“The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I was asked about this one today: “The greatest miracle is the miracle of learning.”

I immediately remembered a discourse from the Buddha where teaching is described as the highest miracle. The Buddha outlines, in some detail, the miracle of psychic power, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.

Here’s the part about instruction:

And what is the miracle of instruction? There is the case where a certain person gives instruction in this way: ‘Direct your thought in this way, don’t direct it in that. Attend to things in this way, don’t attend to them in that. Let go of this, enter and remain in that.’ This is called the miracle of instruction.

The Buddha himself doesn’t say that this is the highest miracle: that’s left to his interlocutor, the brahman Sangarava. The Buddha doesn’t say that this assessment is correct, but he doesn’t contradict that part of what Sangarava said, so I presume he did agree.

I think that Jack Kornfield may be responsible for this quote. It’s not in his “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” whose title has led many to think that the contents are scriptural, when actually they’re Jack’s distillations and adaptations of various Buddhist and non-Buddhist sayings, but all of the Google results for this quote are connected with him. For example it’s found in this article he wrote.

Perhaps Jack was quoting from memory and mixed up “teaching” and “learning.” Or perhaps there is another sutta somewhere that describes learning as a miracle — which it is, I guess. But for now I’m categorizing this as fake.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, although the internet is generally convinced that this this is a saying of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968. A couple of outliers attribute this to the philosopher Aristotle, which may have happened because someone either didn’t read a citation very carefully or thought that the two men were the one and the same.

The attributions to Onassis don’t start until around 2009, which makes it very suspect, given that he died in 1975. Dead men rarely coin inspiring aphorisms.

Anyway, this is certainly not from the Buddha. I don’t think the metaphor of a “dark moment” can be found anywhere in the early scriptures.

The metaphor of darkness itself is quite common, though. For example there’s a common pericope put in the mouths of those who had just received teachings from the Buddha:

The Dhamma has been made clear in many ways by Master Gotama as though he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing the hidden, showing the way to one who is lost, holding up a lamp in the darkness for those with eyesight to see forms. (See here,
for example.)

And the Buddha described his own awakening thus: “Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose.”

And we’re told there are four kinds of people in the world: “One in darkness who is headed for darkness, one in darkness who is headed for light, one in light who is headed for darkness, and one in light who is headed for light.” You can read more about that here.

Anyway, it’s not the Buddha. And it’s probably not Aristotle Onassis. There is however another attribution that predates the Aristotle Onassis ones: Taylor Benson. The earliest Benson citations I’ve found so far on the web have been from 2007, and the earliest in a book is from 2004, in “365 Prescriptions for the Soul: Daily Messages of Inspiration, Hope, and Love,” by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel.

But who is Taylor Benson and did he/she actually say this? Unfortunately I’ve no idea.

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! The competition for “Worst Fake Buddha Quote of All Time” has been categorically won by the following:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying about them, as every child is the little Buddha who helps his parents to grow up.”

This particular quote is like one of those “Alpine Meadow” car air-fresheners: simultaneously sweet and putrid, and it bears as much resemblance to how the Buddha taught as the smell of one of those air-fresheners does to a genuine flower.

The quote is so awful that I expected it not to be very widespread, but in our post-fact world it turns out that in fact it’s all over the place. Many graphics have been created and the quote is listed in the usual quotes sites (as a writer on Wired said, “They misattribute everything, usually to Mark Twain.”) It’s even in an article in the Guardian, although so far I haven’t seen it in any books.

I don’t yet know where it originated. A review of a book called (brace yourself for another wave of nausea) “Mom, Dad, U R Wonderful” says that the book’s author, Salma Prabhu, attributes the quote to Osho, although there the quote is given, more sensibly, as:

“Care about your children. Just bless them instead of worrying, as every child is a little Buddha who helps his parents grow up.”

(The quote in the review ends with an exclamation mark. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

It’s possible that this quote is from Osho, but I haven’t found it in the online library devoted to his writings. Perhaps it was in a talk, or perhaps Ms. Prabhu was mistaken.

Osho, incidentally, has been responsible for a few Fake Buddha Quotes.

“I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

Also found as “I am but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

The first version is found all over the web. The version with “but” seems originally to come from Carolyn Myss’ 2002 book, “Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential.” She’s repeated the quote in another of her books. In the earlier book she ascribes it to the semi-mythic 5th to 6th century Buddhist missionary, Bodhidharma, while later she states this was something that both the Buddha and Bodhidharma said.

Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake.

I haven’t found any record of Bodhidharma having used this analogy, and in any event I’m pretty sure he would have stuck with the tradition of saying it was the teachings that were like a pointing finger, and not himself.

The historical Buddha did compare his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. But he said nothing about the Dharma being a finger pointing at the moon or anything else. It’s a good analogy, though, and I’d imagine he would have used it had it occurred to him.

In the Mahayana Sutras the Buddha is portrayed as having used this or a similar analogy. In the Lankavatara (compiled in something like the 3rd to 4th centuries — that is, hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha) there are two relevant passages. The first is as follows:

Be not like the one who looks at the finger-tip. For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at; in like manner, Mahāmati, the people belonging to the class of the ignorant and simple-minded, like those of a childish group, are unable even unto their death to abandon the idea that in the finger-tip of words there is the meaning itself, and will not grasp ultimate reality because of their intent clinging to words which are no more than the finger-tip to them.

There’s no mention of the moon here, but this is essentially the same analogy.

The second reference (and thanks to a reader for pointing this out to me) refers to both the finger and the moon:

As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth. (p.193, of the Lankavatara Sutra, translated by DT Suzuki)

In an even later scripture, the Shurangama, we also find the entire analogy:

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Although the Lankavatara and Shurangama both have their origins in Indian Buddhism, the finger/moon analogy really took off in the world of Zen Buddhism. There’s a Zen text called the “Finger Pointing at the Moon” (Shigetsu Roku) and almost always when you hear this quote it’s associated with Zen.

If you’re a traditional Mahayanist who believes that the Buddha literally uttered the words of texts like the Lankavatara and Shurangama, then the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy is a genuine Buddha quote. But these are not words that, as far as we know, the historical Buddha used.

“Events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer thereof.”

This one isn’t the Buddha.

It reminds me of something from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, or “Path of Purification,” which is from 1,000 years after the Buddha:

There is no doer of a deed
Or one who reaps the deed’s result;
Phenomena alone flow on—
No other view than this is right.
(XIX 20)

I’m pretty sure that our quote is a paraphrase or alternative translation of that passage.

Incidentally, the words are not Buddhaghosa’s. He makes it clear that he is quoting some unnamed “ancients.”

Another passage with similar resonances is also something Buddhaghosa is quoting anonymously:

For there is suffering, but none who suffers;
Doing exists although there is no doer.
Extinction is but no extinguished person;
Although there is a path, there is no goer.
(XVI 90)

There are probably similar teachings in the Mahayana Sutras. But there’s nothing quite like this in the early scriptures.

There is in the Phagguna Sutta an interesting series of passages like this:

“Who, O Lord, clings?”

“The question is not correct,” said the Exalted One, “I do not say that ‘he clings.’ Had I said so, then the question ‘Who clings?’ would be appropriate. But since I did not speak thus, the correct way to ask the question will be ‘What is the condition of clinging?’ And to that the correct reply is: ‘Craving is the condition of clinging; and clinging is the condition of the process of becoming.’ Such is the origin of this entire mass of suffering.”

So here the Buddha declines to talk in terms of “one who clings” and instead talks about how clinging comes to be, and what it leads to. This isn’t a million miles away from saying that “phenomena alone roll one” without a “doer.” But that still doesn’t make the quote in question a genuine quote from the Buddha.

He also comes close to the philosophy of those “Ancients” in the Kalaka Sutta, where again there are a number of passages similar to this:

[T]he Tathagata [i.e. the Buddha], when seeing what is to be seen, doesn’t construe an [object as] seen. He doesn’t construe an unseen. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-seen. He doesn’t construe a seer.

This seems to be that is called a nondual perspective, where he doesn’t conceive in terms such as “one who sees,” or “a thing that is seen.” And yet, seeing happens.

So, this quote is Buddhist, but we can’t say it’s from the Buddha.

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.”

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded” is commonly found attributed to the Buddha. It’s also seen as “Nothing can harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts,” where the wording is more natural.

In fact there is a scriptural quotation that is very close. In the Anguttara Nikaya there’s:

I don’t envision a single thing that, when unguarded, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when unguarded leads to great harm.

This is undoubtedly the prototype, and it’s a close enough paraphrase that it would be unfair to call it fake. If you’re looking to quote this, though, why not go for the more accurate version?

Does God exist?

There are a number of versions of the following story in circulation:

One day in the early morning Gautama Buddha was sitting in a garden quietly with his disciples. A man arrived silently and stood in the shadows, that man was a great devotee of Lord Rama. He had built many temples across the country, he had devoted many years in the service of Lord Rama. He would always chant Rama’s name and contemplate on Rama’s greatness. He was old and close to his last years. Even after many years of dedicated spiritual effort he was not realized.

He wanted to know for sure if there is a God or not? When he heard about the realized one (Buddha) , he came to get his doubt cleared. When he felt nobody would notice him talking to Siddartha, the Buddha. He asked Gautama “O enlightened one, Please tell me the truth! and truth only. Is there a god?”.

Buddha, from his intuition knew that man to be a great devotee of Lord Rama, he looked at that man with seriousness and said “No, My friend. There is no god”.
Buddha’s disciples that were gathered there were very relieved and joyous to finally know the truth that there was no god. They all started muttering between them, sharing what the Buddha had just told. Whenever a disciple had asked that question to Buddha he would become silent. So they never knew.

His words spread through the whole town, the whole town was celebrating the day on which the truth of NO GOD was revealed by the enlightened. They were finally free of the ideas of hell, heaven and of somebody sitting up to judge one’s actions.

It was getting late in the evening, and once again the disciples came back and sat around the Buddha.

There was a materialist who had been an atheist all his life, he had convinced 1000s of people that there was no god, he used to go to the priests and scholars and defeat them in the argument about god.

He too was getting old and little suspicion arose in him, “what if there is god? isn’t it waste of my life to spread the “NO GOD” message if there is god?” he thought. He was eaten by this doubt, he finally decided to know the truth and sought the enlightened one.

He slowly came up to where Buddha was sitting, and asked him “They say you are enlightened, Please tell me if there is GOD?”.

Buddha knowing that man to be an atheist said with firm voice as if he is in firm conviction “Yes, there is God”. Buddha’s disciples once again were back to confusion.
Moral of the story: Belief that there is God or belief that there is no God are both equally useless, one has to realize the truth in himself with diligent self-effort. Enlightened one had told each of them what they had to know in order for them to get stronger on their spiritual quest.

This particular version is from here

There is a rather different version by Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) which I think may be the earliest one. It can be found here.

Another version can be found here.

This is a story that (I presume) Osho made up — something he was prone to doing. It’s not from the Buddhist scriptures.

The Buddha did use different language and different spiritual models depending on his audience. So when talking to monks he would talk in terms of the spiritual goal being nibbana, or liberation from the rounds of rebirth. When talking with householders he was more likely to talk in terms of being reborn in heaven and avoiding hell.

What were his views on God, or gods, we should say, since he lived and taught in a polytheistic society?

First, the Buddha’s teaching is incompatible with an eternal, omnipotent God, and he thought such a belief to be spiritually harmful, since it diminishes our sense of personal responsibility. He did often talk as if gods such as Brahma existed, and described conversations with them. In these stories Brahma frequently comes off as a buffoon, and I think we can safely take such stories to be satirical in intent.

In one such story (in the Brahmajala Sutta) he pokes fun at Brahma as having deluded himself into thinking that he was the creator of everything. In another sutta he described Baka Brahma as “immersed in ignorance” for believing himself and his heaven as being permanent and said that the Brahma and his entire retinue were under the sway of Mara (roughly the Buddhist equivalent of the devil).

Toward the end of the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha recounts an episode in which Brahma confessed to being afraid of the other gods’ reaction if they discovered that he couldn’t answer questions put to him by one of the Buddha’s disciples — questions that the Buddha was able to answer.

Sometimes gods played positive roles in early Buddhist texts. Most famously, when the Buddha was newly awakened and unsure whether it would be possible for him to teach his realization to others, Brahma Sahampati appeared and encouraged him to work for the benefit of suffering beings. In this I suspect we’re hearing the words of the Buddha’s own compassionate nature communicating to him. Another time Brahma Sahampati gave the Buddha advice on lifestyle:

Let the wilderness serve for your seat and bed!
Go about set free from the ties that bind.
But if, perchance, you don’t find there your bliss, then
Live in a group — but watch over yourself:
Mindful, proceeding for alms from house to house,
Mindful, with guarded faculties — and wise.

Sometimes gods came to the Buddha as disciples, and heard teachings from him. Sometimes they gave teachings to monks.

There are always going to be some people who will be annoyed by me saying this but my sense is that the Buddha did not believe in gods, and that his stories involving them were either satirical or poetic. This particular story, however, was not one he told.

“The dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how to think.”

This one is found quite often on Facebook, on blogs, etc.

It certainly doesn’t ring true to me. While clear thinking is a useful and necessary quality to cultivate, ultimately the Dharma (or truth) is beyond thought.

I suspect this quote is a poor paraphrase of one of two expressions.

One is a formula known as the “Recollection of the Dhamma” (dhammanusati), which is encapsulated in a stock phrase that’s found many times in the Pali scriptures. It runs like this in a more normal translation:

“The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here and now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves (veditabbo viññūhī).”

The other is a separate although similar expression of the qualities of the Dhamma:

“Deep … is this Dhamma, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise (paṇḍitavedanīyo).”

No matter how clearly we think about the Dhamma, it’s ultimately not thinking that brings the kind of wisdom the Buddha is talking about here. As the second quote above says, the Dhamma is “beyond the scope of conjecture (atakkāvacaro)” — a phrase which has also be translated as “unattainable by reasoning” or “being beyond the sphere of thought.”

The Dhamma is something “to be experienced.” It’s something to be seen or realized (“realized” here not in the sense of “understood intellectually” but in the sense of “having made real in an experiential sense.”)

So far I’ve seen this one in only one book: “Buddhism In North-East India,” by Sristidhar Dutta and ‎Byomakesh Tripathy. There it’s found in the even more unlikely form; “The dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how to think and intellectual people who have the intelligence to use their minds clearly and know how to appreciate this dharma as a universal law.”

This quote, even more than the more common shorter version, may well be part of an attempt to make Buddhism seem more “rational” and therefore more palatable to modern readers.

“Be patient. Everything comes to you in the right moment.”

This quote is also found as “Everything comes to you in the right moment. Be patient.”

It’s also found as “Everything comes to you AT the right moment.”

However you arrange these sentences, they’re not the Buddha’s words. They just aren’t.

They’re all over the internet, attributed to the Buddha and as an unattributed quote.

At the moment I’ve no idea where they’re from. I’ve found them in a few recently published books, but it looks like they were simply unattributed and unacknowledged borrowings.

“Place no head above your own.”

“Place no head above your own” is found as a quote attributed to the Buddha in Bhante Gunaratana’s “Mindfulness in Plain English” (page 28 in the 20th anniversary edition) where we read:

His invitation to all was “Come and see.” One of the things he said to his followers was, “Place no head above your own.” By this he meant, don’t just accept somebody else’s word. See for yourself.

However, “Place no head above your own” is not a phrase you’ll find in the scriptures. According to a number of sources, including Charlotte Joko Beck’s book, “Nothing Special,” it’s from Zen master Rinzai (Chinese name, Linji). Although I’d heard of the Rinzai school of Zen I confess I didn’t realize there was a Zen master by that name.

A helpful reader pointed me toward the passage in Rinzai’s teachings where this quote is found:

I say to you there is no buddha, no dharma, nothing to practice, nothing to enlighten to. Just what are you seeking in the highways and byways? Blind men! You’re putting a head on top of the one you already have. What do you yourselves lack? Followers of the Way, your own present activities do not differ from those of the patriarch-buddhas. You just don’t believe this and keep on seeking outside. Make no mistake! Outside there is no dharma; inside, there is nothing to be obtained. Better than grasp at the words from my mouth, take it easy and do nothing. Don’t continue [thoughts] that have already arisen and don’t let those that haven’t yet arisen be aroused. Just this will be worth far more to you than a ten years’ pilgrimage.

(Record of Linji, Discourse XVIII)

So it seems Joko Beck was paraphrasing Rinzai rather than quoting him: “Place no head above your own” versus “You’re putting a head on top of the one you already have.”

The person who originally sent me the “Place no head above your own” quote asked Gunaratana about it, and the author replied by quoting the following passage:

Therefore, Ananda, dwell with yourselves as your own island, with yourselves as your own refuge, with no other refuge; dwell with the Dhamma as your island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge.

To my mind it’s inadequate to explain “place no head above your own” in terms of the “be an island” quote. “Place no head above your own” is not what that quote says. Nor does the Buddha say this elsewhere.

It’s one thing to paraphrase the Buddha, along the lines of “what the Buddha is essentially saying is, ‘place no head above your own.’ ” But it’s another thing to present those words as a quote from the Buddha when in fact they aren’t.

Lest you think that the Buddha was some kind of egalitarian, you should know that the Buddha expected reverence and respect from his followers.

To take the phrase “place no head above your own” entirely literally, in the Maha-Parinibbana sutta the Buddha is recorded as saying “A burial mound for the Tathagata is to be built at a great four-way intersection. And those who offer a garland, a scent, or a perfume powder there, or bow down there, or brighten their minds there: that will be for their long-term welfare & happiness.”

It was standard for people to bow to the Buddha upon approaching him, and the stock phrase is that someone, “having bowed down to him, sat to one side.”

Upon meeting the Buddha, or any other respected person, we would be expected literally to place his head above our own.

To be more metaphorical, verse 392 of the Dhammapada says “Just as a brahman priest reveres his sacrificial fire, even so should one devoutly revere the person from whom one has learned the Dhamma taught by the Buddha.”

Now the Buddha being the Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, and therefore the most developed individual in existence, there was no-one worthy of his reverence, and so he said that his object of reverence was the Dhamma. This brings us back around to the “island quote.” Since following the Buddha means, by definition, taking the Buddha, his Dhamma, and the Sangha as refuges, the phrase “with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge” I think means (and I never realized this until now) that he’s encouraging his disciples to become Arahants. That, I presume, is the only way one can not have the Buddha and Sangha as refuges along with the Dhamma. But the only way to become an Arahant is to go for refuge to the Buddha, which means (metaphorically and literally) placing his head above our own. This is a great example of the Dhamma as a raft.

So with respect to Bhante Gunaratana’s deep knowledge of the Dharma, I have to say he’s wrong in saying that “place no head above your own” is a quote from the Buddha.

To place no head above one’s own (in the sense of not reverencing anyone) may be the fruit of the path, but it’s not the path itself. It’s where the raft takes us, but it’s not part of the raft.

However, Rinza’s use of this expression doesn’t seem to be about reverence, exactly. In saying “What do you yourselves lack? … You just don’t believe this and keep on seeking outside … Better than grasp at the words from my mouth, take it easy and do nothing” he seems to be talking about a common (even near-universal) tendency to pay more attention to texts than to actual practice. Putting a head on top of your head means seeing the world through someone else’s experience rather than using your own experience as a basis for insight.

This would correspond, I believe, to the third fetter of “clinging to moral rules and religious practices” (sīlabbataparāmāsa) as opposed to its antidote, which is “knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path” (maggāmagga-ñāṇadassana). In this context placing no head above your own becomes at some point an indispensable practice. We’re of course dependent on the teachings of others at first, but increasingly we take those teachings only as a guide to seeing things as they are, and learn to look directly at our own experience. Or, as Gunaratana put it, “…don’t just accept somebody else’s word. See for yourself.”