A poor man asked the Buddha, “Why am I so poor?”

a poor man asked the buddha

I’ve seen this particular Fake Buddha Quote several times now:

A poor man asked the Buddha, “Why am I so poor?”
The Buddha said, “you do not learn to give.”
So the poor man said, “If I’m not having anything?”
Buddha said: “You have a few things,
The Face, which can give a smile;
Mouth: you can praise or comfort others;
The Heart: it can open up to others;
Eyes: who can look the other with the eyes of goodness;
Body: which can be used to help others.”

The broken English (“If I’m not having anything?”) suggests that it was written by someone in India. With a little literary polishing it would make a fine Hallmark card to give to your Buddhist friends on Wesak, but it’s not something that’s from the scriptures.

In fact this little fable seems to be brand new; I haven’t found any instances of it on the web earlier than 2013. So far it doesn’t seem to have made it into any books, although surely that’s just a matter of time, since I’ve seen this appearing in a post by the well-known Western Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das, for example.

There’s nothing at all un-Buddhist about the advice given here, although I don’t recall the Buddha having described the practice of giving in such a way.

Dāna and cāga (giving, liberality, generosity) were practices that the Buddha strongly promoted, and that he saw as absolutely foundational to spiritual practice. Although he primarily talked of giving not only in terms of material things, but also in non-material ways, he seems to have conceived of the latter mainly in terms of the “gift of Dhamma” (i.e. the teachings):

There are these two kinds of gifts: a gift of material things and a gift of the Dhamma. Of the two, this is supreme: a gift of the Dhamma.

Householders were typically expected to give material things in order to support the monastics. Monastics were expected to give the Dhamma, in order to spiritually support the householders.

He never, as far as I know, talked of smiling, praise, etc., as forms of giving.

I know of one teaching, the Dhana Sutta (Discourse on Wealth), where other non-material forms of giving are at least implied:

These, monks, are seven forms of wealth.
The wealth that is confidence (saddhā),
the wealth that is virtue (sīla),
the wealth that is conscience (hiri) and remorse (ottapa),
the wealth of listening (suta), generosity (cāga),
with discernment (paññā) as the seventh form of wealth.

Since in the Buddha’s view wealth had to be shared in order that it be legitimized, there’s an implication that these seven things (the last of which would correspond to the giving of Dhamma) are forms of giving.

More explicitly, in the Abhisanda Sutta the Buddha described the practice of ethics (sīla, number 2 in our list above) as a form of giving, and where he referred to the five precepts as “five great gifts

There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from taking life. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the first gift…

(This formula is repeated for the other four precepts.)

According to Professor Damien Keown, in “A Dictionary of Buddhism,” the dāna-pāramitā, or perfection of generosity, is seen in the Mahāyāna as having three aspects:

  1. The giving of material things,
  2. The Giving of Security and freedom from fear,
  3. and the giving of the Dharma

If we take the sutta references I’ve given above, we can see that the Mahāyāna teaching is simply a systematization and clarification of what the Buddha taught.

So, once again, the message in our fake quotation is very Buddhist in content, but it’s not a scriptural quotation and isn’t a genuine quote from the Buddha. It’s more akin to the teaching technique of creative storytelling that I’ve discussed elsewhere. This can be a valid form of teaching, but in this instance we’re not even talking about a paraphrase of something the Buddha’s recorded as saying, but something entirely invented.

Although I’ve said that the version of the quote we’re discussing looks like it came from India, it may in turn be based on a parable told by the Taiwanese teacher Dharma Master Cheng Yen and published on the web in March 2013 as “How to Give, for the Person Who Has Nothing.” This shares many elements of our Fake Buddha Quote. For example it starts with the poor man asking the Buddha:

“I am destitute and have nothing. How am I to practice giving?”

and continues:

The Buddha smiled compassionately at the man and told him, “You don’t need to be rich to give. Giving doesn’t require money. Even in poverty, with no material possessions to your name, you can still give.”

“How is this possible? What is considered ‘giving’ then?” the man asked.

“Let me teach you seven ways you can give without needing any money at all,” the Buddha replied.

“The first way you can give is to smile…”

It’s rather a long passage so I’ll let you read the rest on the original site.

The first five (of seven) forms of giving that are listed here correspond exactly to the five in our suspect quote, so I’m reasonably confident it’s an adaptation and condensation of the teaching by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, unless of course both are based on a source that I haven’t yet tracked down.

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14 thoughts on “A poor man asked the Buddha, “Why am I so poor?””

    1. Yes, I am. The number of hacking attempts from Italy was just ridiculous, and so I decided to use the country-level blocking to fend them off.

    2. Apparently the problem is a British Telecom subsidiary in Italy that doesn’t properly secure its routers (or servers, I can’t remember which), and which ignores any requests to fix the situation. As a result, WordPress sites are bombarded with hacking attempts routed through Italy.

  1. I really don’t understand what means by fake Buddha. fakes can’t be Buddha and Buddha can’t be Buddha. how it comes in one single thing hot and cold both. I am sorry, but impossible no way…

    1. “Fake Buddha Quotes” means “Quotes that purport to be from the Buddha, but aren’t.” It’s Fake [Buddha Quotes], not [Fake Buddha] Quotes.

    1. You’re asking me to prove a negative, Sonam. If you believe this is a genuine quote from the Buddhist scriptures, feel free to provide a reference.

  2. I think that’s just a translated quote of Buddha. I have found many people were using this quote, “Why am I so poor?”
    The Buddha said, ……which can be used to help others.” I find this quote is quite okay. I don’t what exactly you are trying to do??? By the way are you a qualified Buddhist or researcher?

    It’s a sinful act if you mislead the wisdom of Buddha. Rectification is more important rather than giving a mere hint of criticism. http://fakebuddhaquotes.com itself have the direct implication to criticism.

    1. If this is a “translated quote” of the Buddha, Sirchogyal, would you be so kind as to point out where it’s found in the scriptures? If, as you say, “It’s a sinful act” to misrepresent the Buddha, then I’d imagine you’d want to be careful about misquoting him.

      As for whether I’m a “qualified Buddhist or researcher,” it’s a logical fallacy insist that a claim is true only if made by a “qualified” person (whatever that would mean in this case). And if I said something like “yes, I’m an ordained Buddhist and have a Master’s degree in Buddhism” I’m sure you could find another reason not to take my words seriously, because, after all, qualified people are frequently wrong.

      1. I have found this quote written even in Tibetan Text. But I am not sure how you have come to the conclusion claiming that it was a fake quote. Or is it your doubt or view about this quote? I think it is worth discussing rather than making criticisms to each other.

        Thanks!

        1. If you have a reference to where this quote can be found in a canonical Tibetan text, I’d be very interested in seeing it, Sirchogyal.

          1. “Buddha And His Dhamma”
            “Causes Of his Misunderstanding”
            1) What the Buddha preached was heard his audience,which largely consisted of the Bhikkhus.
            2) It’s the Bhikkhus who reported to the people at large what the Buddha had said on any particular matter.
            3) The art of writing had not yet developed.The Bhikkhus had therefore to memorize what they had heard. Not every Bhikkhu care to memorize what he heard. But there were some who had made it their profession to memorize.They were called Bhanakas.
            4) The Buddhist canonical literature is vast as ocean.To memorize all this was indeed a great feat.
            5) In reporting the Buddha it has often been found that he has been misreported.
            6) Many cases of misreported had been brought to the knowledge of the Buddha while he was alive.
            7) Reference may be made by way of illustration to five such cases. One in mentioned in the Alagadduparna Sutta,and other ine the Mahakamma -Vibhanga Sutta,a third in the Kannakatthala Sutta,fourth in the Maha -Tanha -Sankhya Sutta and fifth in the Jivaka Sutta.
            8) There were perhaps many more such cases of misreporting. For we find that even the Bhikkhus going to the Buddha asking him to tell them what they should do in such contingencies.
            9) The cases of misreporting are common with regard to karm and rebirth.
            10) These doctrines have also a place in the Bramhinic religion consequently it was easy to the Bhanakas to incorporate the Bramhinic tenets into the Buddhist Religion.
            11) One has therefore to be very careful in accepting what is said in the Buddhist canonical literature as being the word of the Buddha.
            12) There is however one test which is available.
            13) # If there is anything which could be said with confidence it is :”He was nothing if no rational,if no logical.” Anything therefore which is rational and logical,other things being equal,may be taken to be the word of the Buddha.”
            14)# The second thing is that the Buddha never cared to enter into a discussion which was not profitable for man’s welfare. Therefore anything attributed to the Buddha which didn’t relate to man’s welfare cannot be accepted to be the word of the Buddha.
            15) # There is a third test.It is that the Buddha divided all matters into two classes. Those about which he was certain and those about he was not certain. On matters which fell into class First, he has stated his views definitely and conclusively. On matters which fell into class Second, he has expressed his views. But they are only tentative views.
            16) In discussing the three question about which there is doubt and difference it is necessary to bear these tests in mind before deciding what the view of the Buddha was thereon.
            “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
            Book – IV Part – II
            “How Similarities in Terminology Conceal Fundamental Difference”
            Section V – “Causes of his Misunderstandings” page No.350
            “Buddha And His Dhamma”
            “Dr. Bhimravaji Ambedkar”

  3. I’m glad to know this quote wasn’t true. Unfortunately, though, being Buddhist in the western world has become a very expensive endeavour.
    I like your site.
    Be well,
    Chris

    1. I’m glad you like the site, Chris.

      Regarding Buddhism being expensive, it doesn’t cost any money to practice the precepts, to meditate, or to study (unless you buy books, and that’s generally a very reasonable cost for what you get). There are also lots of free resources online. Going on certain retreats (Spirit Rock, etc.) can be expensive, but there are places where it isn’t.

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