“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”

the-mind-is-everything.-what-you-think-you-become-buddha-235x300“What you think, you become,” or sometimes “The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” is commonly attributed to the Buddha, but doesn’t seem to be scriptural. At best an overly-free — well, inaccurate — paraphrase.

Jayarava did a blog article on this one some time ago and concluded it was not from the Buddha. His exposition is rather long, but worth reading. I agree with him, by the way.

The closest I know of to this quote is in Majjhima Nikaya 19, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” That’s a rather different statement, of course.

“What you think, you become” has always puzzled me. If I think about Lady Gaga I’m not going to become an outré pop star. But that’s probably just me being literalist. I suppose it’s intended to mean something like “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

Here’s a fuller version of that quote:

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.

This is from a sutta called the Dvedhavitakka, or “Two Modes of Thinking,” where the Buddha is talking about his realization, before his Awakening, that there were two tendencies within the mind.

First, he would notice that, ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality [or ill will, or harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Nibbana.’

He further noticed that as he mindfully observed this kind of thinking, with an awareness that it led to suffering, it would subside.

Second, he would notice that ‘Thinking imbued with renunciation [and non ill will, and non-harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, and leads to Nibbana.’

And having observed the arising of this kind of thinking, he would give it his mindful attention. As he says, in a rather lovely simile:

Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been gathered into the village, a cowherd would look after his cows: While resting under the shade of a tree or out in the open, he simply keeps himself mindful of ‘those cows.’ In the same way, I simply kept myself mindful of ‘those mental qualities.’

From that point on, to cut a long story short, he entered the jhānas and then got enlightened.

So this is the context of “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” It means that the mind is trainable, and what kind of thoughts we put our energy into come to shape the mind, and affect both its affective tone (are we happy or unhappy) and its ability to discern the truth.

It’s been suggested that the “what you think, you become” quote may also stem from the first two verses of the Dhammapada, which express in poetic form what the Dvedhavitakka Sutta explains in a more expanded form:

1. 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.

2. 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.

These verses are from the “Chapter on the Pairs” (Yamakavagga) which explores these two modes of thinking, or being.

This derivation, rather than the Dvedhavitakka Sutta origin, may be supported by the fact that “What you think, you become” is often seen in another form: “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.” The connection may not be obvious, but sometimes those Dhammapada verses have been translated to include “our life is the creation of our mind” rather than “our mind is the creation of our thoughts.” And it’s not a great leap from “our life is the creation of our mind” to “the mind is everything.” So that may be the origin of this suspect quote.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada in fact begins, “Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.” This is not at all far from “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.”

And that fuller version of the quote is very old indeed. I’ve found it in a 1897 book, In Tune with the Infinite, by Ralph Waldo Trine. Trine used “The mind is everything; What you think, you become” in several of his books, but I haven’t been able to establish where he got it from. I’ll keep looking.

These two Dhammapada verses are often rendered in a very different way from how they were intended, along the lines of “The world is the creation of your mind” — but that’s for another fake Buddha Quote post.

PS A close match is from a non-Buddhist source: ‘You are what you think’ (from the 11th verse of Chapter 1 of the ‘Ashtavakra Gita’ – Marshall’s translation, 2005).

Also, Easwaran’s translation of Dhammapada verse 1 has “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” However, the first line of Dhammapada 1 is Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.

I would translate this as “All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (Manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā).”

I don’t see anything in there that corresponds to “we become what we think.”

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21 thoughts on ““The mind is everything. What you think, you become.””

  1. Thanks for this article; it was informative.

    I think that the idea that “the mind is everything” is often used as a defense mechanism, since it allows one to deny any aspect of reality which is anxiety-provoking or causes stress.

    I try to maintain equanimity even when aspects of reality are anxiety-provoking, although it is easier said than done. I’m still not convinced that training the mind in this way is the path to the cessation of suffering; it seems to make logical sense, but in practice, it seems like some aspects of mind are hard-wired, and cannot be trained.

  2. Lecture by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

    Did he gave the words of Buddha a spin?

    The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha, Vol 1
    Talks given from 21/06/79 am to 30/04/80 am
    The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha, Vol 1
    Chapter #1
    Chapter title: We are what we think
    21 June 1979 am in Buddha Hall

    WE ARE WHAT WE THINK.
    ALL THAT WE ARE ARISES WITH OUR THOUGHTS.
    WITH OUR THOUGHTS WE MAKE THE WORLD.
    SPEAK OR ACT WITH AN IMPURE MIND
    AND TROUBLE WILL FOLLOW YOU
    AS THE WHEEL FOLLOWS THE OX THAT DRAWS THE CART.
    WE ARE WHAT WE THINK.
    ALL THAT WE ARE ARISES WITH OUR THOUGHTS.
    WITH OUR THOUGHTS WE MAKE THE WORLD.
    SPEAK OR ACT WITH A PURE MIND
    AND HAPPINESS WILL FOLLOW YOU
    AS YOUR SHADOW, UNSHAKABLE.
    “LOOK HOW HE ABUSED ME AND BEAT ME,
    HOW HE THREW ME DOWN AND ROBBED ME.”
    LIVE WITH SUCH THOUGHTS AND YOU LIVE IN HATE.
    “LOOK HOW HE ABUSED ME AND BEAT ME,
    HOW HE THREW ME DOWN AND ROBBED ME.”
    ABANDON SUCH THOUGHTS, AND LIVE IN LOVE.
    IN THIS WORLD
    HATE NEVER YET DISPELLED HATE.
    ONLY LOVE DISPELS HATE.
    THIS IS THE LAW,
    ANCIENT AND INEXHAUSTIBLE.
    YOU TOO SHALL PASS AWAY.
    KNOWING THIS, HOW CAN YOU QUARREL?
    HOW EASILY THE WIND OVERTURNS A FRAIL TREE.

    Dhammapada Vol 1 Osho
    SEEK HAPPINESS IN THE SENSES,
    INDULGE IN FOOD AND SLEEP,
    AND YOU TOO WILL BE UPROOTED.
    THE WIND CANNOT OVERTURN A MOUNTAIN.
    TEMPTATION CANNOT TOUCH THE MAN
    WHO IS AWAKE, STRONG AND HUMBLE,
    WHO MASTERS HIMSELF AND MINDS THE LAW.
    IF A MAN’S THOUGHTS ARE MUDDY,
    IF HE IS RECKLESS AND FULL OF DECEIT,
    HOW CAN HE WEAR THE YELLOW ROBE?
    WHOEVER IS MASTER OF HIS OWN NATURE,
    BRIGHT, CLEAR AND TRUE,
    HE MAY INDEED WEAR THE YELLOW ROBE.

    1. Rajneesh/Osho did in fact mangle or even invent quite a few Buddha quotes — you can search for “Osho” on this site and find some examples — but in this case the translation was not his.

      In fact, technically it’s not a translation at all, but a “rendering” (the word used by the publisher). This version is from Thomas Byrom’s Dhammapada, which is almost certainly the most inaccurate one that’s ever been published. As far as I know, Byrom didn’t know any Pali, and relied on others’ translations and his own creative impulses to put together a highly poetic and beautiful Dhammapada that at times unfortunately has little relation to the original language

  3. Dear friend,
    As you must know, Buddha taught the hinayana (small vehicle), mahayana (great vehicle) and the Vajrayana (tantric buddhism). If you are a strict Hinayana you won’t believe in the Buddhism of Dalai Lama and the Mahayana Buddhism of Nargajuna, Bodhidharma and many others.
    In the Vajrayana and Mahayana it is that everything is the manifestation of our thoughts. So it is not a fake Buddha’s quotation. The only here who is misleading others and explaining wrong is you.

    If you really believe that you are lady Gaga you will be a pop star, with millions of fans and full of money (on your mind). Wether you will be considered as madman on the society is another thing. You are what you believe. Buddha stated that clearly in hundreds of occasion. Please, read the works of the yogachara and mind only school of the mahayana branch. You can read Asanga and Vasubhandu works. They are considered to be among the 6 main Mahayana masters. So, please, get more informed, open the mind and don’t keep Buddhism on the confines of Hinayana view. Buddhism has 3 branches at least, wether you believe it or not.

    Thank you
    Warm regards
    Lady Gaga

    1. This may come as an unwelcome shock, but the Buddha did not teach “Hinayana,” Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Although that’s the myth that’s found embedded in the teachings of the latter two yanas, the Buddha did not teach any “yana” at all: He taught simply “Buddhadharma,” without holding anything back (as he said in the Parinibbana sutta). The Mahayana and Vajrayana were later historical developments. There are plenty of sources of information on Buddhist history, and you might want to consult some of them rather than merely repeating what your own tradition says.

      “Hina” by the way, means “inferior” or “lowly,” rather than “small.” It’s a term of abuse devised by the Mahayana as a way of asserting their perceived superiority. In the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings on right speech, you might want to avoid using such a pejorative term.

  4. Again, you are misleading people. Buddha taught the Buddhadharma which by itself is a “yana”. And the first tantra was taught by Buddha himself in Amaravati and it is historically recorded on the sutras of the Tibetan canon. Whether you accept it or not is another thing. The Dalai Lama, the most influential Buddhist master of this time, has been in Amaravati giving the same teachings that were given by Buddha. And the Mahayana teachings of emptiness and bodhicitta were given by Buddha himself in the vulture peak in Rajgir and other places and it is recorded on the Mahayana sutra. There are plenty of sources of information on Buddhist history, and you might want to consult some of them rather than merely repeating what your own tradition says. Certainly the crooked history your are reading is from Hinayana source or skeptical western scholars who love to distort the history and talk about what they have no knowledge. The highest authority of the Vajrayana teachings is Dalai Lama and not those uninformed historians which many times are not even buddhist. Some of them would even say that Buddha did not exist. Mahayana and Vajrayana are teachings from the Buddha’s time. You should inform yourself.

    If the Buddha had taught only one “yana”, why the hinayanists or Theravada don’t accept the teachings of bodhicitta and the Vajrayana meditation as authentic teachings? Was Nagarjuna, Asanga, Dalai Lama all wrong and teaching something that is not Buddhism?

    If you want to say that those quotes are wrong, at least inform people that it is wrong accordingly with the Theravada tradition and not from the Mahayana and Vajrayana. If you don’t know you should not comment about and be misleading people.

    Hina can means inferior, lowly but it is best translated as “lesser” in the context. Small vehicle as a contrast to big vehicle is also a valid translation since it is called small because the Hinayana is a vehicle for self-liberation while the Mahayana talk about liberating all sentient being. How could be teachings that are just for one self-liberation be the buddhas teachings while the other who teach about liberate all beings be not the teachings of Buddha?

    A question, why in your tradition there is no vow of returning after enlightenment to continue to help sentient beings? Why just be in nirvana and forget to come to help the mother sentient beings?

    fakebuddhaquotesforthehinayana.com
    you should change the name of the link

    1. Oh, dear. You really do take a literalist view of Buddhist scripture, with no awareness of the historical evolution of the tradition. That’s rather sad.

      It’s also sad that you reflexly assume that someone who disagrees with your literalist and fundamentalist views must be a “Hinayanist” or a Theravadin. I do not in fact practice in the Theravadin tradition, and your question about “my tradition” is therefore moot.

  5. You have first to read the vajra, maha and hina full canon, interpret them and memorize then in full and then you can start to say that this or that quote is wrong. I had a short look on the quotes you say are fake. Maybe some kitschy translations there but I can’t say everything is fake, I have not read all the sutras and sastras so instead of spreading misunderstanding you could rather study the sutras.

    Another thing is that many times traslations are translated in a loose way with modern words sometimes. It is not that it is wrong but the translation is made in a modern way or in a certain context.
    Hinayana interprets the teachings of the Buddha in a literal way while Mahayana interprets the Buddha’s teachings accordingly with the meaning.

    I will bookmark your blog. I have some questions about the Hinayana tradition. If there are no yanas so there is no one who will get offended due the use of the word “Hinayana” 😛

    Best

    1. If you think some of the quotes I’ve said are fake are in fact canonical, then please point me to a source. I’m always open to changing my mind, because I have no desire to present inaccurate information. I count anything that’s in the any of the Buddhist scriptures as being authentic.

      When a translation is “loose,” I only count it as false when it is so far from the original that it conveys something very different. At least I think I do.

      You really should stop using the term “Hinayana.” What does it say about your practice that you continue to use a pejorative term after it’s been pointed out to you that it’s offensive?

    1. I’d disagree that the Buddha expressed this idea over and over. He did say that what we repeatedly dwell on becomes the tendency of the mind (in other words we develop mental habits through repetition), but that is very different from the very vague and ambiguous statement that we become what we think.

  6. Bodhipaksa, you are wrong. First, you study the teachings of the yogachara tradition then you can say that, specially on the internet. Misleading people on your wrong view. Look for the masters of mind only tradition in Japan and China, and specially Tibetan masters and they will tell you hundreds of quotes that buddha says, “EVERYTHING IS MIND” in the sense that reality is what you see, what you conceive.

    You are not even a Buddhist master, how can you be talking about what the buddha said or not with so much certainty?!

    You are just creating bad karma to yourself and teaching bullshit to others.

    1. The Buddha did not teach the Yogacara, therefore your argument doesn’t hold water. And do you really have to stoop to telling people what their karma is? You’re not a Buddha. And to throwing around insults like “bullshit”? Maybe you should spend more time learning about basic Buddhist ethics and a little less time on Vijñānavāda.

      Anyway, if everything is mind, then presumably you’re arguing with yourself. Perhaps you could find better things do do with your time 🙂

  7. Yes, what you are telling others is completely bullshit. You first read the Avatamsaka sutra, which is one of the bases of yogachara and mind only school. Who are you, stupid man who doesn’t know about Buddas teachings to say that the yogachara is not Buddha’s teachings? All Chinese and Japanese Buddhists they know it is from Buddha and you are the only stupid here without knowledge who is telling bullshit. You do not even know what you are saying.

    If people wish to understand
    All Buddhas of the three periods of time,
    They should contemplate the nature of the Dharma Realm:
    Everything is made from the Mind Alone.
    (that is from where the “mind only” school start, stupid, you dont know)

    It is from one of the sutras and always quoted by Tibetan masters as a reliable source. You are so dumb, man. If you have any sense of shame you would stop to spread lies about the buddhas teachings.

    All Tibetan masters would tell that it is from Buddha since Tibetan Buddhism is very much connected with yogachara and mind only school.

    If you say it is not Buddha’s teachings it just shows how bullshit is your knowledge about the tradition of Dalai Lama.

    I stop here…it is just that I can’t stand stupid people saying stupid things about the Buddhas teachings. If you don’t know, you should shut up.

    bye bye baby
    Hope you don’t reborn in avichi hell due belittle the buddha’s teachings.

  8. You are not sorry for the suffering of anyone, you are just lying again, stupid baby. your are a lier, fake and you dont know about buddhas teachings.
    your opinion about Buddhas teachings is completely BULSHIT.
    No one gives a shit to your opinion when you stupidly says that Mind Only school teachings are not from Buddha. The whole mahayana and vajrayana would be fake if mind only is not buddhas teachings. We have Bodhidharma, Dogen Zenji, Dalai Lama, Padmashambhava, VAsubhandu, Asanga, Shantideva and many others. And you are just a baby who doesnt know anything Dharma. Your opinion and wrong view is completely uselees in front of the holders of Buddha`s teachings. You are just a sick guy looking for attention in your websites spreading lies. What your are to say what is Buddhas teachings or not.

    I hope you manage to let go of clinging to the idea that the Buddha did not taught emptiness and Yogacara.

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