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.

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.”

Or as they say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, misquote him.”

This one’s a puzzle. I’m 100% certain it’s not the Buddha. As usual, the language is all wrong. But I haven’t found a definitive source. I’m always more comfortable pronouncing Buddha quotes to be fake when I can find an original source, but in this case I’m stymied.

It appears in a magazine called Network World from January 16, 1989, as:

There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

It’s not attributed to the Buddha, but there’s no source given. It’s not even in quotation marks, but since it’s an otherwise unrelated comment prefacing an invitation to contribute to the magazine, it’s almost certainly a quote from somewhere.

But where?

In a book published two years earlier, Healing of the Planet Earth, by Alan Cohen, the quote is attributed to the Buddha, although it’s in a slightly different form:

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: 1 . Not going all the way. 2. Not starting. – Buddha

Here we have “along the road” rather than “on the road” and we have the two mistakes handily numbered.

But how did Cohen come to think this was a quote from the Buddha? The internet was barely active at that time, so it was probably a book or magazine — or perhaps a faulty memory of a talk he’d heard. It’s conceivable that the quote evolved from something said by Chogyam Trungpa:

“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” ~~~ Chögyam Trungpa

The core concept here is similar, although the words used are very different.

Another candidate for the original is verse 47 from the chapter on Virya (vigor) from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. This reads:

After first examining one’s means, one should either begin or not begin. Surely, it is better not to begin than to turn back once one has begun.

It’s possible that this is also what Trungpa was referring to, this text being very well-known in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, although there’s a similarity in theme, the presentation of the concept isn’t a close match.

Perhaps as Google scans more books, the original source will be revealed.

The quote then reappears, once again credited to the Buddha, in 2000’s Treasury Of Spiritual Wisdom: A Collection Of 10,000 Powerful Quotations For Transforming Your Life, by Andy Zubko. After 2000, the quote starts springing up in many, many books. It seems unstoppable. But perhaps some publisher or author doing some fact checking in the future will stumble across this site and pause before spreading this quote any further. I can only dream.

“The instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.”

This one struck me as being off. The language of “striving for ourselves” is too idiomatic and modern for the Buddha. Was it a rather too free translation, perhaps? Maybe another one of Jack Kornfield’s paraphrases of Buddhist teaching from his lovely little book, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book?

It was quite easy to track this quote to Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay “Voltaire,” and more fully it reads:

A wise man has well reminded us, that ‘in any controversy, the instant we feel angry, we have already ceased striving for Truth, and begun striving for Ourselves.’

You may note that the version ascribed to the Buddha has “anger” for “angry” (the former does sound more Buddha-like) and has “the truth” rather than Truth.

But who is the “wise man” who Carlyle is quoting?

According to the Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) it’s from Goethe, but that’s the only attribution to Goethe that I’ve seen. A Fake Goethe Quote, perhaps?

According to Day’s Collacon: an Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations (1884) these are the words of a Rev. A. Alison, although again this is the only source on Google books that connects him with the quotation. Interestingly, however, Carlyle mentioned having heard Alison preach in Edinburgh, and complimented his clear elocution and eloquent style. It seems not unlikely that Carlyle might have been recounting a quotation he heard at a sermon, which would explain the difficulty of tracing the ultimate origins of the quote.

The Rev. Archibald Alison, however, published in 1790 an “Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste,” and in 1814 two volumes of sermons. I’ve found neither of these books online, but perhaps one day they’ll be scanned and the quote’s origins found. Or perhaps the quote is from another source altogether.

My money’s on Alison. But I’m quite sure this is not a quote from the Buddha.

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

There’s nothing at all unBuddhist about this quote, or the sentiment it expresses, but as far as I’m aware “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” isn’t found in the Buddhist scriptures.

It sounds like someone has tried to distill the Buddha’s teaching into a nice maxim, and hit on a saying that was already popular.

This probable Fake Buddha Quote seems to have been around for some time. According to Google Books, it’s found attributed to the Buddha in Distilled Wisdom: An Encyclopedia of Wisdom in Condensed Form, by Alfred Armand Montapert, from 1964, although it has to be said that Google Books’ dating is sometimes off. And Google also says it’s found in a 1959 book by George Francis Allen, with the splendid title of Words of Wisdom: The Buddhist Companion Book; Containing 365 Maxims and Utterances Attributed to Gotama Buddha for Each Day and Night of the Year.

Something very similar is found in an 1873 book, A Twofold Life, by Wilhelmine von Hillern:

“There is also a heaven upon earth in our own breasts. Do not seek it without, but within your heart ; then you will not come into heaven for the first time when you die, but remain in it always.”

The saying was around in 1907 as “For the spirit of contentment and peace comes from within, not from without.” (Library Journal, December, 1907), and in 1908’s Country Life magazine as “Peace comes from within, not from without,” where it is described as “the message of Marcus Aurelius.”

I haven’t found any instances before the 20th century, but in “The Complete Words of W. E. Channing,” I’ve found the following:

“There can be no peace without, but through peace within. Society must be an expression of the souls of its members.”

This is from a lecture, “On War,” delivered in 1838. The general idea is no doubt much older, but the expression “peace comes from within” seems not to be much more than a century old.

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

This one struck me as suspicious, mainly because of the “no one can and no one may,” which doesn’t strike me as the kind of language the Buddha used. Actually, this turns out to be an example of a translation that is so liberal that the resemblance to the original becomes tenuous.

It’s part of a slightly longer verse passage recorded in an 1894 book, Karma: A Story of Buddhist Ethics, by Paul Carus. In full the quotation is recognizable as having been derived from the Dhammapada:

By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.

No one saves us but ourselves.
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path:
Buddhas only show the way.

Here’s a more literal translation, from Access to Insight:

165. By oneself is evil done;
by oneself is one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone;
by oneself is one made pure.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
no one can purify another.

You can see a basic similarity, but “no one can and no one may” has been added to flesh out the poetry. Mostly this quote is fine. Yes, we’re responsible for our own actions. The Buddha can’t save us. We have to save ourselves. But “no one may”? That suggests that some external agency forbids others from saving us, which is not a Buddhist notion. “No one can” would have worked well as a translation on its own, but wouldn’t of course fit the rhyming scheme.

“Buddhas only show the way” seems to have been borrowed from another Dhammapada verse (276): “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.”

The late 19th century attempt to render the Buddha’s teaching in verse was a noble but of course an unsustainable one. In this case we’ve ended up with a note being injected (“no one may”) which simply doesn’t ring true.

PS. I’m aware that Pure Land Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is only possible through the grace of Amida Buddha, but I think it’s good to acknowledge that this approach contradicts what the Buddha seems to have taught — which is that the Buddhas only point the way, and that we must save ourselves.

“When someone goes wrong, it is right for his real friends to move him, even by force, to do the right thing.”

Name: Michael Stacey

Email: y………@me.com

Subject: Fake Buddha quote?

Message: This was tweeted by @QuietMindSystem “When someone goes wrong, it is right for his real friends to move him, even by force, to do the right thing.” Buddha. The force word sort of makes it suspect, or am I mistaken? I would appreciate your feedback

*****

My reply:

You’re right to be suspicious.

As it happens I was just looking into that one the other day. It’s a particularly interesting example because it brings into question exactly what makes a Buddha quote fake. It’s a paraphrase, or alternative translation of a passage from the Jatakamala, or birth-stories of the Buddha. Here’s another version: “If a person acts inconsiderately, it is the duty of those who claim to be his friends to care for the good of their friend, be it even in a rough manner.” This is from Fausböll’s translation. I haven’t consulted the original Sanskrit to see exactly what it says.

If you’re not familiar with the Jatakas, they’re supposedly stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, illustrating his virtues as a bodhisatta. Many of these birth stories are regarded as being part of the Theravadin canon, and therefore a “genuine” part of the Buddha’s teaching. At the same time these were almost certainly pre-Buddhistic folk tales that became attached to the Buddhist tradition. So in a sense these are the Original Fake Buddha Quotes, which have been around so long that they are an accepted part of the Buddhist canon.

The Jatakamala is not a canonical work. It was composed in Sanskrit, probably around the first century several centuries after the Buddha) by Aryaśura. It seems that “new” Jataka stories continued to appear up until the 19th century, but the canon having been closed these aren’t accepted as official Buddhist teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven is closer than the brow above the eye but mankind does not see it.”

Another ripe, juicy Fake Buddha Quote spotted on Twitter:

The language is purely Christian, and “Kingdom of heaven” is in no way a Buddhist concept. Fortunately this particular quote seems very rare, and Google shows only a handful of results for it, some of which are variants (e.g. “above your eye”).

“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.”

This one is a mutation of “No matter how difficult the past, you can always begin again today,” which is actually by Jack Kornfield. Jack’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book is one of the major sources of Fake Buddha Quotes, presumably because people get confused by the title and think that it’s a book of actual quotations from the Buddha.

In its “hard” version it’s in at least two books, which leads me to wonder how many publishers require their authors to provide reliable sources for quotations.

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.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Spotted here:

This is another one from Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book (1994), which isn’t a collection of Buddha quotes, but is Jack’s rather lovely interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

According to the publisher:

Just as the serene beauty of the lotus blossom grows out of muddy water, Buddha’s simple instructions have helped people to find wholeness and peace amid life’s crisis and distractions for more than 2,500 years. For this small handbook, a well-known American Buddhist teacher and psychologist has distilled and adapted an ancient teaching for the needs of contemporary life. Its practical reminders and six meditations can infuse smallest everyday action with insight and joy.

It’s a charming book, although the title has led many people to think that its contents are quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. In some cases that appears to be so, but most of the aphorisms seem to be Jack’s own thoughts.

Thanks to an alert commenter (Paxski), I was able to track where Jack got this quote from. Paxski had heard Jack use this quotation in one of his talks on CD, where he attributed it to Don Juan. Paxski wasn’t sure which Don Juan this was, but a hunch told me that it was probably the (fictional?) Yaqui shaman from Carlos Castaneda’s books. And indeed, I found the following in Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda’s third book:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change? You don’t have time for this display, you fool. This, whatever you’re doing now, may be your last act on earth. It may very well be your last battle. There is no power which could guarantee that you are going to live one more minute.

So this another version of the “timeless” reminder that time is brief and that we should make good use of it.

Shorn of this context, though, as it is in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, I’ve often thought that this quote might be a little counter-productive. I know what the quote was intending to say, but what is it we don’t have time for? The quote doesn’t say. I certainly hope I have time to get enlightened. Of course I don’t know how much time is available to me, but if I’m being told that I don’t, in fact, have time, then what’s the point? The quote’s intention is to point out that we don’t have time to waste, but not having time to waste is not the same thing as not having time. We do have time, or at least we have some time, and the question is how we’re going to use it.

Shorn of its context, I think that this particular quote may be an example of what Daniel Dennett has called a “deepity.” Here’s an adaptation of Wikipedia’s account of that term:

Deepity is a term employed by Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists Institution conference, coined by the teenage daughter of one of his friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

It would be earth-shattering to say, truthfully, that we don’t have time. But it’s essentially false. Still, this is me over-thinking the quote. As I mentioned, I knew the first time I read it what it meant. It’s just a little ambiguous. And not something the Buddha said, although he said similar things:

  • “Unindicated and unknown is the length of life of those subject to death.” (Source)
  • “Those who have come to be, those who will be: All will go, leaving the body behind. The skillful person, realizing the loss of all, should live the holy life ardently.” (Source)
  • “I have reckoned the life of a person living for 100 years: I have reckoned the life span, reckoned the seasons, reckoned the years, reckoned the months, reckoned the fortnights, reckoned the nights, reckoned the days, reckoned the meals, reckoned the obstacles to eating. Whatever a teacher should do — seeking the welfare of his disciples, out of sympathy for them — that have I done for you. Over there are the roots of trees; over there, empty dwellings. Practice jhana, monks. Don’t be heedless. Don’t later fall into regret. This is our message to you all.” (Source)
  • Life is swept along, next-to-nothing its span. For one swept to old age no shelters exist. Perceiving this danger in death, one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace. (Source)