“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 isn’t 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 Enlightenment, 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.”

18 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. Whether this exact quote is from him or not is irrelevant. The idea is what he expressed over and over in his teachings.

    1. I’d disagree that the Buddha expressed this idea over and over. If you believe that he taught this over and over again, you should have no difficulty with providing a reference.

      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.

  4. 1-If everything does not arise from mind so it arises from what?
    2-And even interdependence is not understood by the projection of individual mind?
    3-Why shit is delicious for mosquitos and disgusting for human beings? Are not all those projections or creations to different individual beings as process of mind only?
    Please, comment.
    Thank you

    1. 1. What does mind arise from? What does mind create the universe out of? Is it a sort of “In the beginning Mind created the heavens and the earth?” thing?
      2. I’ve no idea what your question means. Sorry!
      3. I believe mosquitoes eat blood, not shit, and I’ve no idea whether they have a sense of taste. But are you suggesting that mosquito minds create blood? If they create blood, then do they also create the rest of the bodies whose blood they feed on? Am I the creation of a mosquito? For that matter, did you create me? Did you write this post?

  5. Dear Bodhipaksa,

    Even during his lifetime, the Buddha was accused several times, some even tried to kill him. But whoever lives by/in Dhamma, will be protected by the Dhamma.

    I am extremely grateful to you for time and energy that you have put in sharing the original Dhamma . I am sincerely glad to see, that you are not only stand for the purity of the Buddha’s teaching bud you are a living example of it.

    Buddha said: “… be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.” (DN 16; Sister Vajira & Francis Story tr.)
    I see you’ve found this island. 🙂

    May you to be healthy, happy and free from dukkhā!

    Ṭhitañāṇo Bhikkhu

    1. Thank you, Bhante. I’m not sure how good an example of Dharma practice I am, though. I can be a bit snippy in my responses here sometimes!

  6. I always had a feeling that there was something off with this quote. In fact it is probably the biggest reason why I never really took Buddha quotes seriously. I suffer from OCD so when a quote tells me that all my worst nightmares will come true and it’s all my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, I tend to steer away.

    How I see it is that thoughts are cheap. You can think whatever you want as much as you want, but without a real motive its just random repetitive static. It’s when you focus your awareness on what is truly important to you, that it can manifest. It’s really the intention that counts. Intention leads to meaningful action, or at least, meaningful thoughts.

    Cheers!

  7. “WE are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”
    From the Dhammapada, translation Thomas Byron

    The meaning is the same. The quote is not fake.

    A more important question for you to ask yourself it’s why do you feel the need to be judgemental, especially with things that are positive change and help people?

    1. Unfortunately Byrom’s translation of the opening verse of the Dhammapada is wrong. It’s the worst Dhammapada translation you could have possibly picked, and shows the pitfalls of trying to justify one misrepresentation of the Buddha’s teachings with another.

      An important question for you to ask yourself is why do you feel the need to be judgmental, especially when someone is presenting accurate information that can help people and prevent them falling into what the Buddha called “wrong view”?

      1. Friedrich Max Müller’s 19th century translation from Pali[1] has it as:

        “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”

        [1] archive.org/details/dhammapadacollection01ml/page/3/mode/1up

        1. Yes, it’s a very misleading translation. There’s nothing in the Pali about “all that we are.” The verses are about “dhammas” and although that word can mean many things (none of which is “all that we all”) in the context of these verses it’s clear that they refer to experiences of happiness or suffering.

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