“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character.”

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The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.

When the quote above was emailed to me by a reader, there was nothing much in the actual content to trigger my suspicions. The concepts are Dharmic, and there are probably parallels in the Pali canon to each line of this poem. It seemed, perhaps, a little too neat. But I wondered, why had I never come across such a pithy, coherent, and beautifully expressed teaching in my 30 years of studying the Buddhist scriptures? Let me be clear that I haven’t memorized, or even read, the whole of the Pali canon. But I have read a lot of it, and it would be surprising for such a beautiful expression of Dharma, had it been part of the scriptures, not to have been mentioned more often by some of the scholars and Buddhist teachers whose work I’ve read.

Well, maybe I don’t read enough, because it turned out that this quote had in fact been cited as the word of the Buddha by Sharon Salzberg, Allan Lokos, Lama Surya Das, and other esteemed teachers. In fact it’s all over the web. In some cases it’s said to be from the Dhammapada, but although it has resonances with some verses from that text, that’s certainly not where it’s from.

So where does this quote originate?

The progression thoughts, words, deeds, habit, character, has its roots in 19th century Christianity, and so we find, for example, in Character and Work (1878), by Scottish theologian William Robinson Clark,

“Among those things which constitute the power or the weakness of human life, character must be allowed to have a foremost place … to this everything else leads up—thoughts, words, deeds, habits.”

Clark wasn’t the originator of this sequence, which seems to have been floating around, unattributed, in various versions. A Indiana newspaper, the Connersville Examiner, on Tuesday, July 10, 1877, had the following on its front page:

Some one has said, “Sow an act reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.”

It’s not surprising that the words of the quotation I was asked about should be thought to come from the Dhammapada, whose first two verses are, in Buddharakkhita’s translation:

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

Also, the Buddha did come close to the sequence of thought … word … deed … habit … character in a series of verses in the Dhammapada, in the chapter called “Anger.” There he said:

The man whom the wise praise, after observing him day after day, is one of flawless CHARACTER, wise, and endowed with knowledge and virtue.

Who can blame such a one, as worthy as a coin of refined gold? Even the gods praise him; by Brahma, too, is he praised.

Let a man guard himself against irritability in bodily action; let him be controlled in deed. Abandoning bodily misconduct, let him practice good conduct in DEED.

Let a man guard himself against irritability in speech; let him be controlled in speech. Abandoning verbal misconduct, let him practice good conduct in SPEECH.

Let a man guard himself against irritability in thought; let him be controlled in mind. Abandoning mental misconduct, let him practice good conduct in THOUGHT.

It’s not however at all clear that the Buddha is saying here that thought gives rise to word, which gives rise to deed. Generally acts of body, speech, and mind are presented as a kind of co-equal trinity, with none of them being presented as the origin of the others. But those terms are there, and in the same order, which is interesting. Also, the Dhammapada is a collection of independent quotes, and so the ordering reflects the interpretation of the collators of the text, and not necessarily the way that the Buddha would have expressed himself. I’m not arguing that he would have disagreed with the ordering of the verses, just that he almost certainly wasn’t responsible for it.

I haven’t yet found a definitive origin for the formulation that starts: “The thought manifests as the word…” The earliest citation of this in a book seems to be from 1984’s Staying Alive: The Psychology of Human Survival, by Roger N. Walsh, who ascribes it to that prolific author, “Anonymous.” So I don’t know exactly where this quote originates. The best I can say at present is that it emerged from many minds that were engaged in a mid- to late-19th century Christian exploration of character building — arguably an attempt to create a Christian equivalent of karma.

And then at some point before 1984 it acquired a coda about “concern for all beings” that sounds distinctly Buddhist. But the quote as a whole is not from the Buddhist scriptures. We can be fairly sure the Buddha never said this, although we can be equally sure that he said things like this.

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17 thoughts on ““The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character.””

  1. This appears in abbreviated form the novel “The Penetant” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1983). I that context it is characterized as an old Jewish or Yiddish proverb.

  2. I find it interesting that something that so peacefully (and aptly) paraphrases and/or summarizes Kamma from the Dhammapada and properly credits the Buddha would be so vehemently shredded in print.

    1. The quote is not being “shredded,” or in fact criticized in any way. It’s the attribution to the Buddha that’s being challenged.

  3. With regards to this segment:

    Some one has said, “Sew an act reap a habit; sew a habit and reap a character; sew a character and reap a destiny.”

    …it should read “SOW an act,” and “SOW a habit” etc. Sewing is what you do with needle and thread. Sowing is planting of something like seeds. Just sayin’

    1. You have a primary source for that? I’m afraid that without a citation to a work written by the Imam, such a claim isn’t very useful.

  4. All these (modern) interpretations seem to go back to the same ancient source: BRIHADARANYAKA UPANISHAD (IV 4.5)

    kāmamaya evāyam puruṣa iti — greed and its illusion go quickly with man thus
    sa yathākāmo bhavati, tat kratur bhavati, – like, according to greed so intention becomes
    sa yat kratur bhavati, tat karma kurute, – like that intention is becoming so this doing for the sake of it
    yat karma kurute, tat abhisampadyate. – like this doing is taking over so it arrives at (the end)
    Comment: Greed (kAma) or desire confuse the mind with thoughts of ever wanting (better, more). And thoughts govern your outward actions, and your actions become “self-important”, and this importance takes over and leads you to your destiny (the one you deserve).

  5. There may also be a relationship to this quote from MN 19: “Whatever a bhikkhu [practitioner] frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.” (MN 19.6; Bhikkhu Bodhi translation). The sutta uses the examples of thoughts of sensual desire, ill will, and cruelty, compared to their opposites. Whatever you spend your time turning over in your mind — you will get more and more of that in your mindstream.

    1. That’s a quote I discuss here and here. The relationship you point out, though, is very general. It’s a fairly commonplace observation that what we do repeatedly becomes a habit. Aristotle pointed out that character (ethike) comes from habit (ethos) which comes from action, etc., etc.

  6. Why quarrel about the origin of a good thing? Let’s just use it for a better life… and who knows? in 40 years of teaching the Buddha probably said it many times.
    Love
    Paola

    1. Quarreling is a waste of time, but I’d like to think you don’t have a problem with the concept of accurate citations, Paola. And of course you’re free to imagine the Buddha said anything, but please don’t claim he did without evidence.

    1. We have records of what the Buddha said. They’re quite extensive. Now of course no record is complete, and he said lots of things that weren’t recorded, but that doesn’t mean you make something up and say “the Buddha said it.”

  7. If this saying is in line with the teachings of Buddha did he not in fact say it just not in so many words?

    Does it matter how the message found us or simply that it did?

    1. Just in case there’s some confusion here about what a quotation is, here’s a dictionary definition: “A group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker.”

      Since there’s nothing even close to this in the Buddhist scriptures, which are the only possible source for a Buddha quote, this is definitely not a quotation from the Buddha. That’s really my only concern.

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