The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (1)

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“Whatever is well said is a saying of the Blessed One.” Well, maybe not.

From time to time I receive critical messages from people, claiming that the Buddha was too spiritual to bother about things like being misquoted, or having words put in his mouth. How they know this, I don’t know. Perhaps they have some kind of mystical communion with deceased enlightened beings.

Not having such powers, I have to read the Buddhist scriptures for clues to his attitude. There I find the Buddha, at times, facing people who say “I heard you said such-and-such,” and when their information is incorrect I see him putting them straight, in no uncertain terms. But there’s also a passage in the Digha Nikaya where the Buddha explicitly talks about being misquoted. (Thanks to Arjuna Ranatunga for reminding me of this sutta).

There the Buddha runs through various scenarios where one might hear that the Buddha is reported to have said something or other. What’s our response meant to be?

Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.

That’s what this blog is about, although generally I try to find where non-Buddhist quotes have originated and, being human, I sometimes fall into scorn. I’m working on it, though.

There’s another sutta that Arjuna reminded me of, which comes not from the Buddha but from his disciple, Uttara. That sutta contains this oft-quoted saying:

“…whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One.”

This would seem to suggest that if the Buddha’s quoted as having said something, then as long as the quote is “well-said” we should accept it as his word. This is a rather odd idea, on the face of it. It’s hard to imagine someone as ethical as the Buddha being prepared to take the credit for others’ bons mots.

Take a look at the context of the sutta, though. Uttara is in a conversation with Sakka, the king of the devas (or gods). As an aside, what does this mean? I tend to assume that such conversations are the recordings of inner dialog. In this case Uttara would have been musing on the nature of authenticity. He’s just given a teaching, and a note (perhaps of doubt) creeps into his mind: “Whose teaching is this, mine or the Buddha’s?” And an answer comes to him: It’s basically the Buddha’s teaching; I just go to the grain pile and carry away basketfuls of Dhamma as I need them. I’d suggest reading the following passage in that light.

“But is this Ven. Uttara’s own extemporaneous invention, or is it the saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One?”

“Very well, then, deva-king, I will give you an analogy, for there are cases where it’s through an analogy that observant people can understand the meaning of what is being said. Suppose that not far from a village or town there was a great pile of grain, from which a great crowd of people were carrying away grain on their bodies, on their heads, in their laps, or in their cupped hands. If someone were to approach that great crowd of people and ask them, ‘From where are you carrying away grain?’ answering in what way would that great crowd of people answer so as to be answering rightly?”

“Venerable sir, they would answer, ‘We are carrying it from that great pile of grain,’ so as to be answering rightly.”

“In the same way, deva-king, whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One. Adopting it again & again from there do we & others speak.”

Or maybe you believe in gods.

But it’s obvious from the context that what is “well said” refers to that which is taken from the grain pile of the Buddha’s teaching. It seems likely that Uttara was actually saying “whatever I have said that is well said is the word of the Buddha.” This is not unlike a common line that is found in book acknowledgements, along the lines, “Whatever is of value here comes from my teachers; the errors are all my own.” Uttara was not saying that if Voltaire or Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf happens to say something neat it can be co-opted as Buddha-vacana — the utterance of the Buddha. So ultimately Uttara’s utterance doesn’t contradict the Buddha’s teaching that we should scrutinize supposed Buddha quotes and reject those that aren’t genuine.

4 thoughts on “The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (1)”

  1. Or, Uttara’s statement could be completely true, and we might have to simply face that pretty much nothing anyone says – even their ‘bon mots’ – apart from when it is directly in line with what the Buddha said, is actually all that “well said.” This, it increasingly seems to me, is so.

    SN 20.7 seems relevant and poignant, particularly in the context of this site:

    “Staying at Savatthi. “Monks, there once was a time when the Dasarahas had a large drum called ‘Summoner.’ Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasarahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner’s original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained. [1]

    “In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

    “In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.

    “Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.””

    (trans. Ven. Thanissaro)

    It’s also worth noting that Ven. Uttara’s teaching here was a direct carbon copy of one of the Buddha’s discourses (I don’t think you mentioned that).

    1. I’ve quoted that sutta elsewhere. It seems to me to be an accurate description of why some people are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. The suttas, frankly, are not very poetic and often aren’t pithy enough or elegant enough stylistically to make into neat quotes. Fake quotes are usually much more polished and are more instantly appealing. Some people are drawn to the “flash” of fake quotes, and aren’t prepared to do the work necessary to appreciate the scriptures.

      1. Agreed. Yes, I saw it elsewhere on the site shortly after I posted. Further, fake Buddha quotes aside, the Buddha is saying that any of the quotes and teachings we tend to deem ‘well-said’ from other sources, even from our best Buddhist teachers, pale in comparison to his words. Too, that our tendency to deem them ‘well said’ is a cause for decline. They’re demanding standards, but this is inescapably the message. Ven. U’s words are only certifiable as well said because they’re exactly what the Buddha would have said (and did say). Similarly, when the Buddha announces that a disciple has spoken exactly as he would have, those words can truly be called well said.

        It’s thoroughly encouraging to see your love for and fidelity to the suttas. Thank you, and may your efforts lead to the supreme goal !

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