An open letter to Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala Publications

The following letter was sent to the president of Shambhala Publications on January 26, 2021. For a fuller explanation of the background on the issue being addressed, please see Ven. Akaliko’s essay, A Buddhist Literary Scandal; the Curious Case of ‘The First Free Women’.

Also, please visit the website, The First Free Women, established by Ayya Sudhamma, where you can see comparisons between Matty Weinberg’s original poems and a literal translation.

If you’d like your name to be added to this letter, please post your name and affiliation or qualifications in the comments below.


Dear Nikko,

We know you’ve received a number of messages expressing serious concerns about a book you published in February, 2020 — Matty Weingast’s “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” Some of us have been already signatories to such letters, but felt that a fuller response was in order.

Although this letter is critical in nature, we would like to emphasize that it’s offered in a spirit of kalyana mitrata and out of love for the Buddha’s teaching. It’s also written with respect and gratitude for the work that Shambhala Publications does in spreading the Dharma.

Many of us have expressed concerns that “The First Free Women” is being marketed as a translation of the sacred scripture called the Therigatha, when it is in fact no such thing. You and Matty have both at times denied that the book is marketed as a translation. In what follows we shall show clearly that that is false.

An accurate description of the contents of the book would be that it contains original poetry by Matty Weingast, very loosely inspired by the poems of early Buddhist nuns. The poems in the book are in no way translations.

Few Buddhists would have any problem with an author composing poetry inspired by the scriptures. Anyone is free to do that. However, Shambhala has, and continues to, market these original poems as being translation.

Shambhala’s Response to Critics is Part of the Problem

In a standard reply you’ve been sending out to people who have expressed their concerns about the book, Shambhala has been saying:

Dear Friend,

In February of 2020, Shambhala Publications released The First Free Women, by Matty Weingast, a work of poems inspired by the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, that is part of the Pali Canon of Buddhism.

As Matty notes in his introduction, “Many of the poems in this book closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees. Others are more like variations on a classic tune…these are not literal translations.”

While the book has been widely praised across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers, we have recently been made aware of concerns about our positioning of this book. We are thankful for this feedback and are taking steps to remedy this.

To that end, we are in the process of adjusting our online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation. We appreciate the feedback from our readers and remain proud to be the publisher of this original and inspiring work.

Shambhala Publications

While we’re happy to see that you are to some extent taking on board some of the concerns about the book, and how it’s marketed, we’re disquieted by this response, which in some ways merely perpetuates the problems critics are concerned about.

The quote you’ve pulled from Weingast’s introduction seems to suggest that there has been transparency from the start that this book is not a literal translation. However, a reader would almost certainly have to buy the book, believing it to be a translation, before reading Weingast’s comments.

Additionally, the quote is simply not true. Weingast says, “Many of the poems in this book closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees.” In fact, there is perhaps one poem (the first in the book) that is close to being a literal translation.

Weingast’s words, “these are not literal translations,” implies that these are still, in some sense, translations. They are not. They are original poems, arising from Weingast’s imagination. The content of Weingast’s poems is very, very different from that of the Elders.

Here, for example, is a comparison between Norman’s literal translation of poem 1.7 and Weingast’s poetic “interpretation.”

First, Norman:

You are Dhīrā because of your firm (dhīra) mental states; you are a bhikkhuni with developed faculties. Bear your last body, having conquered Māra and his mount.

Now, Weingast:

Truly strong
among those
who think themselves
strong.

Truly unafraid
among those
who hide their
fear.

A hero
among those
who talk of heroes.

Don’t be fooled by outward signs—
lifting heavy things
or picking fights with weaker opponents
and running headfirst into battle.

A real hero
walks the Path
to its end.

Then shows others the way.

It’s not enough to say that this is “not a literal translation.” Weingast’s version bears almost no resemblance to the original. This is not a “translation” but an original composition. Much has been omitted and much has been added.

References to Buddhist concepts have been removed. For example Dhīra’s reference to the end of rebirth and to Māra’s mount have been removed.

What has been added is pure fabrication, only tangentially related to Dhīra’s actual words.

Readers are being misled into believing that they are having an encounter with the personality of an ancient Buddhist nun. But the true Dhīra has been obliterated. A false Dhīra has replaced her—an imagined Dhīra created in Matty Weingast’s imagination. There is no possibility, reading Weingast’s poem, of “meeting” Dhīra. Dhīra has been silenced. The only person we can meet in this poem is Weingast himself, impersonating a 2,500-year-old nun.

This happens over and over again to all the Elder Nuns. Their voices are silenced. This is a “translation” that annihilates.

You write, “the book has been widely praised across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers.” Looking at the book’s endorsements, one will certainly see the names of very famous teachers, both male and female, from a number of traditions. However it seems from the wording they used that many believed that they were endorsing a translation:

  • “This inspiringly poetic translation of timeless wisdom reminds us of our freedom…”
  • “…the words of these liberated women are transmitted across centuries…”
  • “…as Rohini says in her poem, ‘then you will know the true welcome that is the very essence of the Path.'” [The real Rohini of course says no such thing.]
  • “These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life.”
  • “This book is a treasure trove of women’s voices…”

At least two people who endorsed the book have asked that their endorsements be removed, because they were under the misapprehension they were reviewing a translation. We’re sure more will follow.

Moreover, there are serious criticisms of this book from “across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers.”

You write, “we are in the process of adjusting our online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation.”

Removing ambiguity around the question of translation is an impossible task. As long as this book continues to be published, ambiguity around the question of translation will persist, and even worsen.

Here are some reasons why:

  • The subtitle of the book is “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” This inevitably suggests that the book contains the poems of early Buddhist nuns. Unless the book’s subtitle is changed, readers will continue to be misled into thinking that that’s the case.
  • Weingast is listed on the copyright page as “translator.” This will continue to mislead readers as long as the book exists in its current form.
  • The copyright page twice categorizes the book as a translation, using the Library of Congress categories, “Buddhist Poetry – Translations into English,” and “Pali Poetry – Translations into English.” Until the book is reprinted, readers will continue to be misled by these categorizations.
  • Because of those Library of Congress classifications, bookstores and libraries will continue to present this book as a translation.
  • As we’ve seen, many of the endorsements printed in the book refer to it as if it were a translation. As long as those endorsements remain in the book, readers will continue to be misled.
  • The second paragraph of the foreword mentions how Matty came to Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi and told her “he’d been working on a translation of the Therigatha.” The same paragraph tells us that Ven. Anandabodhi had a feeling “that this was going to be a translation unlike any [she] had read before.” For as long as this book remains in publication, anyone reading the first two paragraphs of the book will be misled.
  • Further down the first page of the foreword, Ven. Anandabodhi positions Weingast’s book among other “English translations,” which she disparages as “academic,” and although “literally accurate,” lacking in the ability to inspire. Not only does this position the book among other translations, but it claims that it is in some way superior to them. As long as the book remains in publication, anyone reading this will be seriously misled into thinking that this is not just a translation, but a particularly good one.
  • The book description on the back cover starts “Composed around the Buddha’s lifetime, the Therigatha (Poems of the Elder Buddhist Nuns) contains poems by the first Buddhist women. Here you’ll find princesses and courtesans, tired wives of arranged marriages and the desperately in love, those born with limitless wealth and those born with nothing at all. Their voices are all here.” One would have to be a very careful reader indeed to recognize that these words are not talking about the book that lies inside the cover those words are printed on. There is a level of almost lawyerly deception here.
  • Numerous reviews written by readers refer to the book as a translation. It is understandable that they have done so, given that they have been misled by the marketing described above. Since these reviews cannot be removed from sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, they will continue to spread the tragic misunderstandings that surround this book as long as it remains in publication.

That last point is perhaps the most telling in this affair. Shambhala has, in the very subtitle of the book, and in words contained within the book itself— created a false narrative which has taken on a life of its own and gone viral. As Mark Twain didn’t say, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth can put its boots on.”

It’s clear that in the minds of readers there is no “ambiguity” about this book’s status. They unambiguously take it to be a translation. The book itself—in its title, subtitle, foreword, copyright page, introduction, and endorsements—misleads. “Adjusting your online descriptions” will do nothing to change this. The marketing embedded in the book will continue to promulgate the false notion that it is a translation.

This book in its current form is inherently misleading. It is irredeemable.

Harm Is Being Caused

Considerable harm has been done by the publication of this book.

Presenting a book of original poetry as being part of the Buddhist sacred scriptures does harm to the Buddhist tradition. The early Buddhist scriptures are our most direct link with the historical Buddha, and to his early disciples, such as the Elder Nuns.

Although some find Weingast’s poetry inspiring and uplifting, the goal of the scriptures is not to induce a vague and temporary sense of “inspiration,” but to offer guidance that leads to Awakening. No one would want to be operated on by a surgeon whose training was based on a “creative rendering” of surgical procedures.

The Buddha himself was very concerned that the scriptures be passed on accurately. He presciently foresaw (SN 20.7) that people would gravitate more toward the words of poets than to the genuine sacred scriptures:

[I]n a future time there will be mendicants who won’t want to listen when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited. They won’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor will they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing.

But when discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases, composed by outsiders or spoken by disciples—are being recited they will want to listen. They’ll pay attention and apply their minds to understand them, and they’ll think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. And that is how the discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—will disappear.

Many thousands of readers have been deceived into believing they are reading the profound, transcendent accounts of the Elders, which they are in fact reading “discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases.”

The Buddha urged us (DN 16) to reject teachings that purported to be scriptural, but in fact weren’t:

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.

Thousands of people, reading Weingast’s poetry, genuinely believe they are reading a sacred Buddhist scripture. Believing that they have access to the Therigatha, they are unlikely to dig further and encounter the genuine voices of these ancient Realized women. If they do somehow pick up a more literal translation of the Therigatha they are likely, having been exposed to Weingast’s poetry, to find it strangely inaccessible and uninteresting.

The genuine words of the Elder Nuns are generally sparse and austere. Any Dharma practitioner who chooses to work past this in order to explore and reflect upon them will find them a rich source of information about early women Buddhists’ lives. They will find themselves touched by these women’s sometimes painful paths to awakening. They will find the Elder Nuns’ declarations of attainment inspirational. But if they have first encountered “The First Free Women,” and been conditioned to believe that ancient Buddhist nuns uttered verse that’s akin to modern poetry, they’re unlikely even to make the effort to explore the genuine teachings. Shambhala, in offering “discourses composed by poets” instead of the actual translated words of the Elder Nuns, is effectively dissuading people from reading genuine Buddhist scriptures.

Deception itself is unskillful and harmful. It erodes trust. Harm is done when a respected publisher perpetrates a literary fraud. How are we to know that the contents of other books brought out by Shambhala are authentic? How are we to know if your marketing of other books is not deceptive?

The trust of readers has been betrayed.

Women have bought this book believing that it connects them with the voices of early women practitioners. There are no such voices to be found there.

Teachers have bought this book and led retreats and study groups on it, believing it to be a translation, when it is not a translation. Misinformation has been proliferated.

Women’s Studies departments have bought this book, thinking it to be a powerful example of women speaking from the depths of their spiritual experience. They have been deceived.

Bookstores have shelved or listed this book among genuine Buddhist scriptures. This is not a genuine Buddhist scripture.

Shambhala’s website states, “Authenticity and integrity are paramount.” It seems clear that you have fallen short of those worthy ideals.

What Must Be Done

If Shambhala Publications is to live up to its ethos, restore trust, and attempt to undo the harm that has been done, the following steps must be taken:

  • The existing book, being irredeemably misleading, must be withdrawn from publication. Continued sales will simply compound the harm done.
  • Shambhala Publications must issue a public apology for the deception that has taken place. An explanation of how this deception came into being, and how it came to be defended, is urgently needed in order to restore faith in Shambhala Publications.
  • If Shambhala Publications chooses to republish Weingast’s poems, it must be under a different title. Existing reviews of the book, perpetuating the myth that this book is a translation, cannot be removed from online bookstores, Goodreads, and so on. There must be a clean break from those existing pages and the reviews they contain, otherwise any new version of the book will continue to be framed by misleading information.
  • The subtitle — “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns” — must be changed. This book does not contain the poems of the Elder Nuns. It should be clear to someone who does no more than glance at the cover that this is not a translation of a sacred text.
  • The new title and subtitle must not imply that the poems in the book are translations. It must be clear to potential readers that they are original works composed by Matty Weingast.
  • All promotional material, and especially the wording on and in the book, must explicitly state that the book is not a translation and clearly indicate that this is a collection of original poetry. It must be crystal clear that there is no question of them being translations.
  • The use of “weasel words” that might imply that the new work is a translation — “radical adaptation,” “creative rendering,” and so on — must be avoided. The language used must be truly unambiguous.
  • Shambhala Publications must work with the Library of Congress so that the subject headings indicate that this is an original work of poetry.
  • Existing endorsements should not be transferred to the new book. New endorsements must be sought from advance readers who are aware that this is a book of original poetry, and who are under no illusions that this is a translation or adaptation from a scriptural source. Those endorsements should not imply or state that the book is a work of translation.
  • The titles given to the poems should not imply that these poems were composed by nuns, as the existing titles inevitably would.

If “authenticity and integrity” are truly “paramount” to Shambhala, then these are necessary steps.

Sincerely yours,
Bodhipaksa, Dharma teacher and author.
Bhante Sujato, SuttaCentral.
Ven. Canda Bhikkhuni, Spiritual Director of Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project, UK.
Dr. Gillian Perrett PhD.
An Tran, Author of Meditations on the Mother Tongue.
Khemarato Bhikkhu, www.buddhistuniversity.net.
Dheerayupa Sukonthapanthu, Buddhist translator.
Venerable Sorata, Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery.
Richard Daley, Simsapa Grove Meditation Society.
Tasfan, Indonesian Buddhist Translator and Interpreter.
John Kelly, Pāli teacher and assistant Pāli translator, MA Buddhist Studies.
Dhammānando Bhikkhu, former Chairman of the Buddhist Association of Iceland.
Dr. Jake Mitra, former President Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils and former president of the Buddhist Council of WA.
Michael F. Roe, Esq.
Lynn J. Kelly, Dhamma teacher.
Akāliko Bhikkhu.
Adrian Tee, President of The Buddhist Society of Victoria Inc.
Dr. Leon Goldman.
Ven. Vimalanyani Bhikkhuni, Vihara Kanda Hermitage, Sri Lanka.
Ajahn Brahmali Mahathera, Translator of the Vinaya Piṭaka, Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery.
Richard P. Hayes (Dayamati Dharmachari), Professor Emeritus, Dept of Philosophy, University of New Mexico.
Sophie Voillot, Literary Translator and Lay Buddhist practitioner.
Dr. Justin Whitaker, PhD.
Bhikkhuni (Ayya) Sudhamma Theri, Founder, Charlotte Buddhist Vihara.
Jonathan Dresner, Associate Professor of Asian History, Pittsburg State University, Kansas.
Paññādīpa, Novice monk.
Upasika Viveka, Khemavara Sanctuary.
Gabriel Laera, Volunteer translator and contributor to SuttaCentral.

 

“A Buddhist literary scandal…”

Venerable Akaliko has written a brilliant exposé of the travesty that is “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” This purports to be a translation, by Matty Weingast, of poems originally written, as you’d expect, by early Buddhist nuns who lived up to 2,500 years ago.

Actually it’s a book of poems Matty made up and is passing off as the words of those nuns.

This affair gives every appearance of being a deeply deceptive and cynical exercise by both Matty and Shambhala, the book’s publisher. Much of the deception being practiced by Matty is self-deception. He really does seem to think he’s “channeling” the voices of ancient nuns in his poetry. I suspect genuinely wants to help women and to be an ally, but his way of doing so is by setting himself up at the center of the story (as the “hero”) and actually obliterating women’s voices.

The deception being played by Shambhala is more conscious, since they state outright that the book is a translation, hint that the book is a translation, market the book as a translation, and yet it’s clear from certain things they say that they know it isn’t a translation — or anything close to one.

Shambhala describes the book on the copyright page as coming under the categories, “Buddhist Poetry — translations into English” and “Pali poetry — translations into English.” The copyright page also describes Weinberg as “translator.” And the promotional copy Shambhala sent out about the book also describes it as a translation:

“This new and captivating translation of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Buddhist Nuns) is a modern rendition of classic stories from the very first Buddhist nuns. Reflecting on their lives and revelations, these women wrote countless poems as they embraced their new lives as nuns. Heartwarming, enlightening, and sometimes tough in all the right ways, these poems have now been translated to reach a modern audience.”

(I wrote about this a few days ago, sharing an article written by Ayya Suddhamma, a nun who first brought this issue to the attention of the wider Buddhist community.)

Ven. Akaliko’s piece is very well written and compelling. His criticisms of this book come under the following headings:

  • It’s not a ‘translation’
  • Deceptive marketing by Shambhala
  • Crossing a Sacred line
  • Erasing the Dhamma
  • Mansplaining Women’s Enlightenment.

I’d been planning on writing a longer article about “The First Free Women,” but Ven. Akaliko has done a better job than I ever could, which is why I’m sharing it here.

Actually I do plan to write an article for a newsletter of the Buddhist organization I’m involved with, and if I follow through on that I’ll publish it here too.

In the meantime, settle yourself down with a nice cuppa and enjoy Akaliko’s clear and compelling arguments.

“The world is a looking glass. It gives back to every man a true reflection of his own thoughts.”

A kind reader of this blog alerted me to this one yesterday: “The world is a looking glass. It gives back to every man a true reflection of his own thoughts. Rule your mind or it will rule you.”

This is a composite fake quote. The final sentence, “Rule your mind or it will rule you,” is one I’ve dealt with elsewhere. It’s a paraphrase of a quote by the Roman lyric poet, Horace (65–27 BCE).

The first two sentences were correctly identified by my correspondent as being from the work of the Indian-born English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. But actually it’s a misquote, from the novel he’s best known for, “Vanity Fair.”

The actual quote is, “The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” It’s our “face,” not our “thoughts” that Thackeray says is reflected by the world.

The quote continues, “Frown at it and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it and it is a jolly kind companion.”

This composite misquote/paraphrase (not-quite Thackeray plus not-quite Horace) is frequently misattributed to the Buddha.

It’s shockingly common. It’s found on the major quote sites, as you can see from the illustration above. It’s also common on Pinterest and on Twitter, as in this example:

Incidentally, the author’s name is Thackeray, not Thackery. A lot of people who post the misquoted Thackeray quote (with “thoughts” instead of “face”) get his name wrong, too:

Interestingly, the Buddha did talk about mirrors in a metaphorical sense. Talking to his son, who was an ordained bhikkhu (mendicant), the Buddha said:

What do you think, Rāhula? What is the purpose of a mirror?”

“It’s for checking your reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, deeds of body, speech, and mind should be done only after repeated checking.

At another time he talked about how a practitioner can become “skilled in the ways of their own mind”:

And how is a mendicant skilled in the ways of their own mind? Suppose there was a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments, and they check their own reflection in a clean bright mirror or a clear bowl of water. If they see any dirt or blemish there, they’d try to remove it. But if they don’t see any dirt or blemish there, they’re happy with that, as they’ve got all they wished for: ‘How fortunate that I’m clean!’ In the same way, checking is very helpful for a mendicant’s skillful qualities.

Translations that annihilate

In the Sutta Central discussion forum, Ayya Sudhamma (who goes by the handle “@Charlotteannun” there), posted an interesting analysis of a supposed translation of the Therigatha. The title literally means “Poems of the elder nuns,” and it’s an ancient Buddhist compilation of poems or songs composed by enlightened female disciples of the Buddha. It, and its counterpart the Theragatha (“Poems of the elder monks”), are among my favorite texts, since they directly and vividly present the voices of practitioners two and a half millennia ago, giving insight into their outer and inner lives.

I’ll quote, with Ayya Suddhamma’s permission, the entire post, and then make a few comments.

@Charlotteannun

We gained a new Therigatha (elder nuns’ poems) translation in 2020, The First Free Women by Matty Weingast.

Or at least we gained something that is lovely and inspiring, involving bhikkhunis, and generally relating in some way to the original poems. But is the book really a translation? And if not, does that matter?

While studying the Therigatha with a group throughout this past year, we compare up to half a dozen translations and often delve into Pāli phrasing. Several months ago a student began adding Weingast’s poems to the mix, and his were jarringly different. One poem that specially caught my attention when read aloud to us was Thig 4.1, the poem of Bhadda Kapilani.

Bhadda Kapilani’s poem is the only Therigatha poem of four verses, hence the sole poem in Chapter 4. Her four stanzas in Pāli, below, are each followed by an English translation by Ken Norman. I’ve come to rely upon Norman’s work, though not the most uplifting, for straightforward, literal translations easy to compare with the Pali. (He has passed away since I first drafted this sentence. May he enjoy all the karmic benefits of bringing true Dhamma to many people!)

(Additional translations by Bhante Sujato and Helmouth Becker/Ayya Khema are here )

# Bhaddākāpilānītherīgāthā
Bhaddā Kāpilānī

Putto buddhassa dāyādo,
kassapo susamāhito;
Pubbenivāsaṃ yovedi,
saggāpāyañca passati.

Kassapa, the son, the heir of the Buddha, well-concentrated, who knows that he has lived before, and sees heaven and hell,

Atho jātikkhayaṃ patto,
abhiññāvosito muni;
Etāhi tīhi vijjāhi,
tevijjo hoti brāhmaṇo.

and has attained the destruction of rebirth, is a sage perfected in supernormal knowledge. Because of these three knowledges he is a Brahmin with triple knowledge.

Tatheva bhaddā kāpilānī,
tevijjā maccuhāyinī;
Dhāreti antimaṃ dehaṃ,
jetvā māraṃ savāhiniṃ.

in just the same way Bhaddā Kāpilānī, with triple knowledge, having left death behind, bears her last body, having conquered Māra and his mount.

Disva ādīnavaṃ loke,
ubho pabbajitā mayaṃ;
Tyamha khīṇāsavā dantā,
sītibhūtamha nibbutā”ti.

Having seen the peril in the world, we both went forth; with āsavas annihilated, tamed, we have become cool, quenched.

In the first two verses of her poem, BK described extraordinary powers of her former husband, the revered elder Mahā Kassapa (“MK”), one of the greatest and most famous of the arahants. She poetically listed the “three knowledges” possessed by MK:

  1. knowledge of past lives
  2. seeing heaven & hell (which I infer to mean the power to see beings reborn according to their kamma), and
  3. destruction of the taints.

She further affirmed MK’s position as one who has attained the “Triple Knowledge” (a phrase borrowed from Brahmins’ different idea of the highest state) of these psychic powers.

In the 3rd verse BK declared that she herself matches MK’s powers – a shrewd approach to making controversial claims of greatness in a society reluctant to recognize spiritual might among women. She then further clarified her qualities of full enlightenment.

The 4th and final verse summarized her and MK’s shared history of urgently going forth, annihilating the taints, and becoming free.

This poem is a bold lion’s roar! It probably would have stunned her listeners.

Norman didn’t translate her name, but Bhaddā Kāpilānī means “Fortunate Kapilan Lady”.
Bhaddā = lucky or auspicious
Kāpilānī = lady of the Kapilas (a wealthy clan)

Matty Weingast’s poem:

Bhadda Kapilani ~ Red Hair

After our wedding,
my husband and I put on robes together
and soon went our separate ways.

Not exactly what most would call
a honeymoon.

Is that what love looks like?

Maybe –
when you see what love is
and what it isn’t.

Marriage is hard.
The good times come and go.

True love doesn’t throw a curtain
over the whole world
and imprison whoever it cares about the most
on an empty stage.

When the mind is free,
it’s free of expecting
more than is reasonable
from any one person.

Yes, this purports to be the same poem, I didn’t make a mistake!

Weingast’s version apparently incorporated parts of the commentarial background story. In brief, BK and her husband, both from wealthy prominent families, had both been reluctant to wed anyone, and maintained a celibate marriage. They left their great wealth and home to seek an end to suffering, and after joining the Buddha, each attained enlightenment. The Buddha declared BK foremost in the ability to recall past lives. Many of her past lives were shared with the future Mahā Kassapa; several of their shared past lives were detailed in the Apadana.

It’s a mystery where the name “Red Hair” came from; neither bhaddā nor kāpilānī have any secondary meaning related to hair or any color. Red hair did not appear among people of India in ancient times, unless perhaps colored by henna. (The detailed commentarial account of her life made no mention of her hair.)

Only the idea of their going forth together is preserved in Weingast’s version. Incorporation of parts of the poet’s legend arguably may be okay – but certainly not if nearly the entire original poem gets left out!

Descriptions of this amazing bhikkhuni’s full awakening and her delight in it – gone! Every reference to her superpowers – gone!

Gone too are her multiple direct and indirect references to rebirth – “knows that he has lived before”, “sees heaven and hell” – ie, sees rebirth according to kamma, “has attained the destruction of rebirth”, “these three knowledges”/“triple knowledge” – two of which involve recalling or observing rebirths, “having left death behind”, “bears her last body”.

A couple of my students affirm that Weingast consistently left out references to rebirth. This seems particularly hurtful when done to the words of the bhikkhuni named by the Buddha as foremost in the power to recollect past lives.

From this and numerous other poems shared with me from his book, Weingast appears to me to offer a collection of consoling, sweet poetry with little in common with the powerful original text. And also little in common with the ideals of early Buddhism, seeming more in tune with Western feel-good spirituality and secular sensibilities.

As a book of modern poetry that’s generally inspired by stories of the elder nuns, it stands up well and is worth reading. Yet it is sold as a translation of scripture.

The book’s subtitle calls it “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns”. The copyright page gives the LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Heading) as “Buddhist Poetry – Translations into English | Pali Poetry – Translations into English”. In his preface the author acknowledges that “these are not literal translations,” but this sounds like humble self-effacement, not a contradiction to all the signs that you’ve been sold a translation.

Amazon describes the book:

A radical and vivid rendering of poetry from the first Buddhist nuns that brings a new immediacy to their voices.

The Therigatha (“Verses of the Elder Nuns”) is the oldest collection of known writings from Buddhist women and one of the earliest collections of women’s literature in India. Composed during the life of the Buddha, the collection contains verses by early Buddhist nuns detailing everything from their disenchantment with their prescribed roles in society to their struggles on the path to enlightenment to their spiritual realizations…

In The First Free Women, Matty Weingast revives this ancient collection with a contemporary and radical adaptation. In this poetic re-envisioning that remains true to the original essence of each poem, he infuses each verse with vivid language that is not found in other translations. (emphases added)

This book is indeed poetic, it is quite a bold re-envisioning, and indeed you won’t find Weingast’s language in other translations! But perhaps so much originality should be a red flag.

My expectation of a translation is that if all copies of the text were lost except this translation, the text would be saved by it. Plenty of ancient texts have come down to us only in translation. To connect with the ancient wisdom in those otherwise lost texts, we depend upon the translators’ skill and their allegiance to the original lost documents.

My understanding of translation work has evolved, thanks to Bhante Sujato’s guidance, to accept that it doesn’t have to be true to the original word for word. Strict literal adherence often misleads, widening the gap of understanding instead of bridging it. Different phrasing may work just so long as the translation conveys the essence of the original – which the Amazon description claims Weingast has accomplished.

Has he? How does Weingast’s book stack up to this standard: if his were the only extant version of the elder bhikkhunis’ ancient poems, would their words be preserved or lost?

These ancient poems would be utterly lost. Given that one translation of various texts has, at times, actually become a community’s only copy, or even the whole world’s last copy of a precious text, this matters, and now more than ever. The world – and the West – seems to be in for a hard ride from climate change. In our future of predicted disruption there will be few books of Therigatha translations to be found, whereas many thousands of copies of Weingast’s replacement poems are already in people’s hands all across the West.

A few earnest students of Buddhism told me that they read Weingast’s translation believing they were reading a true translation of the Therigatha, and felt shocked to encounter the original Pāli poetry to which his book bears only a superficial connection. The likelihood of Weingast’s book being mistaken for a translation makes it hazardous for the long-term preservation of this scripture – a blow against the generations of monks who diligently labored across 2500 years to recall or write carefully every word of scripture with absolute precision, trying not to corrupt a single phrase.

Further, Weingast’s poems may mislead readers into a soft feel-good version of early Buddhism, without rebirth, without psychic powers, and, it seems to me from what I’ve read of it, without celebrating the promise of complete liberation.

In Weingast’s version the lioness’ roars of the ancient nuns have been muffled into a sweet new-agey purring.

By the way, a beautiful yet unfortunately obscure actual translation that’s available in free pdf is Anagarika Mahindra’s Therīgāthāpāli Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis, a Contemporary Translation .

The phenomenon of original poetry passed off as translation and artfully described as a “rendering” also applies to Thomas Byrom’s “Dhammapada,” which is more Byrom than it is Buddha, and which is responsible for a good many of the Fake Buddha Quotes found on this site.

Both Byrom’s and Weingast’s books are published by Shambhala. I believe journalists go by the rule that you have to have three instances of something before you can call it a trend, but I’m wondering if there might be a trend with this particular publisher. It seems to me irresponsible to imply that a book is a translation when it’s in fact original poetry somewhat inspired by the text supposedly being translated.

As another commenter on Sutta Central pointed out, the Buddhist teachers who wrote blurbs for Weingast’s book appeared unaware that they were promoting original poems written by a man rather than ancient poems written by women. The examples given were:

  • the words of these liberated women are transmitted
  • These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life
  • inspiringly poetic translation
  • renditions of the enlightenment songs of the early Buddhist nuns
  • rarely heard female voices
  • the voices are distinctly female
  • beautifully translated collection of po­ems
  • voices of the first bhikkhunis in this contemporary rendering of the Therigatha
  • voices of these awakened Buddhist women can be heard
  • Hearing the awakened heart expressed in such distinctive strong, clear, fem­inine voices
  • fresh rendering of these ancient words will be of interest to anyone looking for feminine Buddhist voice

In fact these ancient women’s voices were obliterated rather than heard. This is sad.

I’ll end simply by following up on a promise I made to Ayya Sudhamma, which is to direct you toward Anagarika Mahendra’s free translation of the Therigatha. Although it’s free, please leave a donation to help support the publisher if you can.

“Rule your mind or it will rule you”

I recently found this quote, “Rule your mind or it will rule you,” in a note I’d made to myself over five years ago. (How time flies!) It was posted by a woman I used to follow on the now-defunct (and for me, much-lamented) social media site Google+.

The quote isn’t at all in the style of the Buddhist scriptures, which made me suspicious. Actually I was more than suspicious; I was certain it wasn’t from the Buddha. The style is far too polished and literary, while the Buddhist scriptures tend to be rather clunky.

It only took a few minutes on Google to discover that the true author was (more or less) the Roman poet, Horace, or, to give him his full name, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It’s derived from a letter he wrote to a friend called Lollius Maximus.

In Latin (and in context) it’s

Ira furor brevis est; animum rege, qui, nisi paret, imperat; hunc frenis, hunc tu compesce catena.

In an 1870  translation by R.M. Millington the quote takes the following form:

Rage is brief madness; so, then, for it is or the slave or lord. Restrain the mind with bridle and with chain.

That “or … or …” construction (presumably corresponding to “either … or …”) sounds very archaic and strange to the modern ear. The title of that book is “The Epistles of Horace in Rhythmic Prose, for the Student.”

H. P. Haughton’s translation (in “The Classical Student’s Translation of Horace,” from 1844), is also rather archaic:

Ire is a brief fury; rule you your mind; which unless it obeys, commands. This do you restrain with curbs, this do you restrain with a chain.

Interestingly, the style there (especially the final sentence) is much closer to what you’ll find in the early Buddhist scriptures.

A more modern translation of the same passage (from David Ferry’s 2001 “The Epistles of Horace”) has:

…A fit of rage
Is a fit of honest-to-goodness genuine madness.
Keep control of your passions. If you don’t,
Your passions are sure to get control of you.
Keep control of them, bridle them, keep them in chains.

I believe the origin of the version we’re discussing here is a 1926 edition of “Putnam’s Complete Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words,” edited by William Gurney Benham. There the quote is given, on page 490, as

Animum rege, qui, nisi paret,
Imperat.
Rule your mind, which, unless it is your servant, is your master.
Horace, Ep., 2, Part 1

Now that’s not the same as the quote in question, which is actually from the index of the book, where references to the actual quotes are arranged by theme. “Rule your mind or it will rule you” is found twice, under “Inclination” and also under “Mind.” The wording given is not meant to be a translation of Horace, but rather a summary of what Horace was saying. In fact the index suggests that this paraphrase also applies to another quote, on page 559, but unfortunately the version of Putnam that I consulted had that page missing (!) so I don’t yet know what other author had expressed the same thought. So “Rule your mind or it will rule you” is a summary or paraphrase of Horace, rather than a direct translation.

Over the next few decades, however, the paraphrase in the index has often been presented as a quote from Horace.

I can’t think of anything the Buddha said that’s a direct parallel to this paraphrase, although he did sometimes compare spiritual training to training an animal. For example in two verses of the Dhammapada he says:

322. Excellent are well-trained mules, thoroughbred Sindhu horses and noble tusker elephants. But better still is the man who has subdued himself.

323. Not by these mounts, however, would one go to the Untrodden Land (Nibbana), as one who is self-tamed goes by his own tamed and well-controlled mind.

In the Anguttara Nikaya he says,

Monks, I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great loss as the untamed mind. The untamed mind indeed conduces to great loss.

Monks, I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great profit as the tamed mind. The tamed mind indeed conduces to great profit.

Another verse from the Dhammapada has:

42. Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

So the Buddha seems to have had in mind an understanding not that different from Horace’s, but he doesn’t seem to have expressed it in the same way.

In an extended metaphor, the Buddha said that six wild animals tied together would try to go off in different directions, the overall direction of the six depending on the competing desires and relative strengths of the different beasts. This represents the mind, divided and pulled hither and thither by competing urges arising in the various senses.

Mindfulness acts like a stake to which the six are tied:

“Just as if a person, catching six animals of different ranges, of different habitats, were to bind them with a strong rope. Catching a snake, he would bind it with a strong rope. Catching a crocodile… a bird… a dog… a hyena… a monkey, he would bind it with a strong rope. Binding them all with a strong rope, he would tether them to a strong post or stake.

“Then those six animals, of different ranges, of different habitats, would each pull toward its own range & habitat. The snake would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the anthill.’ The crocodile would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the water.’ The bird would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll fly up into the air.’ The dog would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the village.’ The hyena would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the charnel ground.’ The monkey would pull, thinking, ‘I’ll go into the forest.’ And when these six animals became internally exhausted, they would stand, sit, or lie down right there next to the post or stake. In the same way, when a monk whose mindfulness immersed in the body is developed & pursued, the eye does not pull toward pleasing forms, and unpleasing forms are not repellent. The ear does not pull toward pleasing sounds… The nose does not pull toward pleasing aromas… The tongue does not pull toward pleasing flavors… The body does not pull toward pleasing tactile sensations… The intellect does not pull toward pleasing ideas, and unpleasing ideas are not repellent. This, monks, is restraint.”

If you watch your mind for any length of time in meditation, you’ll notice that it does in fact dart here and there. Staying with the object of the meditation (e.g. the sensations of the breathing) is exceedingly difficult! Mindfulness allows us to notice when the mind has gone this way or that, and to bring it back to the breathing. Since many of the thoughts to which the mind would turn, if unrestrained, would reinforce anxiety, anger, self-doubt, etc., we find ourselves calmer and happier. A mind compassionately and mindfully restrained is a happy mind.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.”

I found this quote in an article on Medium.com  with the title “6 Quotes By Buddha That Will Change How You See The World And Yourself.” The piece was written by Sinem Günel.

Amazingly, not one of the six quotes is by the Buddha, suggesting once again that some people have a positive attraction toward bogus quotes — a kind of “bullshit detector” in reverse.

Here are the six quotes Günel offers us as the supposed teachings of the Buddha.

  1. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
  2. Don’t respond to rudeness. When people are rude to you, they reveal who they are, not who you are. Don’t take it personally. Be silent.”
  3. “Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.”
  4. Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot at least, we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”
  5. Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
  6. It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

I’ve linked to the fake quotes I’ve already covered on this site. The one I’m dealing with today is one I hadn’t come across before:

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.”

This quote is in fact compiled from snippets of a poem by Sri Chinmoy (born Chinmoy Kumar Ghose), a post-Hindu teacher who spent most of his adult life in the US and who had a number of famous followers, including the musicians Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin.

I remember when I lived in Glasgow, Scotland, seeing posters for flute concerts that Sri Chinmoy used to give, and I was interested in attending one, although I never quite got around to doing so. Perhaps if I had I’d be blogging on a “Fake Veda Quotes” site right now.

The poem is one of a pair that are together titled “Forgiveness.” Both are found on page 76 of Sri Chinmoy’s book “Happiness,” published by Agni Press in 1994.

The poem in full reads:

Judge nothing;
You will be happy.
My own personal experience
I am sharing with you.

Try to forgive everything;
You will be happier.
My own personal realisation
I am sharing with you.

Love everything;
You will be happiest.
God’s own personal secret
I am sharing with you.

The Buddha probably would have been scathing had anyone suggested to him that his teaching included the injunction to “judge nothing.” By today’s standards of  spiritual discourse he was a judgemental so-and-so. When people misquoted him he’d say something like “Worthless man! From whom did you learn that I taught such a thing?” (Yes, the Buddha didn’t like being misquoted!)

For the Buddha, the ideal was not to abstain from judging, but to judge wisely, as represented by these verses from the Dhammapada:

256. Not by passing arbitrary judgments does a man become just; a wise man is he who investigates both right and wrong.

257. He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.

The whole question of what “judging” is is rather unclear. Is it bad to judge? If you answer yes, then you’ve just made a judgement!

One time when I was teaching I had someone who was upset by something I’d said, who pointed their finger at me and actually yelled, “THAT’S JUDGEMENTAL!” Is saying that someone is judgemental judgemental? Presumably yes.

The kind of judging that’s unhelpful is, from a Buddhist point of view, that which is based on craving/attachment, aversion/hatred, and confusion. But recognizing that actions have consequences for good or ill is a foundational principle in Buddhist practice, and this is the kind of “good judging” that the Buddha is encouraging in the Dhammapada verses above.

“Never respond to rudeness. When people are rude to you, they reveal who they are, not who you are.”

I found this quote in an article on Medium.com, written by Sinem Günel and titled “6 Quotes By Buddha That Will Change How You See The World And Yourself.”

Needless to say, not one of the quotes is by the Buddha, suggesting once again that some people have a positive attraction toward bogus quotes — a kind of “bullshit detector” in reverse.

Here’s what Günel offers us as the supposed teachings of the Buddha.

  1. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
  2. “Don’t respond to rudeness. When people are rude to you, they reveal who they are, not who you are. Don’t take it personally. Be silent.”
  3. Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.
  4. Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot at least, we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”
  5. Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
  6. It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

I’ve linked to the fake quotes I’ve already covered on this site. The one I’m dealing with today:

“Don’t respond to rudeness. When people are rude to you, they reveal who they are, not who you are. Don’t take it personally. Be silent.”

is completely new to me.

It doesn’t seem to be very old. I haven’t found it in any books on Google Books or on Archive.org. It’s not even on many websites. There are really just a few instances on Pinterest and Tumblr, where it starts “Never respond to rudeness…” rather than the “Don’t respond to rudeness…” that Gülen offers us.

The earliest instance of it I’ve found is on the Lifehack site, where the graphic embedding the quote is dated April, 2014. It may be older, though.

Although the quote is definitely not from the Buddha, it’s very much in line with his teachings. In the discourse (sutta) in which the Buddha teaches the famous Parable of the Saw he says:

They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way … They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’

The Buddha offers more advice on how to handle criticism in the Brahmajala Sutta:

“Mendicants, if others criticize me, the teaching, or the Saṅgha, don’t make yourselves resentful, bitter, and exasperated. You’ll get angry and upset, which would be an obstacle for you alone. If others were to criticize me, the teaching, or the Saṅgha, and you got angry and upset, would you be able to understand whether they spoke well or poorly?”

“No, sir.”

“If others criticize me, the teaching, or the Saṅgha, you should explain that what is untrue is in fact untrue: ‘This is why that’s untrue, this is why that’s false. There’s no such thing in us, it’s not found among us.’”

And lastly, the Buddha once demonstrated through his actions how to deal with criticism when a priest bombarded him with insults. First he asks the priest (brahmin) if he offers treats to guests who visit him (and you can imagine the priest thinking, “What? This has to be a set-up of some kind!”):

“Yes, Gotama, sometimes I do offer them snacks or food or tidbits.”

“But if, brahman, they do not accept it, who gets it?”

“If Gotama, they do not accept it, I get it back.”

“Even so, brahman, you are abusing us who do not abuse, you are angry with us who do not get angry, you are quarreling with us who do not quarrel. All this of yours we don’t accept. You alone, brahman, get it back; all this, brahman, belongs to you.”

Basically, the Buddha says, the priest’s insults are about him, not about the Buddha, who he is insulting. This is very close in meaning to the quote above.

By way of a bonus, Günel offers three other quotes, all of which are fake too:

Günel certainly has talent as a writer but her research skills are, unfortunately, not on the same level.

“A Tale of Two Bodhis”: Real Buddha Quotes in a novel

I seem to have made an entry into the world of fiction. A book I read recently — “Dark Path,” by Melissa F. Miller — happens to have a Buddhist protagonist called “Bodhi.”

I, of course, am a Buddhist called Bodhi.

This fictional Bodhi is Dr. Bodhi King, who is a forensic examiner. He’s a lanky, long-haired fellow who meditates and occasionally dispenses advice about mindfulness. The physical description is reminiscent of me twenty years ago.

Please note, in the photograph below, the shoulder-length hair I sported back in 1999. And although there’s no way to assess my height from the photograph, I am six feet tall and was, at that time, skinny enough to be termed “lanky.”

Your humble author, 1999, still lanky and rocking the long curly hair.

I’ve never been a forensic examiner, although I do have a degree in medicine (veterinary, though, not human).

No, I don’t think that Melissa F. Miller based her character on me. But I’m 100% confident that she took some of the Buddha quotes in the novel from two of my websites, including this one.

But first, I was delighted that there weren’t any Fake Buddha Quotes in the book! Many fiction authors, I’ve found, aren’t particularly good researchers. If they want to make a character appear wise, they simply grab something from a quote site and off they go. If they’re inclined to do a little “fact-checking” they’ll confirm that the quote in question can also be found on another quote site, and maybe a Facebook page or two. Of course is it’s on Facebook it must be true.

Miller, to her great credit, doesn’t put any Fake Buddha Quotes in her hero’s mouth.

Even more to her credit, she uses genuine quotations the headings for some chapters of the book. She even provides scriptural citations for those quotes. While most writers are happy to dangle the word “Buddha” at the end of their quotes, Miller gives the names of suttas. For example, here’s one quote she uses, accompanied by its attribution:

Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes.
The Buddha, Bhaddekaratta  Sutta

It can’t be a coincidence that every single quote she uses is found either on this site or on RealBuddhaQuotes.com (the sibling site to this one), that the wording in every one of the quotes is identical to what’s found on those sites, and that, similarly, the attributions are identically worded as well.

So I congratulate Ms. Miller on her diligent research. The only thing she didn’t do was give my Real Buddha Quotes or Fake Buddha Quotes sites any acknowledgement, but I can forgive that.

One slightly jarring note in the novel was a description of Bodhi King meditating:

Her eyes drifted up to the rearview mirror and she checked on Bodhi. He appeared to be meditating. His head was unbent and his eyes were closed. His hands rested on his thighs and his forefingers and thumbs met in two ovals. His lips were not moving, but she could have sworn she heard a vibrating sound coming from his throat.

The whole “meditating with the forefingers and thumbs making circles on the knees” thing is such a stereotype — and an inaccurate one at that. Any time I look for stock photos of people meditating, there it is. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever once, in almost 40 years of meditating, seen a Buddhist adopt that hand gesture.

You’re more likely to find me meditating in a turnip field wearing a sports bra than you are to see me doing that thing with my hands.

The most common position for the hands in Buddhism is  “dhyana mudra” (literally “meditation hand-position”) with the hands resting in the lap, the fingers of the right hand on top of the fingers of the left, with the tips of the thumbs touching.

There are four other books in the Bodhi King series, and I’m curious to know if Miller uses any more quotes from my website in them. I’m unlikely to read them to find out, though. Miller is a pretty good writer, but her style isn’t my cup of tea. If you happen to have copies, please let me know!

Here’s a complete list of the quotes that Miller borrows, with links to the Fake and Real Buddha Quotes sites:

PS: If you’re curious about “Dark Path” it might still be free on Apple Books and the Amazon Kindle store.

PPS: My name does actually appear in a novel written by a former meditation student of mine, Penelope J. Holt, who borrowed it for the name of a character who was a Buddhist monk. The book is called “The Painter’s Gift.” Penelope was kind enough to send me a copy when the book was published.

“Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

A friend recently asked me about this quote — “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme” — because she’s scrupulous about sourcing her attributions. I saw nothing suspicious about the quote at all but I like to help out a Dharma sister and so I went hunting.

The quote is very much in keeping with the style and content of the early scriptures, but I couldn’t find anything corresponding to this in either Access to Insight or, more tellingly, in Sutta Central. So it didn’t seem to come from the Pali sources.

Of course the Pali texts aren’t the only early Buddhist scriptures. There are many early texts that were translated into Chinese or Tibetan that aren’t found in the Pali Tipitaka, and there are early texts in Sanskrit and other Indian languages as well, although those tend to be fragmentary. And it’s possible that this quote might be found in one of those collections. (Despite some claims to the contrary, those texts are just as ancient as the Pali texts, and have an equal claim to represent what the Buddha taught.)

I did find the origins of the quote, however. It comes from the Sanskrit Mahaparinirvana Sutra (“the teaching on the great decease of the Buddha”). Now, you might assume that this is a Sanskrit version of the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which describes the Buddha’s last days and his death, but actually it’s a much later teaching, probably composed around the second century of the Common Era. It’s a Mahayana sutra, the Mahayana being a collection of schools that emphasized different things in order to reform Buddhism away from a narrow, monastic, scholarly interpretation of practice. Some emphasized a more devotional approach to practice, or emphasized compassion, or placed more emphasis on meditation, or explored (or perhaps even preserved) the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness.

In Mark L. Blum’s translation of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the same passage is translated as: “World-Honored One, just as among the footprints of all living beings there is nothing that surpasses the footprint of an elephant, so too is the concept of impermanence paramount among all concepts.”

In Kosho Yamamoto’s translation, it’s “Just as all beings leave behind footprints and the best of all footprints are those of the elephant, so with this thought of the non-Eternal: it heads all thoughts.”

So far I haven’t found which translation the version “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme” comes from.

Now, the reason I’m saying this is likely to be a Fake Buddha Quote is not because it comes from a Mahayana Sutra — I’ve pointed out before that my criteria for accepting a quote as valid is that it’s from a canonical scriptural source. And this one is from a canonical scriptural source, so what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that the quote, in the context of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, isn’t spoken by the Buddha, but is said to him by some unnamed monks. Since it’s not presented in the Sutra as something the Buddha said, it can’t be a Buddha quote.

This is something that a number of people, seeing that the quote comes from a Sutra, have missed. For example in one Lion’s Roar article, we read “The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. ‘Of all the footprints,’ he said, ‘that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” Similarly, in Tricycle magazine an author says: “‘Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme,’ declared the Buddha in the Great Nirvana Sutra. ‘And of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.'” And the same error has been made in a number of books.

Glenn H. Mullin takes a more careful approach in his book, “Living in the Face of Death”:

It is said in The Sutra of Buddha’s Entering into Parinirvana: “Of all footprints, That of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, Of all mindfulness meditations, That on death is supreme.”

I can well imagine the Buddha saying something like this quote. Perhaps he did! But unless it shows up in some scripture, attributed to him, then we shouldn’t describe is as something the Buddha said.

“Nothing remains without change.”

This one just came to my attention today. I spotted it in the feed of a Twitter user who is one of the worst offenders I know of where it comes to passing on Fake Buddha Quotes.  As far as I’m aware it doesn’t resemble anything the Buddha is reported to have said in any scripture from any era — and it’s definitely not from the early scriptures, which are our best bet for an accurate representation of what the Buddha literally said.

It’s yet another quote taken from the Japanese book, “The Teaching of Buddha,” which is a Gideon Bible–like publication found in hotel bedrooms throughout Japan and published by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai. There have been many, many editions of the book.

A fuller version of the quote reads:

It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world that everything is created by a series of causes and conditions and everything disappears by the same rule; everything changes, nothing remains without change.

It would be impossible to summarize here the Buddha’s teachings on change, impermanence, or inconstancy (anicca). But his approach was ruthlessly practical, and focused on how our inability to deal with the fact of change causes us suffering, and how we can find eace by learning to accept change.

Thanissaro has a good article on anicca, which he renders, rightly, I think, as inconstancy. I’d recommend reading it.