Just observe the quotes, and then let them go

We just received the following comment on Wildmind’s Facebook page, regarding Fake Buddha Quotes:

Does it really matter if they are real or fake. And honestly, who really knows ?????
Just observe the quotes. And then let them go. We don’t need to have a strong opinion one way or the other. The fact that others thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.

I’m interested in this idea that we should “just observe” quotes and then “let them go.” Although I note that this particular person was not able simply to observe a Facebook post and let it go ;). Sorry, that was snarky of me.

What was the Buddha’s attitude to being misquoted? He was spiritually advanced, so presumably he would just observe misquotations and then let go of them? Well, not really. This is from the Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta:

Do not misrepresent the Blessed One; it is not good to misrepresent the Blessed One.

Of course he may have been misquoted on this! We have no way of knowing for sure what the Buddha said, although we can (despite the commenter above’s protestations otherwise) often identify that a quote attributed to the Buddha has a more recent origin.

“Does it really matter if they are real or fake?” If factual accuracy doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter when people say a quote is the Buddha’s when actually it’s not. But I happen to think accuracy is important. I’m not aiming to get annoyed about the misquotations I find, but I am keen to set the record straight when I can.

“The fact that others [are] thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.” I think it’s great that people want to quote the Buddha. But are they thinking about the Buddha’s teaching if the quotes they are passing on aren’t even his? Well, in some cases they may be, but in many cases they aren’t. They’re thinking about some other person’s words and teaching. And I’d hope that people who are genuinely interested in thinking about the Buddha’s teaching would at least be interested in what that teaching is.

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The endless round of fake Buddha quotes

Fairly often I see quotes attributed to the Buddha that bear no little or no resemblance to anything that’s found in Buddhist scriptures. One example is from a Christian minister who holds meetings in prison at the same time I’m there leading my Buddhist study group. He informed me that the Buddha had said that a greater teacher than him would arise in 500 years, and that we should follow that guy instead. Guess who that would be? The pastor and I had an interesting conversation about the ethics of making up quotes to denigrate other religions and promote your own (not that I was accusing him of having invented the quote — but someone had).

A less egregious, but as far as I’m aware equally inaccurate one appeared on Twitter yesterday, posted by @tricyclemag. They didn’t invent the quote — I’ve seen it circulating endlessly, and it will no doubt appear on more and more blogs (and books — it’s in dozens), and thus be accepted by more and more people as the actual word of the Buddha. Here’s the quote:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” -Buddha

Unless I’m mistaken, this seems to be a poor paraphrase of part of the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalamas, which runs like this:

…don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

Now a caveat: the Buddhist scriptures are vast and I can’t claim to have read all of them. To some extent I’m relying on the tone and language of the alleged Buddha quote, plus its obvious similarity to the Kalama sutta, to state that I think it’s a false quote. I may be wrong.

But assuming I’m correct, the Tricycle quote says you should trust your reason and common sense, while the Buddha says you shouldn’t trust “logical conjecture … inference … agreement through pondering views … [and] probability.” Collectively the Buddha’s list of things you shouldn’t rely on would seem to overlap totally with those Tricycle magazine thinks we should rely upon.

The Buddha of course isn’t saying we should jettison reason and common sense. What he’s implying is that both those things can be misleading and what’s ultimately the arbiter of what’s true is experience. It’s when you “know for yourselves” that something is true through experience that you know it’s true. (Also, we can rely on the opinion of “the wise.” This doesn’t mean accepting other people’s opinions blindly. It means that in your experience you can come to know that certain people tend to have a clear perception of what’s true and helpful in terms of spiritual practice, and so you don’t have to go around making every mistake under the sun in order to establish that they are in fact mistakes.)

The Tricycle quote displaces the role of experience in spiritual practice in favor of reason and common sense, which I think is very questionable. It suggests learning is something that happens in the head, rather than something that is gained through living, and it allows us to dismiss anything that contradicts our prejudices (common sense is often nothing other than clinging to established views.

More than that, though, I think it’s ethically problematical to pass on the message “the Buddha said such-and-such” without checking out that he actually did say that. Otherwise it’s not dissimilar to gossip, although presumably better-intentioned.

Because I write a monthly column based on quotations, I like to make sure that the statement I’m quoting is accurate and was actually made by the person in question. (Confession: I didn’t used to be so careful). There are many quotation sites that do no fact-checking at all and that are full of inaccurate, false, and misattributed quotes. Because these sites endlessly plagiarize each other, these false quotes end up all over the internet. It’s a shame that Buddhists join in with this trend, especially when it distorts the Buddha’s teaching, as I believe this “quote” does.

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