They’re everywhere you look: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, quotes sites — even in books by well-known Buddhists. Fake Buddha Quotes abound.
To those who are familiar with the Buddhist scriptures, these Hallmark-style quotes attributed to the Buddha ring false, but it seems many people are preferentially attracted to the fake variety.
It’s hard sometimes to pinpoint why they sound fake. Usually it’s the language, which may be too flowery and poetic. Sometimes it’s the subject matter, which sounds too contemporary. The thing is, that although the Buddhist scriptures are vast (way larger than the Bible) they’re often not very quotable, or at least they tend not to have the immediate appeal that some of the fake variety has.
One question that arises though is whether there’s such a thing as a Genuine Buddha Quote. And in a sense there’s not. The earliest scriptures we have were passed down for hundreds of years before being committed to writing. What was passed down was no doubt simplified, edited, and made easier to memorize through chanting by being made repetitious. Hence the mind-numbing boringness of much of the Pāli canon. Some of what was passed down as the Buddha’s words probably wasn’t even his words to start with. After a few generations, who would be able to tell if a particular saying was just a popular piece of folk-wisdom, or something the Buddha actually said.
And then there are later Buddhist scriptures that were definitely not in any literal sense the word of the Buddha, although they may be of great spiritual depth. These Mahāyāna scriptures are all arguably Fake Buddha Quotes.
So if there’s no such thing as a for-sure, no-doubt-about-it Genuine Buddha Quote, then how can there be such a thing as a Fake Buddha Quote? Well, if something being passed around on Facebook can be definitively traced down to a source that isn’t Gautama Buddha, then that’s an obvious misattribution, and definitely not a Genuine Buddha Quote. Of if a saying’s origins can’t yet be traced, but the idiom and subject matter are so far removed from those of recognized Buddhist scriptures, then that’s (almost certainly) fake.
Then there’s another category. Some translators of Buddhist texts aren’t so much translators as Khalil Gibran wannabes who creatively render the Buddha’s words into a “new, improved” version that expresses their own views of spirituality but are so far from the original meaning that they’re essentially fake.
Another question: does this matter? Some people get very upset over this question. If their favorite Buddha Quote — about kittens and puppies, perhaps — is pointed out as not being traceable to the Buddha and perhaps attributable to some contemporary or historical writer, they tend to get annoyed. It’s as if you’re invalidating the inherent goodness of kittens and puppies. But that’s not my point here. Pointing out that something was not said by the Buddha doesn’t invalidate the quote. It just removes false attribution. Kittens and puppies are fine, but let’s be clear about the attribution of our quotes, where we can.
Again, does it matter, if the quote seems to be spiritually valid? If you’re one of those people who don’t think factual accuracy matters, then I guess this doesn’t matter. I’m not one of those people, though.
Would the Buddha care? I’ve been told often that he wouldn’t It’s amazing how much insight some people have into the Buddha’s mind. It’s as if they know exactly how he thought, and oddly he seems to agree with them a lot. Well, if you look at the Buddhist scriptures, there are many occasions where someone comes to the Buddha and tells him that they’ve heard that he has made a certain statement. If the statement is not something the Buddha has said, he tended to put his questioner straight in no uncertain terms.
So the Buddha seems to have been concerned about Fake Buddha Quotes, 2,500 years ago. I’m sure there will be new Fake Buddha Quotes being passed around 2,500 years from now. But hopefully this site will slow down their spread.