Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Fake Lao Tzu Quote
"If you are depressed..."
This is NOT a quote from Tao Te Ching:
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment."
This fake Lao Tzu quote has also been accredited to Warren Buffet, the billionaire, and to the Brazilian motivational speaker Junia Bretas.
Bretas is quoted in a translation to English with the exact above wording, on the front page of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Bulletin, volume 57, July-August 2014.
The Buffet quote has the same wording, but with the following addition: "Past is waste paper, present is newspaper, and future is a question paper!" It seems that Buffet quoted someone else and then added his own metaphor to it. The Buffet reference is from a 2015 book by David Conellias: Let's Do Life (page 30). Could it be that Warren Buffet had read the Buddhist bulletin?
The Junia Bretas quote was pointed out in a February 2014 comment to a blog post about the quote. Maybe the writer of the Buddhist bulletin had read that when publishing the quote with Bretas as its originator.
It is close to the fake Lao Tzu quote, but not spot on. Especially in the last sentence they differ considerably. Google Translate gives "The present moment is the key to the cure of all mental evils," and it seems to be a decently accurate translation. That's quite far from "If you are at peace you are living in the moment."
So, it is possible that there is another source to the fake Lao Tzu quote than Junia Bretas.
It is surely not Lao Tzu. Depression and anxiety are modern concepts, alien to ancient China. Not only that. The idea of living in the past, the future, or the present would make no sense to Lao Tzu and his contemporaries.
If anything, he preferred the past, which is something he mentioned more than once in his book. He would flat out deny the possibility of living in the future. That's something modern society invented. And the idea of living in the now is more Zen than Taoism.
But then there is a book accrediting the quote to a Tao Te Ching version by the musician and acupuncturist Ralph Alan Dale (1920-2006), which was published in 2002. This quote is in On the Journey: The Art of Living with Breast Cancer, by Cynthia Thomas, 2014 (page 30).
Dale's version of Tao Te Ching deviates from the norm, to say the least. He called Tao "the Great Integrity," which is hard to find reason for in any understanding of the Chinese concept. But I can't find the quote examined here in the editions of his Tao Te Ching translation that are accessible on the Internet.
Either he is misquoted by Cynthia Thomas, or there were edits made in later editions of his book. Anyway, it has stopped me from figuring out what lines of Tao Te Ching he might have interpreted that way — if he ever did so. If Dale wrote those lines at all, he might have done so in a comment to Lao Tzu's text, and not as a translation of it.
Ralph Alan Dale's version of Tao Te Ching is also discussed in the chapter Countless words count less.
The mystery intrigued me to spend quite some time searching the Internet. The earliest occurrence of the quote I found in Google searches was on the Goodreads website, where the quote is accredited to Lao Tzu and got its first like on March 21, 2012. Next was a blog post from April 12, 2012, also accrediting Lao Tzu. It was picked up in a social anxiety forum on May 22 the same year, stating a Facebook posting from "a few months ago" as its source to the quote.
To my surprise, I got further back on a Facebook search. The first appearance of the quote on Facebook, already accrediting it to Lao Tzu, is from December 19, 2009. It was posted by a girl a few days before she turned 20. It got two likes. The following year, there were more than a dozen posts with the quote — most of them not naming Lao Tzu as the source. The year after that, 2011, there was a flood of them, many mentioning Lao Tzu.
A similar statement was posted on Facebook on June 30, 2009, without giving a source: "When I am anxious it is because I am living in the future. When I am depressed it is because I am living in the past."
That in turn led me to the book Words of Wisdom from 2006, written by Rev. Run, a minister with a TV show. This is on page 31, without reference to any source:
Another fake Lao Tzu quote with similar meaning is discussed in the chapter There is a time to live and a time to die, but never to reject the moment.
April 2, 2017, revised September 9, 2020.
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About meI'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.