“What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”

What you are is what you have been

This quote is often cited as being from the Buddha, and is found in several books:

What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.

The first instance I know of (thanks to a helpful reader) is in Sogyal Rinpoche’s “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” which was published in 1992. I’m not sure where Sogyal got it from, but it’s simply not the kind of thing that the Buddha said and it doesn’t come from the Buddhist scriptures. I suspect that Sogyal was simply paraphrasing the Buddhist teaching of karma and that he (or his editor) chose to present his paraphrase as a quote.

The quote is also internally inconsistent and incoherent. For consistency it should really say “What you are is what you have done. What you will be is what you do now.” The theme would then be that our actions shape who we are, which is a thoroughly Buddhist notion. Instead the first part of the quote is saying, in effect, what you were is what you are, which implies that you haven’t changed. The logical inference regarding the future would therefore be “what you are now is what you will be in the future.” That’s why I describe the quote as incoherent.

In fact, there are a couple of instances of the quote in the “what you have done” form, but the vast majority are “what you have been.”

The Buddha did stress that we create ourselves through our actions. He even, in an oft-repeated statement, metaphorically suggested that our actions give birth to who we are: “I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.”

He also, however, flatly contradicted that our entire experience is defined by our past:

So any brahmans & contemplatives who are of the doctrine & view that whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before — slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world. Therefore I say that those brahmans & contemplatives are wrong.

The point is that our present moment represents the confluence of what we have created in the past, with our present actions. To suggest that we are entirely “what we have done” is to ignore the possibility of our choosing, right now, how to relate to experiences that arise from the past.

8 thoughts on ““What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.””

  1. This quote sounds a lot like Jiddu Krishnamurti !

    From his book “The Future is Now”

    >>>The past shapes the present. The past is operating now, and the future is shaped by the present – modified. Circumstances change, certain incidents happen, so the past is modified, changed, altered, and the future is what happens now. All time – the past, the present and the future – is contained in the now. This applies to life; it is not just a theory. You were something yesterday; an incident takes place today that changes, modifies, slightly alters the past, and the future is what you are now, modified. That is, the past, the present and the future are now; tomorrow is now. If there is no mutation now, you’ll be exactly the same as you’ve been before. I think I am a Hindu, with all the circus romp behind it, and I’ll be a Hindu tomorrow. That is logical. Therefore what you do now matters much more than what you will do tomorrow. So, what are you going to do if tomorrow is now? That is a fact; it is not my theory or your theory, it’s a fact. I am greedy now, and if I don’t do anything about it now, I’ll be greedy tomorrow. Can you stop being greedy today? Will you? No, of course not. So you will be what you have been. This has been the pattern of humanity for millions of years.<<<

    1. True. And he in turn sounds a lot like T. S. Eliot 🙂

      Time present and time past
      Are both perhaps present in time future,
      And time future contained in time past.
      (Burnt Norton)

  2. This quote is from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” on page 97 of the 2002 edition. He is quoting Buddha.

    He also follows with a quote from Padmasambhava which states similarly, “If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition; if you want to know your future life, look into your present actions.”

    Please do your research before making such a bold statement.

    1. Thanks for this. Google Books now shows the content of this book and I can confirm that the quote is in that book.

      The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published in 1992. It may be that he got it from another book, although I think it’s more likely that he was simply paraphrasing the Buddhist principle of karma, and that he (or his editor) chose to present it as a quote. It’s certainly not from the Buddhist scriptures. Even Tibetan masters are susceptible to passing on spurious quotes 🙂

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