For the past 3 weeks the Hongaku Jōdo Sangha in Chicago has been going over the “Short Medicine Sadhana” with a fine toothcomb — not literally, of course. An in depth study of any of the writings or practices making claim to be one advocated or even stated, i.e., taught directly by Siddhartha Gotama, deserves particularly close scrutiny.
Both Theravāda and Mahāyāna contain apocryphal sutras; indeed, Mahāyāna is saturated with them. We accept the teachings as being consistent with the intent and spirit of the historical Buddha’s message. We also accept that Dharma is Dharma and it really makes no matter who is teaching it, be it the most unscrupulous teacher imaginable or the noblest human being alive. Truth is truth and truth can be found in the most surprising places. The mature mind does not dismiss the teaching because they disapprove of the source.
Today the Internet is saturated with “Fake Buddhist Quotes”. Do we simply dismiss the teaching behind simply because they are not from the Buddha’s lips — as if we actually knew what came directly from the Buddha’s lips. No, we do not know what words the Buddha actually used. We do know what he taught. The record is very consistent and readily available to anyone who wishes to access it. Whatever the quote or the teaching it must be compatible or in agreement with the earliest documents of the Buddha’s known teachings.
The Buddha had some rather strong words about twisting the teaching.
Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who exclude the meaning and the Dhamma by means of badly acquired discourses whose phrasing is a semblance [of the correct phrasing] are acting for the harm of many people, for the unhappiness of many people, for the ruin, harm, and suffering of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much demerit and cause the good Dhamma to disappear.
Bhikkhus, those bhikkhus who conform to the meaning and the Dhamma with well-acquired discourses whose phrasing is not [mere] semblance are acting for the welfare of many people, for the happiness of many people, for the good, welfare, and happiness of many people, of devas and human beings. These bhikkhus generate much merit and sustain the good Dhamma.
- “The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha,” p. 160, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
When paraphrasing excludes “the meaning and the Dhamma [truth]” from the teachings, it does a grave disservice to spiritual seeker and causes the destruction of the Dharma/Dhamma. This only makes sense because when people hear teachings purporting to be Buddhism which distort the message of the Buddha — when a “Counterfeit Buddhism” appears — then the genuine teachings are compromised.
This doesn’t necessarily imply that paraphrasing in and of it’s self is bad. The statement is about paraphrases that distort and obscure the teachings — a kind of “lost in mistranslation”. Many of the counterfeit quotes fit in this category. The Buddha’s used unusually robust language in this statement even about the distorted paraphrasing: “ruin, harm, and suffering” seem pretty harsh. Even if a “quote” seems Buddha-like it can still be dangerous.
There are people, for example, that actually believe the Buddha said, “don’t believe anything” or “doubt everything”, and this is due to the fact that they read the counterfeit quote and believed it, in spite of the presumed message to disbelieve everything.
Let’s look at this rationally. Would you take the advice of someone who just told you not to believe him? Many do just that when they decide this is exactly what the Buddha said — but he didn’t.
This is a bad translation of the Kalama Sutta. In fact, it is so bad of a translation that it controverts the message of the Sutta, which says that reason and common sense are not sufficient for ascertaining the truth. The Buddha could not have said, “No matter where you read it.” That would be an anachronism, since spiritual teachings were orally transmitted at the time of the Buddha. It’s a little like starting the Sutta with the words, “The Buddha drove up in his Tesla and…”, which he didn’t.
Here’s the original version is very clear in its meaning.
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 qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.
The Buddha is addressing people who live near his home country the Kalamas. They are baffled by the vast array of teachings that they are receiving from multiple sources. Their plight was no different than ours is today. Many teachers come, expound their own teachings and disparage the teachings of others. The Kalamas ask the Buddha, “Which of these venerable brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who say it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense. Our “common sense” — “sense of the commons” — is biased, distorted and unreliable. The Buddha’s reply is complete and well defined. He says that “reason” (logical supposition, insinuation, equivalences, agreement through societal views) and “common sense” are not sufficient bases for determining the truth.
These modes of apprehending reality should not be simply abandoned. They are useful in our daily sojourn through life, but in our search for Dharma, the truth that matters, it is ultimately the experience and the opinion of the wise that is our guide.
Many seem to think that if experience is meant to be our guide, then it is necessary that we test every theory and practice we come across. If a respected teacher tells us “taking drugs is the path to happiness” you don’t have to test his teaching by getting stoned. Experience includes your own observation of other people’s experience with drugs. If you’ve witnessed others or their loved ones suffer due to drug usage you don’t have to follow suite through distorting your mental processes and repeating their mistakes.
A question always arises when discussing this teaching, “Who exactly are these wise ones and where are they to be found?” Actually, that would be you. You see, because of your unique experience you have found yourself, at least at times, to be trustworthy and perceptive. Those reliable and intuitively aware people, who you yourself have been in the past, are “the wise”.
Not everything “they” say is the unqualified truth. Use your reason, your common sense, and your experience as a guide to judge the veracity of their claims. You are still eventually going to have to figure things out for yourself. We often overlook this bit. For inexplicable reasons we have an unbridled desire to have answers given us in a pretty box and a Hallmark card. That is the appeal of counterfeit teaching and quotes — they agree with our own distorted perceptions.