“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.

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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:

Tasmāhi,
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.”

quote-meditate-live-purely-be-quiet-do-your-work-with-mastery-like-the-moon-come-out-from-behind-the-buddha-297814

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

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

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.)

“Always be mindful of the kindness and not the faults of others.”

Always be mindful of the kindness and not the faults of others.

Adrian Rush sent me this quote, along with the comment following it:

“Always be mindful of the kindness and not the faults of others.”

Sounds suspect to me. So many of these fake quotes going around make the Buddha sound like a 2,500-year-old version of Oprah. The Buddha’s philosophy merits more than being reduced to feel-good, new-age, fortune-cookie philosophy.

Anyway, I’ve been an armchair Buddhist for about a decade, and I’ve never run across this quote in my studies.

I think Adrian was right to be suspicious. I’m 99.9% sure this isn’t a canonical quote, and that at best it’s a paraphrase.

According to Frank MacHovec’s 2007 book, Buddha, Tao, Zen, “Be mindful of the kindnesses and not the faults of others” (note the absence of “always” and the use of “kindnesses” rather than “kindness” was a saying of Master Chin Kung of the Amida Society.

Some of the sayings attributed to Master Chin Kung are actually from the Dhammapada, including the following one which may be the inspiration for the quote in question:

Do not focus on the rudeness of others, what they do or leave undone. Focus instead of what you have done and left undone.

This is clearly a rendition of Dhammapada verse 50, which in Buddharakkhita’s translation is:

Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.

Verse 50 of the Dhammapada is from a chapter called The Flowers, and another of master Chin Kung’s sayings is also reminiscent of verses from that chapter:

“Saying pleasant words without meaning them is like a beautiful flower with no fragrance.”

This is obviously drawn from verse 51:

Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them.

How the specific version “Always be mindful of the kindness and not the faults of others,” with its addition of “always” and the change from “kindnesses” to “kindness” came to be, I can’t say. It’s in a book of “Buddha Quotes” (many, if not most of which are fake), but the book was published in 2013, and since Google says there are 25,000 instances of the quote on the web, the saying must have been around for a while.

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

buddha-quote-have-compassion-for-all-beings-rich-and-poor-alike-each-has-their-sufferingThis quote was passed on to me by a couple of different people. It’s found in several books, including Meditations for Pain Recovery, Meditation and Qigong Mastery, and The Law of Attraction (insert your own joke here about fake spirituality attracting fake quotes).

Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their sufferings. Some suffer too much, others too little.

It’s also on many websites. It’s not surprising it’s on quotes sites like ThinkExist, since they seem to do no fact-checking at all. But with sites like Buddhist Belief Blog you’d hope for better.

It is of course patently fake. There’s nothing at all unusual about the Buddha encouraging us to have compassion for all beings. But I don’t think he would ever have suggested that some people need to experience more suffering.

The earliest of the books mentioned above is from 2009, so this is almost certainly a new Fake Buddha Quote. It’s hard to search the web by date, but Leo Babauta on Zen Habits uses the quote on a post dated August 14, 2008. Someone called Arvind used the quote a little earlier, on January 5th of 2008. Those are among the earliest blog posts I’ve found using the quote.

A forum post dated April 8, 2006 takes us back a little further, but contains no source. That’s the earliest reference to the quote that I’ve found on the web, apart from a deleted post from March 19, 2006, on a now-defunct site at bighappybuddha.blogspot.com.

A forum post dated August 23, 2007 mentions having lifted the quote from a site called BrainyQuote (one of those quotes sites littered with misattributed quotations). Alas, where BrainyQuote got the saying from, or whether it predates the 2006 examples, I just don’t know.

So the origins of this quote are a mystery, although its fakeness is clear.

There is a sutta where the Buddha is asked why some are rich, healthy, long-lived, good-looking, etc., and some are poor, unhealthy, short-lived, ugly, etc. Here’s a passage from that sutta:

But here some woman or man is not obdurate or haughty; he pays homage to whom he should pay homage, rises up for whom he should rise up, gives a seat to whom he should give a seat, makes way for whom he should make way, worships him who should be worshipped, respects him who should be respected, reveres him who should be revered, honors him who should be honored. Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination… If instead he comes to the human state, he is high-born wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to high birth, that is to say, not to be obdurate or haughty, to pay homage to whom he should pay homage, to rise up for…, to give a seat to…, to make way for…, to worship… respect… revere… honor him who should be honored.

Here, student, some woman or man when visiting a monk or brahman, does not ask: ‘What is wholesome, venerable sir? What is unwholesome? What is blamable? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, by my doing it, will be long for my harm and suffering? Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?’ Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation… If instead he comes to the human state, he will be stupid wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to stupidity, that is to say, when visiting a monk or brahman, not to ask: ‘What is wholesome?… Or what, by my doing it, will be long for my welfare and happiness?’

This is often taken as the Buddha saying that people who are rich in this life must have acted well in a past life and that people who are poor in this life must have acted unskillfully in a past life. But it seems to me that all the Buddha is saying is that acting badly leads to poverty, ugliness, illness, etc., but not that all poverty, ugliness, illness, etc. are inevitably the result of previous karma. This is a very important distinction to observe, otherwise we’ll tend to blame the poor and the sick for misfortunes that may be nothing at all to do with their own actions.

“It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do — that is my concern.”

I was asked about this on Facebook today:

“It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do — that is my concern.”

But before I could reply Jeff Stefani stepped in with a suggestion that it resembled Dhammapada verse 50:

“Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others.
But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone..”

This of course isn’t a first person statement, like our fake quote. But the first person version does purport to be a translation of Dhammapada verse 50. It’s from The Dhammapada (page 54), in the translation by the Indian poet, publisher, and professor, Purushottama Lal, where I’m told it’s presented as:

It is not what others do,
or do not do, that is my concern:
It is what I do,
and what I do not do, that is my concern.

I don’t have a copy of the book or access to a Google Books version so that I can check that information. But the translation as presented is very inaccurate, rendering the verses as a first person statement. This steps well beyond the bounds of accurate translation, in my eyes.

And of course paying no attention to the faults of others and paying attention to your own faults has a very different meaning than not being concerned by what others do. The intent of the original verse is that we don’t obsess about others’ unethical actions but concentrate on scrutinizing our own ethics. This is to avoid us getting involved in unskillful activities such as blaming, ill will, and conceit. The first person version on the other hand could easily suggest a lack of interest in others on the part of the Buddha himself. We know, however, that the Buddha was in fact very concerned about the actions of others. He was even very concerned about their faults and their actions done or not done, but out of compassion rather than a desire to blame, or out of ill will, or out of conceit.

This already inaccurate translation by Lal has then been slightly misquoted as:

It is not what others do
and do not do that is my concern.
It is what I do and do not do
— that is my concern.

And this is the form, with its illogical em-dash, that now circulates. We’re in the rare position of knowing how this particular Fake Buddha Quote came into circulation. The quotation (that is, the misquotation of the mistranslation) seems to have been popularized almost entirely by one person, whose Dharma name is Genkaku (aka Adam Fisher). For several years Genkaku has been posting his misquotation of the Lal version of the quote in blog posts and discussion forums. Back in 2010 he even offered a “mea culpa” for his misquotation, but he’s posted the same version subsequently, although he often says they are “attributed” to the Buddha or that the Buddha is “alleged” to have said them, which at least puts a little distance between the Buddha and some words we can safely assume he never said.