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 Alagaddupama Sutta:

You, O foolish man, have misrepresented us by what you personally have wrongly grasped. You have undermined your own (future) and have created much demerit. This, foolish man, will bring you much harm and suffering for a long time.

Strong words!

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.

The Buddha’s disciples were as concerned as the Buddha himself when it came to misquoting him —at least when the quotations are inaccurate. The same sutta I quoted above have monks saying to someone who has misquoted the Buddha,

Do not say so … do not say so! Do not misrepresent the Blessed One! It is not right to misrepresent him. Never would the Blessed One speak like that.

There was a strong concern for accuracy at that time, perhaps because the teachings were passed on orally. In an oral tradition, once an inaccuracy has become widespread, there is no “original text” to go back and consult. Fortunately we have the scriptures (which, unless there’s good evidence to the contrary, we can regard as being what the Buddha taught) and so we can compare quotes with them in order to determine whether they’re genuine or spurious.

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