A few minutes ago I stumbled across the following words from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
I think that people in the West don’t ask questions about whether or not a teaching was taught by the Buddha or has references in the teachings of the ancient valid pandits and yogis. For them it doesn’t seem important to check the references. When Western people listen to Dharma, they’re happy if it’s something that is immediately beneficial to their life, to their mind, especially if it’s related to their problems. It doesn’t matter whether it is something that Buddha taught or a demon taught. They don’t question or check. For them it is about getting some immediate benefit to their mind when they listen; they will then stay. Otherwise, after a few minutes they leave, especially during my talks. But generally speaking, in the East, people are more careful to examine whether something was taught by Buddha. They check the references so that they can see whether or not they can trust the practice, whether or not they can dedicate their life to this. They think about the long run, which is very important. In the West, the main concern is to immediately, right now, taste something sweet.
I’m not sure whether people in Asia are actually better at verifying sources, but I appreciated his perspective on seeking immediate gratification from teachings. One of the things that the Buddha (apparently) taught was that we should seek to verify quotes in the scriptures before taking them on board:
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.
Bhikkhu Thanissaro—prolific translator of Buddhist texts and a member of what I called the League of Extraordinary Gentle-Bhikkhus—has a great article in Tricycle debunking the idea that the Buddha taught that there was no self. Not only that, but he shows how a teaching the Buddha rejected became seen as his central doctrine.
This emphasis on the self not existing is often paired with the expression “anatta doctrine” or “no-self doctrine,” as if this was something the Buddha actually taught.
Here are the first three results for “anatta doctrine” that came up on Google.
The first, from Wikipedia, says “According to the anatta doctrine of Buddhism, at the core of all human beings and living creatures, there is no ‘eternal, essential and absolute something called a soul, self or atman.'”
The third says that this supposed doctrine “lies at the center of Buddhist thought.”
And yet there is no “anatta doctrine” in the Buddha’s teachings.
He used the word “anatta” a lot, but this is a word that means “not yourself.” Here are typical examples of how it’s used:
Then there is the case where a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma assumes about form: ‘This is not me, this is not my self [anatta], this is not what I am.’ [Source]
Now both the internal earth property and the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self [anatta].’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the mind dispassionate toward the earth property. [Source]
Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self [anatta].’ [Source]
The Buddha isn’t saying “there is no self.” He’s encouraging us to stop identifying anything as being our selves, which is a very different way. The purpose was to get us to let go of having any view of self. It was not to come to the realization “I have no self”— which would be just another view of self.
A more general statement of the principle behind the quotes given above is found in Dhammapada verse 179: “‘All things are not-self’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.”
Again, this is not saying that there is no self. Just that we should see nothing as constituting a self.
It would be odd for the Buddha to have a “central doctrine” that he somehow forgot to teach, and that he also contradicted in various places, such as in The Sabbasava Sutta:
The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self … This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
So, again: the view that there is no self is a hindrance to insight, just as the hindrance “I have a self.”
Now I confess that sometimes I do say that the self doesn’t exist, but I try to be careful to qualify that by saying that this means “the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist.” We like to think that there’s something in us that is unchanging, separate, and has agency, and that this constitutes our essence, or true self. Nothing like that exists. And that’s what the Buddha is pointing too. Perhaps my talking in that way is potentially misleading, so I’ll rethink whether perhaps I should change the language I use.
Anyway, do go check out Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s article. It’s worth a read.
Someone wrote to me today to let me know that they’d received a copy of the book from Parallax. I was surprised, since the release date is Nov 6. Hopefully this means I’ll have a copy in my hands soon.
If you’re still on the fence about buying my book on Fake Buddha Quotes, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha, which you can preorder now, check out the following comments from fans of this blog!
“If you are a Buddhist and believe in the law of kamma you should be more careful by making statements about the Buddha that are factually not true. You harm yourself and those who believe you.” Sebastian
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Yay! After many weekends and evenings of slaving over a hot MacBook Pro with 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3, and 256 GB SSD, my book on Fake Buddha Quotes is now on its way to the printers and available for preorder!
“I couldn’t put it down!” — Winston Churchill
“I never tire of reading Bodhipaksa.” – Abraham Lincoln
“So this is why you’ve been too busy to call? You’ll be sorry when I’m gone, Mr. Fancy-Pants Author!” — Ethel Fischbaum
If there’s a mildly pedantic Buddha Quote Fan in your life (and we both know I’m talking about you) this will make the perfect gift! And if you have friends who annoy you by sharing Fake Buddha Quotes on Facebook you can annoy them right back by giving them a copy!
You can pre-order “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” from the following emporia:
I have a contract with Parallax, a noted publisher of Buddhist books, to put together a book about Fake Buddha Quotes. Work is going well, and in fact I’m close to having finished the first rough draft.
I understand it will be published in October of next year, just in time for Christmas.
NPR has an article inspired by Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, investigating the phenomenon of the torrent of bogus quotations that flow through social media and occasionally make the people quoting them look foolish, as when the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, “‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years’ — Abraham Lincoln,” and when the US Postal Service put a misattributed quote on a stamp dedicated to Maya Angelou.
On the whole it’s a nice essay, making the point that the use of quotes has changed: “We do quotation differently now. Time was when it was chiefly a literary device, a way of weaving an essay or speech into an ongoing conversation with the past … Now they’re self-sufficient atoms of wisdom that make their own way in the world — passed along in chain emails, tweeted, posted on Instagram and Pinterest boards, inscribed on bracelets and household items.”
But then for some reason the author of this essay feels the need to throw some shade on Mr. O’Toole by saying “But you’d have to be an awful pedant to spend your time railing at the sloppy scholarship on motivational posters and coffee mugs. As long as they inspire and they console, most people couldn’t care less who actually said them.” It’s a shame to describe Mr O’Toole, who has been kind enough to help with one of the quotations on this site, as an “awful pedant.”
I guess that those of us who care about the accuracy of quotations are not like “most people,” and in that I rejoice. The Buddha’s often quoted as talking about “the manyfolk” as spiritually uninstructed and unwise. The word he used was actually puthujjana, which is a singular rather than a plural term, and is more accurately rendered as something like “ordinary person,” “worldling” or “run-of-the-mill person.”
The puthujjana is not to be despised (it’s a term for any person who has not attained the first stage of enlightenment) but early Buddhism was certainly not democratic and did not see the mass of unawakened individuals as a source of guidance, and instead looked to those who had, through skill and hard work, developed insight and wisdom.
If you’d like to distinguish yourself from most people (and I hope you do) then I hope you’ll get a hold of Garson O’Toole’s new book. Any book that sparks intellectual curiosity and a concern for accuracy is, in my opinion, worthwhile. And you can quote me on that.
I just stumbled across a paper called “The noble art of misquoting Camus — from its origins to the Internet era,” by philosopher and Société des Études Camusiennes member, Giovanni Gaetani.
Gaetani’s English is not quite broken, but perhaps we could say it’s “dented.” Nevertheless, he makes some good general points about misquotations in the age of the internet, including this:
The real importance of misquotes – and mistranslation as well – is undervalued. Whether they are big or small, hidden or manifest, made in bad or in good faith, they are always compromising because their inevitable destiny is to generate false commonplaces to be used either for or against the author. Indeed, while a specialist can probably detect at first glance the misquote or the mistranslation, the average reader – that is, the vast majority of an author’s audience – is condemned to believe to what he sees, no matter how disappointing it is.
Nonetheless, we underestimate [the] Internet’s impact on literature and philosophy: ever since everyone has the power to say his personal opinion about everything, even when he is a total incompetent about the subject; ever since everyone can quote a writer without feeling the need to report the source and ever since everyone seems to not care at all about sources, believing in everything he sees on Internet, every quote has completely lost reliability.
During my research I have contacted many bloggers, asking them where Camus should have written/said this or that; their answer was always the same: «check it on Google». Indeed, their reasoning was simple but tremendously naïve: if a quote is reported by so many people – millions of references in some cases – the author of this quote “must” be Albert Camus.
I paraphrase this attitude as “It must be true. I read it on the internet.”
Gaetani also tackles nine common misquotations or misattributed quotes, including one I’ve seen recently:
Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
This is actually from a children’s song from a Jewish summer camp.