“Whatever is well said is the word of the Buddha.” Maybe not.
As well as keeping things going at Wildmind, I run a site called “Fake Buddha Quotes,” where I explore some of the sayings misattributed to the Buddha on Facebook, Twitter, quotes sites, and even in books, and attempt to track down their original source. It’s fun to do.
From time to time I receive critical messages from people, claiming that the Buddha was too spiritual to bother about things like being misquoted, or having words put in his mouth. How they know this, I don’t know. Perhaps they have some kind of mystical communion with deceased enlightened beings.
Not having such powers, I have to read the Buddhist scriptures for clues to his attitude. There I find the Buddha, at times, facing people who say “I heard you said such-and-such,” and when that information is incorrect I see him putting them straight, in no uncertain terms. But there’s also a passage in the Digha Nikaya where the Buddha explicitly talks about being misquoted. (Thanks to Arjuna Ranatunga for reminding me of this sutta).
There the Buddha runs through various scenarios where one might hear that the Buddha is reported to have said something or other. What’s our response meant to be?
“Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.” (Emphasis added.)
That’s what the Fake Buddha Quotes blog is about, although generally I try to find where non-Buddhist quotes have originated and I also post genuine Buddha quotes — or at least things that the Buddha’s canonically said to have said. Being human, I sometimes fall into scorn. I’m working on it, though.
But there you have it above. We’re supposed to think about whether Buddha quotes are genuine. And we’re supposed to “reject” them if they’re not. (I presume that means reject them as genuine, rather than reject their message. Sometimes Fake Buddha Quotes contain inspiring and true messages — it just so happens that the Buddha didn’t say them.)
But there’s another sutta that Arjuna reminded me of, which comes not from the Buddha but from his disciple, Uttara. That sutta contains this oft-quoted saying:
“…whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One.”
This would seem to suggest that if the Buddha’s quoted as having said something, then as long as the quote is “well-said” we should accept it as his word. This is a rather odd idea, on the face of it. It’s hard to imagine someone as ethical as the Buddha being prepared to take the credit for others’ bons mots. It also contradicts what we’ve just read. Or it seems to.
Take a look at the context of the sutta, though. Uttara is in a conversation with Sakka, the king of the devas (or gods). As an aside, what does this mean? I tend to assume that such conversations are the recordings of inner dialog. In this case Uttara would have been musing on the nature of authenticity. He’s just given a teaching, and a note (perhaps of doubt) creeps into his mind: “Whose teaching is this, mine or the Buddha’s?” And an answer comes to him: It’s basically the Buddha’s teaching; I just go to the grain pile and carry away basketfuls of Dhamma as I need them. I’d suggest reading the following passage in that light.
“But is this Ven. Uttara’s own extemporaneous invention, or is it the saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One?”
“Very well, then, deva-king, I will give you an analogy, for there are cases where it’s through an analogy that observant people can understand the meaning of what is being said. Suppose that not far from a village or town there was a great pile of grain, from which a great crowd of people were carrying away grain on their bodies, on their heads, in their laps, or in their cupped hands. If someone were to approach that great crowd of people and ask them, ‘From where are you carrying away grain?’ answering in what way would that great crowd of people answer so as to be answering rightly?”
“Venerable sir, they would answer, ‘We are carrying it from that great pile of grain,’ so as to be answering rightly.”
“In the same way, deva-king, whatever is well said is all a saying of the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly Self-awakened One. Adopting it again & again from there do we & others speak.”
Or maybe you believe in gods.
But it’s obvious from the context that what is “well said” refers to that which is taken from the grain pile of the Buddha’s teaching. It seems likely that Uttara was actually saying “whatever I have said that is well said is the word of the Buddha.” This is not unlike a common line that is found in book acknowledgements, along the lines, “Whatever is of value here comes from my teachers; the errors are all my own.” Uttara was not saying that if Voltaire or Douglas Adams or Virginia Wolfe happens to say something neat it can be co-opted as Buddha-vacana — the utterance of the Buddha. So ultimately Uttara’s utterance doesn’t contradict the Buddha’s teaching that we should scrutinize supposed Buddha quotes and reject those that aren’t genuine.