Fake Buddha Quote: “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Thanks to Tricycle, a whole new batch of Fake Buddha Quotes has appeared on the same day, including the following:

“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.”

Sadly, there’s no indication that Monty, who posted this (and others, including at least one I’ve blogged about before) recognized the bogosity of the quotes, but then that’s not uncommon. Every single one of the quotes on that Tricycle page that are attributed to the Buddha are in fact fake Buddha Quotes.

I suspect most contemporary Buddhists have read very little primary literature (a.k.a scripture) and rely on books about Buddhism. They therefore aren’t in a position to know whether a particular quote sounds like something the Buddha might have said, because everything they’ve read has been filtered through Jack Kornfield, or Sharon Salzberg, or Lama Surya Das. And I mean no disrespect to those fine teachers; they’re giving poetic and contemporary expression to the Buddha-Dharma, after all. It’s just that if you only read books about Buddhism you don’t get that sense of when something is “off.”

And “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart” is most definitely off.

This is another from Thomas Byrom’s “translation” of the Dhammapada, which I’m quickly coming to realize is one of the two worst translations around, or that I’ve encountered. And by “worst” I mean taking a look at the original Pali, and making up something nice-sounding that’s loosely based on the words but totally disregards the literal meaning.

Comparing Byrom’s verse with other translations and the original Pali is most instructive. Here’s the Pali:

akase padam natthi
samano natthi bahire

This is a straightforward translation (the Pali being very unambiguous):

“There is no track in the sky;
There is no ascetic outside [of this teaching].”

The language is straightforward, even if the sense if a little compacted (this is verse, after all). Here’s an expended version of the sense: In the sky, it’s impossible to leave a track. Birds fly through the sky and leave no trace of their coming and going. There is nothing in the sky that supports a track. Similarly, outside of the dhamma, there is nothing to support genuine spiritual practice.

Whether you compare the expanded meaning or the bare words, Byrom’s “translation” really has no relation to what the Buddha actually is quoted, in the Dhammapada, as saying (and we have no real reason to doubt that he said this, or something very similar). There is nothing about “the way” in the original. There is nothing about “the heart” in the original. Of course a translator may take liberties in order to communicate the essence of the original text, but here the essential message is entirely lost.

But of course “The way is not in the sky; The way is in the heart,” is beautifully resonant, and contains those evocative words “sky” and “way,” and “heart,” and so I’m not surprised that this mistranslation has gained wide acceptance as a Buddha quote, even though it’s utterly fake.

Here, by the way, is some information about Byrom, courtesy of Barnes and Noble:

Thomas (Billy) Byrom, Ph.D., was born in England and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard. He taught history and literature at Harvard and Old and Middle English language and Victorian and modern literature at Oxford, where he was first a fellow of Exeter College and then a fellow in American studies of St. Catherine’s College. His translation of The Ashtavakra Gita was published under the title The Heart of Awareness. In 1976 he moved to Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, where he served as president of the Kashi Foundation and as a spiritual elder and counselor for the whole community. There he cofounded the Ma Jaya River School, which he directed until his death in 1991.

It sounds as if he was a Hindu, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does leave open the possibility that he might see Buddhism through a Hindu lens. And there’s no indication in this brief bio that he actually studied either Sanskrit or Pali, although I suppose it’s possible he did and it was such a minor part of his studies that it escaped mention.

3 thoughts on “Fake Buddha Quote: “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.””

  1. All we have are translations.

    The translation you offer is closer to Taoism and perhaps that’s the meaning or close to the meaning.

    You say
    “There is no track in the sky;
    There is no ascetic outside [of this teaching].”

    To me, it sounds a little dogmatic that you add (of this teaching)
    Perhaps if you had added (the Dharma) it would have sounded more realistic to me.
    I prefer the cleaner
    There is no ascetic outside referring to the skandhas or perhaps the sense perceptions.
    it is so difficult to be precise. When Buddha taught to various levels of students he acknowledged this. This teaching as you report faulty interpretation may serve as hinayana teaching for modern americans. We who know know the difference yet those who don’t know will appreciate the need to be pure.
    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I loves me some controversy.

    1. “The Dharma” is actually what I meant by “this teaching” — I was just trying to avoid any technical terms. But I’m afraid I don’t think your sense of “outside the skandhas (or sense perceptions) fits any Buddhist teaching I’ve ever come across, at least not specifically.

      The term “Hinayana” is pejorative, and not one I’d tend to use, although it is interesting to toy around with the idea of a “modern Hinayana” which is based on “feel-good” Buddhism. That’s an idea I may well explore, and I thank you for prompting me to think about this!

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

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