Bodhipaksa, a well-known Buddhist teacher and the founder of fakebuddhaquotes.com, takes a look at some of the quotes that are erroneously attributed to the Buddha, explains the ways in which these disagree (or sometimes agree) with Buddhist teachings, and offers some genuine examples of the Buddha's words.
The perfect gift for the Buddhist in your life and an essential addition to any Buddhist library, I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha! is at once humorous and scholarly, and a timely antidote to the "fake news" that can surround some of the Buddha's teachings.
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1. "All descriptions of reality are temporary hypotheses."
If you were to come unsuspectingly upon this quote, you might think, "Wow! That's so scientific! The Buddha was so ahead of his time!" Unfortunately, however, this quote sounds contemporary because it is. The earliest source that I've found for this is From Science to God, by Peter Russell, published in 2002. I don't know why Russell attributed it to the Buddha, or if he was the first to do so. I asked him where he got the quote from, and unfortunately even he can't remember.
The notion that descriptions of reality are merely temporary hypotheses might seem at first glance to be very much in line with the Buddha's teachings. He described reality as being "beyond the grasp of concepts," or atakka-vacara. The Buddha regarded even his own Dharmai as no more than a means to an end. He once described the teachings as being like a raft, which we can use to cross a river but which we have to abandon once we reach the other side.
Having got across and arrived at the other shore, the man thinks: "This raft, indeed, has been very helpful to me. Carried by it, and laboring with hands and feet, I got safely across to the other shore. Should I not pull it up now to the dry land or let it float in the water, and then go as I please?" By acting thus, monks, would that man do what should be done with a raft. In the same way, monks, have I shown to you the Teaching's similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to.
So from our point of view, his teachings are indeed to be taken as guides to be followed until we get to the point where we see Reality as he saw it. For us the teachings may be considered as hypotheses to be checked out in the light of our experience. For the Buddha, on the other hand, his teachings were not hypotheses. Hypotheses are speculations, while the Dharma was his attempt to express, in necessarily limited language, something that he'd seen directly.
When the Buddha says that we shouldn't cling to his teachings, he means that they're not meant to be believed, but to be acted upon. Believing in a raft has little benefit; the point is to use it to get across the water.
In short, this quote misrepresents how the Buddha regarded his own teachings, although it does remind us that we should treat the Buddha's teachings as instructions to be tested through practice, rather than propositions to be believed.
2. "All things are perfect exactly as they are."
Although you'll see statements similar to this quote in later Buddhist teachings (and especially in Zen Buddhism, which is where this one comes from), there's nothing to suggest that the Buddha himself thought that everything is perfect as it is. In fact, his emphasis tended to be on the fact that there are many things wrong in life.
You may be aware that one of the Buddha's key teachings is the Four Noble Truths. The first of these is that there is suffering (not that life is suffering, but just that there is suffering in life):ii
Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.
Oy vey! Life is strangely generous in bestowing opportunities for both physical and emotional pain!
The quote in question can be spiritually useful or a hindrance, depending on how it's interpreted. When something unpleasant has happened in our lives, such as a loss, it can be a great comfort to accept that things can't be otherwise than they are at the moment. The alternative, which is to rail at how things are, is what the Buddha described as sorrow, lamentation, grief, and despair. These reactions just add to our suffering. (See also #34.) As the Buddha didn't say, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."
And yet things are obviously not perfect. There is suffering in the world. There is war, famine, and poverty. There is loneliness, addiction, and cruelty. The Buddha in no way encouraged us to ignore these things, and in fact he encouraged us to act with compassion toward those who are suffering. We don't want to accept the unacceptable.
In summary: this is a useful quote when we apply it to our own suffering. Applying it to others' suffering — not so much.
The viewpoint that all things are perfect is found in Western philosophy, too. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, says, "Existence is the most perfect of all things," and the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said in his Ethics, "Reality and perfection I understand to be one and the same thing." As we'll see again, Fake Buddha Quotes spread more easily when they resonate with preexisting ideas.
3. "All worldlings are mad."
This particular quote has fooled even scholars and writers on Buddhism. It is found in any number of books, magazines, and academic journals, to the extent that I was surprised to discover that it doesn't come from the Buddha.
This saying actually comes from commentaries on the Buddhist scriptures, and not from the scriptures themselves. For example, Buddhaghosa's fifth-century Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) says, "The worldling is like a madman." The term "worldling" (puthujjana) refers to an ordinary, unenlightened person. If you're not awakened, you're a puthujjana.
You might notice that Buddhaghosa doesn't say the worldling is mad, just that the worldling is like a mad person. Buddhaghosa explains that what he means is simply that, like insane people, we act without considering the consequences of our actions.
Although the Buddha didn't say that we're mad, he did point out that we're under the sway of four cognitive distortions, namely: believing that impermanent things are permanent; believing that sources of suffering are sources of pleasure; believing that things that aren't intrinsic to us are ourselves; and believing that things that are wholesome are unwholesome.
Until we're awakened, we don't see things as they really are, and so many of the things we do to find happiness actually cause us stress and conflict. Seeing the world in such a skewed way is certainly delusional, and sometimes may seem a bit crazy. But the Buddha didn't say we're off our rockers.
Occasionally this quote is preceded by the words, "Human stupidity is boundless." That part's fake too.
4. "Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals."
If you're familiar with the early scriptures, you'll probably realize that this quote is too literary and bon mot-ish to be something the Buddha said. In fact, it's from a 1641 play, The Sophy, by the Anglo-Irish poet and courtier, Sir John Denham.
Denham is saying that ambition and love are similar in that they make us — confused worldlings as we are — rash and jealous. In many ways the Buddha too saw worldly ambition as a negative thing:
[Thinking] "Let both laymen and monks think that it was done by me. In every work, great and small, let them follow me" — such is the ambition of the fool; thus his desire and pride increase.
However, his last words to his disciples were "strive diligently," so he wasn't exactly encouraging us to be slackers, or to practice the sort of "acceptance" some people talk about where they say we're not supposed to want to change.
And in a more material sense, he encouraged his householder followers (that is, those who weren't monks and nuns but had families and jobs) to work hard and to create wealth:
Heedful at administering or working at one's occupation, maintaining one's life in tune, one protects one's store of wealth.
The important thing, however, was that they were to practice nonattachment to their wealth by using it to help others. So the Buddha was against selfish ambition, but in favor of ambition aimed at spiritual goals, such as improving ourselves or the world.
5. "An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea."
This quote is very Buddhist in spirit, but in tone it's unlike anything I've come across in the scriptures. It's actually from the book Serious Creativity by the Maltese physician and psychologist Edward de Bono.
Exactly how this was taken to be a quote from the Buddha is a mystery. Maybe someone who read the quote didn't know who de Bono was (he's best known for having coined the term "lateral thinking," incidentally) and thought it would sound more authoritative with the Buddha's name attached to it. (This is what I've called "quotation promotion.")
There's not much to quibble about with the quote itself. The closest parallel in the Buddhist scriptures I know of is found in verse 19 of the Dhammapada:
Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others — he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.
The Buddha is saying that memorizing, reciting, and studying the instructions for building the raft is pointless (see #1). A raft has the purpose of crossing over, so build your raft and then use it!
One of the problems with many of the quotes that fill our Facebook feeds is that we may think they're inspiring, but we move on to the next quote, status update, or cute cat photo before we have a chance to act on them.
6. "As rain falls equally on the just and unjust, do not burden your heart with judgments but rain your kindness equally upon all."
The first part of this quote is adapted from Matthew 5:45, which says, "For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
The second part probably derives from an actual Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra. An extensive passage from that work depicts the Buddha comparing himself to a great rain cloud, nourishing the world. The part about not judging is (somewhat condensed) as follows:
... the Buddha Appears here in the World, Like unto a great cloud Universally covering all things ... Upon all I ever look Everywhere impartially, Without distinction of persons ... Ever to all beings I preach the Law equally; As I preach to one person, So I preach to all.
Now this is where I risk upsetting some Buddhists. Although the Lotus Sutra purports to be a teaching from the historical Buddha, and is revered in East Asia as his highest teaching, it was actually composed hundreds of years after his death. It's without doubt a work of great spiritual profundity: but there's no chance that it was taught by the historical Buddha.
For the Buddha, compassion was certainly to be extended without judging whether a person "deserved" it or not, but there was also a need to judge whether people's actions were right or wrong. Judging was not to be avoided, but instead to be done wisely:
He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.
Oh, and judging should be done without hatred or anger, too.
Anyway, my favorite teaching on rain and impartiality is the following, often said to be by the English judge Charles Bowen:
The rain it raineth on the just. And also on the unjust fella: But chiefly on the just, because, The unjust steals the just's umbrella.
I've found no evidence that Bowen actually said this, however.
7. "Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts. You are what observes, not what you observe."
This quote, which is actually two quotes cobbled together, is a sneaky one.
The first part, "Awake. Be the witness of your thoughts," comes from Thomas Byrom's version of the Dhammapada (verse 327, to be specific), which is of course part of the Buddhist scriptures. However, Byrom's Dhammapada is not so much a translation as it is a work of original poetry.
The relevant part of Dhammapada verse 327 could be translated very literally as "Be devoted to heedfulness. Guard your mind." Now, "Be devoted to heedfulness" is much more specific than the command to "awake." Heedfulness is a technical term for a vigilant state of mindfulness called appamada. The word "Awake," on the other hand, naturally suggests bodhi, or enlightenment, which is not what this verse is talking about.
Also, "be the witness of your thoughts" is way off. The Dhammapada asks us to "guard the mind" (citta), rather than to witness thoughts. The word "mind" includes much more than just thoughts. It includes intentions, habits, and emotions.
Byrom's word choices are especially misleading when they're seen in the context of the second part of the quote. "You are what observes, not what you observe" is from Robert Earl Burton's 1995 book, Self-Remembering. Both the Byrom and the Burton parts of the quote seem to be based on the Hindu teaching of a "witnessing consciousness," which, according to that tradition, is our "true self" or atman. According to this teaching you are not your feelings, thoughts, body, or other experiences. You are instead that which is aware of those things. This might seem perfectly reasonable to many modern readers, but it's not what the Buddha taught.
While the Hindu tradition teaches that we need to realize the atman, or true Self, the Buddhist tradition teaches that we should realize the opposite: anatman, or the absence of a true Self. Although the Buddha agreed that you're not your feelings, thoughts, body, or other experiences, he also stated that neither are you your awareness of those things.
Now you might wonder what this leaves as being "you" or "yourself," and in fact the very point of the Buddha's teaching is that we shouldn't identify anything whatsoever as being ourselves. While it's common to hear that the Buddha taught a doctrine that there was no self, what anatta actually means is "not self." He encouraged us to observe the body, feelings, and even our consciousness with the awareness "This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself." The aim is to live free from defining our selves in any way.
Byrom (see also #28, #45) was in fact a practicing Hindu, while Burton described himself as a teacher of the "Fourth Way," which amalgamated teachings from esoteric Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. This is one of these cases where a nice-sounding and popular quote attributed to the Buddha manages to distort and even subvert his teaching.
8. "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."
Here again we have a Buddhist scripture that's rendered in such a fashion that it ends up saying the opposite of what the Buddha taught. The Kalama Sutta, the scripture this purports to be from, actually says that reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth.
In the original teaching, the Buddha is talking to a clan called the Kalamas. These folks are confused because various gurus have been coming round, trash-talking each other and saying that only their own teachings are right. And so the Kalamas ask the Buddha, "Which of these venerable priests and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?"
Rather than name names, the Buddha chooses to outline a method for determining the truth:
Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These teachings are skillful; these teachings are blameless; these teachings are praised by the wise; these teachings, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness" — then you should enter and remain in them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha!"
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Table of Contents
The Quotes, 17,
Twenty-Five Quotable (and Real) Quotes, 118,
Where to Find the Real Deal, 122,