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


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 a 1981 book, The Handbook of Innovative Psychotherapies (page 480) in chapter 34, “Meditation,” by Roger N. Walsh. There it’s picked up a new last line, “For all beings are one.” Walsh, 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 1981 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.

40 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. Do have a primary source for that? I’m afraid that without a citation to a work written by the Imam, such a claim just muddies the water and isn’t very helpful. If you can offer a source and it checks out, I’ll be happy to update the article.

  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).

    1. “New Age” thinking is an evolution of “New Thought” in the US in the 19th century. And one of the streams that fed into New Thought was the Upanishads and the ideas they contained. The sources were both the Upanishads themselves, which were translated in the late 1800’s, and the visit of Swami Vivekananda to the US. So, yes, I’m sure that this quote reflects themes in the Upanishads, as you suggest.

  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.

    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.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me. Unfortunately the author probably didn’t do much research beyond a Google search for Buddha quotes. It’s rare to find someone who looks for primary sources for their quotes. Often they simply rely on internet quote sites.

    1. I’ve dealt with a variant of this here. I’m quite sure it’s no more a Chinese proverb than it is a quote from the Buddha. The formulation’s likely roots are in 19th century Christianity, although I haven’t yet found a definitive source.

    1. Is a post on Facebook your sole evidence for this claim, Tatiana? Unfortunately, Facebook is full of fake information. I’d really need a reference to a published book or talk where Sai Baba said this.

    1. The problem is that Eknath’s translation is terrible. That’s not what the first verse of the Dhammapada says. It doesn’t talk about life, and it doesn’t say we become what we think. I think I’ll do a post that’s about that translation of the verse. I’ve dealt with in in various comments, but I need to draw all that material together. Soon!

  8. I’m grateful for this topic and the series of exchanges. One of my “take aways”: take great care of what I ascribe to anyone.
    Yes, accuracy matters. Thank you for your clarity as I had just found that quote ascribed to the Dhammapada and came looking for which verse it was.
    The topic opens for me a wide range of questions and ideas about responsibility, interpretation, authenticity, insight…… and misunderstandings.
    My favorite translation of the Dhammapada is by Ven. Ananda Maitreya.
    Thanks for keeping watch.

    1. You’re welcome. My own favorite translation is Gil Fronsdal’s. In all the verses I’ve looked into he seems to be both accurate and readable. Ven. Buddharakkhita’s is another translation I rely on, although sometimes his interpretations veer in the direction of severity.

  9. Please attibute this to Zoroastrianism, it’s deeply hurtful to see this simple and beautiful teaching be attributed incorrectly.

    “These are the basic beliefs of Zoroastrianism:

    There is one God, called Ahura Mazda. He is the one Uncreated Creator. Zoroastrians worship only him.

    Ahura Mazda created everything. There is a conflict between order (which he created) and chaos (or disorder). Everything in the universe is part of this conflict, including humans.

    To help fight the chaos, people need to:

    Lead an active life;
    Do good deeds; and
    Have good words and good thoughts for others.”


    1. Hi, Ari.

      I can’t attribute this quote to “Zoroastrianism” as you requested. An attribution requires a reference to a specific text, which you haven’t provided. But if you can point me toward one I’ll happily edit the article.

      All the best,

  10. Thank you! This is very helpful. It’s important to me to give proper credit where credit is due.

    I’ll just say, “someone once said.” If pressed (although no one ever does) I’ll say the author is unknown. That anonymous guy DOES get too much credit. :-)

  11. I think this post is simply ‘mincing’ up words and is purely an academic argument that loses the essence of the teachings of Buddha.

    Although an exact quotation may not exist in the Pali canon a basic understanding of the second Noble Truth and paṭiccasamuppāda (dependent origin) would lead one into a similar conclusion as the quote in question.

    A problem I’ve always found with academics is the heavy focus on quarreling over nuances. It’s like a lawyer and a law professor. The professor endlessly debates and moots over the finer points of jurisprudence where as the lawyer cares very little for it and would rather go about actually practicing the law and putting it to good use in society.

    1. Hi, Alex.

      Thanks for sharing your prejudiced views about academics. (Incidentally, I’m not an academic, although I consider it an honorable profession and have friends in academia.)

      The purpose of this site is to take quotes that are attributed to the Buddha, and to determine whether those attributions are correct or not. In this case the answer is no, this is not a quote from the Buddha. It may have a resemblance to Buddhist teachings, but it’s not from the Buddhist scriptures and it’s untruthful to claim that the Buddha said it.

      Talking about practicing for the benefit of society, the Buddha emphasized truthfulness. Incorrect citations are untruthful. So that’s one place we can start. It’s a small matter, but as Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” (The Buddha put it more dramatically in Itivuttika 1.25: “There is no evil that cannot be done by a person who deliberately lies.”

      All the best,

  12. Bravo Bodhipaksa, 8 years of work in this thread! This quote used to be in the toilets at evolution in Bristol, it meant a lot to me at the time and although I doubted it was the Buddha who said it, i found it reflected in the Dhammapada in a much clearer way. Anyway, Thankyou for all the hard work!

  13. Great to found this topic!
    Correct me if i wrong. “Manifest” made me think about “thought” is the result of “word”, so I think the quote should be “The thought BECOMES the word” rather than “The thought MANIFESTS the word”

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by saying that the quote should be worded differently. The quote is the quote. If you want to say something else, that’s fine, but that would be something you said, and it would not be the quote.

      “Manifest” means “appear.” So the thought takes appearance as the word, and the word takes appearance as the deed. That all seems perfectly fine as a statement of what happens.

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