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.”

“All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is”

This quote is most certainly not from the Buddha: “All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is.”

This one was emailed to me last year, but I dropped the ball. Recently someone else asked me about it, and although I still don’t know its origins or how a large number of people came to associate it with the Buddha, I thought I’d at least flag it as being fake.

It may possibly be a paraphrase of a saying from Pascal’s Pensées:

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

It’s not that this quote is untrue: It’s simply misattributed in being put in the mouth of the Buddha. The phrasing is far too contemporary to be from texts that are more than two millennia old. It’s as incongruous as claiming that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a quote from Shakespeare.

“The mind that perceives the limitation is the limitation”

“The mind that perceives the limitation is the limitation” is not a quote from the Buddha. It’s neither in the style of the early Nikāya scriptures (of which the Pali Tipitika/Canon is the best-known example) nor in the style of the later and more literary Mahayana Sutras.

The language and phrasing are far too contemporary for this to be from the Buddha.

Unfortunately I don’t know the ultimate origin of this quote. So far I haven’t found any instances of it occurring before 2012, which suggests that it is in fact of modern origins.

Awful pedants of the world, unite!

NPR has an article inspired by Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, investigating the phenomenon of the torrent of bogus quotations that flow through social media and occasionally make the people quoting them look foolish, as when the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, “‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years’ — Abraham Lincoln,” and when the US Postal Service put a misattributed quote on a stamp dedicated to Maya Angelou.

On the whole it’s a nice essay, making the point that the use of quotes has changed: “We do quotation differently now. Time was when it was chiefly a literary device, a way of weaving an essay or speech into an ongoing conversation with the past … Now they’re self-sufficient atoms of wisdom that make their own way in the world — passed along in chain emails, tweeted, posted on Instagram and Pinterest boards, inscribed on bracelets and household items.”

But then for some reason the author of this essay feels the need to throw some shade on Mr. O’Toole by saying “But you’d have to be an awful pedant to spend your time railing at the sloppy scholarship on motivational posters and coffee mugs. As long as they inspire and they console, most people couldn’t care less who actually said them.” It’s a shame to describe Mr O’Toole, who has been kind enough to help with one of the quotations on this site, as an “awful pedant.”

I guess that those of us who care about the accuracy of quotations are not like “most people,” and in that I rejoice. The Buddha’s often quoted as talking about “the manyfolk” as spiritually uninstructed and unwise. The word he used was actually puthujjana, which is a singular rather than a plural term, and is more accurately rendered as something like “ordinary person,” “worldling” or “run-of-the-mill person.”

The puthujjana is not to be despised (it’s a term for any person who has not attained the first stage of enlightenment) but early Buddhism was certainly not democratic and did not see the mass of unawakened individuals as a source of guidance, and instead looked to those who had, through skill and hard work, developed insight and wisdom.

If you’d like to distinguish yourself from most people (and I hope you do) then I hope you’ll get a hold of Garson O’Toole’s new book. Any book that sparks intellectual curiosity and a concern for accuracy is, in my opinion, worthwhile. And you can quote me on that.

“Until he has unconditional and unbiased love for all beings, man will not find peace.”

This quote was passed on to me this morning:

“Until he has unconditional and unbiased love for all beings, man will not find peace.”

It’s definitely not from the Buddha, although apparently a lot of people think it is. It’s attributed to the Buddha in a ton of images, Facebook quotes, quote sites, and in at least three books.

The person who sent it to me thought that it could be traced back to the Pure Land nun Shi Wuling, although so far I haven’t been able to confirm that. It’s certainly found in a book called “Heart of a Buddha” (2000, Amitabha Publications). The book is described as containing “teachings by the Buddha, Venerable Master Chin Kung, and Venerable Wuling,” but in fact most of the teachings that are supposedly by the Buddha are Fake Buddha Quotes. There’s no way of knowing whether this quote was thought by the compiler to be by the Buddha or whether it was original to one of the two teachers (unless it can be found in an earlier work published by one or the other of them). So the origin, at present, is unknown.

The language of “unconditional love” is far too contemporary for the Buddha. It’s an expression that only seems to have entered the English language in the 19th century, and there’s no term in the Buddhist scriptures that could literally be translated in those words, although the concept of a love that was unlimited is certainly found there.

I don’t recall the Buddha ever talking about “man” (or “mankind” or any synonym for humanity as a whole”) finding peace. I don’t think he expected that humanity as a whole would ever be able to bring such a thing about. He saw peace (in the form of Awakening, or bodhi) as accessible to only the small number of people who will ardently pursue it through spiritual practice.

In general, the quote is overall too polished and literary to be from the Buddha. It’s definitely contemporary.

The most famous instance of unconditional love in the Pali scriptures is in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, part of which reads as follows:

Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,

Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

Let none deceive or decry
His fellow anywhere;
Let none wish others harm
In resentment or in hate.

The quality being described is called “metta,” which is indeed an unbounded or unconditioned love. There is a meditation practice to help us cultivate this open state of kindness and care, and I have a guide to that practice on my main website.

The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (6)

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who exclude the meaning and the Dhamma by means of badly acquired discourses whose phrasing is a semblance [of the correct phrasing] are acting for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause the good Dhamma to disappear.

“Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who conform to the meaning and the Dhamma with well-acquired discourses whose phrasing is not [mere] semblance are acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much merit and sustain the good Dhamma.”

This can be found on page 160 of “The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha,” translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

So the message here is that when paraphrasing is bad enough to “exclude the meaning and the Dhamma [truth]” from the teachings, it does a grave disservice to spiritual seeker and causes the destruction of the Dharma/Dhamma. This makes sense. When people hear teachings purporting to be Buddhism which distort the message of the Buddha — when a “Fake Buddhism” appears — then the genuine teachings are compromised.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that paraphrasing in itself is bad. The statement is about paraphrases that distort and obscure the teachings. I call this category the “lost in mistranslation” kind of Fake Buddha Quote.

Many of the fake quotes on this site are of this nature.

Note the Buddha’s very strong language, with words like “ruin, harm, and suffering.” The claim many people make that the Buddha would be “too spiritual” to be concerned about being misquoted is fictional, if we assume that this sutta correctly represents what the Buddha taught. And really there’s no basis for assuming otherwise.

“The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Federico Weinstabl passed this one on to me, which he’d kindly translated from the Spanish, (“El conflicto no es entre el bien et el mal, sino entre el conocimiento y el ignorancia”) as “The conflict isn’t between good and evil but between wisdom and ignorance.”

Neither version sounds like something from the Buddhist scriptures.

The word pāpa is used for “evil” and there’s a whole chapter on the topic — the Papavagga — in the Dhammapada. Pāpa is often contrasted with puñña, which is most often translated not as “good” but as “merit.” Puñña and pāpa are very much a pair.

Here’s an essay on the topic, by Venerable Asabho, in which the author notes, “Asian Buddhists who have grown up in their religion … are quite often surprised to find out that the concepts of puñña and pāpa (meritorious and demeritorious action), which they see as self-evident, seem to play a considerably less important role in the lives of Western Buddhists.”

The contrast between puñña and pāpa is seen in the Dhammapada chapter I referred to, where the second and third verses parallel each other thus:

Pāpaṃ ce puriso kayirā na taṃ kayirā punappunaṃ
Na tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha dukkho pāpassa uccayo.

Should a person commit evil, let him not do it again and again. Let him not find pleasure therein, for painful is the accumulation of evil.

Puññaṃ ce puriso kayirā kayirāthetaṃ punappunaṃ
Tamhi chandaṃ kayirātha sukho puññassa uccayo.

Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.

It’s true that westerners are drawn to the more technically precise terms “skillful” and “unskillful” (kusala/akusala) and tend to be put off by mentions of good and evil. I much prefer them myself! Puñña and pāpa are often encountered in poetic contexts (the Dhammapada is in poetic form), while skillful and unskillful are more often found in detailed explanations of psychology and practice.

Anyway, what’s the origin of this quote? I suspect that the words are actually those of contemporary Buddhist teacher David Loy. For example, in an essay in “Poverty and Morality: Religious and Secular Perspectives,” (Ethikon Institute, 2010) he wrote “For Buddhism, the primary issue is a struggle not between good and evil but between ignorance and insight.”

In another essay, this time in “The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra” (Snow Lion, 2006) he wrote “The Eastern duality is not between good and evil but between ignorance and wisdom.”

And in “Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement” (Springer International, 2016) he wrote “For Buddhism, the fundamental axis is not between good and evil but between ignorance/delusion and awakening/wisdom.”

And again, we find “In Buddhism, the primary issue is not a struggle not between good and evil but progress from ignorance to insight” in “The World Market and Interreligious Dialogue” (Cascade Books, 2011).

Incidentally, I think David Loy is correct in pointing out that in Buddhism, the duality between good and evil is not primary or fundamental. In my opinion, for what that’s worth, the Buddha used the terms puñña and pāpa as a matter of cultural convenience (they were familiar to the laity) and (as I’ve noted) for metrical convenience as well. But Buddhist morality is better expressed in terms of skillfulness and unskillfulness.

The way I explain these terms is to say that skill is about being able to accomplish an aim. A skilled carpenter can aim to make a functional and beautiful coffee table and do so. An unskilled worker cannot. In life, we all have the aim of finding happiness and escaping suffering. A practitioner is able to accomplish this only if she or he can cultivate skillful (kusala) states of mind, which are those free from greed, hatred, and delusion. This works because greed, hatred, and delusion inherently and inevitably lead to suffering, while non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion inherently and inevitably free us from suffering.

The Buddha thus encouraged us to abandon what is unskillful not because it is “bad” or “evil” but because it doesn’t free us from suffering. This is made explicit in the Kusala Sutta:

If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’ But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, ‘Abandon what is unskillful.’

How David Loy’s words got taken to be the word of the Buddha, I don’t know. But to compensate for my lack of knowledge, here’s a picture of me with the lovely David Loy! (Mr. Loy is, of course, the good-looking one!)