“Lost in Quotation,” by Bhikkhu Thanissaro

buddhaMany 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.

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Fake Madame de Staël quote spotted in the wild

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.”

“Critical thinking vapourised”

To show how uncritical people are about what they read on the web, a company posts false information about Apple — which almost immediately develops a life of its own.

Stockholm production company Day4 fooled portions of the tech world last week into believing that Apple was working on an odd-shaped screw – an effort to show how quickly people are to believe anything they find online.

Day4, as the Swedish production company is called, said it was disturbed by how ready people were to believe anything they read on the web these days, especially because they can easily check tech reporters’ facts using tools such as Google.

Read the rest of the article …

The relevance to Fake Buddha Quotes should be obvious.

“Because truth is better than bullshit”

bullWriter and humorist John Shanahan is, like me, bothered by the mis-information that circulates on the internet. He debunks a couple of internet memes, one of which I’d seen and one I hadn’t, and he talks about why he’s bothered:

There are people in my own circle of friends who do this kind of thing all the time, this spreading of disinformation via their own lack of information. What makes me nuts is that several of these people have jobs that are fact-dependent, that require critical thinking or enhanced deductive capabilities. In some cases, lives are in the balance and only a well-considered action is acceptable. Intelligent, detailed, capable people who toss all that shit right out the window when they see a photo with words pasted onto it. Then it’s game on, facts be damned. Some have been guilty of this since the Fwd:Fwd:Fwd: days, and they have gotten downright pissy with me for calling them out on this willful spread of low-grade ca-ca.

Why do I care, you ask? Because it’s a waste of time. Because I want to believe that the people around me aren’t knee-jerk emotional reactionists willing to dispense with logic because the internet is such a shining bastion of quality information. Because it takes no time at all to stop, consider, and question. Because truth is better than bullshit. Because right is better than wrong…

It’s worth reading the whole article, Dissing the Disinformation. (The article is now only available on archive.org, the original site having been deleted.)

Fake Deepak Chopra quotes


There’s now a site available that will generate random fake quotes in the style of Deepak Chopra. This pseudo-spiritual word-salad is cobbled together from words found in Chopra’s Twitter stream. One can generate gems such as:

“God is reborn in positive self-knowledge.”

“Imagination illuminates karmic space time events.”

“Good health is inside existential silence.”

“Evolution is in the midst of boundless choices.”

“Knowledge is the ground of cosmic silence.”

Not a bad first week

So the new Fake Buddha Quotes site has been up for a week and things seem to be going well. Yes, some of the posts date back several years, but that’s because when I launched this site I copied over Fake Buddha Quote posts from my personal blog, bodhipaksa.com.

In this first week we’ve had 1,000 visitors, which is not bad for a start.

Neville Evans asked on Facebook, “Why are you spending time with this work?” to which my reply was “Because it’s fun?” I don’t know if his question was meant to be a rebuke, although I suspect it was. Some people do get bothered by my pointing out that some of the quotes attributed to the Buddha are not genuine.

Dhammarati commented, also on Facebook: “great site bodhipaksha: a public service. worryingly, i find myself liking some of what the fake buddha said.” The Fake Buddha is indeed often both wise and poetic.

Zippy Mon-Kai commented, “lovely thank you so much. Frustrating, the need in this day and age to reduce everything to convenient soundbites.” and added, “Oh and of course all best wishes and saddhu for your practice.”

And there was a lovely comment on Twitter:

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I dream that one day I can have a bot that spots Fake Buddha Quotes on Twitter and sends the author a link to the appropriate page on FBQ.com. Is that doable? Anyone out there have the skills to do this?

And last, but most certainly not least, Eric Wentworth of Winter Crow Studio added the lovely header images you see above. He’s a good buddy, and if you need any design work done, please give him a shout.

Just observe the quotes, and then let them go

We just received the following comment on Wildmind’s Facebook page, regarding Fake Buddha Quotes:

Does it really matter if they are real or fake. And honestly, who really knows ?????
Just observe the quotes. And then let them go. We don’t need to have a strong opinion one way or the other. The fact that others thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.

I’m interested in this idea that we should “just observe” quotes and then “let them go.” Although I note that this particular person was not able simply to observe a Facebook post and let it go ;). Sorry, that was snarky of me.

What was the Buddha’s attitude to being misquoted? He was spiritually advanced, so presumably he would just observe misquotations and then let go of them? Well, not really. This is from the Alagaddupama Sutta:

You, O foolish man, have misrepresented us by what you personally have wrongly grasped. You have undermined your own (future) and have created much demerit. This, foolish man, will bring you much harm and suffering for a long time.

Strong words!

Of course he may have been misquoted on this! We have no way of knowing for sure what the Buddha said, although we can (despite the commenter above’s protestations otherwise) often identify that a quote attributed to the Buddha has a more recent origin.

“Does it really matter if they are real or fake?” If factual accuracy doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter when people say a quote is the Buddha’s when actually it’s not. But I happen to think accuracy is important. I’m not aiming to get annoyed about the misquotations I find, but I am keen to set the record straight when I can.

“The fact that others [are] thinking about the Buddha’s teaching should be encouraging.” I think it’s great that people want to quote the Buddha. But are they thinking about the Buddha’s teaching if the quotes they are passing on aren’t even his? Well, in some cases they may be, but in many cases they aren’t. They’re thinking about some other person’s words and teaching. And I’d hope that people who are genuinely interested in thinking about the Buddha’s teaching would at least be interested in what that teaching is.

The Buddha’s disciples were as concerned as the Buddha himself when it came to misquoting him —at least when the quotations are inaccurate. The same sutta I quoted above have monks saying to someone who has misquoted the Buddha,

Do not say so … do not say so! Do not misrepresent the Blessed One! It is not right to misrepresent him. Never would the Blessed One speak like that.

There was a strong concern for accuracy at that time, perhaps because the teachings were passed on orally. In an oral tradition, once an inaccuracy has become widespread, there is no “original text” to go back and consult. Fortunately we have the scriptures (which, unless there’s good evidence to the contrary, we can regard as being what the Buddha taught) and so we can compare quotes with them in order to determine whether they’re genuine or spurious.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.”

Fairly often I see quotes attributed to the Buddha that bear no little or no resemblance to anything that’s found in Buddhist scriptures. One example is from a Christian minister who holds meetings in prison at the same time I’m there leading my Buddhist study group. He informed me that the Buddha had said that a greater teacher than him would arise in 500 years, and that we should follow that guy instead. Guess who that would be? The pastor and I had an interesting conversation about the ethics of making up quotes to denigrate other religions and promote your own (not that I was accusing him of having invented the quote — but someone had).

A less egregious, but as far as I’m aware equally inaccurate one appeared on Twitter yesterday, posted by @tricyclemag. They didn’t invent the quote — I’ve seen it circulating endlessly, and it will no doubt appear on more and more blogs (and books — it’s in dozens), and thus be accepted by more and more people as the actual word of the Buddha. Here’s the quote:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” -Buddha

Unless I’m mistaken, this seems to be a poor paraphrase of part of the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalamas, which runs like this:

…don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

Now a caveat: the Buddhist scriptures are vast and I can’t claim to have read all of them. To some extent I’m relying on the tone and language of the alleged Buddha quote, plus its obvious similarity to the Kalama sutta, to state that I think it’s a false quote. I may be wrong.

But assuming I’m correct, the Tricycle quote says you should trust your reason and common sense, while the Buddha says you shouldn’t trust “logical conjecture … inference … agreement through pondering views … [and] probability.” Collectively the Buddha’s list of things you shouldn’t rely on would seem to overlap totally with those Tricycle magazine thinks we should rely upon.

The Buddha of course isn’t saying we should jettison reason and common sense. What he’s implying is that both those things can be misleading and what’s ultimately the arbiter of what’s true is experience. It’s when you “know for yourselves” that something is true through experience that you know it’s true. (Also, we can rely on the opinion of “the wise.” This doesn’t mean accepting other people’s opinions blindly. It means that in your experience you can come to know that certain people tend to have a clear perception of what’s true and helpful in terms of spiritual practice, and so you don’t have to go around making every mistake under the sun in order to establish that they are in fact mistakes.)

The Tricycle quote displaces the role of experience in spiritual practice in favor of reason and common sense, which I think is very questionable. It suggests learning is something that happens in the head, rather than something that is gained through living, and it allows us to dismiss anything that contradicts our prejudices (common sense is often nothing other than clinging to established views.

More than that, though, I think it’s ethically problematical to pass on the message “the Buddha said such-and-such” without checking out that he actually did say that. Otherwise it’s not dissimilar to gossip, although presumably better-intentioned.

Because I write a monthly column based on quotations, I like to make sure that the statement I’m quoting is accurate and was actually made by the person in question. (Confession: I didn’t used to be so careful). There are many quotation sites that do no fact-checking at all and that are full of inaccurate, false, and misattributed quotes. Because these sites endlessly plagiarize each other, these false quotes end up all over the internet. It’s a shame that Buddhists join in with this trend, especially when it distorts the Buddha’s teaching, as I believe this “quote” does.