Fake Buddha Quote book

I have some good news!

I have a contract with Parallax, a noted publisher of Buddhist books, to put together a book about Fake Buddha Quotes. Work is going well, and in fact I’m close to having finished the first rough draft.

I understand it will be published in October of next year, just in time for Christmas.

“If we destroy something around us we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves.”

This quote seems to come from a document explaining Buddhist teachings, put together by an organization called The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a monastery in Talmage, California.

In that text we find the following, which refers to the Buddha:

He discovered three great truths. He explained these truths in a simple way so that everyone could understand them.

1. Nothing is lost in the universe

The first truth is that nothing is lost in the universe. Matter turns into energy, energy turns into matter. A dead leaf turns into soil. A seed sprouts and becomes a new plant. Old solar systems disintegrate and turn into cosmic rays. We are born of our parents, our children are born of us.

We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us, we are the same as everything. If we destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves. Understanding this truth, the Buddha and his disciples never killed any animal.

I could quibble with the statement that the Buddha formulated a truth that “nothing is lost in the universe” — I suspect that insight is borrowed from modern physics, and that the BUddha said no such thing — but my point here isn’t to critique the article, just to show it as the probable origin of this quote.

We are the same as plants, as trees, as other people, as the rain that falls. We consist of that which is around us, we are the same as everything” is a quote I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

“If we destroy something around us, we destroy ourselves. If we cheat another, we cheat ourselves” certainly strikes me as a wise perspective to hold.

However, this document clearly isn’t a Buddhist scripture, and isn’t claiming to represent what the Buddha said. It seems that someone has taken this quote and either accidentally or deliberately presented it as something the Buddha said.

It’s of course impossible to create without destroying: in order to grow food, for example, we have to clear the land, break the ground, and (no matter how careful we are) kill worms and insects. Rules for monks and nuns were stricter, since they didn’t have to work.

Lily de Silva has an article on Access to Insight on Buddhist attitudes to nature that gives a hint as to the care that monks were expected to take.

The Buddhist monk has to abide by an even stricter code of ethics than the layman. He has to abstain from practices which would involve even unintentional injury to living creatures. For instance, the Buddha promulgated the rule against going on a journey during the rainy season because of possible injury to worms and insects that come to the surface in wet weather. The same concern for non-violence prevents a monk from digging the ground.

De Silva also talks about attitudes to plants:

Buddhism expresses a gentle non-violent attitude towards the vegetable kingdom as well. It is said that one should not even break the branch of a tree that has given one shelter. Plants are so helpful to us in providing us with all necessities of life that we are expected not to adopt a callous attitude towards them. The more strict monastic rules prevent the monks from injuring plant life.

Householder Buddhists were of course in a different position. Many of them would have been farmers and would had to cut down trees, harvest crops, etc. And it would have been unavoidable that they killed small creatures while plowing the land and so on. But even then they weren’t supposed to kill or cause to kill animals. The general idea would have been to minimize the amount of destruction to living things in order to prevent suffering:

All tremble at violence,
All fear death;
Comparing oneself with others
One should neither kill nor cause others to kill.
(Dhammapada Verse 129)

“The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I was asked about this one today: “The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I immediately remembered a discourse from the Buddha where teaching is described as the highest miracle. The Buddha outlines, in some detail, the miracle of psychic power, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.

Here’s the part about instruction:

And what is the miracle of instruction? There is the case where a certain person gives instruction in this way: ‘Direct your thought in this way, don’t direct it in that. Attend to things in this way, don’t attend to them in that. Let go of this, enter and remain in that.’ This is called the miracle of instruction.

The Buddha himself doesn’t say that this is the highest miracle: that’s left to his interlocutor, the brahman Sangarava. The Buddha doesn’t say that this assessment is correct, but he doesn’t contradict that part of what Sangarava said, so I presume he did agree.

I think that Jack Kornfield may be responsible for this quote. It’s not in his “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” whose title has led many to think that the contents are scriptural, when actually they’re Jack’s distillations and adaptations of various Buddhist and non-Buddhist sayings, but all of the Google results for this quote are connected with him. For example it’s found in this article he wrote.

Perhaps Jack was quoting from memory and mixed up “teaching” and “learning.” Or perhaps there is another sutta somewhere that describes learning as a miracle — which it is, I guess. But for now I’m categorizing this as fake.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, although the internet is generally convinced that this this is a saying of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. A couple of outliers attribute this to the philosopher Aristotle, which may have happened because someone either didn’t read a citation very carefully or thought that the two men were the one and the same.

The attributions to Onassis don’t start until around 2009, which makes it very suspect, given that he died in 1975. Dead men rarely coin inspiring aphorisms.

Anyway, this is certainly not from the Buddha. I don’t think the metaphor of a “dark moment” can be found anywhere in the early scriptures.

The metaphor of darkness itself is quite common, though. For example there’s a common pericope put in the mouths of those who had just received teachings from the Buddha:

The Dhamma has been made clear in many ways by Master Gotama as though he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing the hidden, showing the way to one who is lost, holding up a lamp in the darkness for those with eyesight to see forms. (See here,
for example.)

And the Buddha described his own awakening thus: “Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose.”

And we’re told there are four kinds of people in the world: “One in darkness who is headed for darkness, one in darkness who is headed for light, one in light who is headed for darkness, and one in light who is headed for light.” You can read more about that here.

Anyway, it’s not the Buddha. And it’s probably not Aristotle Onassis. There is however another attribution that predates the Aristotle Onassis ones: Taylor Benson. The earliest Benson citations I’ve found so far on the web have been from 2007, and the earliest in a book is from 2004, in “365 Prescriptions for the Soul: Daily Messages of Inspiration, Hope, and Love,” by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel.

But who is Taylor Benson and did he/she actually say this? Unfortunately I’ve no idea.

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! The competition for “Worst Fake Buddha Quote of All Time” has been categorically won by the following:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

This particular quote is like one of those “Alpine Meadow” car air-fresheners: simultaneously sweet and putrid, and it bears as much resemblance to how the Buddha taught as the smell of one of those air-fresheners does to a genuine flower.

The quote is so awful that I expected it not to be very widespread, but in our post-fact world it turns out that in fact it’s all over the place. Many graphics have been created and the quote is listed in the usual quotes sites (as a writer on Wired said, “They misattribute everything, usually to Mark Twain.”) It’s even in an article in the Guardian, although so far I haven’t seen it in any books.

I don’t yet know where it originated. A review of a book called (brace yourself for another wave of nausea) “Mom, Dad, U R Wonderful” says that the book’s author, Salma Prabhu, attributes the quote to Osho, although there the quote is given, more sensibly, as:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying, as every child is a little Buddha who helps his parents grow up.”

(The quote in the review ends with an exclamation mark. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

It’s possible that this quote is from Osho, but I haven’t found it in the online library devoted to his writings. Perhaps it was in a talk, or perhaps Ms. Prabhu was mistaken.

Osho, incidentally, has been responsible for a few Fake Buddha Quotes.

“I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

Also found as “I am but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

The first version is found all over the web. The version with “but” seems originally to come from Carolyn Myss’ 2002 book, “Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential.” She’s repeated the quote in another of her books. In the earlier book she ascribes it to the semi-mythic 5th to 6th century Buddhist missionary, Bodhidharma, while later she states this was something that both the Buddha and Bodhidharma said.

Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake.

I haven’t found any record of Bodhidharma having used this analogy, and in any event I’m pretty sure he would have stuck with the tradition of saying it was the teachings that were like a pointing finger, and not himself.

The historical Buddha did compare his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. But he said nothing about the Dharma being a finger pointing at the moon or anything else. It’s a good analogy, though, and I’d imagine he would have used it had it occurred to him.

In the Mahayana Sutras the Buddha is portrayed as having used this or a similar analogy. In the Lankavatara (compiled in something like the 3rd to 4th centuries — that is, hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha) there’s the following:

Be not like the one who looks at the finger-tip. For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at; in like manner, Mahāmati, the people belonging to the class of the ignorant and simple-minded, like those of a childish group, are unable even unto their death to abandon the idea that in the finger-tip of words there is the meaning itself, and will not grasp ultimate reality because of their intent clinging to words which are no more than the finger-tip to them.

There’s no mention of the moon here, but this is essentially the same analogy.

In an even later scripture, the Shurangama, we find the entire analogy:

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Although the Lankavatara and Shurangama both have their origins in Indian Buddhism, the finger/moon analogy really took off in the world of Zen Buddhism. There’s a Zen text called the “Finger Pointing at the Moon” (Shigetsu Roku) and almost always when you hear this quote it’s associated with Zen.

If you’re a traditional Mahayanist who believes that the Buddha literally uttered the words of texts like the Lankavatara and Shurangama, then the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy is a genuine Buddha quote. But these are not words that, as far as we know, the historical Buddha used.

“Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer thereof.”

This one isn’t the Buddha.

It reminds me of something from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, or “Path of Purification,” which is from 1,000 years after the Buddha:

There is no doer of a deed
Or one who reaps the deed’s result;
Phenomena alone flow on—
No other view than this is right.
(XIX 20)

I’m pretty sure that our quote is a paraphrase or alternative translation of that passage.

Incidentally, the words are not Buddhaghosa’s. He makes it clear that he is quoting some unnamed “ancients.”

Another passage with similar resonances is also something Buddhaghosa is quoting anonymously:

For there is suffering, but none who suffers;
Doing exists although there is no doer.
Extinction is but no extinguished person;
Although there is a path, there is no goer.
(XVI 90)

There are probably similar teachings in the Mahayana Sutras. But there’s nothing quite like this in the early scriptures.

There is in the Phagguna Sutta an interesting series of passages like this:

“Who, O Lord, clings?”

“The question is not correct,” said the Exalted One, “I do not say that ‘he clings.’ Had I said so, then the question ‘Who clings?’ would be appropriate. But since I did not speak thus, the correct way to ask the question will be ‘What is the condition of clinging?’ And to that the correct reply is: ‘Craving is the condition of clinging; and clinging is the condition of the process of becoming.’ Such is the origin of this entire mass of suffering.”

So here the Buddha declines to talk in terms of “one who clings” and instead talks about how clinging comes to be, and what it leads to. This isn’t a million miles away from saying that “phenomena alone roll one” without a “doer.” But that still doesn’t make the quote in question a genuine quote from the Buddha.

He also comes close to the philosophy of those “Ancients” in the Kalaka Sutta, where again there are a number of passages similar to this:

[T]he Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha], when seeing what is to be seen, doesn’t construe an [object as] seen. He doesn’t construe an unseen. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-seen. He doesn’t construe a seer.

This seems to be that is called a nondual perspective, where he doesn’t conceive in terms such as “one who sees,” or “a thing that is seen.” And yet, seeing happens.

So, this quote is Buddhist, but we can’t say it’s from the Buddha.

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.”

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded” is commonly found attributed to the Buddha. It’s also seen as “Nothing can harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts,” where the wording is more natural.

In fact there is a scriptural quotation that is very close. In the Anguttara Nikaya there’s:

I don’t envision a single thing that, when unguarded, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when unguarded leads to great harm.

This is undoubtedly the prototype, and it’s a close enough paraphrase that it would be unfair to call it fake. If you’re looking to quote this, though, why not go for the more accurate version?

Does God exist?

There are a number of versions of the following story in circulation:

One day in the early morning Gautama Buddha was sitting in a garden quietly with his disciples. A man arrived silently and stood in the shadows, that man was a great devotee of Lord Rama. He had built many temples across the country, he had devoted many years in the service of Lord Rama. He would always chant Rama’s name and contemplate on Rama’s greatness. He was old and close to his last years. Even after many years of dedicated spiritual effort he was not realized.

He wanted to know for sure if there is a God or not? When he heard about the realized one (Buddha) , he came to get his doubt cleared. When he felt nobody would notice him talking to Siddartha, the Buddha. He asked Gautama “O enlightened one, Please tell me the truth! and truth only. Is there a god?”.

Buddha, from his intuition knew that man to be a great devotee of Lord Rama, he looked at that man with seriousness and said “No, My friend. There is no god”.
Buddha’s disciples that were gathered there were very relieved and joyous to finally know the truth that there was no god. They all started muttering between them, sharing what the Buddha had just told. Whenever a disciple had asked that question to Buddha he would become silent. So they never knew.

His words spread through the whole town, the whole town was celebrating the day on which the truth of NO GOD was revealed by the enlightened. They were finally free of the ideas of hell, heaven and of somebody sitting up to judge one’s actions.

It was getting late in the evening, and once again the disciples came back and sat around the Buddha.

There was a materialist who had been an atheist all his life, he had convinced 1000s of people that there was no god, he used to go to the priests and scholars and defeat them in the argument about god.

He too was getting old and little suspicion arose in him, “what if there is god? isn’t it waste of my life to spread the “NO GOD” message if there is god?” he thought. He was eaten by this doubt, he finally decided to know the truth and sought the enlightened one.

He slowly came up to where Buddha was sitting, and asked him “They say you are enlightened, Please tell me if there is GOD?”.

Buddha knowing that man to be an atheist said with firm voice as if he is in firm conviction “Yes, there is God”. Buddha’s disciples once again were back to confusion.
Moral of the story: Belief that there is God or belief that there is no God are both equally useless, one has to realize the truth in himself with diligent self-effort. Enlightened one had told each of them what they had to know in order for them to get stronger on their spiritual quest.

This particular version is from here

There is a rather different version by Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) which I think may be the earliest one. It can be found here.

Another version can be found here.

This is a story that (I presume) Osho made up — something he was prone to doing. It’s not from the Buddhist scriptures.

The Buddha did use different language and different spiritual models depending on his audience. So when talking to monks he would talk in terms of the spiritual goal being nibbana, or liberation from the rounds of rebirth. When talking with householders he was more likely to talk in terms of being reborn in heaven and avoiding hell.

What were his views on God, or gods, we should say, since he lived and taught in a polytheistic society?

First, the Buddha’s teaching is incompatible with an eternal, omnipotent God, and he thought such a belief to be spiritually harmful, since it diminishes our sense of personal responsibility. He did often talk as if gods such as Brahma existed, and described conversations with them. In these stories Brahma frequently comes off as a buffoon, and I think we can safely take such stories to be satirical in intent.

In one such story (in the Brahmajala Sutta) he pokes fun at Brahma as having deluded himself into thinking that he was the creator of everything. In another sutta he described Baka Brahma as “immersed in ignorance” for believing himself and his heaven as being permanent and said that the Brahma and his entire retinue were under the sway of Mara (roughly the Buddhist equivalent of the devil).

Toward the end of the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha recounts an episode in which Brahma confessed to being afraid of the other gods’ reaction if they discovered that he couldn’t answer questions put to him by one of the Buddha’s disciples — questions that the Buddha was able to answer.

Sometimes gods played positive roles in early Buddhist texts. Most famously, when the Buddha was newly awakened and unsure whether it would be possible for him to teach his realization to others, Brahma Sahampati appeared and encouraged him to work for the benefit of suffering beings. In this I suspect we’re hearing the words of the Buddha’s own compassionate nature communicating to him. Another time Brahma Sahampati gave the Buddha advice on lifestyle:

Let the wilderness serve for your seat and bed!
Go about set free from the ties that bind.
But if, perchance, you don’t find there your bliss, then
Live in a group — but watch over yourself:
Mindful, proceeding for alms from house to house,
Mindful, with guarded faculties — and wise.

Sometimes gods came to the Buddha as disciples, and heard teachings from him. Sometimes they gave teachings to monks.

There are always going to be some people who will be annoyed by me saying this but my sense is that the Buddha did not believe in gods, and that his stories involving them were either satirical or poetic. This particular story, however, was not one he told.

“The dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how to think.”

This one is found quite often on Facebook, on blogs, etc.

It certainly doesn’t ring true to me. While clear thinking is a useful and necessary quality to cultivate, ultimately the Dharma (or truth) is beyond thought.

I suspect this quote is a poor paraphrase of one of two expressions.

One is a formula known as the “Recollection of the Dhamma” (dhammanusati), which is encapsulated in a stock phrase that’s found many times in the Pali scriptures. It runs like this in a more normal translation:

“The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here and now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves (veditabbo viññūhī).”

The other is a separate although similar expression of the qualities of the Dhamma:

“Deep … is this Dhamma, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise (paṇḍitavedanīyo).”

No matter how clearly we think about the Dhamma, it’s ultimately not thinking that brings the kind of wisdom the Buddha is talking about here. As the second quote above says, the Dhamma is “beyond the scope of conjecture (atakkāvacaro)” — a phrase which has also be translated as “unattainable by reasoning” or “being beyond the sphere of thought.”

The Dhamma is something “to be experienced.” It’s something to be seen or realized (“realized” here not in the sense of “understood intellectually” but in the sense of “having made real in an experiential sense.”)

So far I’ve seen this one in only one book: “Buddhism In North-East India,” by Sristidhar Dutta and ‎Byomakesh Tripathy. There it’s found in the even more unlikely form; “The dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how to think and intellectual people who have the intelligence to use their minds clearly and know how to appreciate this dharma as a universal law.”

This quote, even more than the more common shorter version, may well be part of an attempt to make Buddhism seem more “rational” and therefore more palatable to modern readers.