“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” You may well instantly recognize these three sentences as the opening of the Dhammapada, and you may wonder what could possibly be wrong with them. Isn’t this just what the Buddha taught? Didn’t the Buddha teach that the world is an illusion? Didn’t the Buddha say things like “We become what we think?”
Well, let’s step back for a moment and look at what the first line of the Dhammapada actually says. In Pali that line is Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā. I’d translate this as “All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā).” The only part of this translation likely to be contentious is the word dhamma, (dhammā is the nominative plural), which can have many meanings, including “condition,” “moral quality,” “law,” “practice,” or “teaching.” So rich in meaning is this word that its entry in the Pali Text Society’s dictionary runs to several pages. In this context dhamma doesn’t mean the Buddha’s teachings, but refers to mental factors. Dhammā in the context of these verses has variously been translated as “mental states,” “mental phenomena,” and simply as “phenomena.” I like the word “experiences” because it’s more, well, experiential.
Since the first two verses of the Dhammapada discuss how suffering (dukkha) arises from an impure mins and joy (sukha) from a pure mind, it makes sense to assume that dhammā here refers to those mental states, or to mental states more generally. The essential message is that the qualities of our mind determine whether or not we suffer. There’s nothing in the Pali original that mentions “thoughts” or “the world” at all, never mind that that we are what we think, or that our thoughts create the world.
This particular translation is from a well-loved version of the Dhammapada, by Thomas Byrom. According to his US publisher, Shambhala, Byrom was an Englishman who taught history and literature at Harvard, and Old English, Middle English, and Victorian and modern literature at Oxford. There’s no mention of his having taught or studied Pali, which may explain the poetic, but very non-literal nature of his Dhammapada. it may also explain why the publisher calls Byrom’s version a “rendering” rather than a translation.
Byrom’s religious affiliations seem to have colored his rendering of the Buddha’s words. He was a Hindu, of the non-dualist Advaita Vedanta persuasion, and spent the last years of his life in an ashram in California. Of course a Hindu can faithfully translate a Buddhist text or a Buddhist a HIndu text, but in this case it’s hard to conclude that Byrom, for whatever reason, was moved to present Buddhist teachings as if they were Hindu. Although the Dhammapada doesn’t say that we are what we think, or that we’re created by our thoughts, the Ashtavakragita, which Byrom translated (and perhaps didn’t just “render”) toward the end of his life, says “You are what you think” (1:11). Although the Dhammapada doesn’t say that the world is created by our thoughts, the Ashtavakragita says “All creation, streaming out of the Self, Is only the Self” (2:4), and “When the world arises in me, It is just an illusion” (2:9).
But didn’t the Buddha himself teach that the world is an illusion? I’m sure some Buddhists believe he did, and the existence of Hindu-Buddhist hybrid texts like Byrom’s Dhammapada is no doubt one reason they do. But while the Buddha said that we have delusion (moha) about the nature of the world, and that we have cognitive distortions (vipallasas) he did not say that the world was an illusion, or māyā — an important term in Hunduism, which is found in the Pali scriptures but only to mean something like “deceit,” “fraud,” “hypocrisy,” etc. He didn’t deny the existence of the world, although he did point out that we make gross errors of interpretation regarding the nature of the world, seeing permanence where there is only change, seeing sources of suffering as sources of joy, and believing there is a separate and permanent self when no such entity does or can exist.
Nor did the Buddha teach the notion that we are what we think. He did say, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” although it’s clear from the context that he meant simply that indulging in certain kinds of thought — for example sensuous thought — the mind is shaped by that habit. If there was anything that the Buddha thought shaped us on a more profound level, if was not thought, but kamma, or intentional action, which he said we are “born of.”
I’m all for poetry, and Byrom’s Dhammapada is certainly poetic. But for a more poetic version that’s more faithful to the original, I’d suggest that by Gil Fronsdal, which makes no attempt to mold the Buddha’s teaching into a Hindu form.
This article was originally published in Tricycle magazine.