This one seems to be doing the rounds at the moment.
One of his students asked Buddha, “Are you the messiah?”
“No”, answered Buddha.
“Then are you a healer?”
“No”, Buddha replied.
“Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.
“No, I am not a teacher.”
“Then what are you?” asked the student, exasperated.
“I am awake”, Buddha replied
This is an awkward one, because nothing the Buddha says is actually inaccurate. After all, he says “no” a lot and then says he’s awake. None of those things is a misquote. And the dialogue kinda sorta happened, but not in the terms used in the quote — but that’s what makes it suspect, because the Buddha’s words have been put in a new, and inconguous, context.
Here’s a translation of portions of the original sutta:
On seeing him, [Dona] went to him and said, “Master, are you a deva [a god]?”
“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”
“Are you a gandhabba [a kind of low-grade god; a celestial musician]?”
“… a yakkha [a kind of protector god, or sometimes a trickster spirit]?”
“… a human being?”
“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”
“Then what sort of being are you?”
“Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’”
I’ve done a lot of truncating here, so that the relevant portions of the sutta and the Fake Buddha Quote can be contrasted more easily.
First, who is this “Dona” who is talking to the Buddha? It’s not a “student” of the Buddha, as is stated in the Fake Buddha Quote. It’s a brahmin priest who has seen the miraculous footprints of the Buddha, complete with wheels of 1000 spokes, and who follows the Buddha to question him.
And then there are the categories used in both the fake quote and the sutta. In the fake quote the first category into which Dona tries to pigeonhole the Buddha is “Messiah.” This is very inappropriate language, and in fact it’s straight from the New Testament, Matthew 11:3.
Dona of course doesn’t ask whether the Buddha is the long-awaited savior of the Jews, or if we are to take the term Messiah in its more popular sense, does he ask if the Buddha is a savior of any sort at all. He merely asks if the Buddha is a divine being.
Dona, of course, is not a Buddhist, so he wouldn’t have had a Buddhist understanding of the term “deva.” Devas (gods) in Buddhism are not immortal or spiritually awakened beings. They live mortal lives, although on a vastly longer timescale than our own. And although they may have greater powers than us, those powers are not in a Buddhist sense spiritual. They have no insight. They are not awakened, as the Buddha is. Dona would not have seen the gods this way. Presumably he would have seen them as immortal and spiritually magnificent beings. So the Buddha rules this out. No, he is not a god. I think we can safely assume that in Dona’s mind the terms deva, gandabbha, yakkha, and human being represent progressively less exalted kinds of beings.
Nor does Dona ask the Buddha if he is a healer or a teacher. He’s simply concerned with whether the Buddha is a divine being or a human being. He doesn’t ask about the Buddha in terms of being a teacher or healer.
Dona finally tries asking the Buddha if he could be described using a non-divine category — a human being. The Buddha denies that he is this.
So while something like this dialogue is recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, the terms have been changed a lot, and so I’m going to regard this as a Fake Buddha Quote, or at least a Fakish Buddha Quote.
But let’s take a moment to go back to the sutta. The Buddha not only denies that he is a devine being, but he says in effect that he is indefinable. He’s not even definable as a human being.
Brahman, the āsavas [negative mental states] by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a deva: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. The āsavas by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a gandhabba… a yakkha… a human being: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising.
There are various ways to interpret this. Here’s how I see it. The āsavas are the basis of our clinging and of, therefore, our self-view, which is just one particular form of clinging. The Buddha has no clinging, because the āsavas have been destroyed. Therefore the Buddha does not identify anything (body, mind, etc.) as being “his self.” The Buddha lacks any theory of or idea about his own self, and lives without reference to a self. He doesn’t define himself. In fact it’s because he’s a Buddha that he doesn’t define himself. And so, the Buddha is essentially undefinable. Those of us who are not Buddhas can certainly try to pigeonhole him into one of the categories we use, but these categories don’t match up with how the Buddha sees himself, which is certainly not in terms of any of those categories, or indeed in terms of any category we could imagine.
The Buddha’s view of himself is — and I step out of traditional language here — a direct perception of an indefinable “flow” or “process.” This process is not perceived as being separate from the world, or as being part of a “oneness” with the world.
And so, in the words of another sutta, “you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life.” In fact this sutta, the Anuradha Sutta, leads us through a socratic dialog in which it’s made clear that the Buddha has no view of a self. In fact this sutta ends with one of the most misinterpreted lines from the whole Buddhist canon:
“Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”
This is often taken to mean that the Buddha only has one purpose, which is to teach suffering and how to end it, but it’s clear from other suttas that what the Buddha is saying is that suffering and the end of suffering can exist, without there being a “self” to experience either suffering or its end.
This is a difficult thing for us to get our heads around, and the Buddha admitted when talking about the same topic to a wantered called Vacchagotta:
“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know.”
Those footprints with thousand-spoked wheels! They surely didn’t exist. I suppose some might say that Dona saw these by means of psychic powers, but that’s not a world view that I buy into. I’d suggest that the Buddha’s “footprints” here refer to his impact on those around him. Perhaps Dona had met people who had been affected by the newly awakened Buddha’s personality as he passed by on his wandering, and saw in the reactions of those around him signs of something special. This presentation in terms of the Buddha’s divine footprints is a reminder that the Buddhist scriptures were edited for effect, and that reminds us that there is no such thing as a definitive “Genuine Buddha Quote.”