How serious a matter are fake Buddha quotes?

I know I’m not the only one unamused at some of the quotes floating around dubiously attributed to “the Buddha”. There’s a whole blog dedicated to the investigation of such quotes: well-researched, enjoyable to read, and I agree with the author’s approach.

But some might ask: why the fuss, as long as the quotes are in line with the spirit of the Teachings, or at worst, just well-meaning?

(The above-mentioned blog author certainly has had his share of “hate” mail: “don’t act like you’ve read all the scriptures“; “Buddhist Canon Nazi!“; “why don’t you spend all that time and energy actually practising instead?“.)

Well, as students of the Teacher, one way to decide how to respond to such quotes is to ask: what would the Teacher Himself have done if someone attributed something to Him when He didn’t say it?

A very short “Discourse on what was not said” (Abhasita Sutta, Book of Twos, Anguttara Nikaya) says it all:

“He who explains
what was not said or spoken by the Thus Come One
as said or spoken by the Thus Come One.

And he who explains
what was said or spoken by the Thus Come One
as not said or spoken by the Thus Come One.

These are two who slander the Thus Come One.”

(Thus Come One = the Buddha)

There are many instances where the Buddha is recounted to have clarified His misreported words. Recently I’ve been reading Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology of discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya. One such scripture is the “Discourse to Vaccha” (Book of Threes, Anguttara Nikaya). The format of the clarification usually starts with:

“Those who have said so
have not reported my words correctly
but misrepresent me.

Their declarations
do not accord with my teachings
and their false assertions
will certainly give cause for reproach.”

A quick Google found a more severe but interesting case study in the “Discourse on the Simile of the Snake” (Alagaddupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya). A monk names Arittha had a twisted interpretation of the Buddha Gotama’s words, likely going around repeating his view even though his fellow monks strenuously tried to dissuade him against it. The Buddha got wind of it and summoned Arittha, probed that this was indeed the case, and then proceeded to rebuke him so thoroughly that Arittha sat with his head and shoulders drooping, at a loss for words.

The Buddha then gave the similes of the snake (which you have to grasp properly, by the head and not by the tail or it would turn around to bite you) and the raft (which you abandon after crossing the shore; who needs to carry a raft all around on his back on dry land?) as the proper way to understand and apply the Dharma.

These examples from the Nikayas of the Theravada tradition might seem too serious to compare against “just some well-meaning lines”, but in Mahayana lore misquoting the Buddha is taken even less lightly.

Certainly one shouldn’t retort using “it’s just words” Zen stories. Or at least, try telling it to a Zen Master, and see if he would beat you with a stick… or give you the fox riddle from the Gateless Gate as homework:

Huangbo asked Baizhang, “A teacher spoke a wrong word and became a fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn’t spoken the wrong word?”

Baizhang said, “Come closer and I will tell you.”

Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang’s face.

Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, “I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!”

Hmmm.

Back to the topic. Even if the quote in question is positive, motivational, inspirational, or even in accordance with the spirit of the Teachings… well, go ahead and use it; just give the right author the credit instead.

While it might be an academic habit of mine to be so uptight with proper citations and referencing, I find it a useful habit for training mental discipline.

So it may be just one of those many day-to-day ways to practise mindfulness and Right Effort.

On the other hand, screaming too loud about misquoting might deter the less confident from sharing quotes actually traceable to the Buddha. This would be tragic, but easily solved by a community-wide habit of providing, as far as possible, a reference to, e.g. a scripture, commentary, or book, even if para-canonical.

It not only deepens our own familiarity with the Teachings, but also helps to expose those cursorily interested in Buddhism–and attracted to the quotes–on the rich scriptural basis of the Teachings today. Otherwise Buddha quotes, even when accurate, will appear without context and end up dismissed as conjurable by the likes of any random hippie, instead of the serious business that the Buddhadharma is.

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1 Comment

  1. 23 October 2014 at 18:15

    […] Fake Buddha quotes are one thing, but what about fake Buddha stories? […]


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