I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!

The Fake Buddha Quotes blog got a mention on BoingBoing a few days ago, which brought in an extra 11,000 or so visitors in one day (normally we have 2,000 visitors a day). With some hesitation I dipped into the comments on the article, and I was glad I did, so that I could appreciate some of the witty banter.

One of the gems was this image, which I loved 🙂

There was also this one, which unfortunately I couldn’t find in a larger size:

And that led me to a Google image search, where I found this:

I love them!

25 Mostly Fake Buddha Quotes That May or May Not Change Your Life

An undated blog post by Steven Bancarz, the creator of a website called ‘Spirit Science and Metaphysics’ purports to offer “25 Quotes From Buddha That Will Change Your Life.” Unfortunately, many of the 25 are Fake Buddha Quotes. But which ones?

So far Bancarz’s blog post has been liked or shared over half a million times on Facebook. That means it’s been read by roughly half as many people as visited this entire site last year. Oy, oy, oy! As Mark Twain never said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Let’s take a look at the quotes:

1) “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”

This one’s more-or-less genuine. Not a bad start for Mr. Bancarz! Go, Steve!

2) “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Damn. This one is totally Fake.

3) “A jug fills drop by drop.”

This one is genuine, although truncated. Not bad going so far! Can Steve keep it up?

4) “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.”

Sorry, no!

5) “To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

Oh, no! That one’s fake too!

6) “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

Whew! This one’s genuine!

Keep going. There’s more on the other side of this cartoon!

Enlightenment is so close! All you have to do is read the right quotes on Facebook!

7) “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

Oops! That one’s fake as well!!

8) “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Oh, so close! The middle sentence is kind of fake.

9) “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

Oh, dear!

10) “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”

Nope, not the Buddha.

11) “Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.”

This is more of a paraphrase than a quote.

12) “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.”

Yes! A genuine quote from the Buddha. The original doesn’t mention “love,” but that’s kind of OK.

13) “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

This one’s a stinker!

14) “It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one’s own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one’s own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice.”

Yay! Another genuine quote! Yay!

15) “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.”

Ooooo! Not even close. I bet you can’t guess who actually wrote this.

16) “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

You’re killing me here!

17) “Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

Oh, boy. Mr. Bancarz isn’t doing very well, is he?

If you need a rest from reading, check out the Facebook Buddha video below.

18) “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

This one is problematic in exactly the same way as “The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” above. In fact they’re the same freaking quote!

19) “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”

Nope. These words are a mangled version of a New Testament quotation, forced into a Buddhist context and then further mangled.

20) “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, 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.”

Nope!

These donuts put the OM in “nom.”

21) “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

Dear Buddha, no!

22) “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”

Punishment? I wonder what kind of rebirth you get for passing around Fake Buddha Quotes? ;).

23) “To conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”

This one’s close to being a quotation, but it’s really a paraphrase.

24) “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

It’s not a million miles off, but it’s another paraphrase rather than a quotation.

25) “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

He’s on a roll, but can Mr. Bancarz end on a genuine quote? Can he? Can he? Oh, no! It’s a really, really terrible fake!

Does it matter?

An inspiring quote is inspiring whoever said it. That’s true. But if you believe that factual accuracy is unimportant, then I have to disagree with you. Truth is better than bullshit.

Falsely attributed quotes may be a small matter, but as Einstein said: “Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

Summary

So, what’s Mr. Bancarz’s final score? Of his 25 Buddha quotes, three are straight-up genuine, five are paraphrases or thereabouts, and fully 17 are bogus. Even awarded half marks for the paraphrases, he earns a grade of 22% — a solid F.

I think this confirms my long-held suspicion that many people are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. It’s unfortunate that those are the people whose blog posts get shared half a million times on Facebook.

Why not share this one instead!

US Postal Service Puts Fake Maya Angelou Quote on a Stamp

Self-described “nerdy lexicographer” Erin McKean (for whom I have an intellectual crush) discusses today in the New York Times how the US Postal Service has included a misattributed quote on a stamp commemorating the poet and author Maya Angelou.

The quote, “A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, it sings because he has a song,” has obvious resonances with the title of Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” and it’s a line she herself quoted, but the actual author is the children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund.

McKean discusses “Churchillian Drift,” which is the phenomenon by which a quotation becomes misattributed from a less to a more well-known source. That perfectly describes the process of formation of many of the Fake Buddha Quotes on this site.

The term comes from the tendency to ascribe witty political sayings to Winston Churchill.

“Churchillian Drift,” McKean says, “is about reinforcing expressions with the comforting bulwark of a familiar authority.”

She describes how one of her own coinages (which I have to say I don’t find particularly memorable) became associated with a fashion editor by the name of Diana Vreeland—apparently she’s famous—to the point where McKean has even been accused of plagiarizing “Vreeland’s” words.

The column’s well worth reading.

Recommended site: Antiviral

A surprising amount of the stuff that’s passed around in social media is fake. Some of it should be obvious, like articles from the satirical publication The Onion that are read as if they were genuine news stories. Some are more difficult to spot, although many of them should by rights have social media users’ bullshit detectors registering 11 on a scale of one to ten.

To help us sift the gold dust from the coal dust is a relatively new feature on Gawker.com called “Antiviral.” That’s “anti–viral images, news stories, etc.” The blog doesn’t just debunk fake stories, but confirms real ones. The site describes its mission like this:

Occasionally, against all odds, you’ll see an interesting or even enjoyable picture on the Internet. But is it worth sharing, or just another Photoshop job that belongs in the digital trash heap? Check in here and find out if that viral photo deserves an enthusiastic “forward” or a pitiless “delete.”

It’s well worth dipping into as a reminder of how many attempts there are to dupe us, and how much gullibility exists in the world. Many people seem to have the motto “It must be true; I read it on the internet.”

Much of the most popular manipulation is political, and is designed to tap into our outrage. What else would explain the many people who believed this crappy photoshop of President Obama to be genuine?

A lot of it is designed to manipulate us through our sense of “cuteness.” Apparently the sight of this supposed “Madagascar monkey” was enough to completely disable the critical faculties of hundreds of thousands of people.

There’s a lot of bull crap out there. When you see something that’s too good to be true: check. It usually is.

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

These days, when people tell me that it’s nitpicking to discuss whether quotes attributed to the Buddha actually come from the Buddhist scriptures, I often counter with this quote from Einstein:

“Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”

Of course we could do with a Fake Einstein Quote website, 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.

“It doesn’t matter who said it, as long as it’s inspiring.”

One of the most common comments I receive from people who object to the notion of accurate citations is that it doesn’t matter who said a quote, as long as it’s inspiring.

So there should be no problem with the quote above, then?

This is from Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal cartoon, which I generally find hilarious. Of course I rarely take attributions on the web at face value, and so I dug into the origins of the quote. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hitler at all, but is adapted from a prize-winning poem by Bessie Stanley (1879–1952). According to Wikipedia, Stanley wrote the poem in essay form in 1904. Arranged as a poem, it goes like this:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.

The phrase “lived well, laughed often, and loved much” was very quickly paraphrased as “live well, laugh often, love much. For example, in a speech given in Niagara Falls on June 23, 1908, Mr G. P. Conard, Secretary of the Association of Transportation and Car Account Officers, said:

Paraphrasing Stanley, these men have achieved, and are still achieving, the full measure of success, for they live well, laugh often, and love much; they gain the trust of noble men and women, and the love of little children….” etc., etc., etc.

I like what Ingram is doing with his Fake Hitler Quote — lulling people with a “new agey” sort of message and then clobbering them over the head with the name “Hitler” to show them that attributions do in fact matter. No doubt however we’ll now see this quote circulating on the internet and appearing in books, incorrectly attributed.

One more point — if a quote’s source didn’t in fact matter then it’s not likely that people would keep attributing them to respected figures like Gandhi, Einstein, and the Buddha. It’s precisely because people do take quotes more seriously when they come from a well-known and respectable source that these misattributions arise.

The Buddha was not a “Hindu prince”

At least one of the quotes sites that perpetuates Fake Buddha Quotes refers to the Buddha as a “Hindu prince.” This term is doubly misleading, since the Buddha was definitely not a “Hindu” (even in his early life), and neither was he a prince in any real sense.

One of the main religious groupings that the Buddha debated was the hereditary Brahmin caste, who studied the Vedas and Upanishads. They didn’t appear to have a name for their religion, which had a philosophical side but mainly seemed to emphasize ritual and sacrifice—often animal sacrifice—and were very concerned about maintaining the orderliness of society, although there was a more radical wing that may have explored meditation. Needless to say, the Buddha did not regard himself as being part of the Brahminical tradition although he did try at times to subvert the language of Brahminism to say that “true Brahmins” are made—by their ethically skillful actions—and not born.

There’s nothing in the Pali canon that suggests the Buddha was ever a follower of the Brahminical tradition, even in his youth. In fact the area of the Indian subcontinent that he came from (the Sakyan territory), doesn’t seem to have been dominated by Brahminism, although it’s said that there were Brahmin villages there. The very fact that some villages are mentioned as being “brahmin” suggests that Brahminism was not ubiquitous there.

The two teachers he practiced with prior to his Awakening, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were from roughly the same geographical area as himself. They taught meditation rather than practicing the ritual-based practices of the Brahmins. They would have considered themselves to be “shramanas,” or radical, forest-based religious seekers, rather than “brahmanas,” who were of course home-dwelling, town- and village-based, and religiously conservative. Here’s what Dr. Alexander Berzin says of the shramanas:

The shramanas were wandering mendicant spiritual seekers. They came from castes other than the brahmins and sought liberation by leaving society from the start. They lived together in the forests, with no caste differences, as a spiritual community (Skt. sangha), rather than as solitary ascetics. They organized their autonomous communities on the model of the republics, with decisions made by assemblies. Moreover, all of them rejected a supreme god, such as Brahma, or any other form of a creator. Although the shramana communities had no caste differences within them, the laypeople who followed their teachings to a lesser extent and supported them still lived with the structure of the caste system.

This is the religious tradition that the Buddha practiced in, both before and after his Awakening. His religious community was not part of the Brahmin tradition, but a conscious rejection of its religious conservatism and social rigidity.

Of course now we might lump the shramana and brahmin traditions together under the heading “Hinduism,” but at the time of the Buddha that would have seemed absurd. It would like considering Islam and Christianity to be one religion. The term “Hindu” didn’t exist at the time of the Buddha, and the word wasn’t created until the 19th century. There were many religious traditions being practiced at the time of the Buddha, and they certainly were not unified into anything that could be called Hinduism. There isn’t a term in the Pali canon that corresponds to the word “Hindu.”

As Dr. Berzin notes, there’s no evidence that there was a concept of caste in the Sakyan territory (caste was an important aspect of Brahminical practice) and the Buddha seemed to regard the four-fold caste system of Brahminism as a foreign affair. The Sakyans regarded their warrior caste as being socially superior to the Brahmin caste, while in other parts of the continent the Brahmins had the top spot.

The appellation “prince” is arguable, depending on how you understand that word. Here’s Vishvapani in his Gautama Buddha (Quercus, 2011):

So far as we can tell, Gautama’s father Suddhodana, was a Shakyan aristocrat, and some sources call him a ‘raja’. But despite the version of Gautama’s life made familiar in legendary accounts, this doesn’t mean that he was a king (they were called ‘Maharajas’). It is possible that he was just one aristocrat among many, but according to some sources, Suddhodana was the Shakyans’ chief raja. We know from descriptions of other gana communities that chieftains were elected in a meeting of representatives of aristocratic families at the assembly hall…”

Excavations of the likely candidates for the Buddha’s home town don’t reveal any palaces, and in fact the term the Buddha uses when he does describe his father’s houses as “palaces” is not the same as the term used for the dwelling of a “king” (maharaja). Probably the term “mansion” would be more appropriate. So Suddhodana was more like a “tribal chief” than what we would think of as a king, and Gautama a “chief’s son” rather than a “prince.” The largest houses that have been excavated are of wooden construction, with people living above the animals’ accommodation. The archaeological evidence, in other words, doesn’t point to anything very royal.

The account of the young Gautama slipping into first jhana under the Rose-Apple tree while his father plowed a field was quite possibly nothing to do with the “ritual ground-breaking” of a king, but Suddhodana simply doing a bit of work on his farm.

Trevor Ling in “The Buddha” suggests that the Buddha’s father may have been the elected head of an aristocratic ruling class. We know that the Sakyan territory was governed by a council of some sort. And while Suddhodana may have been the head of this council (although he also may not), he certainly wouldn’t have had kingly powers.

Here’s Richard Gombrich, one of the world’s leading Buddhist scholars, on the Sakyan Republic:

The Buddha came from a community called (in Sanskrit) Shakyas; hence his commonest Sanskrit title, Shakyamuni, ‘the Sage of the Shakyas’. This fact is of great historical importance, because according to the Buddha (or, strictly speaking, according to words attributed to him in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta) he modelled the organization of his Sangha on that of such communities as his own. Historians usually call these communities ‘tribes’, but I am wary of that term, which corresponds to no word in Sanskrit or Pali. ‘Tribe’ evokes an isolated community with no socially structured inequality. The Shakyas seem not to have had a varna [caste] system but they did have servants. They were isolated to the extent that they were self-governing, and their polity was of a form not envisaged in brahminical theory. We deduce that the heads of households – maybe only those above a certain age or otherwise of a certain standing – met in council to discuss their problems and tried to reach unanimous decisions. Some historians call this an oligarchy, some a republic; certainly it was not a brahminical monarchy, and makes more than dubious the later story [emphasis added] that the future Buddha’s father was the local king. This polity presented the Buddha with a model of how a casteless society could function. In the Sangha he instituted no principle of rank but seniority, counted in that case from ordination; maybe age was the ranking principle in the Shakya council.

(From Theravada Buddhism, page 49–50)

The word “prince” — without reference to all the above — is highly misleading. And to call the Buddha a “Hindu prince” is doubly misleading.

There were kings (maharajas) on the Indian subcontinent at that time. In fact they were expanding their power and territory. Not only were the monarchies competing with each other, but they were busy mopping up the last of the northern republics, of which the Sakyan clan was one. Those kings had real royal powers, lived in palaces, and had large armies. The smaller-scale tribal republics didn’t stand a chance. The monarchies came to dominate, and shortly after the time of the Buddha the republics passed away, and the republican form of government became unthinkable. Quite possibly people couldn’t think of any other way of society being organized, since they’d never known anything different, and when they heard of the Buddha’s father being a “raja” they imagined him to have been something like the “maharajas” they were familiar with.

Of course later tradition also builds the Buddha into a king, because that sounds more impressive. We all want to build up our heroes.

Please excuse the mess

We had a bit of a hacking incident, and I’ve just finished putting the site back together again. The database was destroyed beyond repair and my backups turned out to be corrupted and unusable, so I had to manually copy posts over from Google’s cache. I was able to retrieve most, but not all, of the posts. Unfortunately all the comments have been irretrievably lost, along with some of the images.

This has been an interesting test of my equanimity!

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

“I wish people would stop using my face whenever they feel like they need a smart person to endorse their stupid ideas.” Albert Einstein (not!)

My attention was recently drawn to the following.

I was reminded of it when I saw a debate on Google+ over the veracity of a supposed Einstein quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Einstein, they tell me, was a smart guy. I doubt very much he believed that fish suffer from low self-esteem if we judge them on the basis of their ability to thrive in an arboreal environment. And in fact, after much consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that fish don’t actually care much what we think of them.

[More on the piscine low self-esteem quote here.]

The hate mail is getting more polite

Well, perhaps this is better termed “passive-aggressive mail,” rather than “hate mail,” but in a comment, Tharindu wrote:

Buddha was the most greatest person in the world. what he was say is so true..! some things you will never understand my friend. you are just a little kid who try to find write and wrong in the world dear Bodhipaksa. so please don’t put this kind of post unless you don’t know what your are talking. just observe the Buddhist and then say some thing. this is the most friendly advice i can give to you.

See? “Dear Bodhipaksa” and “my friend.” That’s polite

He also wrote:

yes. there are lot of books about history things that said by the Buddha. try to read the old books and learn some thing my friend. you have lot of things to learn before you die.

Not only is that polite, but it’s excellent advice, since I do like to read old books and to learn things.