"I Teach Only Suffering and the End of Suffering"

"Nope, I didn't (quite) say that" —The BuddhaVenerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

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One statement popularly ascribed to the Buddha is quoted so often that it has become virtually an axiom of modern Buddhism. The statement appears in several formulations, the broadest of which runs: “I teach only suffering and the cessation of suffering.” A variant reads: “I teach only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” And another variant makes the point even more sharply: “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”

Surprise, surprise! Nowhere in the Pali canon does the Buddha himself actually say this. The statement ascribed to him is not altogether without a basis in the canon, but the way the original is commonly expressed represents a translation error rooted in a grammatical misunderstanding. The sentence we do find reads in Pali: pubbe c’aham bhikkhave etarahi ca dukkhan c’eva pannapemi, dukkhassa ca nirodham. Before I get to the grammatical error, I should point out that, contrary to what we might expect, the sentence in no way serves as a hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching in its entirety. An online search through the thousands of pages of Buddhist scriptures turns up the sentence only twice. And the two places in which it occurs make it plain that the Buddha did not mean to say he teaches only suffering and its cessation and nothing else.

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