I’ve never been to Spirit Rock, the well-known Buddhist center in California (although I’d love to be invited to teach there), but Fake Buddha Quotes was mentioned approvingly at the start of this talk by Tony Bernhard, called “Karma and the Condition of the Canon.”
There’s a story on Wake Up Sydney’s Facebook page. It like this:
It is said that one day the Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him. “You have no right teaching others,” he shouted. “You are as stupid as everyone else. You are nothing but a fake!”
The Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”
The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”
The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”
I realized that this brings up a scenario that I haven’t addressed, because I haven’t really given it much thought. What you’ve just read is a retelling of a story from the Buddhist scriptures. Here’s the original:
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels’ Sanctuary. Then the brahman Akkosaka Bharadvaja heard that a brahman of the Bharadvaja clan had gone forth from the home life into homelessness in the presence of the Blessed One. Angered & displeased, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, insulted & cursed him with rude, harsh words.
When this was said, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahman: Do friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to you as guests?”
“Yes, Master Gotama, sometimes friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to me as guests.”
“And what do you think: Do you serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies?”
“Yes, sometimes I serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies.”
“And if they don’t accept them, to whom do those foods belong?”
“If they don’t accept them, Master Gotama, those foods are all mine.”
“In the same way, brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who is not insulting; that with which you have taunted me, who is not taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating: that I don’t accept from you. It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.
“Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one who is taunting, returns a berating to one who is berating, is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person. But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.”
You can see that although the words differ, it’s basically the same story. There’s a bit of elaboration — for example in the original we’re not exactly told what Akkosaka Bharadvaja said to the Buddha, just that it’s insulting, while in the retelling we’re given details, such as the Buddha’s “a fake” — but essentially there’s no difference in the message being conveyed.
Now words are being put in the Buddha’s mouth. Would I consider the Facebook parable to be unacceptable? Actually, I wouldn’t. When you’re teaching, or just talking to someone, and you want to use an illustration from the Buddhist scriptures, you can’t be expected to have memorized the stories word for word, or to say “Wait till I run home and grab my copy of the Majjhima Nikaya!” You just tell the story, in your own words. Sometimes you’ll do it well, sometimes you’ll make a mess of it. But at least it’s an honest attempt at conveying a story.
You’re putting words into the mouth of the Buddha, but as a dramatic technique, and it’s generally obvious you’re not making claim that the Buddha said the exact words you’ve ascribed to him. There’s the Buddha of the Pali canon, and there’s the Buddha of your imagination. It seems to me that both are valid, and that you simply have to be careful not to mix them up.
Mixing up these two Buddhas often happens when these dramatizations of the suttas are put into writing, though. Those who aren’t familiar with the Buddhist scriptures may take something like the Facebook parable above to be canonical, and then extract the Buddha’s words as a standalone quote. Now, attributed to “The Buddha” the quote will be taken by others to be canonical, and so a Fake Buddha Quote is born.
Part of the problem is that often the Buddha of the imagination is more interesting than the Buddha of the canon! His language is generally more contemporary and pithy — just compare the length of the two versions above, and also see which one feels better to read.
Now I’m not saying it’s bad to paraphrase the suttas because the paraphrase might be taken out of context and presented as canonical. That would be absurdly cautious. In fact I think it’s good, in the contexts of talks, and even in books, to bring the suttas to life by dramatizing them. When Jonathan Landaw wrote “The Story of Buddha,” from where the Facebook parable comes, I’m sure he had no notion of “faking” anything or of trying to pass off his own words as the Buddha’s.
Why am I writing all this? I’m really just clarifying in my own mind the limits of what I consider to be acceptable. On the one hand we might have the example someone finding an anonymous quote lying around and deciding to attribute it to be Buddha for whatever reason. This seems to happen a lot, and is something that I don’t find at all acceptable. Even more extreme, I suspect some people just make up some spiritual-sounding saying and try to pass it off as the Buddha’s words. Also unacceptable. On the other hand we have this more innocent sort of “retelling” of a story from the canon, and I think it’s fine. No misrepresentation is being intended, and if sometimes others might turn these stories into Fake Buddha Quotes it’s they who are at fault, not the original author.
PS. I’ve done this myself, and I’ll write up a full confession at some point.
A 12th century chronicler tells of how King Cnut (Canute) demonstrated the limits of a king’s powers by commanding the tide not to advance toward him. This is often mistakenly seen as a sign of arrogance, but the lesson was directed at the courtiers; the king himself had no delusions of being able to control nature.
Geoffrey O’Brien, author of “The Fall of the House of Walworth,” and general editor of the 18th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” has a lovely piece in today’s New York Times: “We are what we quote.”
He doesn’t say anything about fake quotes, but if we are what we quote and we pass on fake quotes, what does that say about us?
Quotes are the mental furniture of my life. From certain angles my inner landscape resembles a gallery hung with half-recalled citations, the rags and tag-ends of a lifetime of reading and listening. They can be anything at all, the exquisitely chiseled perceptions of poets and philosophers or the blurts of unscheduled truth-telling by public figures caught in the spotlight (the former Jersey City mayor Frank Hague’s “I am the law” or Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook”); the punch lines of 1930s comedians or the curtain lines of Jacobean dramatists; or words of wisdom or anguish or ridiculous humor, or simply, for instance, M.F.K. Fisher’s recollection of “the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace.” They are the dangling threads that memory can latch onto when everything else goes blank.
Dear Sir, Your collection is interesting, but also somewhat counterproductive, in my mind. To me, the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon, its spirit of welcoming continuous exploration, and its fundamental revelation that individuals are part of a much greater consciousness. The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings. Even the exercise of debating whether something is “real” or “fake” by attributing origination to a “legitimate” source seems to defy the singlemost important lesson from Buddhism, at least in my mind. I hope you take no offense: I just wanted to humbly and respectfully offer my opinion.
There are things here I agree with, and some I don’t.
The statement “the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon” is rather odd, since Buddhism does indeed literally have a canon. It has more than one, in fact, a “canon” being a (closed) list of religious books being accepted as genuine. There’s the Pali canon, which is just one survivor from among many canons found in a variety of languages and belonging to different schools. There are also Tibetan and Chinese canons, among others.
Of course these canons have evolved, and some of the teachings, especially the Mahayana ones, have only an indirect connection with the words the Buddha taught, so the notion of a “canon” is questionable. But there is a canon.
Buddhism does indeed have a “spirit of welcoming continuous exploration.” Buddhism is a living practice tradition in which individuals seek to put into practice the teachings embodied in the various canons in order to attain awakening. And there is a whole body of secondary and tertiary teachings growing out of these explorations, right up to the present day. Those later teachings are not canonical, however. There’s a clear difference between teachings historically ascribed to be Buddha and, say, a book that I wrote about Buddhism. You’d be wise to read my book in the light of the canonical teachings, since that’s one way of checking whether my teachings are genuinely part of the process of enquiry that leads to the kind of awakening the Buddha was talking about, rather than some other goal.
I’m not sure what to make of the rather packed statement, “The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.”
Even in the relatively early days of Buddhism it seems to have been believed that the historical individual that we call Shakyamuni, or Siddhartha Gotama, or simply The Buddha, was one of a line of enlightened individuals who had preceded him. But there was no confusion about which was which. President Obama is one of a line of individuals known as “the President,” but it would be unwise to confuse him with Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln. So the fact there are many Buddhas has no bearing on the matter of the attribution of quotes.
“Buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.” The Buddha certainly seems to have had no view that “Buddha is in all of us,” although (reading between the lines) he did seem to see his teaching, and the goal it led to, as applicable
to everyone. But again, this has no bearing on whether quotations are correctly attributed.
If we’re to say that “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore (although I see no therefore) that anything anyone says can be meaningfully attributed to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, then the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, has said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” although conventionally speaking we would attribute this to John F. Kennedy; and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which was spoken by the Buddha, along with many other wise statements, in his novel Anna Karenina; and “It is not truth that matters, but victory,” although some would insist that that was actually Adolf Hitler.
Personally, though, I do not see the logic in saying “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore we can ascribe anything we want to the historical individual, Shakyamuni, because it makes no sense as an argument and because it leads to the absurdities I’ve highlighted above.
We can’t tell whether the Buddha said all the things ascribed to him in the Pali canon (which is our best bet for literal authenticity), but we can tell when things ascribed to him were actually said by someone else, or are in some way foreign to the canon. And that’s what I attempt to do here.
It isn’t directly connected with Fake Buddha Quotes, but this article on tweets about Hurricane Sandy hits the Fake Information nail right on the head with the following sentence:
It is traditional, when the US is menaced by a weather event, for people to tweet pictures of things that aren’t it.
You have to wonder why this is. Presumably for some people the thrill of sharing false information is more attractive than the prospect of being seen as gullible or deceitful.
And are there even any consequences for those who pass on false information like this? It does seem that many people (politicians, for example) can be caught out over and over again and still be seen as credible in the eyes of many.
it is encouraging, though, that many people have jumped in with corrections. Perhaps this whole posting-fake-information thing will eventually turn out to be a passing fad as access to fact-checking becomes easier and easier. After all, I can’t remember the last time I had one of those “Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw:” emails giving lurid and spectacularly false information about some virus that we have to delete immediately, and which turns out to be some innocuous part of my computer’s operating system. Those emails were common just a few years ago.
Bhikkhu Sujato, a young Australian monk with a background in philosophy, is one of my heroes because of his ability to think critically about the Buddhist tradition, and especially for his thinking on the relation between samatha and vipassana approaches to meditation. I admire his geekiness.
Anyway, here he is on the question of the authenticity of Mahayana sutras:
One of our commenters asked about whether the Lotus Sutra was considered authentic according to the Theravadin view.
To answer this from the traditional Theravadin point of view, all the Mahayana Sutras are inauthentic in the sense that they were not spoken by the Buddha. Historically, Theravada has tended to take a dim view of Mahayana, regarding it as a mere degeneration of the pure teachings.
That the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana Sutras were not spoken by the Buddha is unanimously supported by modern scholarship. I don’t know of a single academic in the last 150 years who has argued otherwise. The basic historical background is given in Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Lotus Sutra was composed over a period of time, or in a number of stages. The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE. This makes it one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana).
So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravadin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.
Why were the Mahayana Sutras phrased as if spoken literally by the Buddha? This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. Partly it was just how the literary form evolved. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi. Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras. Or perhaps they more humbly believed that they had gained insight into the Dhamma in some direct way.
This has obvious relevance for those interested in Fake Buddha Quotes. From a certain point of view, all Mahayana Sutras are Fake Buddha Quotes. But this doesn’t undermine their spiritual relevance or usefulness. I’ve never claimed that the message of any Fake Quote is diminished because it the words don’t happen to stem from the Buddha. In saying that a quote isn’t from the Buddha, I am not automatically saying that the quote isn’t valid. The validity of the quote is a separate matter.
Many people who don’t know much about old Buddhist texts often know one passage from the Pali Canon: the part of the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) stating that old texts can’t be trusted.
Quotes from this passage come in many shapes and sizes. Some of them are short sound bites, like the message that was rubber-stamped on the envelope of a letter I once received:
Follow your own sense of right and wrong. — The Buddha
There’s also the desktop wallpaper:
Believe nothing, no matter who said it, not even if I said it, if it doesn’t fit in with your own reason and common sense. — The Buddha
Even scholarly citations of the sutta give the same message. Here’s the entire quote from the sutta in a recent book:
When you know for yourselves that these things are wholesome… these things, when entered upon and undertaken, incline toward welfare and happiness — then, Kalamas, having come to them you should stay with them. — The Buddha
Taken together, these quotes justify our tendency to pick what we like from the old texts and throw the rest away. No need to understand the larger context of the dhamma they teach, the Buddha seems to be saying. You’re better off rolling your own.
But if you look at the entire passage in the Kalama Sutta, you discover that these quotes give only part of the picture. The Buddha’s skepticism toward reliable authorities extends inside as well as out:
So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’
Notice the words in bold face, the ones that usually get dropped from the quote or sloughed over when they’re included. When the Buddha says that you can’t go by logical deduction, inference, or analogies, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your sense of reason. When he says that you can’t go by agreement through pondering views (i.e., what seems to fit in with what you already believe) or by probability, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your common sense. And of course, you can’t always trust teachers, scriptures, or traditions. So where can you place your trust? You have to put things to the test in your own thoughts, words, and deeds, to see what actually leads to suffering and what leads to its end.
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are unskillful; these dhammas are blameworthy; these dhammas are criticized by the wise; these dhammas, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are skillful; these dhammas are blameless; these dhammas are praised by the wise; these dhammas, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.
The word “dhamma” in these passages means three things in one: teaching, mental quality, and action. Teachings are naturally related to the mind states and actions they inspire, so they should be judged by the results they give when put into action. True dhamma is what works in leading to genuine well-being. False dhamma is what doesn’t.
But even when judging the results of your own actions, you can’t simply take your own ideas of “what works” as a trustworthy standard. After all, you can easily side with your greed, aversion, or delusion, setting your standards too low. So to check against this tendency, the Buddha recommends that you also take into consideration the views of the wise, for you’ll never grow until you allow your standards to be challenged by theirs.
Now, if you’re expecting quick access to a totally reliable authority, this may sound like a catch: If you’re not wise enough to trust your own judgment, how can you recognize who’s really wise? But it’s not a catch. It’s simply the way we have to operate when developing any kind of skill — your appreciation of good carpentry, for example, grows as you master carpentry yourself — and the Buddha is making the point that this is how to approach the dhamma: as a skill to be mastered. As with any skill, your inner sensitivity and assurance as to who’s truly wise in the skill grows only through your willingness to learn.
In giving advice on how to learn this skill, the Buddha is speaking, not with the authority of your creator who can tell you what you have to believe, but with the authority of an expert in his field, one who knows from experience what does and doesn’t work. If you want to learn from him, you’re wise to accept his observations on how it’s best done. The first thing to recognize is that there are others who have mastered the skill before you and that they have some important things to teach.
Among the things they’ll teach you, of course, is what they’ve learned from the wise before them, going back to the Buddha. Some of this knowledge can be passed on in words, but in a list of the qualities to look for in the wise — and to learn from them — the Buddha shows that there’s more to wisdom than just words. A person worthy of respect, he says at AN 7.64, should have a sense of seven things: the dhamma, its meaning, oneself, enough, the right time and place, social gatherings, and how to judge individual people.
What’s striking about this list is that only the first two qualities deal with verbal knowledge. Having a sense of the dhamma means knowing what the Buddha did and didn’t say; having a sense of meaning means knowing how to explain the dhamma’s difficult concepts and ideas: the general principles that express its values, and the basic techniques for implementing them. These are things we can pick up from dhamma talks and books.
But the Buddha didn’t teach a one-size-fits-all-in-every-situation technique. Even his seemingly abstract principles are meant for particular stages in the training. “Not-self,” for example, is useful in some instances, and harmful in others. This is why the Buddha added the last five members of the list: the sensitivities that turn the techniques and principles into genuine skills.
Having a sense of oneself means knowing your strengths and weaknesses in terms of conviction, virtue, learning, generosity, discernment, and quick-wittedness. In other words, you know which qualities are important to focus on, and can assess objectively where you still have more work to do.
Having a sense of enough applies primarily to your use of the requisites of life — food, clothing, shelter, and medicine — but it can also apply to intangibles, such as when you need less desire, effort, concentration, or thinking in your practice, and when you need more.
Having a sense of time means knowing when to listen, when to memorize what you’ve heard, when to ask questions, and when to go off into seclusion and practice on your own.
Having a sense of social gatherings means knowing how to speak and behave with people from different backgrounds and classes of society.
Having a sense of individuals means knowing how to judge which people are worthy of emulation in their pursuit of the dhamma and which ones are not.
Even though we can talk about these last five qualities, we can’t embody them through words. They’re habits, and the only way to pick up good habits is by being around good examples: people who’ve already been trained to embody these qualities in the way they live.
This is why the Buddha — in trying to establish the dhamma for future generations — didn’t just leave a body of teachings. He also set up the monastic sangha and organized it to carry on the tradition of all seven of these qualities: his habits as well as his words. To ensure that the standard of the dhamma would last over time, he first made it clear that he didn’t want anyone tampering with his teachings.
Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? One who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And one who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are the two who slander the Tathagata.
— AN 2.23
It’s easy to understand why the Buddha phrased this so strongly. He had chosen his words with great care, and wanted the same level of care in those who quoted him. Fidelity, in his eyes, was an act of compassion. He intended his words to be taken as a standard for what was and wasn’t dhamma — anything consistent with his words was to be accepted as dhamma; anything inconsistent, to be rejected as not — so it’s only natural that he’d warn his followers not to muddy the standard. Otherwise, later generations would have no trustworthy guide in their search to end suffering.
So in addition to establishing principles for determining what he did and didn’t teach, he also set up protocols for how the sangha should settle disagreements on this issue when they arose.
To ensure that the meaning of the dhamma would be passed on, he established the principle that teachers should be open to questioning. He didn’t want them to engage in what he called bombast: empty words “the work of poets, the work of outsiders, artful in sound, artful in expression.” He encouraged his students to focus on teaching the end of suffering, and to encourage their students to dissect those teachings to make their meaning clear. Understanding occurs best when there’s an opportunity for an open dialogue in good faith.
To transmit the habits of the dhamma, the Buddha designed the ideal teacher-student relationship on the model of an apprenticeship. You live with the teacher for a minimum of five years, attending to the teacher’s needs, as a way of observing — and being observed by — the teacher in all sorts of situations.
To allow for the fact that your sense of judgment develops over time, the Buddha didn’t force you to commit to a teacher for life. You look for someone who, as far as you can see, has integrity, but if you sense with time that integrity is lacking, you’re free to look for a new teacher.
At the same time, the Buddha realized that not everyone would have the time or inclination to undergo this apprenticeship, so he arranged a division of labor. The monks and nuns who had passed through apprenticeship were to live, not in cloisters, but in places where lay people would be free to come and learn from the fruits of their training.
So it’s obvious that the Buddha didn’t have a casual or cavalier attitude toward the preservation of his words and habits. Knowing the difficulties he’d encountered in discovering the dhamma, he didn’t trust us — with our greed, aversion, and delusion — to discover it on our own. He knew we’d need help. Although he foresaw that his teachings would someday disappear, he didn’t simply resign himself to change or trust that it would always work out for the best. He established a wide range of safeguards to ensure that reliable words and models of behavior would survive as long as possible.
But in the cut-and-paste Buddhism developing around us in the West, many of these safeguards have been dropped. In particular, the idea of apprenticeship — so central in mastering the habits of the dhamma as a skill — is almost totally lacking. Dhamma principles are reduced to vague generalities, and the techniques for testing them are stripped to a bare, assembly-line minimum.
We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best — that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent — a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent, and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted — sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dhamma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience.
Certainly we in the West are easy targets for the idea that the Buddha wants us to cut and paste his dhamma as we like. Many of us have been burned by religious authorities and we don’t want to risk getting burned again. There’s also our cultural pride: We like to think that we can see more clearly than Asian Buddhist what’s of genuine value in their traditions and what’s simply cultural baggage — as if we didn’t have cultural baggage of our own. And how do we know what’s “just baggage”? A beat-up old suitcase might contain your jewelry and keys.
So is a designer dhamma what we really want? As the Buddha noted, one of the natural reactions to suffering is to search for someone who can give good advice on how to put an end to it. When offered the choice, wouldn’t you prefer reliable guidance on how to end your suffering rather than a do-it-yourself kit with vague instructions and no guarantees?
Or are there those who would benefit if you bought the kit? People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong. But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: freedom from criticism. And it ignores the other side of the postmodernist equation: that our perceived wants can be overwhelmingly shaped by the interests of institutions who want something out of us. One of the common ruses of privatization is to offer us less, dress it up as more, so that we’ll pay more for it. Is that what’s happening here?
The Buddha wasn’t so naïve as to think that we can always know what’s in our own best interest. He saw long before the postmoderns that there’s plenty to mistrust both in old texts and in our own preconceptions about what seems reasonable. Yet he did the postmoderns one better by offering a solution to this dilemma. It would be a shame if, sold on the idea of designing our own dhamma, we let his solution die.
I don’t want to wander too far from debunking Fake Buddha Quotes, but since I recently discussed a quote, “To understand everything is to forgive everything,” which is sometimes attributed to the Buddha but which has for a long time been attributed to Mme. de Staël (1766–1817) — even though she probably never said it — I was amused to see the following also attributed to her in an Indian newspaper article:
“Prayer is more than meditation. In meditation, the source of strength is one’s self. When one prays, he goes to a source of strength greater than his own.”
This seemed totally, even bizarrely, anachronistic, and it didn’t take long to find that it’s actually something a different Madame — Madame Chiang Kai-Shek — wrote in a 1943 article called “The Infinite Guidance.”