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:
- The giving of material things,
- The Giving of Security and freedom from fear,
- 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?”
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.