Saturday, May 19, 2012

Avoiding fake Buddha quotes

Yesterday I wrote a detailed post about an abundance of fake Buddha quotations that have been perpetuated for some time now, mostly via the internet. After the initial shock of discovering these beloved but false quotations on BodhiPaksa's blog Bodhi Tree Swaying, I decided to list ways to prevent myself from falsely quoting the Buddha in the future. Some of the suggestions below I read about on Bodhi Tree Swaying; others I thought of myself. (This was originally part of the post linked above, but I thought that it was best to discuss the prevention of perpetuating misattributed quotations in a separate post. Plus, because I believe they are more effective, I also prefer writing shorter blog posts. :) Enjoy!

My list summarizing how I can avoid misquoting the Buddha:

Quote scriptures (i.e. original sources). This first idea was offered by someone who had commented on one of Bodhipaksa's posts. If a quote from the Buddha is needed, they advised that it is best to go back to the scriptures, since they can be properly cited. On another point, I have also read that citing scriptures (rather than Buddha himself) is especially important because many sutras include sayings and wisdom from people other than the Buddha. The voice in some texts may not always be clear, so again,  I think it is best to cite the text/sutra itself. 

Read scriptures. When first starting out on the Buddhist path, it is common for people just learning about Buddhism to read books about Buddhism, often written by prominent 'Western' Buddhists. As Bodhipaksa emphasizes, there is nothing wrong with these works, because most provide elegant explanations of some deep concepts. Indeed, these types of books benefitted me greatly when I first discovered the Buddhist Path and wanted to learn more about basic Buddhism, and I would encourage others to read them too. However, Bodhipaksa also states that there should be some discernment between reading scripture and books about Buddhism. So I will do my best to continue to read and learn the scriptures as well!

Google Books. One suggestion given to me directly by Bodhipaksa was to search for books with the quotation on Google Books in order to see if there is another source other than 'the Buddha'. I have noticed that due to copyright, Google books often do not have all material available, but can provide some helpful information.

Don't trust the internet alone! The internet is often a great source of information, but it is also difficult to find out if something is heavily misattributed, and the source of the error. As Bodhipaksa points out, a lot of the 'quotation' websites actually plagiarize one another, thus perpetuating false quotations rather than correcting them. Multiple sources other than the internet are therefore a good thing! 

Reputable translation. Some translations of sutras and texts have been determined better than others, because the they are well-cited and may even be peer-reviewed. From now I will check to see if the book or article is written by someone who is an expert in their field, and not someone trying to make a quick buck based on their own version of texts modified for popular appeal.  

Does it sound right? I look for words that don't seem to belong- like modern buzzwords people use today to make themselves sound smart (i.e. diversity, sustainability). Of course the thing that helps most in this is reading scriptures, mentioned above.  

If all else fails, quote the living. To altogether avoid the problem of mistranslated/misquoted historical figures and texts, quote people who are still alive. Misquotations from contemporary public figures are more likely to be corrected by agents/advocates, or by the person themselves. However, I would still be cautious. 

Can you think of any additional ways to verify the source of quotations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

May all beings be happy!


  1. Thank you, Renata, for your post. You bring up some very good points; I appreciate your list. I've read a long time ago that the Buddhist scriptures were written down hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha. Therefore, we are dependent upon the accuracy of the oral tradition of many generations of Buddhists. This is common the ancient times, as Jesus and Lao Tzu apparently did not write down their teachings either. This brings up the point: are the oral traditions accurate? I would like to think so, but there can no proof.

    I have quoted the Buddha and other masters also. I've wondered if the quotes I've posted are accurate. Probably the best we can say is that what we quote is consistent with the teachings of a given religion or philosophy. As many of these quotes are concise and pithy, it is hard not to use them. To just post a quote without attributing it to a person or a discipline just doesn't seem right and would be plagiaristic. I guess we just do the best we can when quoting or go drastically the other way of not using them at all. Your observations are well taken. Thanks.

    1. Hello Dan! It is always nice to hear from you. Thanks so much for your appreciation for this list. You're right, a lot of Buddhist scripture was written 100-300 years after the time of the Buddha. Scripture of the Mahayana school is said to have been recorded 400 to almost 1000 years later!

      As you mention, this is a pretty common trait of scriptures from ancient times from a number of traditions, including Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity. This is one of the reasons I was initially reluctant to throw myself into learning Buddhist scripture- it is where one gets into 'fine print' that may even contradict the core teachings, which can be frustrating and confusing. However now I think I have found a good reason to read scripture, and that is for accuracy and historical/cultural context. I am comfortable knowing that don't have to agree with everything what is written, I will just have to use my own reasoning.

      As for 'quotability' I think you hit the nail on the head. Many of those 'Buddha quotes' out there are PITHY, and so that makes people want to use them! It is hard to question a quote when it expresses exactly how one feels.

      However, I think from now on I will err on the side of caution and not use 'Buddha quotes', mostly because as someone who claims to be writing about Buddhism, how can I continue to do so when I know that many quotations are not accurate? Although I agree that many are helpful and may even stick to core teachings, I do not want to be knowingly adding to the misinformation out there. If I am going to be misinforming people, I should be doing so unknowingly, and hope that someone will correct me! :)

      Thanks so much for your comment- you are always to insightful!

      May you be well!

  2. "The teaching of Buddhism is like a drum...
    If the stick for beating the drum breaks then you will have to replace it...
    If the skin on the drum breaks then you will also have to replace it...
    Eventually the entire drum become a new drum...
    Everything is impermanence..."

    This is the quote share by Ven. Ji Xing to my fellow class members... :)

    1. Thanks so much, xenusfreeman, for your comment and great quotation from Ven Ji-Xing. If we ever find ourselves at a loss for something meaningful to say, he is a great person to quote! :)

      May you be well!

  3. Here is another one as well from Ven. Ji Xing.

    "When I was a little boy, I love to walk around my home. One day, I came to a bunch of beautiful flower on the ground. I knelt down and I say thank you. Why did I thank the flower? The flower did not open becos they feel like it, nor becos they were force into it. The flowers open becos it is its duty and nothing more."

    Simple things in life should not be forsaken by us. We should cherish everything around us as everything around us has something to teach us. :)

    Peace be with you.

    I share this in Powerful Intention. Hope you like it. :)

    1. Dear xenusfreeman,

      Thanks so much for sharing another great quote from Ven. Ji Xing! And yes, I do like it!


Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment! If you enjoyed this post, please share with others. -With Metta, Renata