“The Bare Bones Dhammapada”

bare bonesThe Dhammapada seems to be regarded as fair game. Not only have rather inaccurate “translations” been done by people who don’t know the Pali language (Anne Bancroft and Thomas Byrom are prominent examples), but now we have someone who wants to liberate the Dhammapada from the Buddha’s meaning and intent altogether.

Fortunately, Shravasti Dhammika, a Buddhist monk for 32 years and the spiritual advisor to the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society in Singapore,is on the case:

According to the blurb on Tai Sheridan’s The Bare Bones Dhammapada, the original text is “burdened by the stylistic and conceptual dust of the early and middle ages” and this new version “strips the Dhammapada of monasticism, literalness, chauvinism, anachronisms, and concepts of evil, shame, and sensual denial. It presents the path of wisdom as universal truths for a contemporary audience of any gender, lifestyle, or spiritual inclination”. No it doesn’t! All it does is offer cryptic verses, some of which are actually quite poetic, but that in no way reflect either the Buddha’s words or intent.

For example the Buddha of both the Pali Theravada and the Sanskrit Mahayana sutras was disparaging of dancing while Tai Sheridan apparently enjoys it and therefore Dhammapada verse 16 can be rendered as “do good dance joyfully”. Tai loves partying and is convinced the Buddha did too, hence verse 18 can be rendered as “do good throw a party on the path sing and dance.”

“Our life is the creation of our mind”

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.”

This one’s a translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada, or at least the first half of the first verse. It’s from the Juan Mascaró translation, published by Penguin, which happens to be the first translation I ever encountered. When I read this verse I realized that I was a Buddhist — although I have to say that I now think it’s a terrible translation.

As a minor point, the words “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” are not in the Pali. “Yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” would be acceptable translations for the terms “past,” “present,” and “future,” taken poetically. So I wouldn’t have ruled this out of the basis of that language alone. As I said those terms aren’t in the original, but you’d have to look at the original to know that.

But “our life is the creation of our mind” is very, very far from what’s in the original, which could be translated very literally as “All experiences (or mental states) are preceded by mind, they have mind as their master, they are produced by mind.” And it’s very far from being similar to anything the Buddha taught.

“Mental states” or “experiences” (dhamma could also be translated as “mental phenomena”) and “life” are very different things, and that’s a much deeper distortion of the text, and of the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha didn’t seem to hold any view that our life was the creation of our mind.

“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character.”


The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

When the quote above was emailed to me by a reader, there was nothing much in the actual content to trigger my suspicions. The concepts are Dharmic, and there are probably parallels in the Pali canon to each line of this poem. It seemed, perhaps, a little too neat. But I wondered, why had I never come across such a pithy, coherent, and beautifully expressed teaching in my 30 years of studying the Buddhist scriptures? Let me be clear that I haven’t memorized, or even read, the whole of the Pali canon. But I have read a lot of it, and it would be surprising for such a beautiful expression of Dharma, had it been part of the scriptures, not to have been mentioned more often by some of the scholars and Buddhist teachers whose work I’ve read.

Well, maybe I don’t read enough, because it turned out that this quote had in fact been cited as the word of the Buddha by Sharon Salzberg, Allan Lokos, Lama Surya Das, and other esteemed teachers. In fact it’s all over the web. In some cases it’s said to be from the Dhammapada, but although it has resonances with some verses from that text, that’s certainly not where it’s from.

So where does this quote originate?

The progression thoughts, words, deeds, habit, character, has its roots in 19th century Christianity, and so we find, for example, in Character and Work (1878), by Scottish theologian William Robinson Clark,

“Among those things which constitute the power or the weakness of human life, character must be allowed to have a foremost place … to this everything else leads up—thoughts, words, deeds, habits.”

Clark wasn’t the originator of this sequence, which seems to have been floating around, unattributed, in various versions. A Indiana newspaper, the Connersville Examiner, on Tuesday, July 10, 1877, had the following on its front page:

Some one has said, “Sew an act reap a habit; sew a habit and reap a character; sew a character and reap a destiny.”

It’s not surprising that the words of the quotation I was asked about should be thought to come from the Dhammapada, whose first two verses are, in Buddharakkhita’s translation:

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

I haven’t yet found a definitive origin for the formulation that starts: “The thought manifests as the word…” The earliest citation of this in a book is from 1984′s Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival, by Roger N. Walsh, who ascribes it to that prolific author, “Anonymous.” So I don’t know exactly where this quote originates. The best I can say at present is that it emerged from many minds that were engaged in a mid- to late-19th century Christian exploration of character building — arguably an attempt to create a Christian equivalent of karma.

And then at some point before 1984 it acquired a coda about “concern for all beings” that sounds distinctly Buddhist. But the quote as a whole is not from the Buddhist scriptures. We can be fairly sure the Buddha never said this, although we can be equally sure that he said things like this.

“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”

every experience

Oh. My. Buddha.

This one was passed on to me this morning. Apparently you can even buy it on a T-shirt:

“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”

I’m not going to get into whether this statement is true or not, but it’s simply not something that the Buddha said. Both the sentiment and the vocabulary are totally alien to the Buddhist scriptures. It sounds more like something from a modern self-help or spirituality book.

But which one? That’s a mystery.

In fact it doesn’t show up in any books on Google Books at all. Perhaps it’s in a book they haven’t scanned, or perhaps it originated in a video or blog.

It seems to be quite new. I spent a while looking through the Google search results for this quote, and the earliest uses of the quote that had dates on them were from an internet profile dated September 12, 2010 (not attributed to the Buddha), and a blog post dated June 11, 2008 (where it does purport to be a Buddha quote).

Where did the authors of these pages get the quote from? I simply don’t know.

However, a book called Wisdom From World Religions: Pathways Toward Heaven On Earth, by John Marks Templeton and published in 2008, contains the following:

…we always have a choice. We can become bitter or we can choose to become bigger and better people. When we learn to recognize that every experience can bring a blessing of some kind, our upset is softened.

A 2007 book called The Passion Test, by Janet Bray Attwood and ‎Chris Attwood, contains this statement:

When you begin to look for reasons to believe that every experience is a blessing, you will start to find those reasons.

Ever earlier (1957) Hentry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch tells us:

…the wise man knows that every experience is to be viewed as a blessing.

But I doubt if any of these is the source. These various books are merely restating a meme that is common in our culture.

If you ever find a book or magazine prior to 2008 that contains the full quote, or something similar to it, please let me know.

I’ll leave you though with the blessing of the Dharma: some words (on the topic of “blessings,” in fact) from the Mangala Sutta.

“Not to associate with the foolish, but to associate with the wise; and to honor those who are worthy of honor — this is the greatest blessing.

To reside in a suitable locality, to have done meritorious actions in the past and to set oneself in the right course — this is the greatest blessing.

To have much learning, to be skillful in handicraft, well-trained in discipline, and to be of good speech — this is the greatest blessing.

To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in peaceful occupation — this is the greatest blessing.

To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing.

To loathe more evil and abstain from it, to refrain from intoxicants, and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing.

To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful; and to listen to the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

To be patient and obedient, to associate with monks and to have religious discussions on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing.

Self-restraint, a holy and chaste life, the perception of the Noble Truths and the realisation of Nibbana — this is the greatest blessing.

A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated — this is the greatest blessing.

Those who thus abide, ever remain invincible, in happiness established. These are the greatest blessings.”

“If you want to draw water you do not dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well.”

The religious scholar Reza Aslan has recently been much discussed because of his skillful handling in a cringe-worthy Fox News interview with Lauren Green, in which they discussed his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:

This will give you a flavor, in case you’re not in a position to watch the video:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
– Fox News’ Lauren Green to religious scholar Reza Aslan

“Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions.”
– Aslan

“It still begs the question. Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
– Green

Yesterday Aslan did an AMA on Reddit. An AMA (“I am a…”) is where an expert in some field opens her or himself up to questions from “Redditors.” The resulting discussion was interesting and frequently amusing. But there was one odd thing: an apparent Fake Buddha Quote:

“I think the Buddha said it right: If you want to draw water you do not dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well. Islam is my six foot well. I like the symbols and metaphors it uses to describe the relationship between God and humanity. But I recognize that the water I am drawing is the same water that every other well around me is drawing. And no matter the well, the water is just as sweet!”

Now I’ve seen western Buddhist teachers use this metaphor, but I don’t think the metaphor itself is from the Buddhist tradition. So far the two earliest references I’ve found are this one in the Economist, from 1821:

A company of Arabs, fainting with thirst, once came to a trifling spring, not sufficient for the supply of their wants. One of them exhorted them to dig, assuring them that in half an hour they could obtain a superabundance of water … [some] seeing that the supply proceeded so slowly, began to dig; but avarice had taken possession of their hearts; and each proceeded to dig a well for himself … the few, meantime … soon came to another favorable spot. They immediately UNITED to dig ONE well; and they were speedily rewarded with superabundance.

It’s a rather long passage, so I’ve taken the liberty of condensing it. The main point here is to stress cooperation, but the image does advocate digging one deep well as opposed to many shallow ones.

Although the dramatis personnae are Arab, this can only be suggestive of a Middle Eastern origin, and there’s no source given for the tale.

Martin Lings’ What is Sufism (1975), however, points to a Sufi source:

“The self-deceivers in question are, to quote a Sufi of the last century (the Shaykh ad-Darqāwī) ‘like a man who tries to find water by digging a little here and a little there and who will die of thirst; whereas a man who digs deep in one spot, trusting in the Lord and relying on Him, will find water; he will drink and give others to drink’ (Letters of a Sufi Master (Perennial Books, London, 1969) p. 29.

Ad-Darqāwī was a Moroccan Sufi who lived from 1760 to 1823, so he died just after the Economist article was published. I can’t tell if Ad-Darqāwī invented the image or drew upon an existing tradition. I’d imagine the latter.

If this is a quote from an Islamic source, then it’s a little ironic that a Muslim religious scholar thought it was Buddhist.

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child”

Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child

Upul, from Australia, wrote asking about the following quote:

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.”

It’s a lovely quote, but it’s not from the Buddha.

This quote is actually Eknath Easwaran paraphrasing the Buddha, and it’s not a direct quote from the scriptures.

In “The Little Lamp” (1979) Eknath wrote:

When Jesus talks about loving our neighbor as ourselves, or the Compassionate Buddha tells us to love the whole world as a mother loves her only child, we believe it is all metaphorical. Mother Teresa says no; it is literal.

You’ll notice that there are no quotation marks, and that “love the whole world as a mother loves her only child” are Eknath’s words.

But by 1999 this has turned into:

As the Buddha said, we need to “love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” For only then do we honor the ties that bind us together — that make us human.

This is in Paul Rogat Loeb’s “Soul of a Citizen.”

So this is a case where a paraphrase turns into a quote. And once a Fake Buddha Quote breaks out into the wild, there’s no stopping it.

In fact I’m pretty sure that the Buddha didn’t say anything exactly like “love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” In the Karaniya Metta Sutta he does say the following:

As a mother
would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

But the way the grammar works in the Pali, it’s the “limitless heart” that is protected as a mother would protect her child, not “all beings.”

In the Sigalovada sutta the Buddha says:

The friend who is a helper,
The friend through thick and thin,
The friend who gives good counsel,
And the compassionate friend;

These four are friends indeed,
The wise understand this
And attend on them carefully,
Like a mother her own child.

And he also said:

But he on whom one can rely, like a child sleeping on its mother’s breast, is truly a friend who cannot be parted from one by others.

And rather charmingly, the Buddha compares his two foremost monks to mothers:

Monks, Sariputta is like unto a mother, Moggallana is like unto a foster-mother to a child. Sariputta, monks, trains (beings) in the path of stream-attainment. Moggallana in the highest goal (arahantship).

I’d really like it if the scriptures recorded the Buddha as saying “Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child,” but alas they don’t. Or if the do, I haven’t yet found the reference.

“We have to understand the middle path: That a human has a positive and a negative side. We have a false, ignorant side, but we also have a beautiful potential – Buddha nature.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at Jul 4, 1.56.27 PM

Let’s nip this one in the bud. It was passed on to me by someone who had spotted it on the Facebook page of The Blue Buddha Quote Collective, where it had been attributed to the Buddha. The Collective seems to have a rather liberal sense of what the Buddha might have said, judging by some of the other quotes they’ve posted.

“We have to understand the middle path: That a human has a positive and a negative side. We have a false, ignorant side, but we also have a beautiful potential – Buddha nature.”

~ The Buddha

The historical Buddha, of course, never talked about Buddha Nature, which is a relatively late teaching, dating from long after his death. So the mere mention of that term rules it out as a saying from the Pali canon. But certain Mahayana Sutras do discuss Buddha Nature (Tathagathagarbha, which is more literally “The Womb of the Buddha”) so that in itself doesn’t rule it out as canonical. The Mahayana Sutras may not have been spoken by the Buddha, but my definition of a Fake Buddha Quote is that it’s a non-canonical saying that’s been attributed to the Buddha.

But … and I have a big “but” (that’s an intentional joke, by the way)…

“Positive” and “negative” are not terms that the Buddha — whether the Buddha of the Pali canon or of the Mahayana Sutras — would have used. He sometimes talked, especially in poetry, of “puñña and papa” (good and evil) and of actions being “kusala or akusala” (skillful or unskillful) but “positive and negative” as ethical categories are strikingly modern.

A Google search reveals several sources saying that this is a quote from Lama Yeshe, and I’m inclined to believe them, especially since one of the sources is the late Lama’s Pinterest page.

“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

I’ve been asked about this one several times, but have never written it up. There’s not much to say, really. It seems to be a variant on another Fake Buddha Quote that was lifted from Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” a lovely little book of sayings, few of which, if any at all, go back directly to the Buddha:

“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?”

I can understand someone getting confused and thinking that a quote from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book was a quote from the Buddha. Presumably, though, at some point someone decided to “improve the quotation” and keep the attribution to the Buddha, which puzzles me a bit…

I can’t think of anyplace in the Pali canon where the Buddha sums up “life” in this kind of a way. If you see a purported Buddha quote that talks about “the secret of life…” or “only three things matter…” then be very suspicious.

But there are statements where the Buddha singles out certain qualities as important:

Control of the senses, contentment, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline — these form the basis of holy life here for the wise monk. (Dhammapada 375)

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. (SN 45.2)

In giving some advice to two elderly men who had done little good in their lives, the Buddha said the following:

When a house is on fire,
the vessel salvaged
is the one that will be of use,
not the one left there to burn.
So when the world is on fire
with aging and death,
one should salvage [one's wealth] by giving:
what’s given is well salvaged.

Whoever here is restrained
in body, speech, and awareness;
who makes merit while he’s alive:
that will be for his bliss after death.

So while restraint of body, speech, and mind are generally praised, giving as a basic practice is being highly recommended. It’s not being said that giving is the only thing that matters, incidentally. The Buddha is giving a specific teaching to two specific individuals, addressing their specific spiritual needs.

Certainly all three things praised in our fake quote — loving, living gently, letting go — are things praised by the Buddha, but I’ve never seen a passage where these are praised together, or as the only things that matter. If you know of one, please do pass it along.

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking”

"If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking"

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking” is found frequently on the web, Facebook, and on Twitter, and is usually cited as a “Buddhist proverb” or even an “ancient Buddhist proverb.”

One book, Paul Bowden’s Telling It Like It Is (2011) tells it like it isn’t and confidently declareS that the quote is from the Buddha.

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking” is not from the Buddha, nor is it an ancient Buddhist proverb, unless you regard 1976 — the year of Jimmy Carter’s election, the Sex Pistol’s Anarchy In the UK, and the invention of the word “meme” — as ancient history. For the quote is from Joseph Goldstein’s The Experience of Insight, page 26:

Some progress quickly with a lot of pain, and others progress quickly with a lot of pleasure. It very much depends on our past accumulations of karma, how developed our spiritual faculties of mind already are. But if we’re facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking. If it takes a year, or sixty years, or five lifetimes, as long as we’re heading towards light, that’s all that matters.

Jack Kornfield’s quotes have often been taken as Buddha Quotes, and I’m glad Joseph Goldstein is getting a turn!

“When you move your focus from competition to contribution life becomes a celebration. Never try to defeat people, just win their hearts.”

I was just sent this one by email. I’ve no idea where it originated. It’s not in Google Books, although it’s on many websites.

Everything about it is wrong, from the style to the vocabulary, including terms like “move your focus,” the very modern-sounding “competition to contribution,” and the completely un-Buddha-like “life becomes a celebration.” The Buddha, at peace, serene, and composed, is not noted for having promoted life as a “celebration.”

There’s not much else I can say about this quote. I simply wanted to note this one because of its fakeness, in the hopes that I may marginally slow its spread in the blogosphere and prevent it from making its way into any books.