“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Thanks to Tricycle, a whole new batch of Fake Buddha Quotes has appeared on the same day, including the following:

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Sadly, there’s no indication that Monty, who posted this (and others, including at least one I’ve blogged about before) recognized the bogosity of the quotes, but then that’s not uncommon. Every single one of the quotes on that Tricycle page that are attributed to the Buddha is in fact a fake Buddha Quote.

I suspect most contemporary Buddhists have read very little primary literature (a.k.a scripture) and rely on books about Buddhism. They therefore aren’t in a position to know whether a particular quote sounds like something the Buddha might have said, because everything they’ve read has been filtered through Jack Kornfield, or Sharon Salzberg, or Lama Surya Das. And I mean no disrespect to those fine teachers; they’re giving poetic and contemporary expression to the Buddha-Dharma, after all. It’s just that if you only read books about Buddhism you don’t get that sense of when something is “off.”

And “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart” is most definitely off.

This is another from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada, which I’m quickly coming to realize is one of the two worst translations around, or that I’ve encountered. And by “worst” I mean taking a look at the original Pali, and making up something nice-sounding that’s loosely based on the words but totally disregards the literal meaning.

Comparing Byrom’s verse with other translations and the original Pali is most instructive. Here’s the Pali:

akase padam natthi
samano natthi bahire

This is a straightforward translation (the Pali being very unambiguous):

“There is no track in the sky;
There is no ascetic outside [of this teaching].”

The language is straightforward, even if the sense if a little compacted (this is verse, after all). Here’s an expended version of the sense: In the sky, it’s impossible to leave a track. Birds fly through the sky and leave no trace of their coming and going. There is nothing in the sky that supports a track. Similarly, outside of the dhamma, there is nothing to support genuine spiritual practice.

Whether you compare the expanded meaning or the bare words, Byrom’s “translation” really has no relation to what the Buddha actually is quoted, in the Dhammapada, as saying (and we have no real reason to doubt that he said this, or something very similar). There is nothing about “the way” in the original. There is nothing about “the heart” in the original. Of course a translator may take liberties in order to communicate the essence of the original text, but here the essential message is entirely lost.

But of course “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart,” is beautifully resonant, and contains those evocative words “sky” and “way,” and “heart,” and so I’m not surprised that this mistranslation has gained wide acceptance as a Buddha quote, even though it’s utterly fake.

Here, by the way, is some information about Byrom, courtesy of Barnes and Noble:

Thomas (Billy) Byrom, Ph.D., was born in England and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard. He taught history and literature at Harvard and Old and Middle English language and Victorian and modern literature at Oxford, where he was first a fellow of Exeter College and then a fellow in American studies of St. Catherine’s College. His translation of The Ashtavakra Gita was published under the title The Heart of Awareness. In 1976 he moved to Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, where he served as president of the Kashi Foundation and as a spiritual elder and counselor for the whole community. There he cofounded the Ma Jaya River School, which he directed until his death in 1991.

It sounds as if he was a Hindu, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does leave open the possibility that he might see Buddhism through a Hindu lens. And there’s no indication in this brief bio that he actually studied either Sanskrit or Pali, although I suppose it’s possible he did and it was such a minor part of his studies that it escaped mention.

24 thoughts on ““The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.””

  1. Love your byline – I can’t believe it’s not buddha. Nice one. Happened across your site looking for this particular quote. Not that I particularly mind that it’s not genuine – for me the sentiment that I get from it remains – about finding your own way. Different cultures have different perspectives, ways of expressing ideas and perhaps even completely different ideas, so translation is more than just finding a literal equivalent of the words in another language. Looking at your sidebar there’s another quote – “actions are the ground on which I stand” that seems to suggest a contrast to the tracks in the sky?

  2. Long ago I had to make peace with the extensive difficulties that translation across time, language, culture and spiritual inclination introduce into esoteric works. Where I ultimately arrived was to evaluate according to two parameters -unnecessary wordiness which generally indicates to me someone doesn’t know what he/she is talking about, and, more important, what sort of intuitive awareness grows in me as I read a particular translation. When the interpretation comes from that intuitive depth in the translator, my experience has been it touches that depth in me. I really don’t care what words they choose as long as when I come from reading their translation, I know or sense something about truth that I didn’t know before. I do believe that if the words were what mattered, we would have lost the knowledge in the great works of wisdom long ago. What translates across all the hurdles that such works are confronted by appears to be at a deep enough level that words themselves cannot diminish it.

    1. Translation is often difficult, Christina, although the text under discussion here, the Dhammapada, is not an “esoteric” text as you suggest, but a collection of, for the most part, fairly straightforward aphorisms: the first millennium BCE Indian equivalent of “A stitch in time saves nine.”

      But it seems that what you’re saying is that as long as you have a good feeling about a translation, or if it shows you something new, you’ll accept it as accurate. That’s problematic, because feelings can be misleading and because the new thing you’re being shown may be the translator’s vision rather than that of the original author. That’s why I have so little respect for Byrom’s rendering: he seems to have little respect for the original text, and was happier inserting his own ideas of Buddhist spirituality.

      For those of us who are interested in living the Buddha’s teachings, and in seeing what he saw, his words are important as a guide, and it’s therefore useful to have them rendered as accurately as possible, to the extent that’s possible, given that we’re dealing with an ancient language which is sometimes ambiguous or contains terms that don’t translate well into modern languages.

      I like translations that are poetic, but I like accuracy even more.

  3. A translation from a translation.Both sound like opinion to me.I don’t recall Buddha writing anything himself.Isn’t it about the principles of life that exist and happen no matter what?

    1. All translation involves subjective choices about which words best represent what the translator believes the text to be saying, but there is also a text there as an objective fact, and no competent and honest translator should simply make something up and impose his or her views at the expense of fidelity to the text.

      Texts like these are the closest we’re going to get to what the Buddha taught, and if we’re interested in learning from him we should seek out competent translations. Of course to anyone interested simply in hearing some nice-sounding words, this won’t mean very much.

  4. I don’t think Byrom “made [anything] up,” as you rather flatly assert. Literal translation is just that, literal. It seems more than obvious to me that what Byrom was going after was a rather more creative interpretation; what he loses in literal translation he more than makes up for in communicating the essential emotional truth of the original. ‘Course that’s just my opinion. But I think it’s wrong to declare that somehow his poetic translation is somehow “made up” or a bastardization of the original.

    1. I can understand why you like Byrom’s rendering of the Dhammapada. It’s much more poetic, inspiring, and gentle in tone than any literal translation could ever be. It’s a very attractive piece of literature.

      My guess is that Byrom was, in creating a “translation” so outside the norm, hoping that people would think that he was seeing something deeper in the text that others had somehow missed. But he wasn’t. The original is rather austere, unadorned, and strict in tone. He introduces things (including philosophical perspectives) that aren’t in the Pali, and he misses out important things that are. I think “bastardization” is a pretty good word to describe his work. Genetically it’s about 10% Gotama, and 90% Byrom, as you can see by comparing it with the Pali or with any literal translation.

      As a translation, I consider it a fraud — a beautiful fraud, like much of Coleman Barks’ Rumi or Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam — but a fraud nonetheless.

      We’re all free to enjoy the poetry of Byrom’s Dhammapada, of course, but we should make sure we read other translations that give a better sense of the original.

  5. Yes, it is beautiful and he was “creative” in the translation and did not have knowledge of sanskrit. Nonetheless beautiful.

  6. Well Byrom’s rendering of The Heart of Awareness was considered – by one of the world’s great Sanskrit scholars – to be the finest one up to the time of his translation.

    As far as “feelings” vs intuition – it is hard to imagine what could be a greater misunderstanding of the dharma than to conflate feelings with prajna

    1. Unfortunately I’m in no position to assess the quality of Byrom’s Ashtavakra Gita, or to know whether the scholar you mention was accurate in his assessment. If his Dhammapada is anything to go by, however, I’m very skeptical.

  7. J. L. Brockington, from the department of Sanskrit at Edinburgh University. In the foreword, he wrote, “There have been English translations before, but this is the first to capture the spirit of the original in its freshness and directness; I warmly recommend it.”

    In the Acknowledgements, Byron notes that Dr. Richard Gombrich, Professor of Sanskrit of Oxford University, helped clarify several particularly difficult verses, and Dr. Brockington went over the entire translation and commentary in great detail.

    You and I, from what I can gather from your very interesting online writings, have quite different views of Buddhism. I share the view of Robert Thurman, David Loy, Alan Wallace, J C Chatterji, Lama Govinda and many others who see an underlying unity in the Indic traditions (and ultimately, in all genuine contemplative traditions round the world; recently, my favorite Christian contemplative book, ‘Into the Silent Land’ by Martin Laird, was lauded by Wallace as “the best Christian book available on Dzogchen practice.”

    Mirra Alfassa, Sri Aurobindo’s collaborator, has an extensive commentary on the Dhammapada – of course, from the perspective of Integral yoga. She practiced Zen Buddhism while in Japan during World War I, and at least one Roshi assessed her as being “fully enlightened” (or awake; i don’t recall the exact words). Her take on the Dhammapada is available here: https://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/ma/03/vol_03_e.pdf I imagine it will be dramatically different from almost anything you’ve come across, but you might find it at least mildly interesting!! Buddhists and Hindus alike tend to be passionately opposed to Sri Aurobindo’s views (scientists and many others as well), so, it really can be quite interesting to see what gets them so upset:>))

    Very best,

  8. Billy(Thomas) Byrom was a good friend and an early practitioner in the US. He had many influences but, in my view, was concerned with helping people see and grow in awareness more than provide strictly accurate translations. Please take the insight he provided and use it to grow your own awareness. I think that would be his recommendation.

    1. I don’t think I can ignore the fact that Byrom’s rendering of a Buddhist text has misled many people about what and how the Buddha taught. Byrom’s intentions may have been good, but I recall there’s an old saying about good intentions…

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