Does this really sound like Sitting Bull?

Sitting BullAnother quote meme going around on the Internet claims to be from Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. A fascinating man in a difficult time. He was brave, intelligent and, from all accounts, wise. So when I read the quote below, I was torn. It’s a good comment, one that sounds like it should come from a wise man. But was that wise man really Sitting Bull?

Or perhaps these words are from someone else. There are many of these false quotations online, words that have been appropriated and mis-attributed by the many slow and lazy Web users who can’t be bothered to confirm the source. From Shakespeare to Einstein, I’ve found dozens of bad quotes that spread around the Net, becoming memes. But even if the words are wise, attributing them to the wrong person just contributes to the general dumbing down of everyone who reads them. So who actually said:

For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.

This one is repeated by Native Americans and on native sites as well, so perhaps it has some validity, but none of them ascribe any source to it, either.

I have yet to find any source that shows when or where Sitting Bull actually said it. So until then, it remains classified as a bad meme and likely by someone else.

I suspect it’s more wishful thinking than accurate attribution. We want our cultural, folk and personal heroes to sound wise and inspiring, so we attribute to them something that we believe they would have, could have, or should have said, often without checking back to be sure they actually said it. And when we do it online, we create a meme that gets spread like those crazy emails about Microsoft promising us millions if we just forward it to everyone we know.

[pullquote]Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street.[/pullquote]Wikiquotes – a generally reliable source – has several quotations from Sitting Bull, properly attributed. This is not among them, and is not even among the many unsourced quotes it lists. The quote itself is not found anywhere on Wiki Quotes by any other author.

My printed sources offer no help. Neither the Oxford nor the Penguin dictionaries of quotations have anything from Sitting Bull. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th/125th anniversary edition) has a single statement Sitting Bull made that reads,

“What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?… What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?”

The ellipses says that this is a partial quote and that some of the words have been left out. That, however, is the only printed sources I have for any Sitting Bull quotes. There are quotes attributed to Sitting Bull to be found in some of the older books (many published pre-1920) digitized in the Internet Archives. None of them I have found (yet) match the quotation at the top of this page. However, their accuracy is questionable since they mostly seem to be second- or third-hand. Here are two from one source I’ve culled:

“Do you not see that the whites on the reservation are afraid of you? Why do you pray to great Wakantanka to send the Saviour on earth and bring about a change when the remedy lies in your own hands? Be men, not children. You have a perfect right to dance upon your own reservation as much as you please, and you should exercise this right, even if you find it necessary to use your guns. Be brave, and the great and good Wakantanka will aid your arms. Be cowards, and he will be ashamed of you.”

God Almighty made me an Indian, and he did not make me an agency Indian, and I do not intend to be one.

Here’s a quote from another 19th century source:

This is not my doings nor these men’s. They are fighting because they were commanded to fight. We have killed their leader, let them go. I call on the Great Spirit to witness what I say. We did not want to fight. Long Hair sent us word that he was coming to fight us, and we had to defend ourselves and our wives and children. If this command had not been given we could have cut Reno’s command to pieces, as we did Custer’s. No warrior knew Custer in the fight. We did not know him, dead or alive. When the fight was over the chiefs gave orders- to look for the long-haired chief among the dead, but no chief with long hair could be found.

Whether these are actual quotes, or paraphrased by the 19th century writers to better suit their personal, biased views of the ‘primitive savages’ they wrote about, I have no way to ascertain. I expect the latter.

I personally suspect the source of the original quotation is another writer. Perhaps from one of Dan Millman’s “peaceful warrior” books or from one of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. Both have written on warriors, and the end bit about “…the children, the future of humanity” seems more suited to the style of these writers than to the few actual quotations of Sitting Bull’s I’ve read.

A third option is the inspirational/spiritual writer Paul Coelho, possibly from the Manual of the Warrior of the Light (1997) or possibly his novel, The Valkyries. Coelho founded the Paulo Coelho Institute, which provides aid to children and elderly people with financial problems. Coelho wrote on his blog,

“To the warriors of light, there is no such thing as impossible love.
They don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by silence, or by rejection.
They know that – behind the icy mask people wear – there is a heart of fire.
That is why the warriors risk more than others.
They tirelessly seek love – even if this means hearing, many times over, the word ‘no’, returning home defeated, feeling rejected in body and soul.
Warriors don’t allow themselves to be discouraged. Without love, living has no meaning.”

Coelho, Castaneda and Millman all write in a similar New-Age style that is a lot more like the quotation in question than anything I’ve read that can be verified as being by Sitting Bull. Similar sentiments to this and the quotation in question are expressed in different wording on several martial arts/bushido, New Age and even gaming sites, as well. Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street. It’s not a sentiment I would ascribe to many military leaders. And Sitting Bull was certainly one of those.

Crystal crazy: self-professed psychics on Facebook

Claptrap card gameThe Internet has provided a virtual continent for the colonies of faith healers, psychics, astrologers, UFO hunters, ghost and haunting sightings, crypto-zoologists, promoters of angels, spirits, demons, auras, and a wealth of pseudoscience and claptrap. In a culture where the critical thinking, quest of knowledge and skepticism that characterized the Enlightenment have given way to superstition and fundamentalism, the Net has proven a rich source of believers and followers for the charlatans and hucksters.

Facebook and Youtube combine to make the Alexandria Library for the hard-of-thinking. Many of the promoters of this nonsense feed off one another and create their own memes. Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian,

In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn’t for the Enlightenment, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You’d be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we’re trying to bollocks it all up.
Welcome to a dangerous new era – the Unlightenment – in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They’re everywhere – reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about “chakras” and “healing energies”, praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We’ve got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don’t. “Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Recently I got into a bit of a verbal spat on FB with a character who calls herself (himself?) Higher Connection – Raising Our Vibration. Right away, just on seeing the puerile name, the old bullshit detector started going off. A friend (a real person I’ve met in the flesh, not just an imaginary friend like most Facebook connections are) posted a like/share to the above-mentioned person’s post in which she wrote,

Mass healing time again 🙂 Energetic, Theta Healing, Reiki and Soul Recall.
Put your name (or anyone elses, a pets.. as many as you want!) in this list to receive healings and adjustments. In this healing I will send it out to where any of your imbalances are…. then I will recall all of your soul fragments (when we go through trauma we leave chunks of our energy imprint behind. we need them back.) and I will break any soul contracts or agreements or vows that no longer apply and that you are done with (you don’t have to do anything, don’t worry.) I am also getting told I need to send you all PEACE and LOVE. So we will leave it at that for now. Bit at a time 🙂 Be sure that this healing feels right to you at this time, and choose your friends carefully. Some people are not ready or do not want to heal. Yet I always intend that this works according to each persons higher self decision ?

Whenever anyone I know strays into pseudoscience or superstition, I feel a responsibility to intervene. It’s like seeing a friend wade into a dangerous river. I cannot sit by and watch them drown, whether it be in water or superstitious codswallop.

Seeing his “share”, I felt compelled to comment at the end of several dozen bits of poorly spelled drivel that praised the original writer and added all sorts of requests for “healing”: “Claptrap,” I wrote. “Hookum. Codswallop. Come on, Mike. You’re smarter than this. Or are you one of the Pod people now?”

Ooh. That stirred up a hornet’s nest of the grammatically challenged hard-of-thinking crew. Good vibes or whatever her pseudonym is, responded,”…thats inappropriate. we do not come door knocking at your door. for a reason, its rude. ok?.” And I dove in: “Dear “Higher vibes” – sorry if you’re offended but pseudoscience and superstition always make me cranky. When my friend posts a link to claptrap, I have to comment to him. I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let him meander down this road without a warning that it leads to silliness and ends up spending your money on “healing” crystals and warm & fuzzy “self help” books. What kind of friend lets a friend buy “healing” crystals?”

Put some stick about, I say. Our vibrating author responded (and these are verbatim, uncorrected quotes): “that is YOUR unimformed opinion. He is not buying real estate. just chill and worry about what you are doing ok.. He is in no danger. If it makes him feel better, how is it hurting him? There’s just no need for it. It’s nice you care about him, but you know nothing of this. It’s way smarter to say hey, WHY do all these other people believe this? Just respect your opinion is different. You don’t have to believe it, thats totally ok with is. ?”

Little heart characters were scattered through the original, but they don’t get translated into WordPress when copied. Small mercies, I suppose. Her comment makes you gooey at the knees, doesn’t it?

Do superstition and pseudoscience hurt someone? Do silly beliefs or falling for the cons of self-described “psychics” and “healers” harm someone? Well, I believe stupidity and self-delusion hurts by making a person more gullible, less critical, less open to knowledge and science, more closed to the real world. Lack of critical thinking leads to all sorts of nonsense: creationism, UFOs, astrology, feng shui, aromatherapy, phrenology, ghosts, spirits, angels, faith healing, tarot readings, auras, Scientology, crop circles, psychics, the Tea Party and Justin Bieber. I feel it’s my role as a rationalist and existentialist to help guide my friend from the dark side. I’m not being rude or nasty intentionally, just honest and caring about my friend’s mental welfare.

I mean, how much do we have to tolerate? Do we always have to respect someone’s beliefs when they’re utterly silly or even dangerous? When should we intervene to give them a metaphorical wake-up slap?

Meanwhile, another poster chimed in with: “She is providing her healings for free! You can rest assured you friend is not being taken advantage of here. As a matter of fact it is quite the opposite :)”

Free psychic energy? Just like free perpetual motion. Free angels. Free ghosts. And yes, free “healings.” Yes, I say: people ARE being taken advantage of: they’re being dragged into the medieval mindset of superstition that binds their intelligence in a dark place where they cannot think except through the lense of psychic hucksterism with imaginary beings guiding them.

Good vibes chimed back in:

…you are obviously not a very scientific man. Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven. do a little research before making claims, it just makes you no better than blind religious faith, does it not? And….. these healing crystals… are about $2 piece. You are being a bit ridiculous. Everything we are doing here, mostly, is SCIENCE now. Its funny that skeptics and apparent science believers do not keep up with the times. I’m not trying to be rude.. just telling you you are gravely behind the times and uninformed. Do you not want your friend happy? Stop trying to control him then. If a book makes him happy, that is WAY more important than anything else, his feeling of happiness, I would think… what do you suspect is NECESSARY for a watch to runlike it does? An energy conductor AND producer. Called Quartz Crystal. Just sayin 🙂 Go read some 🙂

A watch? Well of course I know how a watch works. Like most watches these days, mine is digital, but it still uses a tiny bit of quartz as its heart. Quartz is used as a replacement for an oscillating mechanical device, not as a source of energy. A small voltage is supplied from the battery to make the quartz tuning fork vibrate (at 32,768 Hz). That vibration is measured as current fluctuations by the electronics in the watch and used to count time. It’s the piezoelectric effect (musicians with passive pickups on their instruments know all about it). Those vibrations are translated into electrical energy which either powers the digital display or a tiny stepper motor that moves the hands. Nothing magical about it. And without the battery, a watch doesn’t run.

But, as Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Profiles of The Future, 1961, AKA Clarke’s third law). Perhaps to people who believe in “spirit guides” and “higher planes,” a digital watch IS magic.

If crystals could heal (they can’t, but let’s pretend), since most of us wear one on our wrist, why buy another? Since quartz is a crystal and quartz is the most common element of sand, why not just stick a handful of sand in your pocket? Why are people who walk on sandy beaches no more healthy or spiritually attuned than people walking on gravel? So many questions to tax their beliefs with.

I had to thank the vibration lady for the good chuckle I had over her comment that, “Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven.” I didn’t bother to correct the verb or the spelling, however. If I tried to correct every glaring grammatical, spelling and punctuation error in the morass of her and her followers’ comments, I’d still be typing on that thread. A scan through her FB page shows hundreds of posts and responses from people who appear to struggle greatly with the basics of English. And the keyboard must be an equal mystery since few actually know how to work the shift key.

Here’s one of the author’s own posts:

OMFG are you serious haha!! i SAID IS YOUR STOMACH HURTING.. YOU NEED TEH OCEAN FOR HEALING.. AND YOUR STOMACH HURT AND you (woops) sat down and looked at a ohoto of the ocean… is all this before reading what i wrote or after.?? omg! Anyway…. If the voice is always telling you positive things.. If it NEVER frightens you, says megative or awful things. .. etc etc etc then YES ALWAYS LISTEN TO IT. It is your Guide. He is from Lemuria… Plieadian he is telling me (god i hope that adds up or i will look silly!) and he is trying to help you right now wiht your life purpose. I am trying to get his name… Chimora or Chimpera…. Chimera I think! You ask his name and see what YOU get. I am not certain. But yes, the universe always gives you signs and you should always trust it ?

The head shakes when I read stuff like that. Here’s a post on the FB page from one of her followers:

Its funny these cards came up today, last night I was listening to Judi Satori, that channels messages from other Galxies and from the Angels. And her transmission, well for Feb and March 2012 from the Ascended Masters, was exactly the same message, how we are being protected and guided, and despite everything going on we will be okay. Just have faith, continue on our paths, meditations, grounding and klear karmic energy to prepare ourselves for the transmission of the coming months. Everyone will be safe, despite the chaos and calamities on the earth , we all will come through, even though there may be difficult times ahead from some of us. More validly from above 🙂

I won’t reprint any more of the silliness of these posts, in part because there’s such a treasure trove of drivel, I barely know where to start. Stuff about “higher planes,” angels, “spirit guides,” “clearing exercises,” card readings, “power” animals… the list of nonsense is long and dreary. And the English is often bad enough to cause migraines.

These people are lost, hurting folks; looking for help, for advice, for some rock of stability in an increasingly complex and challenging world. It’s a world where knowledge is the currency for growth and development, and where science and technology seem increasing like magic: obscure, occult and perhaps frightening. I read their pathetic pleas for help with problems in their family, friends, work, love life, with a twinge of sadness and even sympathy. The world is difficult, and they feel themselves adrift on an angry ocean they cannot understand, much less control.

Cognitive dissonanceBut instead of looking for answers, instead of working towards solutions, they choose to hide in the dark superstitions promoted by hucksters, charlatans, con artists and well-meaning but delusional wingnuts. They accept the claptrap and empty but satisfying verbiage of these self-professed healers and “psychics.” They put their faith in imaginary forces or beings. This stuff is like eating potato chips and drinking pop instead of eating real food: empty calories, lots of fat but no substance. Charlie Brooker is more caustic in his advice: “If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don’t make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies… ”

When believers learn that crystals and spirit guides and “psychics” don’t cure cancer, don’t fix broken marriages, don’t get your job back, don’t stops wars or make them win the lottery, what happens? Cognitive dissonance. A psychological way to deny the truth and fortify your beliefs when when those beliefs are challenged or proven wrong. Ah, but that’s a topic for a future post.

Let me, instead, show you a Youtube video of a self-professed “psychic” as randomly chosen sample of the sort of nonsense that is being perpetuated online. She is (as she says), “one of many, many people who talk to angels.” Note that what she calls “research” any scientists would consider self-delusion. It’s a tough piece to listen to and I couldn’t handle all the claptrap in one sitting, so feel free to turn it off at any point you get intellectually nauseous:
And let me end with this video by Michael Shermer on why people believe weird and improbable things:

Nope, this quote is not from Plato

Plato“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Seems like a wise thing to say. And I wish Plato had said it – it would have saved me a lot of time today. I spent many hours today putting together a quotation widget for this blog and trying to ascertain every quote I included came from a respectable, creditable source. Most were fairly easy to confirm, but others – like this one – just didn’t feel right for the attributed author.

This quote strikes me as far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote. It just see,ms to me like another touchy-feely, self-help-guru saying attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.

Every single site that repeated that quotation of the several hundred I perused, not a single one included a source work for it. Many had sources for other Plato quotes, identifying the book from which the quotation was taken, but not this quote. That’s annoying. I spent at least an hour trying to find a proper source for this one.

Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation. It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all. But hundreds, even thousands of sites perpetuate this stupidity. It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.

Some sites attributed (again without a source reference) it to Socrates (which points back to Plato, of course, since Socrates did not actually write anything and most of his recorded words are contained in Plato’s works).*

One site named the source as “Platone,” one as “Plate” and another as “Plata” (don’t these idiots ever use spell check?). Other sites attributed it to a real estate agent in la Jolla named “John Parker.” A poster named “kiersten11” is noted as the source in one place. One site seems to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln (again unsourced). It’s like a dart board of dead people.

Many others just parroted it without attribution (probably a lot safer). It’s been used as an inspirational quote for both humanists and religious fundamentalists, evolutionists and creationists alike. It’s been bruited about in all sorts of simperingly saccharine posts about fear, love, fear of the dark and being one with the whatever nebulous oneness that inspires the poster.

But it isn’t from Plato. Another bloody stupid Internet meme is all it is. The equivalent of Internet chain letters. Sigh.

My bet is on it being by modern author Robin Sharma, for which I found several attributions of it from his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It seems to run in parallel with his other quotes, too, much more than it reads like something Plato would have written.

Poor Robin Sharma if it really is his. How will he ever retrieve it from Plato?


* Update: I mis-spoke in my earlier version. Socrates is quoted by several classical authors, but of them only Plato was his actual student; Xenophon has been called a disciple but is from my reading more a contemporary or colleague. And Plato and Xenophon differ in a few p[laces what they claim Socrates said.
The rest of the authors use third-hand or more distant sources since they never knew or studied under Socrates. The Socratic problem is trying to determine what Socrates actually believed, since classical authors used him to voice their own sentiments and ideas.

Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online

This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.