Sometimes it’s hard to say how you know. You come across a quote attributed to the Buddha on Facebook or Twitter, or on a blog—sometimes even in a magazine or a book—and something just doesn’t feel right. The wording may be too modern, the sentence structure a tad too polished, the sentiment, perhaps, too syrupy. But for some reason, deep in the computational matrix of the brain, pattern recognition algorithms are triggered, an alert fires off, and you wonder, “Hmmm, did the Buddha really say this?” 

Several years ago, noticing more and more of these spurious quotations swirling in the information vortex that is the Internet, I began to research and document them on my personal blog. People sent me quotes they found suspicious, and my collection grew. Eventually I started a dedicated Fake Buddha Quotes blog (and I define a Fake Buddha Quote simply as one that can’t be established as belonging to a canonical text). I find researching these quotes fun, and many people love the blog, although others seem to regard the activity of winnowing out misattributed quotations as akin to stealing candy from babies. 

Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, and a quote I was suspicious of turns out to be canonical. And sometimes, I confess, my “spidey sense” fails me, and something that struck me as genuine turns out not to be. But nine times out of ten I can spot a fake. 

A reader of my blog sent me this quote, which he thought was “strange”: 

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection. 

I agreed that something was “off” about this quotation. In the Buddha’s teachings, or those ascribed to him in the Pali canon, that one has lovingkindness for oneself seems to be a given, and the emphasis is on extending our concern to others. So if you’re familiar with the Pali texts, this quotation may stand out as an oddity, however appealing it may be. 

The first signs of this quote that I found in print were in two books that were published in early 2001: John Amodeo’s The Authentic Heart, subtitled An Eightfold Path to Midlife Love, and Laura Doyle’s The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion, and Peace with a Man

I’m getting a little off topic here, but I learned that The Surrendered Wife “is a step-by-step guide that teaches women how to give up unnecessary control and responsibility; resist the temptation to criticize, belittle, or dismiss their husbands; and to trust their husbands in every aspect of marriage—from sexual to financial.” (I’d buy my wife a copy, but she’d probably hit me with it.) 

Given that these books were published more or less simultaneously, it seemed reasonable to assume that there was a precursor. With a little digging around I found that Sharon Salzberg used our suspect quote in her 1995 Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and even earlier in a magazine called Woman of Power (no “surrendered wives” here), published in 1989. 

The original would seem to be in the Udana of the Pali canon, where we read, in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation: 

Searching in all directions
With your awareness,
you find no one dearer
            than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
            if you love yourself.
 

Salzberg may have gotten her translation of the quote from one of her teachers, Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw, whose 1983 booklet Brahmavihara Dhamma translates the beginning of the Udana quote with the verb “deserves”: “A person who deserves more love and affection than one’s own self, in any place or anywhere, cannot be found. Similarly, other people also, with reference to their own respective Self, love (himself) the most. Inasmuch as every being loves his own Self the most, one who loves his own Self, nay, who cares most of his own welfare or for his own good, will not cause another person to suffer . . .” 

In the original Udana quote, as well as in Mahasi Sayadaw’s translation and exegesis of it, the purpose is to emphasize that we should extend the lovingkindness we have for ourselves toward others, recognizing that they too hold themselves dear. The import of the version Salzberg used has been reversed, to suggest that you should love yourself just as you love others. We of course should have lovingkindness toward ourselves, so there’s no argument with the message—it just so happens that it doesn’t accurately reflect what the scriptures say. 

But does this all matter? Isn’t a quote valid no matter who the author was? If the spirit of a saying is Buddhist, does the attribution matter? And wasn’t the Buddha himself so spiritually advanced that he wouldn’t have been upset about having words put in his mouth? 

In some ways it doesn’t matter. The spiritual usefulness of a quotation indeed is not affected by its origins, although the weight people give the words being quoted does vary depending on whom it’s attributed to. We’re less inclined to pass on a quote if it’s anonymous or attributed to someone we’ve never heard of. And perhaps we like the cachet that comes from passing on quotes attributed to the Buddha, or Plato, or Nelson Mandela. (Is that a form of attachment? I think it is.) But the foundation of right speech in Buddhism is speaking truthfully—and it’s not truthful to say that a quote, however valid, is from the Buddha when there’s no evidence that it is. 

There weren’t many things that seemed to rile the Buddha, but being misquoted was one of them (noisy monks being another). According to the Pali canon, the Buddha described one who “explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata” as a “slanderer.” Strong words. And in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta the Buddha encouraged his disciples to compare Buddha quotes with the scriptures and reject them if they were “neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline” (Digha Nikaya 16.4.8). 

You can quote him on that.

 

Temple
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