I received this interesting email yesterday.
Dear Sir, Your collection is interesting, but also somewhat counterproductive, in my mind. To me, the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon, its spirit of welcoming continuous exploration, and its fundamental revelation that individuals are part of a much greater consciousness. The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings. Even the exercise of debating whether something is “real” or “fake” by attributing origination to a “legitimate” source seems to defy the singlemost important lesson from Buddhism, at least in my mind. I hope you take no offense: I just wanted to humbly and respectfully offer my opinion.
There are things here I agree with, and some I don’t.
The statement “the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon” is rather odd, since Buddhism does indeed literally have a canon. It has more than one, in fact, a “canon” being a (closed) list of religious books being accepted as genuine. There’s the Pali canon, which is just one survivor from among many canons found in a variety of languages and belonging to different schools. There are also Tibetan and Chinese canons, among others.
Of course these canons have evolved, and some of the teachings, especially the Mahayana ones, have only an indirect connection with the words the Buddha taught, so the notion of a “canon” is questionable. But there is a canon.
Buddhism does indeed have a “spirit of welcoming continuous exploration.” Buddhism is a living practice tradition in which individuals seek to put into practice the teachings embodied in the various canons in order to attain awakening. And there is a whole body of secondary and tertiary teachings growing out of these explorations, right up to the present day. Those later teachings are not canonical, however. There’s a clear difference between teachings historically ascribed to be Buddha and, say, a book that I wrote about Buddhism. You’d be wise to read my book in the light of the canonical teachings, since that’s one way of checking whether my teachings are genuinely part of the process of enquiry that leads to the kind of awakening the Buddha was talking about, rather than some other goal.
I’m not sure what to make of the rather packed statement, “The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.”
Even in the relatively early days of Buddhism it seems to have been believed that the historical individual that we call Shakyamuni, or Siddhartha Gotama, or simply The Buddha, was one of a line of enlightened individuals who had preceded him. But there was no confusion about which was which. President Obama is one of a line of individuals known as “the President,” but it would be unwise to confuse him with Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln. So the fact there are many Buddhas has no bearing on the matter of the attribution of quotes.
“Buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.” The Buddha certainly seems to have had no view that “Buddha is in all of us,” although (reading between the lines) he did seem to see his teaching, and the goal it led to, as applicable
to everyone. But again, this has no bearing on whether quotations are correctly attributed.
If we’re to say that “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore (although I see no therefore) that anything anyone says can be meaningfully attributed to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, then the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, has said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” although conventionally speaking we would attribute this to John F. Kennedy; and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which was spoken by the Buddha, along with many other wise statements, in his novel Anna Karenina; and “It is not truth that matters, but victory,” although some would insist that that was actually Adolf Hitler.
Personally, though, I do not see the logic in saying “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore we can ascribe anything we want to the historical individual, Shakyamuni, because it makes no sense as an argument and because it leads to the absurdities I’ve highlighted above.
We can’t tell whether the Buddha said all the things ascribed to him in the Pali canon (which is our best bet for literal authenticity), but we can tell when things ascribed to him were actually said by someone else, or are in some way foreign to the canon. And that’s what I attempt to do here.