“The mind that perceives the limitation is the limitation”

“The mind that perceives the limitation is the limitation” is not a quote from the Buddha. It’s neither in the style of the early Nikāya scriptures (of which the Pali Tipitika/Canon is the best-known example) nor in the style of the later and more literary Mahayana Sutras.

The language and phrasing are far too contemporary for this to be from the Buddha.

Unfortunately I don’t know the ultimate origin of this quote. So far I haven’t found any instances of it occurring before 2012, which suggests that it is in fact of modern origins.

Awful pedants of the world, unite!

NPR has an article inspired by Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, investigating the phenomenon of the torrent of bogus quotations that flow through social media and occasionally make the people quoting them look foolish, as when the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, “‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years’ — Abraham Lincoln,” and when the US Postal Service put a misattributed quote on a stamp dedicated to Maya Angelou.

On the whole it’s a nice essay, making the point that the use of quotes has changed: “We do quotation differently now. Time was when it was chiefly a literary device, a way of weaving an essay or speech into an ongoing conversation with the past … Now they’re self-sufficient atoms of wisdom that make their own way in the world — passed along in chain emails, tweeted, posted on Instagram and Pinterest boards, inscribed on bracelets and household items.”

But then for some reason the author of this essay feels the need to throw some shade on Mr. O’Toole by saying “But you’d have to be an awful pedant to spend your time railing at the sloppy scholarship on motivational posters and coffee mugs. As long as they inspire and they console, most people couldn’t care less who actually said them.” It’s a shame to describe Mr O’Toole, who has been kind enough to help with one of the quotations on this site, as an “awful pedant.”

I guess that those of us who care about the accuracy of quotations are not like “most people,” and in that I rejoice. The Buddha’s often quoted as talking about “the manyfolk” as spiritually uninstructed and unwise. The word he used was actually puthujjana, which is a singular rather than a plural term, and is more accurately rendered as something like “ordinary person,” “worldling” or “run-of-the-mill person.”

The puthujjana is not to be despised (it’s a term for any person who has not attained the first stage of enlightenment) but early Buddhism was certainly not democratic and did not see the mass of unawakened individuals as a source of guidance, and instead looked to those who had, through skill and hard work, developed insight and wisdom.

If you’d like to distinguish yourself from most people (and I hope you do) then I hope you’ll get a hold of Garson O’Toole’s new book. Any book that sparks intellectual curiosity and a concern for accuracy is, in my opinion, worthwhile. And you can quote me on that.

“Until he has unconditional and unbiased love for all beings, man will not find peace.”

This quote was passed on to me this morning:

“Until he has unconditional and unbiased love for all beings, man will not find peace.”

It’s definitely not from the Buddha, although apparently a lot of people think it is. It’s attributed to the Buddha in a ton of images, Facebook quotes, quote sites, and in at least three books.

The person who sent it to me thought that it could be traced back to the Pure Land nun Shi Wuling, although so far I haven’t been able to confirm that. It’s certainly found in a book called “Heart of a Buddha” (2000, Amitabha Publications). The book is described as containing “teachings by the Buddha, Venerable Master Chin Kung, and Venerable Wuling,” but in fact most of the teachings that are supposedly by the Buddha are Fake Buddha Quotes. There’s no way of knowing whether this quote was thought by the compiler to be by the Buddha or whether it was original to one of the two teachers (unless it can be found in an earlier work published by one or the other of them). So the origin, at present, is unknown.

The language of “unconditional love” is far too contemporary for the Buddha. It’s an expression that only seems to have entered the English language in the 19th century, and there’s no term in the Buddhist scriptures that could literally be translated in those words, although the concept of a love that was unlimited is certainly found there.

I don’t recall the Buddha ever talking about “man” (or “mankind” or any synonym for humanity as a whole”) finding peace. I don’t think he expected that humanity as a whole would ever be able to bring such a thing about. He saw peace (in the form of Awakening, or bodhi) as accessible to only the small number of people who will ardently pursue it through spiritual practice.

In general, the quote is overall too polished and literary to be from the Buddha. It’s definitely contemporary.

The most famous instance of unconditional love in the Pali scriptures is in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, part of which reads as follows:

Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,

Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

Let none deceive or decry
His fellow anywhere;
Let none wish others harm
In resentment or in hate.

The quality being described is called “metta,” which is indeed an unbounded or unconditioned love. There is a meditation practice to help us cultivate this open state of kindness and care, and I have a guide to that practice on my main website.

The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (6)

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who exclude the meaning and the Dhamma by means of badly acquired discourses whose phrasing is a semblance [of the correct phrasing] are acting for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause the good Dhamma to disappear.

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who conform to the meaning and the Dhamma with well-acquired discourses whose phrasing is not [mere] semblance are acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much merit and sustain the good Dhamma.”

This can be found on page 160 of “The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha,” translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

So the message here is that when paraphrasing is bad enough to “exclude the meaning and the Dhamma [truth]” from the teachings, it does a grave disservice to spiritual seeker and causes the destruction of the Dharma/Dhamma. This makes sense. When people hear teachings purporting to be Buddhism which distort the message of the Buddha — when a “Fake Buddhism” appears — then the genuine teachings are compromised.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that paraphrasing in itself is bad. The statement is about paraphrases that distort and obscure the teachings. I call this category the “lost in mistranslation” kind of Fake Buddha Quote.

Many of the fake quotes on this site are of this nature.

Note the Buddha’s very strong language, with words like “ruin, harm, and suffering.” The claim many people make that the Buddha would be “too spiritual” to be concerned about being misquoted is fictional, if we assume that this sutta correctly represents what the Buddha taught. And really there’s no basis for assuming otherwise.

“The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Federico Weinstabl passed this one on to me, which he’d kindly translated from the Spanish, (“El conflicto no es entre el bien et el mal, sino entre el conocimiento y el ignorancia”) as “The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Neither version sounds like something from the Buddhist scriptures.

The word pāpa is used for “evil” and there’s a whole chapter on the topic — the Papavagga — in the Dhammapada. Pāpa is often contrasted with puñña, which is most often translated not as “good” but as “merit.” Puñña and pāpa are very much a pair.

Here’s an essay on the topic, by Venerable Asabho, in which the author notes, “Asian Buddhists who have grown up in their religion … are quite often surprised to find out that the concepts of puñña and pāpa (meritorious and demeritorious action), which they see as self-evident, seem to play a considerably less important role in the lives of Western Buddhists.”

The contrast between puñña and pāpa is seen in the Dhammapada chapter I referred to, where the second and third verses parallel each other thus:

Pāpaṃ ce puriso kayirā na taṃ kayirā punappunaṃ
Na tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha dukkho pāpassa uccayo.

Should a person commit evil, let him not do it again and again. Let him not find pleasure therein, for painful is the accumulation of evil.

Puññaṃ ce puriso kayirā kayirāthetaṃ punappunaṃ
Tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha sukho puññassa uccayo.

Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.

It’s true that westerners are drawn to the more technically precise terms “skillful” and “unskillful” (kusala/akusala) and tend to be put off by mentions of good and evil. I much prefer them myself! Puñña and pāpa are often encountered in poetic contexts (the Dhammapada is in poetic form), while skillful and unskillful are more often found in detailed explanations of psychology and practice.

Anyway, what’s the origin of this quote? I suspect that the words are actually those of contemporary Buddhist teacher David Loy. For example, in an essay in “Poverty and Morality: Religious and Secular Perspectives,” (Ethikon Institute, 2010) he wrote “For Buddhism, the primary issue is a struggle not between good and evil but between ignorance and insight.”

In another essay, this time in “The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra” (Snow Lion, 2006) he wrote “The Eastern duality is not between good and evil but between ignorance and wisdom.”

And in “Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement” (Springer International, 2016) he wrote “For Buddhism, the fundamental axis is not between good and evil but between ignorance/delusion and awakening/wisdom.”

And again, we find “In Buddhism, the primary issue is not a struggle not between good and evil but progress from ignorance to insight” in “The World Market and Interreligious Dialogue” (Cascade Books, 2011).

Incidentally, I think David Loy is correct in pointing out that in Buddhism, the duality between good and evil is not primary or fundamental. In my opinion, for what that’s worth, the Buddha used the terms puñña and pāpa as a matter of cultural convenience (they were familiar to the laity) and (as I’ve noted) for metrical convenience as well. But Buddhist morality is better expressed in terms of skillfulness and unskillfulness.

The way I explain these terms is to say that skill is about being able to accomplish an aim. A skilled carpenter can aim to make a functional and beautiful coffee table and do so. An unskilled worker cannot. In life, we all have the aim of finding happiness and escaping suffering. A practitioner is able to accomplish this only if she or he can cultivate skillful (kusala) states of mind, which are those free from greed, hatred, and delusion. This works because greed, hatred, and delusion inherently and inevitably lead to suffering, while non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion inherently and inevitably free us from suffering.

The Buddha thus encouraged us to abandon what is unskillful not because it is “bad” or “evil” but because it doesn’t free us from suffering. This is made explicit in the Kusala Sutta:

If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

How David Loy’s words got taken to be the word of the Buddha, I don’t know. But to compensate for my lack of knowledge, here’s a picture of me with the lovely David Loy! (Mr. Loy is, of course, the good-looking one!)

“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.