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.