What the Buddha Said (and Didn’t)

“Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata.” 1

How do we know what was spoken by the Buddha, and what wasn’t?

The internet abounds with fake Buddha quotes – that is sayings that come from a source other than the Buddha, but somehow end up being attributed to him or simply posted with his picture.

This is such a common phenomenon that author and teacher Bodhipasaka has dedicated a entire website and a recently published book to debunking some of the most common of these fake Buddha quotes.

Whenever I come across a Buddha memes with a quote that doesn’t sound familiar, my first recourse is to check Bodhipasiaka’s www.fakebuddhaquotes.com to see if it’s already on the list (and there are quite a few). In the event it’s not listed, I’ll compare it to what I know of the Buddha’s teaching to see if it is at least compatible with the suttas and sutras I’m familiar with. Whenever I comment one of these posts with a brief note on why I consider it to be invalid, including a link to Bodhipasaka’s site when appropriate, followed by hashtag #fakebuddhaquotes.

I often to get a reply to my comment from the original poster or another group member that goes something like this…

“Nobody was there when the Buddha was alive. There is no audio. No video. We don’t really know what the Buddha said. So it doesn’t matter whether the Buddha said it or not, it’s still a good saying.”

So, we could leave it that, nobody knows, so anything goes.2 But I think we miss the point when we take this perspective. For there to be a Buddhism for Buddhists to follow there needs to be some Buddhist teaching commonly accepted as authentic.

So to clarify what I mean by something that the Buddha said something (or didn’t), I am referring what has been historically accepted as as what the Buddha. This means that it has been documented in the suttas of the Pali canon or the sutras of the Mahayana canon. So what the Buddha didn’t say is, by this definition, something that is not included in these sources.

Now I can acknowledge that it’s unlikely that any text can be word for word what the Buddha said.3 That said, these texts have been regarded as faithfully representing the Buddha’s teachings by scholars and monks for, in many cases, over 2,000 years. The term for this is buddhavacana or buddhabhasita – literally what the Buddha said. As a result this generally my standard of judging what is or is not a fake Buddha quote.

It is worth pointing out that most schools do not include ALL of the documented suttas and sutras as authoritative. That is, depending on the school entire groups of texts may be considered as not being actually what the Buddha taught, As such, these are not not included included in that school’s canon.

Modern scholarship has also helped identify texts which were clearly composed well after the Buddha’s demise and likely do not represent direct teachings of the Buddha, even if they are (at least in part) compatible with the Buddha’s teaching.4

Additionally, modern scholarship has also cast doubt on the idea of an “original” Buddhist canon. So no school can legitimately claim that all of their texts or at the very least only their texts are those which are authoritative. Any original group of established teachings has been lost to history with all texts evolving and deriving from or being added to them over the centuries and millennia.5

In short, if you can trace it to one of the documented Buddhist teachings accepted by at least any known school of Buddhism, it can fairly be attributed to the Buddha and featured in the ever-popular medium of the internet meme. If you can’t trace it to one of these sources, post away – just leave the Buddha’s name (and image) off.

1“Abhasita Sutta: What Was Not Said” (AN 2.23), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.023.than.html.
2It is worth noting that there is some scholarly debate on whether the Buddha existed at all as a historical person. David Drewes presents a thorough critique of the evidence for the Buddha’s existence in his paper, “The Idea of the Historical Buddha“. Dr. Andrew Wynne present’s a well crafted response to Drewes in his own paper, “Did the Buddha exist?“. 
3 The traditionally accepted account of how the Buddha’s teachings were documented is that shortly after his demise, a council of 500 Arhants assembled to recite and ratify what he had said. This tradition was then preserved orally for ~400 years until it was was committed to writing in Sri Lanka around the 1st Century BCE.
4 For examples of scholarly analysis of teachings that are apocryphal – that is not the teaching of the Buddha – see Robert E Buswell’s Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha.
5 For examples of scholarly analysis of teachings that are apocryphal – that is not the teaching of the Buddha – Linda Heuman’s article “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” in the Summer 2011 issue of Tricycle.

Published by Greg Schmidt

I hold a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Buddhist studies, but work full time in telecom. I teach Tai Chi at a handful of VA centers across the USA as part of the Government's "Whole Health" initiative. I'm an avid photographer, a serious amateur genealogist, and late-in-life devotee of Brazilian jiu jitsu. At some point, I may have the time (and interest) do delve into more of these areas in the blogoshpere, but for now I'm a taking a first step in exploring issues around Buddhism with monthly installments on my "Buddhism Basics" blog, including addressing common questions (and misconceptions) that come up frequently in the various Facebook groups I participate in, or in the online course(s) that I mentor.

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