“Our life is the creation of our mind.”

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.”

This one’s a translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada, or at least the first half of the first verse. It’s from the Juan Mascaró translation, published by Penguin, which happens to be the first translation I ever encountered. When I read this verse I realized that I was a Buddhist — although I have to say that I now think it’s a terrible translation.

As a minor point, the words “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” are not in the Pali. “Yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” would be acceptable translations for the terms “past,” “present,” and “future,” taken poetically. So I wouldn’t have ruled this out of the basis of that language alone. As I said those terms aren’t in the original, but you’d have to look at the original to know that.

But “our life is the creation of our mind” is very, very far from what’s in the original, which could be translated very literally as “All experiences (or mental states) are preceded by mind, they have mind as their master, they are produced by mind.” And it’s very far from being similar to anything the Buddha taught.

“Mental states” or “experiences” (dhamma could also be translated as “mental phenomena”) and “life” are very different things, and that’s a much deeper distortion of the text, and of the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha didn’t seem to hold any view that our life was the creation of our mind.

To me the term “life” is far too broad. An extreme interpretation of “life is the creation of our mind” would be that the external world (“life”) is nothing more than an illusory projection of our own consciousness. And in fact this solipsistic position is found in certain strands of Hinduism. For example, “For the enlightened, all that exists is nothing but the Self” (Īśã Upaniṣad).

Our “experience” being the creation of the mind is much narrower. The Buddha, as I understand the teachings of the Pāli canon, never argued that the external world was illusory (māyā), but merely that our experience of it is simply distorted (vipallāsa).

Since Mascaro was influenced by Hinduism, I think he was misinterpreting the text in line with his own religious beliefs.

11 thoughts on ““Our life is the creation of our mind.””

  1. when we study abhidhamma in deep ,
    citta vithi; it says that all we hear, see,taste or feel (including thoughts-(arammana)) are the results of the old karma. only the javana are what we do now.and javana will cause to our karma for future.

    according to the old karma, mind makes our world as we see it now.

    things that we see/hear/feel/think can differ according to the karma of each person.

    all the worlds are mind created including heavens and hells.because mind create it.

    so our life is a creation of our mind

    1. That sounds a bit of a stretch, Waruna. If the Abhidhamma contradicts the suttas, as it does in this case, I’m going to stick with the suttas, which are far closer to the Buddha’s teaching. In any event, even some of the commentarial tradition appears to have taken the rather sensible view that kamma was only one of the forms of conditionality affecting us, and outlined five niyamas, of which kamma was but one.

      1. abhidhamma is a buddhas teaching which is not popular among most of the buddist. buddha taught the abhidhamma to gods in the heaven.
        it was 3 monts long sermon.
        so buddha choose the heaven to do the sermon rather than human world.(9 min in heaven)
        but when buddha came to have his meals to the himan world he taught the abhidhamma to sariputta thero in short.
        but due to his wiseness sariputta thero understood the abhidhamma and he taught it to his 500 fellow theros.
        so it is still buddhas teaching that explains the things clearly that sutta cannot explain clearly itself.

        when i started to learn abhidhamma i understood that it is the heart of buddisam.

        it clearly explain mind and nibbana.

        it will give you a precise idea about anichcha. or every thing is subjected to change fast , and the speed of that is unimaginable.

        further more please refer purana / nawa kamma sutta which will tell you more about kamma.

        so could you please have a draft look at abhidhamma which will help you a lot in the way of attain nibbana faster.

        1. I’m afraid I don’t believe for one moment that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma, Waruna. While some Abhidhamma analysis is interesting or useful, I prefer to focus on investigating the suttas, since this is the closest we’re going to get to how the Buddha expressed himself, and that in turn is the closest we’re going to get to how he saw things. And I believe it’s by understanding more closely how the Buddha saw things (and not necessarily how the monks who compiled the Abhidhamma saw things) that Awakening is most likely to arise.

  2. Why do you call this a “fake quote” rather than mis translated quote? It is affective in either case. It is a simple statement with a lot of punch. The original post and the replies are so academic and caught up in the ego of intelligence. Would the Budda sit around and discuss all the specifics, details and labels of his quote, or would he toss out a juicy koan and tell you to go back to your mat and meditate?

    1. Hi, John.

      I call it a fake quote rather than a misquote for the same reason I call a deliberate false statement a lie rather than saying that somebody “mis-spoke.” Because it’s more accurate.

      This quote is a deliberate misrepresentation of what the Buddha taught. The misrepresentation is motivated by the desire to make the Buddha appear to be a teacher of certain Hindu doctrines. Whether you personally find it “affective” (sic) or not isn’t relevant.

      As to your conjecture about how the Buddha would have responded to his words being distorted, Perhaps you’re unaware that being misquoted was something that really disturbed him. He tended to call people who misquoted him things like “foolish man” or “worthless man.” Being under the sway of false views is a major hindrance to spiritual progress and he would certainly have wanted his disciples to straighten out their thinking before going to meditate.

      1. I appreciate your thoughtful response. I am far from truly understanding the Buddha and his teachings so it probably isn’t my place to have questioned your statement. I’m sure the Buddha was a much more serious about his teachings than I might imagine. So many of the representations of him and his teachings attempt to make him seem whimsical, which is probably not the case.

        1. Thank you for your generous response.

          It’s hard to say how whimsical or serious the Buddha was. Most of the time he comes across as deadly serious, but that may be the result of the emotional tone of his speech being flattened as his teachings were passed on orally for hundreds of years. And perhaps the people who passed on the teachings didn’t want him to seem unserious. There are times when he was being very satirical, and even funny. He did seem to enjoy poking fun at people’s pretensions.

  3. You wrote… “Our “experience” being the creation of the mind is much narrower. The Buddha, as I understand the teachings of the Pāli canon, never argued that the external world was illusory (māyā), but merely that our experience of it is simply distorted (vipallāsa).”

    This is how I understood the “fake” quote when I first read it. I didn’t take it literally to mean that all of our life is completely created by our mind, but that it is greatly influenced by our thoughts and perceptions. You mention that the Hindu belief is that all life is illusion and the Buddha only believed that our perception of life is distorted by our thoughts but not a complete illusion. Am I correct in gleaning that from your words? I have to admit that I get confused by the various teachings and do not have a clear understanding of buddhism.

    1. Hi, John.

      I’m no expert on Hinduism (or anything) but there is a Hindu belief that the external world is an illusion. For the Buddha, the most that could be said was that we mistake the nature of the external world (and our internal world, too). In other words there is something illusory about the way we perceive and understand things, but there’s no question of denying the reality of the world.

      1. That is how I understood it from what I have learned about Buddhism. I glean from the the fake quotes that very same thing. They actually help me to remember to control my thoughts and go back to a mindful state. I’ve seen many of the quotes on this site before and even though they are mis quotes or fake, I feel that they help many people like myself that are not well read on the buddha and have not studied his teachings in a scholarly way but only had the time and aptitude to review them as a layman. I hope that it is not only the scholars and monks of Buddha that can achieve enlightenment because I was a terrible student and a slow reader. If nothing else, I can say that the meditation and Buddhist teachings that I’ve read over the years have helped me a great deal and the popular mis quotes that I’ve seen, seem to go along with the fundamental ideas that he presented. Thanks for taking time to address my questions and comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.