There is no “anatta doctrine”

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:

  1. 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]
  2. 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]
  3. 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.

Spotted in the wild!

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 don’t have yours, you can order it from:

The excitement is building!

I just received this email from Amazon…

Do pre-order! Even if I say so myself “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha” is a great read, and would make a fantastic holiday gift.

You can pre-order “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” from:

Fan mail

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

“Fuck you.” Anshul

“You seem like a stuck in the mind, egotistical, scholarly charlatan.” Warren

“Why do you feel the need to be judgemental, especially with things that are positive change and help people?” Apollo

“What makes a person who is interested in Sanskrit and the Buddha also possess a feeling of anger and superiority at others who have given a loving attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s work?” Crescent Rose

“Oh please go sit in silence, then go out and do something real to relieve as much suffering as you can.” Liz

“You seem willing to pull Buddha down, but not look at what was really said. To me this betrays an agenda – although I suppose that’s obvious seeing as you bothered to set up a website about it.” Tiny

“Clearly, you have no mindfulness or personal affinity for and understanding of Buddhism.” Amy

“You are so wrong on so many levels it’s not even worth proving it to you.” Teeto

“I think your ignorance has become fairly prominent.” Brandon

“Ignorant idiot.” Shankaran

“This is a club for like-minded sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals who are here to argue ad infinitum … I’m not in the contest that you want me to be in. My ego is not involved.” Greg

“Pointless junk.” Jesse

“Your article delivers your ignorance on the subject.” Benjamin

“I will try to force you to leave this road to hell.” Johann

“Some things you will never understand my friend. You are just a little kid who try to find write and wrong in the world.” Tharindu

“U are presenting hateful writings.” Samar

“All your Prejudices and stereotypes show how ‘poor’ you still are.” Dave

“Could have gotten it all out in a sentence or two.” Jayla

“Everything you’re saying on here is outright false.” Sara

“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” is now available for preorder!!!

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:

Fake Buddha Quote book

I have some good news!

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.

Awful pedants of the world, unite!

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.

Fake Camus quotes

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.

This:

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.

And this:

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.

Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa: Three tools for being better informed

Because I’ve been steeped in the study of Buddhism for decades, and have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the original texts (mostly in English, although I studied Pali at university too) there aren’t too many Fake Buddha Quotes that have taken me in. There were three or four that I’d come across repeatedly in books on Buddhism, often by respected authors, that had me completely fooled, but most of the fakes circulating on Twitter and Facebook stood out like novelty Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa.

Once I started researching the more obviously fake Buddha quotes, however, I realized that quotes sites have no quality control whatsoever, and that many publishers apparently don’t either. And so I started to question many of the other quotes I came across and that I’d often used in my teaching. That quote from Anaïs Nin, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”? Not by her at all! Petit-Senn’s “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate”? If it’s anywhere in his works, I haven’t been able to find it. Einstein’s thing about fish climbing trees? Ridiculous!

Now I check almost every quote I find before deciding whether or not to pass it on. Many of the quotes ascribed to the Founders of the US turn out to be patent fakes, serving political ends. Most Einstein quotes turn out to be fakes as well.

It’s all too easy to be taken in by fake information. David N. Rapp of the Department of Psychology and School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, who has studied why we succumb to false information, points out that “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it.”

Rapp says it’s not that we’re lazy, “though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.” I’m not sure if I quite get the distinction between being lazy and avoiding doing something that seems arduous, however!

Anyway, Rapp makes three suggestions to avoid falling into the misinformation trap, and I’d like to present those and comment on them in relation to fake quotes, rather than the original context of not memorizing junk info:

Critically evaluate information right away.

That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.

I’d suggest assuming that any quote you see is fake or falsely attributed until proven otherwise. Based on my past experience, 90% of the time you’ll be correct. Of course if you don’t mind the fact that our society is drowning in bogus information, and your sense of personal integrity doesn’t extend to caring about whether what you say (or quote) is true or not, then feel free to ignore this advice!

Consider the source

People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”

I’ve had people tell me that a quote from an unknown source is actually by x. Their source for this information? The internet. Yup, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true,” is a guiding principle for many people. Unfortunately, quotes sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are not bastions of fact-checking. Just because a quote pops up on your social media feed doesn’t mean it’s accurate or correctly attributed.

Beware of truthy falsehoods.

“When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said.

Why do we reflexly hit the share button when we see a quote? It’s because it pushes an emotional button. Those who pass on fake information are often trying to manipulate you, relying on your emotional responses overruling your rational mind. Perhaps the quote outrages us. Perhaps it generates a gleeful sense that “This will show those right wing gun-nuts/anti-2nd amendment liberal traitors!” In the case of a Fake Buddha Quote it may just be that sense of “I agree with this!” (Subtext: “The Buddha agrees with me! I must be so wise!”)

When you notice your emotions surging upon seeing a quote on social media, pause. This is a danger sign. It’s advance notification that you’re about to be someone else’s tool. Pause, take a breath, and then (maybe) do a little digging around to see if the quote’s actually genuine or not. (Hint: just because you see it on a bunch of webpages doesn’t mean it’s genuine!)

These three steps will help you be a more conscious and conscientious sharer. And that’s important. As Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” Of course Fake Einstein Quotes abound, but as it happens this one is genuine. It comes from the piece of writing he was engaged in at the time of his death.