Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Fake Buddhism Quotes

(as posted at American Buddhist Perspective)

My friend and former meditation teacher Bodhipaksa has recently been collecting and commenting upon interesting "Fake Buddha Quotes."  This has been a source of occasional comedy, sometimes frustration, and also a bit of wonder. Why is it that people coin these fake new quotes? Why do others pick them up and spread them, unchecked, across the web and other networks? Why are some, like Bodhipaksa and myself, a bit frustrated with them? First a couple of those quotes (click the link for Bodhipaksa's comments):
“When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” (from here)

“Suffering, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the furthest shore.” – Buddha (from here)

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself”
–Buddha (from here)

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
—Buddha. (from here)

He is able who thinks he is able. #Buddha (from here)

And finally, my favorite (from here):

Ok, so now that we've all had a good laugh, I have to ask: why create fake Buddha quotes? The simplest answer is that it's just plane old humane mistakes (plain... human). Little slips in translation or memory, or perhaps big ones and viola! (voilà) a new Buddha quote. As a guy who grew up believing that Americans fought a big war about silver in the 1860s and that the second World War was called "war war two" I can see where this is probably very often the case.

In good Buddhist fashion we can call that the ignorance cause. Then there would also be the greed and aversion causes (the three poisons). Greed perhaps for personal aggrandizement or mere attention, aversion could manifest in besmirching someone else (using a made-up Buddha quote) or making a silly one up to make the Buddha look bad.

And now, why do we repeat them? Well, probably for the same reasons - mostly ignorance if you ask me. We all, especially if we call ourselves Buddhists, owe it to ourselves and the world to read some early Buddhist teachings now and then. Check out Access to Insight (you can download the whole thing on your iPhone/iPod) if you haven't already. Even though I'm a bit of a Theravāda snob these days, I will also heartily suggest reading Tibetan, Zen, Ch'an, Shin, etc writings as well. It's very important to get a taste of each tradition; you don't need to believe it or practice it, but see where it is coming from so that you can see your fellow Buddhists and human beings. So don't forget the great Catholics (Thomas Merton, Merton movie, or Anthony De Mello, "I'm an ass, you're an ass"), Protestants, Hindus, Muslims and others.

And lastly, why are some of us a bit frustrated with these fake Buddha quotes? Well, as Bodhipaksa suggests in his comments, the Buddha simply didn't say that. Why make up new things when we already have HUGE canons of real Buddha quotes? Perhaps we could say it's disrespectful, not to mention the above (ignorant, greedy, malicious) potential roots behind the quote. The stated goal of Buddhism, along with the aleviation of suffering, is to know things as they truly are (yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇaṃ). So fake Buddha quotes, unless they are created out of the heart of a true bodhisattva, will potentially not only spread greater unclarity in the world but also increase suffering.

That brings me to a final, scholarly point. What about the Mahāyāna? And in particular a quote from the Adhyāśayasaṃcodana Sūtra, the “Sūtra for inciting determination”:
Yat kiñcin maitreya subhāṣitaṃ sarvaṃ tad buddhabhāṣitam.
Because, Maitreya, all that is well spoken is Buddha-spoken.
You can find this in some great contemporary scholarly books including: BuddhismMahayana Buddhism (P.Williams) And On Being Buddha (P. Griffiths), and Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra (D. Lopez).

The idea here seems to be that whatever is well spoken is the Buddha's speech; i.e. if you speak well, you speak as a Buddha. This is very definitely an innovation of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In an article (free to Jstror subscribers) L. Snellgrove explains that some "misplaced wording" in one of his articles had Aśoka, a great early Buddhist king, declaring that 'all which is well spoken is the word of the Buddha' when in fact he stated that 'whatever has been said by the Buddha, is well spoken'.  We can see where some semantic clarity makes a pretty big difference.

What do you think? Can we 'fake quote' the Buddha for good ends? Do we have a duty to point out fake Buddha quotes made by friends? Or is whatever is 'well spoken' an automatic 'Buddha quote'?


  1. Probably everythign we think we know about buddhism is false. I was reading a neat book about comparative JUST WAR traditions, and discovered that the Buddhists actually do think about JUST WAR. Thank goodness. apparently this helped the Buddhists in Sri Lanka kick the asses of their Muslim minority, and win. Thank goodness!

    In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (Paperback)

    Is one place to start. the book has an extensive bibliography.

    The tibetans could use a few hundred thousand copies of this text, so they can start to take their land back from the creepy Maoists from Beijing.

    thank you.

  2. So is this a "real" Buddha quote or a "fake" Buddha quote?

    "Row, row, row your boat,
    Gently down the stream,
    Merrily, merrily, merrily,
    Life is but a dream."

  3. Nice discussion! I think now that the Pali and Chinese and Tibetan language Buddhist canons of scriptures have been made available in their entirety in searchable digital formats, it should prove possible to root out a lot more quotes wrongly attributed to Lord Buddha. I'm afraid some of these Buddhists themselves may be responsible, so not all the blame belongs to North American business club keynote motivational speakers!

    My favorite? "The only thing that never changes is change itself."