Fake Buddha Quotes

Fake Buddha Quotes

My friend and my first meditation teacher, Bodhipaksa, has a great site that while not new, might be new to you – I blogged about it a couple years ago here. The premise is simple: to find and rectify Fake Buddha Quotes as much as possible.

And Confucius says: people like to misquote Buddha. My suspicion is that the whole meme is somewhat of a continuation of the old (70s? 80s?) meme based on the lovable Chinese philosopher Confucius – recent examples still continue. Of course the two don’t completely overlap. Confucius is witty and clever; he plays on words, “He who stand on toilet… is high on pot.”

The Buddha quotes, on the other hand, are usually related to virtues associated with Buddhism: patience, perseverance, loving-kindness, restraint, and so on. Some of them are misquotes that arise from with in the tradition. Many are general platitudes and self-affirmations (favorites of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, no doubt – we have a book for you). And many more are odd translations of the early texts, often importing Western religious language that doesn’t fit the Buddhist context, e.g. the most recent, “The greatest prayer is patience.

Bodhipaksa does us all a great service in pointing these out and tracking down their origins. The fact is, as much as Western/American Buddhists are in love with the Kalama Sutta, the reliance on authority is still a pervasive factor in most people’s lives. And just as it’s important to know just what Einstein said when we’re trying to understand his teachings on physics, it’s very important to know what the Buddha really said if we wish to understand Buddhism.

Perhaps Einstein is not the best example. After all, if we believed that E = mc³ instead of E = mc² it wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it? But I think the lesson here is that the Buddha taught a path – a complex one and in different ways at different times, but nonetheless a path. If the Buddha said, “take two lefts up ahead and then go straight until you reach x.” It does us no service to quote him as saying, “just chill and be your own best friend.”

And perhaps again, the better question might be whether the Buddha can be reduced to cute quotes at all? Does the Buddha belong on twitter? Even if we translate/represent him correctly? (Full disclosure: I have a number of bits and pieces of Buddhism that I like to tweet.) Perhaps the wisdom of Buddhism was and always is a matter of student to disciple connection – as is often heavily emphasized in Zen and Tibetan traditions.

My own take is that yes, we CAN take bits of the early Buddhist teachings and tweet/fb/G+ them or actually discuss them with friends in real life. The key is understanding the context as much as we can. And of course, quoting as faithfully as we can. It helps to know some Pali. It helps to study the context of the Buddha’s teachings.

As such I think Bodhipaksa’s efforts are worthy of our praise and emulation if and as we can.

  • http://georgecolombo.com George Colombo

    “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” Buddha

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com Gregory Wonderwheel

    Sorry, but I find Bodhipaksa’s hinayana point of view to be totally inadequate to dealing with what he calls the “fake quotes” of the Mahayana Sutras.

  • jerry lynch

    The whole piece sounds like Keystone Spirituality, especially if your naivete says that “yes, we CAN take bits of the early Buddhist teachings and tweet/fb/G+ them or actually discuss them with friends in real life.”

    • Justin Whitaker

      Jerry – what is “Keystone Spirituality?” – googling that term gives 22 hits, many dealing with spirituality in Keystone, South Dakoda :)

  • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com elisa freschi

    This is a very complex issue, dealing with what is “authorship” in the context of Buddhism and risking to boil down to the point that one excludes as “fake” entire Mahāyāna or Vajrāyāṇa Sūtras. I like the idea of tracing back the history of fake quotes, it is surely a funny and useful enterprise, but if I were to speak with a naïve Buddhist friend, I would rather alert her about what it means for a piece of information to have been issued by a reliable source (an *āpta*, for Sanskritists).

    • Justin Whitaker

      Elisa – good points. I think an interesting academic discussion could be had around the lines between fake and apocryphal. Robert Buzwell has done a study of Chinese Apocrypha:


      And there is enough in Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhism to fill books as well. Perhaps the “Fake Buddha Qutoes” can be studied as their own (very modern) genre of Buddhist Apocrypha….

      • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com elisa freschi

        Dear Justin,

        this was exactly my point. “Apocryphal” acquires a negative connotation only in a culture (like the present one) for which the author is the ultimate authority. But this attitude is technically fundamentalistic, insofar as it claims that only the fundamental text or its author are “genuine”, “true”, worthy, etc.
        Thanks a lot for signalling me the book. It has interesting intersections with my project on the re-use of texts in Sanskrit śāstras and I will certainly try to get a copy of the book.

        • Justin Whitaker

          This is something that I’d definitely love to see explored, Elisa. Because I think there is some of this, as you say, ‘fundamentalistic’, attitude throughout Buddhism – at least through the early Mahayana. This attitude accounts for the Theravadin (false) claim that their Abhidhamma was taught *by the Buddha* directly, as well as the equally false claims of other *new* texts being produced. They all, as do many Buddhists to this day, saw the Buddha as the ultimate authority and thus, to hype the importance/legitamacy of their new texts, attributed them to the Buddha. I’m very interested in examining when/why this began to change and authors began admitting that what they were writing was a commentary or synopsis, etc of the Buddha’s teaching. As Buzwell points out in the case of China, the apocrypha reflect the author’s own context and religious interests. If we fail to recognise this, and accept words put in his mouth centuries later as if they were his own, then we get a very muddled understanding of the Buddha. This isn’t a big deal for practitioners, often, but it’s important for scholars.

  • Michael Earner

    If someone draws on Buddhist teachings but Buddha never actually said it is the quote is less valid than something Buddha actually said? I can for instance think
    some great quotes from Tibetan masters that have had a great impact on me and I can think of great sutras which may or may not be attributed to what Buddha really taught.That said false attribution is still a problem.

  • Michael Earner

    And I suppose the real measure of a quote is not who it’s from but how we see it ourselves.

  • ___

    Michael, I don’t see how this so called “false attribution” is still a problem. It’s not false, and if you study the sutras carefully, you will find some of these quotes to be a reflection or an extention of the teachings of the Buddha.