October 26, 2007

Einstein's Quotes on Buddhism

6.23 Confucius said, "When a cornered vessel no longer has any corners, should it be called a cornered vessel? Should it?" - The Analects, quoted in Wing-Tsit Chan's Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1963

The Confucian school, like many other schools of Chinese philosophy, had a theory about names and actuality, commonly called the "rectification of names." The Confucians held that the rectification of names was an ethical project, not merely a metaphysical or logical concern, because all things must be fit into their proper scheme in the universe. But you don't have to be a Confucian to want to set the record straight on Buddhism and the quotes about it attributed to various luminaries and used to promote (or defend?) the dharma.

To wit: There are two similar versions of a prominent Einstein quote on Buddhism floating around the web, reproducing themselves in viral fashion. They are:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.


The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.

These quotes are rarely said to come from a particular book or speech, but we sometimes see this attribution:

Albert Einstein, The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Princeton University Press, 1954

humanside.gifNow, this book is subtitled New Glimpses From His Archives and is not by Einstein, so the quote may not actually be his, but someone quoting him or paraphrasing him, as pointed out on the E-Sangha discussion forums (see below for more on that). The two slightly different versions of the quote given above may lend support to that theory. But if so, this should be noted when the quotes are used. A Google Books search of The Human Side yields no hits for the word "Buddhism" but rather one and only one for "Buddha":

Page 70
What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

So these quotes seem to be spurious. (Some pages of the book are omitted from Google's preview, but the entire book seems to be searchable. As I haven't read the book myself I admit the possibility that these quotes may lurk elsewhere in the work -- if so, perhaps some intrepid searcher will at last unearth them.) There is much valuable discussion of this very issue on WikiQuote, the discussion forums of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, and E-Sangha. (You need to be registered to view the E-Sangha boards.) Also look at Religious Tolerance's comments on this issue.

If you Google these quotes, you'll find they're all over the place on sites devoted to Buddhism, Einstein, and science, from The Buddhist Blog to the Progressive Buddhism blog (which recently had a long back-and-forth about a spurious Buddha quote [make that "possibly spurious" -- see comment below] used by Paul Carus, author of the popular Gospel of Buddha.) A bogus Einsteinism also appeared in Tricycle promotional material several years back before the sagacious Kenneth Kraft set the record straight.

Bogus quotes reproduced on the web are a problem that comes up quite often. I think one of the candidates in this current, already exhausting Presidential election cycle got caught in a trap like this, and the more we rely on the web and neglect primary sources (and actual books), the more this will happen, and it may give us something much more pernicious than this Einstein issue.

So these quotes, interesting and entertaining as they are, should be shelved, or at least have the Einstein attribution removed, until someone can tell us from whence they originally came.

- Philip Ryan, Web Editor

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kentc33's picture

I have discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color - something which exists before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important point. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea... In constantly seeking to actualize your ideal, you will have no time for composure. But if you are always prepared for accepting everything we see as something appearing from nothing... then at that moment you will have perfect composure -- S. Suzuki, "Zen Mind ..." , p. 116

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Everyone should believe in something; I believe I’ll go fishing." ~Henry David Thoreau

Tricycle » Buddhism and Science's picture

[...] be validated by science. This issue is a thorny one and has been sorta kinda addressed on this blog here and here. Ultimately no religion can (or should attempt to) accommodate the demands of science. [...]

David Brooks on “neural Buddhism” « Tricycle Editors’ Blog's picture

[...] seems to be the “Buddhism is the religion of the future” meme [...]

mike's picture

There is a book with dialogue between Toynbee and Buddhist lay leader Daisaku Ikeda. Quite brilliant discussion. Maybe it came from that. I think its called Choose Life or something like that.

Michael Radich's picture

Dear Phillip,

This puts me in mind of the famous "Toynbee" quote:

" Buddhism has transformed every culture it has entered, and Buddhism has been transformed by its entry into that culture . . . . The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the Twentieth Century."

Do you know if this attribution is genuine? I have only been able to find authors quoting it from other authors (rather than Toynbee himself); certainly no reference to an actual locus in a published Toynbee work.

Thank you,

joe's picture


El Topo's picture

"What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind"

I don't think THAT one is spurious

Einstein and Buddha, together again « Tricycle Editors’ Blog's picture

[...] may remember our post on bogus Einstein quotes (about Buddhism) floating around the web. I recently came across this book, Einstein and Buddha, The Parallel [...]

Tom Armstrong's picture

Doing a bit of housecleaning. Checking on my vessel corners.

I looked up the word 'spurious.' Did you know this about the word ...

1598, "born out of wedlock," from L. spurius "illegitimate, false" (cf. It. spurio, Sp. espurio ), from spurius (n.) "illegitimate child," probably from Etruscan spural "public." Sense of "having an irregular origin, not properly constituted" is from 1601; that of "false, sham" is from 1615.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper

An ugly word that 'spurious.' A lot like the word 'gypped' that I used to use, before learning its origins. 'Spurious' has spurious origins, I guess you could say -- but I wouldn't. 'Spurious' has meretricious origins, maybe, if I better understood what 'meretricious' means.

It's hard to keep the universe in its proper scheme.

Tom Armstrong's picture

Ah! Good stuff, your post, Phil.

I'm the one that used the perhaps-spurious quote from Carus. I say 'perhaps," since we now have a new lead and I might yet find the quote, but even then, coming from a 19th Century translation, it could prove not to be Buddha's meaning.

Tricycle has some problems in these areas, btw, which I wish it would correct. It wouldn't take much, you know. Human error, we all can understand all that.

There's an interview of Red Pine in Trike, years ago, where he says that his father was placed in nomination for the presidency by Eleanor Roosevelt. Didn't happen. EASY to check that one out. Actually, it's a revealing moment, since I believe Red Pine's book, mentioned in the interview, is wholly bogus. In 1988 did Red Pine stand up and encourage students headed off to Beijing to demand liberty from their government? Probably not. Methinks Mr. Pine has a bit of a Zelig problem.

An interview of Reggie Ray, in the pages of Trike, was done by his close colleague and not "by Tricycle." This should be corrected, even as late as now, I should think.

There are myriad factual errors in an article called "Down Home Dharma." Tricycle might feel an obligation to correct the record.

Now is a time of ombudsmen at newspapers -- The NY Times, The Post, The Sac Bee -- to try to get things right. Hooray, that. Tricycle should try that, too. Don't you think? And should not neglect the past.

Getting the facts right is important for its own sake.