the past and present in an introduction to his translation of the Devadaha Sutta:

The general understanding of this teaching [on karma] is that actions from the past determine present pleasure and pain, while present actions determine future pleasure and pain. Or, to quote a recent book devoted to the topic, “Karma is the moral principle that governs human conduct. It declares that our present experience is conditioned by our past conduct and that our present conduct will condition our future experience.” This, however, does not accurately describe the Buddha’s teaching on karma, and is instead a fairly accurate account of the Nigantha [Jain] teaching, which the Buddha explicitly refutes here. As he interrogates the Niganthas, he makes the point that if all pleasure and pain experienced in the present were determined by past action, why is it that they now feel the pain of harsh treatment when they practice asceticism, and no pain of harsh treatment when they don’t? If past action were the sole determining factor, then present action should have no effect on their present experience of pleasure or pain.

In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on kamma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the notion of kamma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, and makes it possible for a person who has completed the practice to survive and teach it with full authority to others.

It’s not uncommon, actually, for people to present as “the Buddhist teaching of karma” things that the Buddha explicitly refuted. Many times I’ve seen Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, make claims like “everything that happens to us is the result of karma,” even though that’s a teaching explicitly refuted in the Devadaha Sutta. For example, Lati Rinpoche talked about the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War as follows:

“The victims were experiencing the consequences of their actions performed in previous lives. The individual victims must have done something very bad in earlier lives that led to their being treated in this way.”

I’ve seen other Tibetan teachers with more nuanced views, but this idea of everything that we experience being the result of our own past actions is a common one.

There’s an expanded version of this quote, which goes:

If you want to know the past, to know what has caused you, look at yourself in the present, for that is the past’s effect. If you want to know your future, then look at yourself in the present, for that is the cause of the future.

This is commonly attributed to the Majjhima Nikaya, or Middle Length Sayings, which is a Buddhist scripture, although those words are not to be found in that work.

“If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your own path”

If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your own path

This is a nice quote, but every time I saw it being shared in social media or quoted in blogs it rang an alarm bell: not because the sentiment is untrue, nor because the language was of the kind that the Buddha wouldn’t have used, but simply because in many years of reading the Pali canon and various Mahayana sutras I’d never seen it in a primary source, nor had I seen it come with a scriptural citation.

I was very grateful to have a commenter suggest that it might come from one of the works of Nichiren Daishonin, but I wasn’t able to track down the reference he gave me. However with a little searching I was able to locate the original in a passage known as “The Three Virtues of Food,” which is a fragment of a letter, written by Nichiren, possibly in 1278:

If one gives food to others, one will improve one’s own lot, just as, for example, if one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.

This is a different translation but it’s from the same original.

Nichiren’s followers regard him as a Buddha, but when a quote is attributed to the Buddha then it’s Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) that is meant, and these are not the words of the founder of Buddhism.

Again, this isn’t to question the spiritual validity of the quote. I just want to straighten out false attributions.

The most common use of a lamp metaphor in the Pali canon is not actually something said by the Buddha, but something said to the Buddha, by many who had come to talk with him. Having learned from their exchanges, these learners would exclaim, in a stock phrase,

Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear.

Nichiren’s saying is a nice reminder that when we shine our own lamp of knowledge, as the Buddha did, it illuminates the way for others as well.

One of the loveliest statements of mutual benefit that I’ve seen is from the Sedaka Sutta, and although there’s no mention of lamps I’d like to share it with you:

“I will look after myself,”
so should you, monks, practice the establishment of mindfulness.
You should (also) practice the establishment of mindfulness (by saying)
“I will look after others.”

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.

Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.


A friend recently passed this on, thinking it sounded false. It’s actually a reasonably accurate translation of Dhammapada verse 223, which in Buddharakkhita’s translation is:

Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

The only real difference is the choice of verb: “silence” in the suspect quote, versus “overcome” in Buddharakhita’s version.

In the Pali the verb used is “jine” which is definitely “conquer” or “overcome.” It’s what’s called the “third person singular optative,” which means that it’s “one should conquer.” It’s kind of an instruction.

Perhaps the translator of the suspect quote thought that those words sounded too violent and martial, and hence out of line with the non-violence tenor of Buddhist teachings. But “silence” is, to my mind, acceptable as a translation.

The Buddha, incidentally, did not shy away from using violent or martial imagery in his teachings. In one sutta he uses the example of parents deciding to eat their child. Another time he said that just as a horse trainer might kill a horse that refused to submit to training, so he would kill a monk who was untrainable. He wasn’t being literal, of course. And he used a fairly unpleasant metaphor to describe the process of analyzing the body in meditation:

Just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body

Lastly, one of Amazon’s customers, in reviewing Jan Chozen Bays’ How to Train a Wild Elephant, whose title is taken from a metaphor the Buddha used, condemned the use of that imagery in the book’s title. Apparently she was unable to read the book because she found the reference to training an elephant to be so unpleasant.

I suspect that the choice to use “silence” in place of “conquer” or “overcome” was rooted in the same sort of squeamishness, although I don’t yet know who the translator was.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

pain is inevitable

The graphic above has the distinction not only of attributing to the Buddha something he never said, but also of having a picture of someone who is not the Buddha.

First, the figure: He’s often known as the “Laughing Buddha,” but he’s not the Buddha — i.e. the historical Buddha, Gautama. He’s Budai (Chinese) or Hotei (Japanese), and is a “Chinese folkloric deity,” as WIkipedia puts it. He may be based on a historical character who lived 1100 years ago in China. Budai often carries a sack and dispenses gifts to children. So although he’s a Buddhist figure, he’s rather like Santa Claus: a fairy-tale figure who is based on a historical figure (as Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas) and who is adored by kids.

Imagine someone in Asia posting “Jesus quotes” (which are actually AA slogans) under a picture of Santa Claus, and you’ll get a feel for what’s going on here. No wonder Budai is laughing.

Then there’s the quote itself. Its origins are obscure, but it seems to come from the 12-step tradition, as does the wonderful Fake Buddha Quote, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

And since the keynote of the 12-step recovery program is anonymity (as in Alcoholics Anonymous) it’s unlikely we’ll ever know who coined it.*

The message itself is very congruent with the Buddha’s teachings. There is a wonderful sutta called the Sallatha Sutta, which points to the distinction between “feelings of pain” and the secondary suffering that arises from our response to that initial pain. Here’s the relevant part of the sutta:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”

Although the sutta talks about the first kind of pain as being physical, the same principle applies to emotional pain, although the distinction between physical and emotional pain is questionable anyway. Emotional pain is felt in the body, to the extent that painkillers have been shown to reduce the pain of social isolation, for example. So this principle is applied to things like having our feelings hurt. When our feelings are hurt, this is “pain.” We often respond to hurt feelings by blaming the other person, or ourselves, and this results in more pain (“suffering.”)

So “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” is a very valid teaching, and consonant with the Buddha’s teaching. But it’s not something that was said by the Buddha, or Hotei, or Jesus, or Santa Claus.

* The quote is often attributed to M. Kathleen Casey. The earliest attribution I’ve seen, from 1986 (“The Best is Yet to Be, by LeRoy Patterson), is to Kathleen Casey Theisen. I haven’t been able to find out anything about her.

“Do not learn how to react. Learn how to respond.”

do not learn how to react learn how to respondI was rather astonished to see this one being presented as a quote from the Buddha, but hundreds of results come up on Google, many of them on Facebook and Twitter.

There’s no denying the usefulness of this as a teaching. It encapsulates a principle that’s been articulated in similar words by many modern teachers of Buddhism. But the language used is completely alien to the canonical scriptures.

Fortunately I haven’t seen this on any sites that are obviously run by Buddhists. You do get a lot of professed Buddhists who, it must be assumed, aren’t familiar with Buddhism’s scriptures and who are only familiar with the modern idiom of teachers like Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron. And when they see Fake Buddha Quotes they don’t have the basis of knowledge to recognize that the quote couldn’t possibly be canonical. But perhaps this one is too obviously fake for most Buddhists to be fooled by. Or maybe it’s just too new. We’ll just have to wait and see!

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear.”

Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving

This is another quote sent in by a blog reader, and we seem to be on a roll with Thomas Byrom quotations, for this is another from his poetic but highly inaccurate translation of the Dhammapada.

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear.”

It was found on the quotes site, Thinkexist. ThinkExist, like every quotes site I’ve visited, is very unreliable. As far as I can see, they do no fact checking at all. You’ll often find the same quote attributed to different people, and it’s full of obvious misattribution. All the quotes sites copy each other’s material, so once one of them gets hold of a misattributed quote they all end up with it, lending the quote a false sense of legitimacy. And when authors want to spice up their books or blog posts with a wise quotation, they end up putting the quotes into even wider circulation, and give them even more of a sense of legitimacy. This particular quote is found in books by Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das.

Of course the ultimate, when it comes to the appearance of legitimacy, is having a quote in a book that’s described as a canonical text, which is what we have here.

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear” is from Thomas Byrom’s “rendering” of the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada is of course a canonical text, meaning that it’s accepted by convention that it’s the word of the Buddha. But the quotes I’ve put around the word “rendering” indicate that Byrom’s words are not even close to being an accurate reflection of what’s in the original text. (Actually, even the publisher of Byrom’s version of the Dhammapada call it a “rendering” rather than a translation.)

The passage this quote is supposed to correspond to is part of verses 207–208:

Dhīrañca paññca bahussutañca
Dhorayhasīlaṃ vatavantamāriyaṃ
Taṃ tādisaṃ sappurisaṃ sumedhaṃ
Bhajetha nakkhattapathaṃ’va candimā

(The first line is the last word of verse 207; the others are from verse 208). A very literal translation (my own) would be: “Therefore, the devout noble one — wise, knowledgable, of great learning, forbearing — associate with such a wise, good person as the moon the path of the stars.”

Byrom’s “rendering” in this case isn’t one of his worst:

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear.”

But there’s nothing in the original about “shining ones” or “loving” or “knowing how to work.” “Shining ones” in fact would tend to suggest, for those in the know, the devas, or gods. The word “deva” comes from a root meaning to shine. Since the original is talking about those who are awakened, rather than gods, this is highly misleading.

Basically, Byrom, in producing his “rendering,” seems to have just bluffed his way through the text, probably using other translations as a rough guide but often taking random words from the Pali and then weaving them into his own creation. His Dhammapada, to my mind, is a bit of a stain on the otherwise very fine reputation of Shambhala publications.

“Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine.”


This one was passed on to me by an old friend in the UK;

Live purely. Be quiet.
Do your work with mastery.
Like the moon, come out
from behind the clouds!

This quote is from Thomas Byrom’s “rendering” of the Dhammapada, and it comprises two quotes that have been joined together.

The first part, “”Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery,” corresponds to this verse from Buddharakkhita’s quite literal translation:

386. He who is meditative, stainless and settled, whose work is done and who is free from cankers, having reached the highest goal — him do I call a holy man.

The second part, “Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine!” corresponds to the following, which is also by Buddharakshita:

382. That monk who while young devotes himself to the Teaching of the Buddha illumines this world like the moon freed from clouds.

It’s almost as if Byrom just plucked a few random words from the original (or more likely from various translations — I’ve seen no indication that he knew Pali or any other Indian languages) and make something up.

The publisher’s description on Amazon, for the Shambhala Pocket Edition, says, “Thomas Byrom’s verse rendering of the Dhammapada uniquely captures the Buddha’s original teachings with simplicity and lyricism.” At least they don’t call it a translation.

In the spirit of Byrom’s “rendering,” here’s an extract from Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

And now we have my “rendering” which we will nevertheless attribute to the Bard:

“Let your beauty shine. Find balance. Let yourself open like a bud trembling in the wind. Remember that all things pass.” William Shakespeare

Hopefully I’ve uniquely captured Shakespeare’s original with simplicity, although I make no claims to lyricism.

OK, that was a bit sarcastic, but I hope my little reductio ad absurdum illustrates the problems of trying to “render” a classic text by taking a few words from the original and creating a new context for them. My Fake Shakespeare Quote quote above is of course me, not Shakespeare, just as Byrom’s “rendering” of the Dhammapada is Byrom, not the Buddha.

(And in any publishers are reading, for a suitable advance I’d be happy to “render” all of Shakespeare’s sonnets for publication. I’m not proud. For a really big advance I’ll do the Complete Works.)