I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha

This month, the Shin Reader reviews the book I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha: What Fake Buddha Quotes Can Teach Us About Buddhism (2018) by Bodhipaksa. I recently received a framed watercolor of the ocean with the following quotation overlaid on top of it.


“To live in the hearts one leaves behind is not to die.”

- Joseph Campbell


I treasure this gift. Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist and folklorist, is one of my favorite writers. But there is one problem. I discovered that Joseph Campbell never actually said this. This is actually a quotation from Thomas Campbell. The author of the book My Big TOE: Awakening. “TOE” is an acronym for Theory of Everything. This is called “quotation

inflation.” It is still a wonderful quotation but perhaps not quite wonderful enough without attributing it to Joseph Campbell. This is one example of how quotations can become incorrectly attributed.


This often occurs with quotations attributed to the Buddha. This is highlighted in the book I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha! by Bodhipaksa. He illustrates how many of the popular quotations of the Buddha are incorrect. Promoting the importance of a quote by attributing it to the Buddha is quite common. Bodhipaksa explains the process in this way:“When quotations are anonymous or by people who are no longer well known, it is common for them to be reassigned to more famous figures ... I predict that in the distant future all quotes from our era will be attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein – and of course the Buddha.”


Often a spurious quote of the Buddha can be detected by the type of language being used. For example, “the quote in question might be part of an attempt to make Buddhism seem rationalistic and therefore more palatable to modern readers.” Like the following:

“The Dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how

to think.”


This is not the words of the Buddha. The author reminds us that “we can’t think our way to Awakening. Reality is something to be experienced and seen.” Another possibility is that the quote is too New Agey and modern to be an authentic quotation from the Buddha. For example, the following quotation attributed to the Buddha was found on the Twitter bio of actress and pop icon Miley Cyrus:

“Happiness does not depend on what you have or who you are. It solely

relies on what you think.”


This one easily stands out as inauthentic due to its Law of Attriction style language. Bodhipaksa explains that there is much more to Buddhism than just our thinking. It also includes the changing of one’s heart. “The difference between [the Buddha’s teachings] and positive thinking is that or the Buddha, ‘citta,’ or ‘mind,” was as much more more than

‘thought.’ In fact some translators choose to render ‘citta’ as ‘heart-mind’ or even just as “heart.” The Buddha focused much more on “the emotional tone of our volitions” rather than volitions alone.


And then there are some that are just plain wrong. Karma seems to be particularly misrepresented in the Buddha’s quotations on social media. Like this one. “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” Again not a quote from the Buddha. “This quote crops up regularly on Twitter, on quote sites, and in many books as well – most of them published since 2005, which shall henceforth be known as ‘The Year Fact-Checking Died.’ ... Karma in Buddhism, isn’t some kind of cosmic judge, meeting out rewards and punishments.”


This is also an example of a Buddhist idea being influenced by modern Hindhu teachers. “The quote in question comes from ‘Bliss Divine,’ by Swami Sivananda, who was indeed a Hindu teacher. As it happens, a significant number of Fake Buddha Quotes are more Hindu than Buddhist in tone.”


Bodhipaksa also explains that he is not trying to verify Buddha quotations as being the actual words of the historical Buddha rather he is only pointing out the ones that are really from Madam Marie Curie or Robert Louis Stevenson. It is important to note that in the Mahayana tradition there are four types of authentic Buddhist quotations within the sutras. First, the Buddha said it. Second, some one said something and the Buddha agreed with it. Third, the Buddha asked some one to speak in his place. Fourth, a Buddha said it. There is no fifth way, being that it appeared on the internet somewhere. If it sounds like a Hallmark card then it is likely from HuffPost and not from the Buddha. Also be very wary of consuming the Buddha’s teachings from t-shirts and coffee mugs.


In Gassho,

Rev Jon Turner

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