The revelation of how Matty Weingast’s original poetry has been published and marketed by Shambhala as a translation of the Therigatha begs the question: well, what’s the problem? Is this actually an issue? After all, lots of people publish lots of things all the time and no-one really cares.
Let’s hear what the Buddha had to say on the matter.
In SN 16.13, Mahākassapa asks why there are now more training rules but fewer enlightened beings.
The true teaching doesn’t disappear as long the counterfeit of the true teaching hasn’t appeared in the world. But when the counterfeit of the true teaching appears in the world then the true teaching disappears. It’s like true gold, which doesn’t disappear as long as counterfeit gold hasn’t appeared in the world. But when counterfeit gold appears in the world then real gold disappears.
It’s a theme the Buddha returned to on multiple occasions. (AN 1.130)
Mendicants, those mendicants who explain what is not the teaching as the teaching are acting for the hurt and unhappiness of the people, for the harm, hurt, and suffering of gods and humans. They make much bad karma and make the true teaching disappear.
Consequently, exposing fraud is an important part of spiritual life. We have to stand up against untruth. (AN 1.140)
Mendicants, those mendicants who explain what is not the teaching as not the teaching are acting for the welfare and happiness of the people, for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans. They make much merit and make the true teaching continue.
The Buddha was not woolly-minded or unclear in how he wanted us to proceed. On the contrary, he left clear instructions. (AN 4.180, DN 16)
Take a mendicant who says: ‘Reverend, I have heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training. If they’re not included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is not the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been incorrectly memorized by that mendicant.’ And so you should reject it.
The teaching will disappear when people stop studying the teachings of the Buddha, but rather pay attention to later disciples who write appealingly poetic texts that dispense with the deeper teachings. (SN 20.7)
Once upon a time, mendicants, the Dasārahas had a clay drum called the Commander. Each time the Commander split they repaired it by inserting another peg. But there came a time when the clay drum Commander’s original wooden rim disappeared and only a mass of pegs remained.
In the same way, in a future time there will be mendicants who won’t want to listen when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited. They won’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor will they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing.
But when discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases, composed by outsiders or spoken by disciples—are being recited they will want to listen. They’ll pay attention and apply their minds to understand them, and they’ll think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. And that is how the discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—will disappear.
If this happens, it will imperil the Dhamma in the future. (AN 5.79)
And that is how corrupt training comes from corrupt teachings, and corrupt teachings come from corrupt training.
In a community where such counterfeits prevail, people forget the training in intelligent and critical inquiry. (AN 2.47)
But when they’ve learned those teachings they don’t question or examine each other, saying: ‘Why does it say this? What does that mean?’ So they don’t clarify what is unclear, or reveal what is obscure, or dispel doubt regarding the many doubtful matters. This is called an assembly educated in fancy talk, not in questioning.
When the discourses are presented falsely, people take them for the real thing. It’s not just a matter of “different opinions” but of closing off the possibility of learning the Dhamma.
Mendicants, by memorizing the discourses incorrectly, taking only a semblance of the phrasing, some mendicants shut out the meaning and the teaching. They act for the hurt and unhappiness of the people, for the harm, hurt, and suffering of many people, of gods and humans.
When someone in the Saṅgha appears to get the text wrong, there’s an obligation to check and correct them. (DN 29)
Now, you might think, ‘This venerable misconstrues the meaning and mistakes the phrasing.’ You should neither approve nor dismiss them, but say, ‘Reverend, if this is the meaning, the phrasing may either be this or that: which is more fitting? And if this is the phrasing, the meaning may be either this or that: which is more fitting?’ Suppose they reply, ‘This phrasing fits the meaning better than that. And this meaning fits the phrasing better than that.’ Without flattering or rebuking them, you should carefully convince them by examining that meaning and that phrasing.
Monastics still follow this in our fortnightly recitation of the monastic code. Usually, one monastic recites from memory, while another expert carefully checks it against the text. If the reciting monk gets even a syllable wrong, they will be corrected. Of course, this depends on the assumption that people are acting in good faith, that they want to preserve the Dhamma.
In the case where there is a disagreement over the text, there is an obligation to try to resolve it by identifying the cause of the problem and the nature of the disagreement. (MN 103)
As you do so, it may happen that two mendicants disagree about the teaching. Now, you might think, ‘These two venerables disagree on both the meaning and the phrasing.’ So you should approach whichever mendicant you think is most amenable and say to them: ‘The venerables disagree on the meaning and the phrasing. But the venerables should know that this is how such disagreement on the meaning and the phrasing comes to be. Please don’t get into a fight about this.’
As always, the Buddha wanted to look into the causes of things. Often a disagreement simply comes from something misremembered or taken out of context. In such a case, it should be simply corrected and move on. If those making the mistake refuse to see it or correct it, it is not easy to resolve.
The Buddha was not a fundamentalist. He recognized that, while we should strive to retain the Dhamma as precisely as possible, minor variations in the letter were of lesser importance.
The phrasing is a minor matter. Please don’t get into a fight about something so minor.
Nor was he opposed to differences of opinion when it comes to matters of interpretation. No text fully defines its meaning, and there is always room for different readings. For example, in AN 6.61 we encounter a group of monks discussing the interpretation of a verse in Metteya’s Questions. (Snp 5.3) The verse alludes to someone who has known both ends and is not stuck in the middle. Each of the monks gives a different interpretation of these, then go to the Buddha for clarification.
“Sir, who has spoken well?”
“Mendicants, you’ve all spoken well in a way. However, this is what I was referring to in ‘The Way to the Beyond’, in ‘The Questions of Metteyya’ when I said: ‘The sage has known both ends, and is not stuck in the middle. He is a great man, I declare, he has escaped the seamstress here.’ Listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”
“Yes, sir,” they replied. The Buddha said this:
“Contact, mendicants, is one end. The origin of contact is the second end. The cessation of contact is the middle. And craving is the seamstress, for craving weaves one to being reborn in one state of existence or another. That’s how a mendicant directly knows what should be directly known and completely understands what should be completely understood. Knowing and understanding thus they make an end of suffering in this very life.”
But that does not mean that just any interpretation is valid. Interpretations have meaning, and the context for that meaning is supplied by the Dhamma, not just by personal whims. There is not necessarily just one right answer, but there are plenty of wrong answers.
Throughout the suttas there is a great concern to not misrepresent the Buddha by falsely attributing sayings to him, or by misreading the things he did say. Students would approach him to clarify that they did not make a mistake. Even Venerable Sāriputta, with his great humility, checks with his teacher to ensure he has not got a single detail wrong.
“And I have also heard and learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘It’s impossible for two perfected ones, fully awakened Buddhas to arise in the same solar system at the same time.’ Answering this way, I trust that I repeated what the Buddha has said, and didn’t misrepresent him with an untruth. I trust my explanation was in line with the teaching, and that there are no legitimate grounds for rebuke or criticism.”
“Indeed, Sāriputta, in answering this way you repeat what I’ve said, and don’t misrepresent me with an untruth. Your explanation is in line with the teaching, and there are no legitimate grounds for rebuke or criticism.”
The Buddha was mild and reasonable. He would never take anything on rumor, but always ask and inquire of the person concerned about the facts. Often such things are merely hearsay. But if it did turn out that someone was presenting a serious distortion of the Dhamma, he didn’t hold back. (MN 26)
“Is it really true, Ariṭṭha, that you have such a harmful misconception: ‘As I understand the Buddha’s teachings, the acts that he says are obstructions are not really obstructions for the one who performs them’?”
“Absolutely, sir. As I understand the Buddha’s teachings, the acts that he says are obstructions are not really obstructions for the one who performs them.”
“Silly man, who on earth have you ever known me to teach in that way? Haven’t I said in many ways that obstructive acts are obstructive, and that they really do obstruct the one who performs them?”
All of this reminds us of our duty of right speech, our duty of care to the Dhamma. (AN 2.23)
Mendicants, these two don’t misrepresent the Realized One. What two? One who explains what was spoken by the Realized One as spoken by him. And one who explains what was not spoken by the Realized One as not spoken by him.
Imagine that this was to happen in any other field of study. Say someone wanted to publish a translation of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, but in doing so removed 90% of the content, replacing it with things that they had simply imagined that Einstein might say. Or imagine that someone was translating a medical textbook into Italian for a university course, and decided to leave out 90% of the content and just make up all the details of anatomy and physiology and treatment. None of us would want to be treated by a graduate of that university!
Surely in spiritual circles we should be at least as careful with our sacred scriptures. For us, the truth is not just incidental, it is fundamental to the path. Our Sangha and traditional communities know this well, and they have treasured these words for 2,500 years, passing them down from hand to hand with immeasurable care and effort. Without this, none of us would have access to the Dhamma at all.
There’s nothing wrong with the Dhamma, and it doesn’t need fixing. As a musician, I know that true creativity begins with the basic discipline of learning scales, fingerings, and arpeggios. Only then can one have the freedom to express oneself. Likewise, a truly creative and meaningful response to the Dhamma starts with a careful understanding of what the Dhamma is and what it isn’t. When we discard our critical faculties and our commitment to the basic factuality of what is real and what is not, we have taken the first step down the broad and well-traveled path of delusion. There’s enough of that in the world already. Don’t let it take over the Dhamma.