“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.

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6 thoughts on ““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.

    • “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,

  2. In reference to the posted quote on Facebook.com:

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

    – Buddha

    Thank you, Bodhipaksa, for the lesson in linguistics, re:

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

    Keeping in mind that Buddha’s words were handed down verbally and not committed to the written word until about 500 years after his death, I must agree that Buddha may not have stated that exact quote verbatim because he was not speaking in English, yet if we are to translate it I believe that the message is delivered, in so many words. Consider my layman’s translation:

    ‘There is no path in the heavens;
    There is no disciple apart from the dharma.’

    A track, path, or way imply the same idea of steps or course. It is another way of saying that the law (dharma) is not written in stone, it cannot be traced in any premeditated or preconceived notion of the truth and simply lived. As to “the way is in the heart,” I believe that this is a creative play in words (as all translations are) and takes a quantum leap to refer to the dharma of prajñā (lit. “he knows’) or “intuitive wisdom,” which comes from the heart. Prajñā is usually translated as “transcendental wisdom,” yet it refers to intuitive wisdom, as intuition implies: “direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension” (Dictionary.com, 2013). The Dharmapada means, in my own humble translation; ‘footsteps in the teaching’ from the Sanskrit root term: “pada” (lit. the foot) or footsteps, and: “dharma” (lit. law) or teaching. Linguistics can be a slippery slope and an endless battle of words; however, the message remains the same, that the way cannot be tracked across the sky, or mapped out, and that as a disciple of the way the dharma can only be intuited and lived out within one’s own discipline. We can talk about it and think about it all we want, but to ‘live it’ is to be a living example of it (the dharma). Words are only pointers and we only get the point when we look beyond the pointer and look into the ‘message’ behind the words, otherwise, we can just go around in circles endlessly. I think the message is clear, and in this case, is not lost in translation, or in the particular choice of words.

    “When the point is made, the pointer is put away” (Zen Proverb).

    • I think the comparison is simply this: the sky is incapable of supporting a track :: non-dharma is incapable of supporting practice/practitioners (and by extension, awakening).

  3. Pingback: Book review: “Peace of Mind,” Buddhistdoor International, 2013 | Buddhist Art News

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