“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.
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.
Something I commonly hear is that the Buddha would be “too spiritual” to be bothered about being misquoted, or about having other people’s words ascribed to him. I have to suspect that in many instances these commenters aren’t familiar with what the Buddha actually said. Here’s one sutta in which the Buddha describes his concern that his teachings will end up being replaced by “the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples.”
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.
“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.”
There’s a nice little Sutta called the Ani Sutta, which I stumbled upon today. It includes the following:
In future time, there will be bhikkhus [monks] who will not listen to the utterance of such discourses which are words of the Tathāgata [i.e. the Buddha], profound, profound in meaning, leading beyond the world, (consistently) connected with emptiness, they will not lend ear, they will not apply their mind on knowledge, they will not consider those teachings as to be taken up and mastered.
On the contrary, they will listen to the utterance of such discourses which are literary compositions made by poets, witty words, witty letters, by people from outside, or the words of disciples, they will lend ear, they will apply their mind on knowledge, they will consider those teachings as to be taken up and mastered.
Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘We will listen to the utterance of such discourses which are words of the Tathāgata, profound, profound in meaning, leading beyond the world, (consistently) connected with emptiness, we will lend ear, we will apply our mind on knowledge, we will consider those teachings as to be taken up and mastered.’ This is how, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves.
I thought that “literary compositions made by poets, witty words, witty letters, by people from outside, or the words of disciples” was a good description of many of the Fake Buddha Quotes you’ll find on this site, some of which are by disciples (such as Jack Kornfield, whose “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” has inadvertently given rise to many a FBQ), or “people from outside,” such as Marie Curie and G.K. Chesterton.
I’ve noted that some people are consistently drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes as opposed to quotes from the scriptures, and I presume this is because the fake quotes are often more poetic and polished than the genuine article. In non-Buddhists this is perhaps less of a surprise, but in those who profess to be Buddhists it’s rather puzzling, since one would expect them to have some familiarity with the teachings, and to recognize the cadence and language of the scriptures.
From time to time I receive chastisements from people who tell me that the Buddha wouldn’t care about being misquoted. How they know this, of course, is a mystery. Perhaps they have psychic powers that allow them to communicate with the dead. They certainly don’t seem to get their knowledge from the Buddhist scriptures, where one of the few things that really seemed to annoy the Buddha (besides noisy monks) was having words put into his mouth.
“Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata [a synonym for “Buddha”]. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”
Woodward (Gradual Sayings, Volume I, page 54) translates this same passage as:
Monks, these two misrepresent the Tathāgata. What two?
He who proclaims, as utterances on the Tathāgata, what he never said or uttered, and he who denies what was said or uttered by the Tathāgata. These are the two.
And in case you’re interested, here it is in Pali:
Dveme bhikkhave tathāgataṃ abbhācikkhanti. Katame dve ? Yo ca abhāsitaṃ alapitaṃ tathāgatena bhāsitaṃ lapitaṃ tathāgatenāti dīpeti, yo ca bhāsitaṃ lapitaṃ tathāgatena abhāsitaṃ alapitaṃ tathāgatenāti dīpeti. Ime kho bhikkhave dve tathāgataṃ abbhācikkhantīti.
In other words, according to the scriptures, the Buddha really, really didn’t like Fake Buddha Quotes.
“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.