“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

“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 mind 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.

53 thoughts on ““We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.””

  1. A fruitful take on the subject. However I would argue that B saw certain kinds of thought as intentional actions (kammas), so I see some overlap there. The line about “whatever a monk keeps pursuing” supports this reasoning.

    1. I completely agree. The Buddha viewed physical actions, speech, and thought/intention as kamma (action). The point I was trying to make is that it’s not just or even principally thought that shapes who we are, but our physical, verbal, and mental activity as a whole.

  2. The larger issue raised by your post is the Western misunderstanding of Buddhism as making philosophical, ontological assertions about the external world, in the manner of Western thinkers. When I realised, halfway through the suttas, that that was not at all what B was doing, the scales fell from my eyes. It’s a point that needs constantly to be emphasised. I appreciate your work.

    1. Right! When the Buddha, for example, is saying “sabbe sankhara anicca,” he’s not saying that everything in the universe is impermanent. That’s simply not a provable statement. What he’s saying is every experience we have is constantly changing, which is demonstrable because we can look at the nature of the mind and of the senses and see that they depend upon change to function. If there did happen to be something in the universe that was unchanging, we still wouldn’t experience it as such because our sensory/mental apparatus would give us an ever-changing experience.

      For another example of a supposed ontological/philosophical of the Buddha vanishing upon closer examination, you might want to look at my article on the three forms of dukkha.

      1. This is actually way more fascinating than I thought. Thank you for sharing.

        It’d be extra cool to include links that support this though because someone like me who’s learning, has no idea what the translations could mean. Just helps nail it home.

  3. The writer whose piece you critique in that link also repeats what is probably the single most widely distributed Fake Buddha Quote: “Life is suffering.”

  4. In the Diamond Sutra it says that the world is a bubble in a stream, a dream.. Buddha spoke of Emptiness as the underlying reality of all things, both in the mind and the universe. Emptiness due to Interdependence and therefore Impermanence, not just experience but also dhamma in the sense of phenomena.
    “With our thoughts we make the world” essentially agrees with what Buddha said about the effects of karma, thought being the precursor of action.
    While Buddha said the universe and mind were beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence, or any other duality for that matter.

    1. “With our thoughts we make the world” essentially agrees with what Buddha said about the effects of karma, thought being the precursor of action.

      Not really. Our actions may shape our interpretation of the world, but they don’t create it.

      1. “Our actions may shape our interpretation of the world, but they don’t create it.”
        Really? Then your actions never made anything, not even breakfast? You only “interpreted” breakfast?

        1. Hi, Openview.

          I can certainly make toast, but I don’t make the wheat that goes into making the toast, or the metal that goes into making the toaster. In short, there’s an entire world out there that I interpret and exist in, but don’t in any real sense “create.”

          1. Maybe not you, but it is somebody’s job to make the bread and the toaster. And it is you who is giving them the money to make them, through their employers. If you and everyone suddenly decided you did not want toast, then toasters would not exist for very long, now would they, law of supply and demand?
            Emptiness means everything is interdependently related, and without all the conditions coming together.. a thing would not exist by itself.

          2. OK, you’re just waffling now. I’m glad we can agree that my thoughts don’t create the world, and don’t even create toasters (which exist, incidentally, even if I don’t give people the money to make them). Did I create you?

          3. You don’t create it from scratch, but your karma and obscurations project a reality onto things which they do not have.

            And please don’t say I’m waffling, that is very disrespectful and not at all Buddhist in demeanor!!

          4. “your karma and obscurations project a reality onto things”

            Onto things that you did not create. Now, can we abandon this rather pointless discussion now that you’ve painted yourself into a corner?

  5. openview: dhamma never means external object, in the modern materialist, scientific sense. “Phenomenon” is actually close in meaning, in its original sense of “appearance”.

    Also, the Diamond Sutra was not spoken by the historical Buddha.

    1. To Buddha “dharmas”, phenomena and appearances are the same.

      There are so many references where Buddha says life is full of suffering, first among these the First Noble Truth.

      1. Reread the texts. The First Noble Truth is not “Life is full of suffering.” The First Noble Truth is “There is suffering.” In Pali there’s not even a verb: “Dukkham ariyasaccam” = “Suffering Noble Truth”.

        1. Well, there are many specific things in life that are mentioned as examples of suffering:

          “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

          However “life is suffering” gives the impression that there’s nothing but suffering in life, which isn’t accurate.

          1. “..in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”
            That means all the elements that make up our body and the conditioned contents of the mind and all objects, lead to suffering. Make no mistake. There are three main kinds of suffering mentioned: 1. the suffering of suffering. 2. the suffering of change, impermanence. 3. the suffering of conditioned states.
            That means we suffer all the time, especially since we don’t even know we are suffering, because of the underlying suffering of impermanence which does not stop. Happiness is temporary, so there is a built in suffering, wanting happiness, wanting happiness to stay, wanting happiness to come back. Yes, underlying the temporary states of happiness is suffering. Life is suffering, and part of fundamental ignorance (avidya) is not realizing this.

          2. “Those with children
            grieve
            because of their children.
            Those with cattle
            grieve
            because of their cows.
            A person’s grief
            comes from acquisitions,
            since a person with no acquisitions
            doesn’t grieve.”
            from the Nandana Sutta – Delight

            “Monks, I know not of any other single thing that brings such woe as the mind that is untamed, uncontrolled, unguarded and unrestrained. Such a mind indeed brings great woe.

            “Monks, I know not of any other single thing that brings such bliss as the mind that is tamed, controlled, guarded and restrained. Such a mind indeed brings great bliss.”
            from the Adanta Sutta – Untamed

            These two show that (1) even things that we think are pleasurable are not, and (2) the mind that is not enlightened inevitably suffers.

          3. “Monks, I know not of any other single thing that brings such bliss as the mind that is tamed, controlled, guarded and restrained. Such a mind indeed brings great bliss.”

            Let’s get to work taming our minds then.

            Incidentally, this quote is not saying, “Life is suffering.”

          4. “How do you construe thus, monks — Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”

            “Inconstant, lord.”

            “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

            “Stressful, lord.”

            “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘this is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

            “No, lord.”

            from The Anattalakkhana Sutra,
            The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

            Does this make it clearer that all of ordinary consciousness is considered suffering or stressful as it’s sometimes translated?

          5. Saying that viññāṇa is dukkha here doesn’t mean that our experience is one of constant suffering. It means that consciousness, as a basis for happiness, is unsatisfactory (dukkha), because it’s constantly changing. This doesn’t mean that happiness can’t arise within consciousness. Obviously it does, and Dharma practice helps that to happen more and more in both ordinary life and in meditation.

            So, no, “life” is not suffering. Life contains suffering, but also happiness. Life is a mixture. The point of practice is to stop giving rise to the unnecessary suffering caused by clinging, aversion, and delusion.

            You may say that “life is suffering.” The Buddha never made that claim.

    1. Hi, Bhagat. Actually he didn’t. Not only didn’t he, but he couldn’t have, since the term “Hindu” didn’t even exist.

  6. So “physical actions, speech, and thought/intention as kamma (action)” shape our interpretation of our reality, dont create our reality, right? Is it this misunderstanding that has led to all of the modern, new age, “law of attractiony” kinda preaching?

    1. Hi, Gursheel.

      We all create our own subjective world through our actions. For example I might see a large man on the street ahead of me and convince myself he’s a threat. The sense of being threatened is something that arises within me, but I perceive the outside world in terms of that threat. I see the man out there as being dangerous, even if he’s not.

      That subjective change may well alter how the external world behaves. For example, I may annoy the large man by looking fearful and taking a detour to avoid him, because he’s fed up with people treating him that way. Maybe my actions even lead to him behaving aggressively.

      But I did not create the large man. He’s objectively there. He himself is not a manifestation of my mind, although the perception of him as a threat is. The same is true for the street and everything else around me.

      The law of attraction thing takes the idea of us creating our own subjective world, and the fact that our subjective responses, when expressed in actions (even actions as subtle as facial expressions and body language) have an effect on what happens in the outside world, and mashes them together in a rather crude way to produce the notion that everything in the outside world is a manifestation of the mind. There are Hindu ideas along those lines, and I’m sure that they’ve had an effect on the emergence of LOA. Hinduism has been influencing western thought now for well over a century.

      1. Our individual past karma creates the projection of this world. Each of the six realms of rebirth project the world in a different way due to their karma. Our street looks like a different thing to an animal, to a hungry ghost or hell being might be a river of fire, to being in a god realm might be a path of gold strewn with flowers. This is the law of karma in Buddhism. Only a Buddha knows what reality is in itself, because only a Buddha is not projecting past karma, having dissolved their karma. We have no idea of ultimate reality, we see only what we project due to the karma of which we are unaware.

        1. And this is something you know from experience? Or are you just passing on ideas you’ve been taught or have read?

          1. I’m quite sure you’re not enlightened, that that you’re just passing on stuff you’ve read in books and can’t verify from your experience. So maybe you should stop insisting that it’s reality, and stop clinging to views. As the Buddha said, “Those who cling to interpretations and views go about the world annoying people.” (Saññaca diṭṭhiñca ye aggahesuṃ / Te ghaṭṭayantā vicaranti loketi.”

          2. Please do not assume where I received what I write. It is certainly not simply from books. It is from the wisest Buddhist teachers.

            And do not be insulting, that is not very Buddhist in your approach, although you profess to know so much about “real” Buddhism. You seem never to have heard of the Six Realms. What real Buddhist has never heard of these and the effects of karma?? It boggles my mind. It is you who are clinging to false views, while loudly and insultingly proclaiming that I am. On Saka Dawa no less!!!

          3. Sheesh. What on earth makes you think I haven’t heard of a basic teaching like the six realms? Now there’s an assumption!

            And I didn’t say that you were clinging to false views, simply that you’re clinging to views, the truth or falsehood of which you cannot know from your own experience.

          4. Are you yourself enlightened? No. Then you cannot say that another is enlightened or not because you do not have the wisdom to do so. Simple truth.

          5. Do you see the contradiction between declaring on the one hand that I’m not enlightened and saying on the other that you have to be enlightened in order to say whether or not someone is enlightened? You’ve turned yourself around 180 degrees in the space of two sentences. Saying that you know that I’m not enlightened must, by your own words, mean that you’re making a claim that you are enlightened. Good luck with that.

            Please stop wasting our time. Life is short.

          6. You are the one who said I’m not enlightened. I’m simply pointing out to you why you cannot say that. Then you are trying out this logic on me. That is truly silly. You should really stop.

          7. You asked me whether I thought you were enlightened or not. I replied. Now, any further comments from you will automatically go into the spam comments folder and deleted unseen. Your comments started off nit-picking and obsessive, and have gotten worse.

  7. Here is a version published by the Pali Text Society and edited by Suriyagoda Sumangala Thera:

    “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.”

      1. What is your “accurate” translation and name its source, or did you simply say this as a pat reply??

        1. There are plenty of good translations of the Dhammapada out there, Openview. You can also look at the Pali. Even if you don’t understand Pali grammar, you can see which terms are and aren’t in the original. Buddharakkhita’s translations on access to insight is quite literal:

          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.

          Gil Fronsdal’s translation is good too:

          All experience is preceded by mind,
          Led by mind,
          Made by mind.
          Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
          And suffering follows
          As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

          Narada Thera’s translation is also literal, at least for this verse. In some other verses he tends to me a bit “monkish”:

          Mind is the forerunner of [all evil] states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.

          He’s careful to distinguish his own addition from what’s in the Pali.

          All three of these can be matched, term-for-term, with the original Pali. You’ll notice that there’s nothing in any of these translations about “All that we are.” Nor is there anything corresponding to this in the Pali. Translations like that are a kind of “hinduization” of Buddhism. Unfortunately that’s a rather common phenomenon.

  8. Just stumbled upon this translation today at a meeting with fellow Buddhists, one of whom had this “Shambhala Pocket Classic” with him.

    I opened it out of curiosity and was taken aback by this opening line. How anyone could interpret the Buddha’s teachings in this way is quite worrying, and that it could make its way into print, via a Buddhist publishing company…

    The Buddha, to the contrary, taught that “Sabbe dhamma anatta” – all phenomena are not-self. In other words, we emphatically are *not* what we think, our thoughts are not what we are. If I believed my thoughts were what I am, I’d be locked up by now.

    Even the mind (citta), which the verse states “precedes,” even “makes” all dhammas, is not the self. In fact the Buddha states that it is our identification with it and its activities as “me,” “mine,” and “what I am” that causes us so much suffering, as it is such a changeable and unreliable force:

    “”But as for what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness,’ the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it. Why is that? For a long time this has been relished, appropriated, and grasped by the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person as, ‘This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.’ Thus the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it.

    “It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for a year, two years, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another. Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.”

  9. “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.”
    Max Planck

    “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”

    Neils Bohr

    “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real, they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

    Werner Heisenberg

    “Hence it is clear that the space of physics is not, in the last analysis anything given in nature or independent of human thought. It is a function of our conceptual scheme [mind].”

    Albert Einstein

      1. Thank you to the author for this article. I have enjoyed mediating on it for some time now.
        Thanks also to those who commented with such open hearts and minds.

        I found clarity in some of the comments too – from many sources – such as “it’s not just or even principally thought that shapes who we are, but our physical, verbal, and mental activity as a whole,” and also, “Emptiness means everything is interdependently related, and without all the conditions coming together.. a thing would not exist by itself.”

        Further clarity is a beautiful thing. I celebrate clarity and improved understanding wherever I find them. Most of all I also celebrate the words, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world,” and hear the inspiration of enlightenment in them. With a generosity of spirit and openness of mind, I have, through experience, learned was is meant and not meant by the “world” in this statement, and also, what is meant by “thoughts”.

        My understanding of this text has always been that we can never underestimate the extent to which our own previous interpretations (or ‘construction’) of reality can influence our present and future perceptions of the reality – or “the world”. Our memories and interpretations of everything about us form our experience of all things – even ourselves. And undeniably, even in addition to this truth, we can also witness our thoughts giving rise to actions – and to a great extent, these influence our reality directly also, sometimes in drastic and unexpected ways. However, it is important not to misunderstand the intention, I believe, behind the focus of the text. But that, I find, has been made ever clear by what shortly follows those opening words, being: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you – As much as your own thoughts unguarded. But once mastered, no-one can help you as much. Not even your own father or mother.”

        The idea of thoughts (as interpretation) giving rise to new thought and indeed, new action is also made clear, in context, I find, in the “wheel of the cart following the ox”, and the “unshakable shadow”.

        But while poetry may speak volumes to some it can, I admit, elude others. But that itself is another issue to which I will direct my mind – if words lead me to understanding, can I fault the words if they do not need others? The only answer I can find is that looking for new ways of thinking on this subject is a worthy thing, and hence, convey my appreciation to the author for his work in this regard.

        Live in peace.

  10. It is in the moments of our pursuit for self-righteousness when we have the greatest opportunity to grow, if only we could lay down our ego and embrace, or at least entertain, real and true humility. I would dare state that nobody here is ‘waffling’ or ‘painted yourself into a corner’. What I observed was delightful, stimulating, and intelligent conversation. It could have served better without the cut-downs or statements of attack, as minor as they may have been, they are obviously present. I wish all a beautiful and fulfilled existence, whatever that may be for you.

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