“The gift of food is the gift of life.”

This quote, “The gift of food is the gift of life,” was passed on to me by a reader called Ilya. He was suspicious because he thought “the gift of life” didn’t sound like the kind of thing the Buddha would say. Also, it was very closely tied to just one source: the Buddhist Global Relief website.

As it happens, Buddhist Global Relief is a wonderful organization. Here’s something of their history:

In 2007 the American Buddhist scholar-monk, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, was invited to write an editorial essay for the Buddhist magazine Buddhadharma. In his essay, he called attention to the narrowly inward focus of American Buddhism, which has been pursued to the neglect of the active dimension of Buddhist compassion expressed through programs of social engagement. Several of Ven. Bodhi’s students who read the essay felt a desire to follow up on his suggestions. After a few rounds of discussions, they resolved to form a Buddhist relief organization dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged in the developing world. At the initial meetings, seeking a point of focus, they decided to direct their relief efforts at the problem of global hunger, especially by supporting local efforts by those in developing countries to achieve self-sufficiency through improved food productivity. Contacts were made with leaders and members of other Buddhist communities in the greater New York area, and before long Buddhist Global Relief emerged as an inter-denominational organization comprising people of different Buddhist groups who share the vision of a Buddhism actively committed to the task of alleviating social and economic suffering.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is of course the foremost translator of Buddhist texts in the modern world, so it would be ironic if a fake quote were to be associated with an organization whose founding he inspired. While this quote isn’t exactly fake, it’s also not a direct quotation from the scriptures but more like a paraphrase of part of this sutta:

“In giving a meal, the donor gives five things to the recipient. Which five?

“He gives life [or duration of life] (āyu). He gives beauty (vaṇṇa). He gives happiness (sukha). He gives strength (bala). He gives intelligence [or as Thanissaro has it, quick-wittedness] (paṭibhāna).”

It’s an accurate paraphrase, since it doesn’t distort what’s being said, but it’s not of course a quote. It’s possible that it does exists as a quote somewhere, but I think it’s unlikely. If you know of anything, please let me know. Until then I’m classifying this as “fakeish.”

And while I have your attention, why don’t you head over to Buddhist Global Relief’s website and make a donation?

Fake Camus quotes

I just stumbled across a paper called “The noble art of misquoting Camus — from its origins to the Internet era,” by philosopher and Société des Études Camusiennes member, Giovanni Gaetani.

Gaetani’s English is not quite broken, but perhaps we could say it’s “dented.” Nevertheless, he makes some good general points about misquotations in the age of the internet, including this:

The real importance of misquotes – and mistranslation as well – is undervalued. Whether they are big or small, hidden or manifest, made in bad or in good faith, they are always compromising because their inevitable destiny is to generate false commonplaces to be used either for or against the author. Indeed, while a specialist can probably detect at first glance the misquote or the mistranslation, the average reader – that is, the vast majority of an author’s audience – is condemned to believe to what he sees, no matter how disappointing it is.

This:

Nonetheless, we underestimate [the] Internet’s impact on literature and philosophy: ever since everyone has the power to say his personal opinion about everything, even when he is a total incompetent about the subject; ever since everyone can quote a writer without feeling the need to report the source and ever since everyone seems to not care at all about sources, believing in everything he sees on Internet, every quote has completely lost reliability.

And this:

During my research I have contacted many bloggers, asking them where Camus should have written/said this or that; their answer was always the same: «check it on Google». Indeed, their reasoning was simple but tremendously naïve: if a quote is reported by so many people – millions of references in some cases – the author of this quote “must” be Albert Camus.

I paraphrase this attitude as “It must be true. I read it on the internet.”

Gaetani also tackles nine common misquotations or misattributed quotes, including one I’ve seen recently:

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

This is actually from a children’s song from a Jewish summer camp.

“There isn’t enough darkness in all the world to snuff out the light of one little candle.”

Myoshin, of the Salt lake Buddhist Fellowship, was suspicious of this one: “There isn’t enough darkness in all the world to snuff out the light of one little candle.”

It’s also found as “There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.”

It’s certainly not the Buddha, but unfortunately I haven’t yet found the source. I’m posting this here in case someone with better search skills than I can help track it down.

The second, “small candle,” version seems to be the oldest. It’s mostly attributed to “Robert Alden,” who is most likely the Robert L. Alden who wrote a series of commentaries on the Psalms. Alden was Professor of Old Testament at Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary.

The “Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations” attributes it to Robert Aitken, but no other source does.

Unfortunately none of the citations I’ve seen point to an original source, and I can’t find the quote in the two books of his that appear in Google Books.

For what it’s worth, the oldest attribution I’ve found in a book is in Andy Zubko’s “Treasury Of Spiritual Wisdom,” which was originally published in 1996.

It also appears, quoted by a Chamber of Commerce leader, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from January 12, 1995.

That’s a rather late attribution for the “Little House On the Prairie” Alden, who passed away in 1911, but would make more sense for Robert L. Alden, who was still writing in the 1970s.

When Buddha had tea with Mara

54148333_sThis is an odd (and long) one, which, because it’s not a direct quote, I’ve put in the category of Fake Buddha Stories.

Hold onto your headgear!

Tara Brach has a blog post called “Inviting Mara to Tea.” Now Mara, in case you’re not aware of him, is a character from the Buddha’s life. He’s what we’d call a “supernatural” being (although Buddhism sees him as entirely natural, but not from our realm of existence).

He represents doubt, and so most western Buddhists take his appearances as being a poetic representation of our inner doubts. He frequently appears to the Buddha and to his disciples, often in a very taunting way. One time he visited the Buddha when he was in pain from an injury, and mocked him for just lying around. He famously sent his armies to distract the Buddha from gaining awakening. Here’s a reference to that encounter.

Mara appears to all of us in the form of our doubting thoughts: I can’t do this. No one likes me. Meditation is a waste of time.

In her blog post Tara says the following about the Buddha’s encounters with Mara:

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

Brach is correct at the beginning. The Buddha doesn’t have to send Mara away, because Mara is a personification of the mental state of doubt. What we do with doubts is to recognize that they are not reality, but are distorted constructs in the mind. When we see our doubts as doubts, they lose their power over us. When we see Mara, Mara vanishes.

But when it comes to having tea with Mara, I’m very skeptical. For a start, there’s the question of tea. According to Wikipedia, tea likely originated in southwest China and wasn’t commercially grown in India until the British arrived. There’s no mention of tea in the Pali canon, and my Pali-English dictionaries don’t even include a word for it. In fact, the only drinks I recall being mentioned in the Pali canon, with the exception of spirits and fermented beverages, which were forbidden to Buddhist practitioners, are water and (more rarely) milk. Fruit juice is allowed in the monastic code of conduct, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it referred to in any of the discourses (suttas).

Then there’s the question of receiving Mara as an honored guest, which doesn’t fit with any of the encounters that I’ve seen.

Jack Kornfield, in his After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (page 124), has the Buddha regarding Mara not just as a guest, but as a friend:

“Oh, my old friend has come,” says the Buddha, as he warmly greets Mara, inviting him in for tea.

Again with the tea! Jack goes on to say, “In one scripture the story ends when Mara becomes awakened as a Buddha himself.” I think we should leave that one for another time!

Although various monks and nuns addressed Mara as “friend,” as far as I’m aware the Buddha is never depicted as having referred to anyone that way, since doing so would have implied an inappropriate sense of equality. Except for times when the Buddha calls Mara by his alternative name, Namuci (a demon in Vedic mythology), he addresses him as “Evil One,” pāpimant.

It’s Thich Nhat Hanh who’s most prolific with the story about Mara and the Buddha having tea. He refers to this incident in “Awakening of the Heart,” “The Heart of Understanding,” “No Mud, No Lotus,” “A Pebble for Your Pocket,” and “Under the Rose Apple Tree.”

There’s one long passage dealing with the Buddha’s tea-break with Mara in a transcribed talk that’s available online.

Thich Nhat Hanh begins his story in the following way:

I would like to tell you a story that took place a number of years ago. One day I saw the Venerable Ananda—you know who he is? Ananda is a cousin of the Buddha, a very handsome man with a very good memory.

Already this is very peculiar. “One day I saw the Venerable Ananda.” What does this mean? That Nhat Hanh is recalling a previous life? That he dreamed or imagined this incident? That’s he’s making it up as a form of “infotainment”? (That last is the one I’d bet on.)

A little later he says “Sometimes Ananda was so concerned about the happiness of the Buddha that he forgot about himself. Sometimes he did not enjoy what was there in the present moment, being much younger than the Buddha.” The problem here is that tradition has always held that Ananda and the Buddha were exactly the same age — even born on the same day. So where Nhat Hanh is getting this from is rather a puzzle.

We’re told that Mara arrives and asks to see the Buddha, which Ananda is reluctant to allow. But the Buddha welcomes his rival and addresses him as “friend.”

The story goes on to have Mara propose to the Buddha — over tea of course — that they switch roles, since being Mara is apparently hard work. The Buddha points out, though, that being a Buddha is hard work too.

Nothing about this story is familiar to me. Of course there’s a lot of material in the Pali canon about Mara, and it’s quite possible I’ve just never come across this particular one. With unusual elements such as the following —

  • Mara asking to see the Buddha (traditionally he just arrives — after all he represents the Buddha’s doubt and isn’t a real person)
  • the Buddha calling him “friend” (which he never does, preferring epithets such as “Evil One”)
  • Ananda mysteriously shedding a few decades
  • the role-swapping proposal
  • and the puzzle of this “tea” (which Nhat Hanh calls “herbal tea” in one of his books)

— it seems odd that this amazing story should be so elusive.

At first I wondered if Nhat Hanh made this up for the purposes of entertainment, and that other teachers subsequently assumed that such a respected teacher, referring to an incident about the Buddha’s life, must be referring to a canonical passage. On the other hand, there’s a 1991 book by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman that includes this story (predating any TNH reference I’ve found) so perhaps they’re the originators, or took the story from a non-canonical (possibly commentarial) source. I’m honestly baffled!

If you’ve stumbled across a scriptural source for this story, please do let me know about it!

The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (5)

Here’s an interesting statement from the Buddha about how fake Dharma endangers the real thing:

Kassapa, the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world. But when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

Just as, Kassapa, gold does not disappear so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, but when counterfeit gold arises then true gold disappears, so the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

It is not the earth element, Kassapa, that causes the true Dhamma to disappear, nor the water element, nor the heat element, nor the air element. It is the senseless people who arise right here who cause the true Dhamma to disappear.

[From “The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya,” page 681.]

One of the things that interests me is that some Buddhist are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. When they do blog posts based on the Buddha’s sayings, or when they quote the Buddha in an article, they’re far more likely to post fake quotes than those found in the scriptures. Perhaps this is because the scriptures tend not to be pithy or elegant, and so in many cases aren’t particularly quotable. Try finding a Tweetable — i.e. 140 character or less — quote in the example above! But perhaps it’s also because they find the teachings of the Buddha too austere, technical, and demanding. There’s not a lot of “warm and fuzzy” in Dhammapada verses such as this: “Fools of little wit are enemies unto themselves as they move about doing evil deeds, the fruits of which are bitter.”

Non-Buddhists who circulate fake quotes are giving a misleading impression of what Buddhism is, but this mostly affects other non-Buddhists, and is of little consequence. The Buddha’s “senseless people” (yeah, Buddhism is really non-judgmental!) would be be people who claim to follow his teachings but don’t really know what those teachings are, and often don’t bother to find out.

Sometimes this is harmless, as when fake quotes emphasize the need to love ourselves (not something the Buddha stressed, but a necessary practice), but other times these quotes directly contradict important teachings of the Buddha, such as anatta, or not-self. An example of this would be where we’re told to identify with “the observer” of our experience. Such a practice may be useful as part of the path of letting go of identifying with our experience, but the Buddha would have seen this as a serious obstacle to spiritual progress if it’s taken as the goal of spiritual practice. His path of practice included letting go of all identifications whatsoever. To say that we should identify with “the observer” is good Hinduism, but dreadful Buddhism.

I’m not arguing, by the way, that there’s some “pure Dharma” found in the scriptures. I’m not a fundamentalist. The scriptures themselves are the end result of a process of analysis and systematization that arose at a time when the guardians of the tradition had competing views of what the Dharma was. Those who were passing on the teachings may not have fully understood what they were transmitting, or may have only had a theoretical understanding of it. The scriptures contain distortions, and even propaganda. They have to be read critically, and in the light of actual Dharma practice, since some of them can only be understood experientially.

However, the scriptures are the closest we’re going to get (textually) to what the Buddha taught, and to how he experienced the world. If we ignore them, and instead build an understanding of the Dharma that’s based on “fools gold” — mistranslations, Hinduizations, and misattributed citations — we’ll make it immeasurably harder, if not impossible, to move closer to awakening and to know the mind of the Buddha.

“The virtues, like the Muses, are always seen in groups. A good principle was never found solitary in any breast.”

Here’s a strange one!

The virtues, like the Muses, are always seen in groups. A good principle was never found solitary in any breast.

Abhijit Ranade wrote to me with this quote, saying, “I don’t think the Buddha would use words like the ‘Muses,’ which come from Greek mythology. Your thoughts?”

Abhijit was entirely right. Based on the Greek concepts and classical English diction in this quote, this could not be from the Buddhist scriptures. And yet, incredibly, when I searched for this quote nine out of the first ten results on Google attributed it to the Buddha. Only one had the correct attribution.

This quote is in fact by Jane Porter, and comes from a commentary she wrote in a book called “Aphorisms of Sir Philip Sidney.”

Aphorisms of Sir Philip Sidney: With Remarks, Volume 2

The Buddha did talk about virtues in groups, as with the Five Spiritual Faculties of faith, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

Moral virtue was seen as just the start of the spiritual path, with virtues associated with meditative attainment building on that ethical basis, and with insight arising in turn from meditative virtues. A good illustration of the way that these successive factors emerge organically is in the Cetana Sutta, which begins…

“For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.

“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.

“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.

Follow this link for the remainder.

“What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”

What you are is what you have been

This quote is often cited as being from the Buddha, and is found in several books:

What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.

It’s also often attributed to Sogyal Rinpoche’s “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” although using the “search inside the book” feature on Amazon I haven’t been able to find that quote there.

It’s simply not the kind of thing that the Buddha said.

It’s also internally inconsistent and incoherent. For consistency it should really say “What you are is what you have done. What you will be is what you do now.” The theme would then be that our actions shape who we are, which is a thoroughly Buddhist notion. Instead the first part of the quote is saying, in effect, what you were is what you are, which implies that you haven’t changed. The logical inference regarding the future would therefore be “what you are now is what you will be in the future.” That’s why I describe the quote as incoherent.

In fact, there are a couple of instances of the quote in the “what you have done” form, but the vast majority are “what you have been.”

The Buddha did stress that we create ourselves through our actions. He even, in an oft-repeated statement, metaphorically suggested that our actions give birth to who we are: “I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.”

He also, however, flatly contradicted that our entire experience is defined by our past:

So any brahmans & contemplatives who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those brahmans & contemplatives are wrong.

The point is that our present moment represents the confluence of what we have created in the past, with our present actions. To suggest that we are entirely “what we have done” is to ignore the possibility of our choosing, right now, how to relate to experiences that arise from the past.

Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa: Three tools for being better informed

mona lisaBecause I’ve been steeped in the study of Buddhism for decades, and have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the original texts (mostly in English, although I studied Pali at university too) there aren’t too many Fake Buddha Quotes that have taken me in. There were three or four that I’d come across repeatedly in books on Buddhism, often by respected authors, that had me completely fooled, but most of the fakes circulating on Twitter and Facebook stood out like novelty Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa.

Once I started researching the more obviously fake Buddha quotes, however, I realized that quotes sites have no quality control whatsoever, and that many publishers apparently don’t either. And so I started to question many of the other quotes I came across and that I’d often used in my teaching. That quote from Anaïs Nin, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”? Not by her at all! Petit-Senn’s “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate”? If it’s anywhere in his works, I haven’t been able to find it. Einstein’s thing about fish climbing trees? Ridiculous!

Now I check almost every quote I find before deciding whether or not to pass it on. Many of the quotes ascribed to the Founders of the US turn out to be patent fakes, serving political ends. Most Einstein quotes turn out to be fakes as well.

It’s all too easy to be taken in by fake information. David N. Rapp of the Department of Psychology and School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, who has studied why we succumb to false information, points out that “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it.”

Rapp says it’s not that we’re lazy, “though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.” I’m not sure if I quite get the distinction between being lazy and avoiding doing something that seems arduous, however!

Anyway, Rapp makes three suggestions to avoid falling into the misinformation trap, and I’d like to present those and comment on them in relation to fake quotes, rather than the original context of not memorizing junk info:

Critically evaluate information right away.

That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.

I’d suggest assuming that any quote you see is fake or falsely attributed until proven otherwise. Based on my past experience, 90% of the time you’ll be correct. Of course if you don’t mind the fact that our society is drowning in bogus information, and your sense of personal integrity doesn’t extend to caring about whether what you say (or quote) is true or not, then feel free to ignore this advice!

Consider the source

People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”

I’ve had people tell me that a quote from an unknown source is actually by x. Their source for this information? The internet. Yup, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true,” is a guiding principle for many people. Unfortunately, quotes sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are not bastions of fact-checking. Just because a quote pops up on your social media feed doesn’t mean it’s accurate or correctly attributed.

Beware of truthy falsehoods.

“When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said.

Why do we reflexly hit the share button when we see a quote? It’s because it pushes an emotional button. Those who pass on fake information are often trying to manipulate you, relying on your emotional responses overruling your rational mind. Perhaps the quote outrages us. Perhaps it generates a gleeful sense that “This will show those right wing gun-nuts/anti-2nd amendment liberal traitors!” In the case of a Fake Buddha Quote it may just be that sense of “I agree with this!” (Subtext: “The Buddha agrees with me! I must be so wise!”)

When you notice your emotions surging upon seeing a quote on social media, pause. This is a danger sign. It’s advance notification that you’re about to be someone else’s tool. Pause, take a breath, and then (maybe) do a little digging around to see if the quote’s actually genuine or not. (Hint: just because you see it on a bunch of webpages doesn’t mean it’s genuine!)

These three steps will help you be a more conscious and conscientious sharer. And that’s important. As Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” Of course Fake Einstein Quotes abound, but as it happens this one is genuine. It comes from the piece of writing he was engaged in at the time of his death.

“Suffering is not holding you. You are holding suffering.”

suffering is not holding youI’ve seen this one in a few places purporting to be from the Buddha. It’s definitely not something the Buddha said.

Mostly it’s attributed to Osho/Rajneesh, and I suspect that’s correct, although I haven’t yet found a definitive source. It’s usually included as part of this longer quotation:

Suffering is not holding you. You are holding suffering. When you become good at the art of letting sufferings go, then you’ll come to realize how unnecessary it was for you to drag those burdens around with you. You’ll see that no one else other than you was responsible. The truth is that existence wants your life to become a festival, because when you are unhappy, you also throw unhappiness all around. .

The Buddha of course had a lot to say about suffering, since his Dhamma (teaching) was aimed at liberating us from suffering. For example, he said:

Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha (suffering): Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (4)

Something I commonly hear is that the Buddha would be “too spiritual” to be bothered about being misquoted, or about having other people’s words ascribed to him. I have to suspect that in many instances these commenters aren’t familiar with what the Buddha actually said. Here’s one sutta in which the Buddha describes his concern that his teachings will end up being replaced by “the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples.”

Staying at Savatthi. “Monks, there once was a time when the Dasarahas had a large drum called ‘Summoner.’ Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasarahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner’s original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained.

“In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

“In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.

“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”

Here’s the source.