Anger Is Like Grasping a Hot Coal To Strike Another; You Are the One Who Is Burned

Gautama Buddha? Buddhaghosa? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Feelings and actions driven by anger and resentment are self-destructive. This notion can be metaphorically illustrated by a red-hot coal which one grabs with the goal of striking another person. The poorly conceived plan causes one’s hand to suffer burns and pain. This figurative framework has been attributed to the Buddha? What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is an important treatise of Theravada Buddhist thought written by the scholar Buddhaghoṣa during the 5th Century (approximately) in Sri Lanka. Pe Maung Tin who was a Professor of Oriental Studies at University of Rangoon created a translation into English that was published by 1931.

The second part titled “Of Concentration” included a section on “The Developing of Love”. The text argued against performing deeds inspired by anger: 1

And he should ponder thus concerning himself: “Man, what wilt thou do getting angry with another man? Will not this angry deed which is the origin of hate lead to thy harm?”

Two vivid and complementary metaphors highlighted the unintended consequences of such anger. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Thou who dost such deeds art like a man who seizes with both hands glowing live coals or dung in order to strike another man therewith, but who first burns and befouls himself.”

Gautama Buddha did not deliver the words above; instead, they were written many years later by Buddhaghoṣa who was presenting his interpretation of Buddhist thought.

The Quote Investigator has explored an analogous expression, and the article can be read by clicking the following statement: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1978 a columnist in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” of Pennsylvania printed a thematically related saying: 2

LAST WORD—Holding a grudge is like holding a hot iron—it hurts you.

In 1988 “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind” by Joan Borysenk with Larry Rothstein incorrectly ascribed the analogy with a “hot coal” directly to the Buddha: 3

The Buddha compared holding on to anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned. A modern meditation teacher, Swami Chidvilasananda, likens holding onto anger to burning down your house in order to get rid of a rat.

A different translation of Visuddhimagga was created by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. The text warned against hate-driven deeds as follows: 4

By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.

In conclusion, this metaphor does lie within the Buddhist tradition, but it was not spoken by the Buddha. The scholar Buddhaghoṣa wrote it in the Visuddhimagga circa the 5th Century. The original text referred to avoiding hateful thoughts which would lead to hateful actions.

(Great thanks to Ani whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Let her upcoming wedding be magnificent. Special thanks to Bodhipaksa who explored this saying on his website “Fake Buddha Quotes”. He identified the matching passage in the Visuddhimagga. Thanks also to Barry Popik for his research on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1931 (Part III was published in 1931 and Part II was completed before this), The Path of Purity: A Translation of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga by Pe Maung Tin (Professor of Oriental Studies, University of Rangoon), Part II: Of Concentration, Translation Series Number 17, Chapter 9: Exposition of Divine States: Section 1: The Developing of Love, Quote Page 346 and 347, Published for The Pali Text Society by Oxford University Press, London. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1978 July 14, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Our Towne by Joe Browne, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1988 (Copyright 1987), Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenk with Larry Rothstein, Chapter 7: Healing the Emotions, Quote Page 170, Bantam Books, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 2010 (First edition 1956), The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghoṣa, Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, Chapter 9, Quote Page 297, Buddhist Publication Society. (Google Books Preview)