The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (5)

Here’s an interesting statement from the Buddha about how fake Dharma endangers the real thing:

Kassapa, the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world. But when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

Just as, Kassapa, gold does not disappear so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, but when counterfeit gold arises then true gold disappears, so the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

It is not the earth element, Kassapa, that causes the true Dhamma to disappear, nor the water element, nor the heat element, nor the air element. It is the senseless people who arise right here who cause the true Dhamma to disappear.

[From “The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya,” page 681.]

One of the things that interests me is that some Buddhist are preferentially drawn to Fake Buddha Quotes. When they do blog posts based on the Buddha’s sayings, or when they quote the Buddha in an article, they’re far more likely to post fake quotes than those found in the scriptures. Perhaps this is because the scriptures tend not to be pithy or elegant, and so in many cases aren’t particularly quotable. Try finding a Tweetable — i.e. 140 character or less — quote in the example above! But perhaps it’s also because they find the teachings of the Buddha too austere, technical, and demanding. There’s not a lot of “warm and fuzzy” in Dhammapada verses such as this: “Fools of little wit are enemies unto themselves as they move about doing evil deeds, the fruits of which are bitter.”

Non-Buddhists who circulate fake quotes are giving a misleading impression of what Buddhism is, but this mostly affects other non-Buddhists, and is of little consequence. The Buddha’s “senseless people” (yeah, Buddhism is really non-judgmental!) would be be people who claim to follow his teachings but don’t really know what those teachings are, and often don’t bother to find out.

Sometimes this is harmless, as when fake quotes emphasize the need to love ourselves (not something the Buddha stressed, but a necessary practice), but other times these quotes directly contradict important teachings of the Buddha, such as anatta, or not-self. An example of this would be where we’re told to identify with “the observer” of our experience. Such a practice may be useful as part of the path of letting go of identifying with our experience, but the Buddha would have seen this as a serious obstacle to spiritual progress if it’s taken as the goal of spiritual practice. His path of practice included letting go of all identifications whatsoever. To say that we should identify with “the observer” is good Hinduism, but dreadful Buddhism.

I’m not arguing, by the way, that there’s some “pure Dharma” found in the scriptures. I’m not a fundamentalist. The scriptures themselves are the end result of a process of analysis and systematization that arose at a time when the guardians of the tradition had competing views of what the Dharma was. Those who were passing on the teachings may not have fully understood what they were transmitting, or may have only had a theoretical understanding of it. The scriptures contain distortions, and even propaganda. They have to be read critically, and in the light of actual Dharma practice, since some of them can only be understood experientially.

However, the scriptures are the closest we’re going to get (textually) to what the Buddha taught, and to how he experienced the world. If we ignore them, and instead build an understanding of the Dharma that’s based on “fools gold” — mistranslations, Hinduizations, and misattributed citations — we’ll make it immeasurably harder, if not impossible, to move closer to awakening and to know the mind of the Buddha.

8 thoughts on “The Buddha on Fake Buddha Quotes (5)”

  1. I agree with you that the Pali Tipitaka deserves more attention than it currently gets. I’ve always appreciated your blog for that reason. In all fairness it could be argued, however, that many people quote good Dhamma teachers and say they are the Buddha’s words, out of forgetfulness, or the inability to reproduce the long names of some Buddhist teachers. There’s a difference between incorrect quotes and fake quotes, as ‘ fake’ implies an unwholesome intention.

    1. I think most people are simply content to accept that if, say, Sharon Salzberg or Thich Nhat Hanh says it’s the Dharma, it’s the Dharma. There’s an expectation that people know what they’re talking about. Not many people have the curiosity to go deeper, and often they find the Pali scriptures rather inaccessible.

      But I’d gently disagree with one thing you said. This is just an analogy, but if I’ve unwittingly passed on a fake banknote, that doesn’t imply any unwholesome intention on my part. Perhaps I should have been more attentive and noticed that the $10 bill was a photocopy, but that’s a lack of knowledge or mindfulness, not necessarily a failure of honesty. However the banknote is still fake.

      1. It’s good you’ve addressed this issue of misquoting. I think misquoting seems to have become more common with the rise of social media. Your blog is a great database for reflection on what the Buddhadhamma really is about. I just feel you could reach a wider audience if you’d use another word than fake. However it is merely a language thing. I understand your good intention and objectives of this website.

        I’ve also noticed some people misunderstand the website as reflecting only Theravāda teachings. In my perspective, it reflects the earliest suttas, which in fact exist in other languages as well, such as Chinese. It is a historical perspective on what is correct, not a sectarian or fraternity-limited perspective.

        1. Thank you for noticing that I’m not a Theravadin! In fact, although the Mahayana sutras are clearly not records of the words of the historical Buddha, I regard any quote coming from any Buddhist canon as being “genuine” — otherwise I’d be filling the website with quotes from the Diamond Sutra 🙂

          It’s only quotes that are from outside the Buddhist tradition, or that have been distorted by mistranslation, that I consider to be illegitimate (or fake).

          As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, I’ve no idea whether the Pali canon (or the other early canons) actually records any of what the Buddha said in a precise, literal way. Presumably some—probably a minority—is verbatim, but a lot is likely to be paraphrases, or other contemporary (not specifically Buddhist) teachings that were incorporated into the scriptures. But none of us can know that for sure, the convention is to regard scripture as if it were the word of the Buddha, and it’s that convention that I follow.

          I appreciate your reservations about the word “fake.” It’s a rather crude term. But it’s also catchy, and I’m kind of stuck with it!

    2. I personally wouldn’t use the word fake, as it may cause unnecessary aversion – but from a point of view of intention, these “quotes” are at least sloppy and muddled thinking. It’s a form of ignorance However, properly investigating them can be hard work. To put it bluntly (Zen-stick style): “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” – Alberto Brandolini.

      I’m also a fan of citations and footnotes, because it gives credit to the source (practice gratitude), and allows further investigation.

      1. Yeah, it’s meant to be a provocative word, not with the intention to cause offense, but more to amuse and to catch the eye, as well as to be broadly descriptive. “Misattributed, Distorted, and Poorly Translated Buddha Quotes” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it 🙂

        Incidentally, there’s also a FakeFoundersQuotes, but unfortunately I don’t think there’s a Fake Einstein Quotes or Fake Gandhi Quotes site.

  2. Thanks Sir for opening Pandora box 😉 The whole issue of persevering the purity of Dhamma is somewhat controversial. Excluding those people who use the teaching for their own egocentric ends, the question is who, from the people that care, is the one who really understands it? And that is our predicament, how can we guard something we are neither sure of authenticity nor of a ‘right’ comprehension. Who guards the guards…
    Best regards

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