And fake Buddha stories

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

A particular link has been floating around my Facebook news feed, titled “The Man Who Spit in Buddha’s Face“. Initially I ignored it; hey, even the tense was wrong. Then I finally decided to just check it out.

The story can be summarised as:

(1) A man came up to the Buddha in front of all his disciples and spat on His face.

(2) The Buddha asked the man, “What next?”

(3) The Buddha’s disciples went into near-hysteria. Ananda, in particular, was spluttering. But the Buddha said to Ananda, “This man does not offend me. But you do.”

(4) The man went back home. The morning after a night’s sleep, he went back to the Buddha, and prostrated at His feet. “Please forgive me,” he begged. The Buddha asked the man, “What next?”

If this summary sounds like a three- or even four-part zen koan, I intended it to. Just as how dubious quotes of the Buddha can be very much in line with Buddhist teachings, stories of the Buddha that are of dubious authenticity can likewise sound like a possible product of the myriad schools of Buddhism.

For comparison, the late Zen Master Seung Sahn had this koan:

Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?

-“Dropping ashes on the Buddha”

But Master Seung Sahn didn’t pass his koan off as having happened in the Buddha’s lifetime.

Also, in the Kwan Um School of Zen that Master Seung Sahn founded, the teachers often teach initiates to slap the floor in response to a Zen riddle. Once the students have become very good at slapping the floor by way of answering, however, the teacher would follow up with a question: “Is that all?”

I digress. Back to the spitting story, where could it have come from?

Those familiar with the Nikayas/Agamas would recall a similar story. In the Discourse on Insult (Akkosa Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya), a man went up to the Buddha and verbally abused him. The Buddha drew an analogy of how gifts that are not accepted are returned, and said to the man:

“In the same way, brahman,
that with which you have insulted me,
who is not insulting;
that with which you have taunted me,
who is not taunting;
that with which you have berated me,
who is not berating:
that I don’t accept from you.

It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.

Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting,
returns taunts to one who is taunting,
returns a berating to one who is berating,
is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person.

But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.”

The man was then so impressed that he became a disciple and monk, eventually becoming one of the Enlightened Ones.

The two stories therefore share the same overall plot, and teach similar general lessons. I did some Googling with the keywords “spit Buddha”, and while the first (i.e., alternative) version above is reproduced in many blogs/websites, nobody provided a reference that traces back to origination from a scripture or even an established Buddhist teacher. (Update 24/10/2014: I’ve also left a question on a couple of Facebook group pages where this spitting story was shared, but nobody gave an answer.) I can’t say that this was a very thorough detective effort; the alternative version might actually be from a commentary or some other scripture that is more obscure than the rather well-known Akkosa Sutta.

But as shown by my attempt to yet again re-write even the alternative version, embellishment of Buddha stories is too easy. However, the product can differ substantially in substance. Whether this counts as ingenuity or disingenuity, I’ll reserve judgement for now… I just think that even well-intentioned re-writings should at least credit their creative sources. And wouldn’t it have been far less problematic yet equally effective if, in the alternative version, “the Buddha” was replaced by “a wise man”?

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1 Comment

  1. Sine Ng said,

    29 October 2014 at 19:56

    Another popular fake story.

    A poor man asked the Buddha,

    “Why am I so poor?”

    The Buddha said, “you do not learn to give.”

    So the poor man said, “If I’m not having anything?”

    Buddha said: “You have a few things,

    The Face, which can give a smile;

    Mouth: you can praise or comfort others;

    The Heart: it can open up to others;

    Eyes: who can look the other with the eyes of goodness;

    Body: which can be used to help others.”

    So, actually we are not poor at all, poverty of spirit is the real poverty.


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