Filed in Theravada

“We are what we think.”

“I never said that!” —the BuddhaBodhipaksa

Article Preview

To access this entire article and all other member-supported
content, join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

There are several kinds of Fake Buddha Quotes. Some are sayings that have been ascribed to the Buddha, often accidentally, although they are actually the words of modern Buddhist authors. Others are anonymous quotations, or quotations from sources relatively unknown, that someone, somewhere, decided would carry more heft with “The Buddha” as a byline. And then there are actual verses from the scriptures translated in such a way that either the essential meaning has been lost or new meanings have been added. This last category is well represented by the words “We are what we think. / All that we are arises with our thoughts. / With our thoughts we make the world.” You may well recognize these words as the opening of the Dhammapada, and some readers may wonder what could possibly be wrong with them. Isn’t this what the Buddha taught? Didn’t the Buddha say that the world is an illusion, that we become what we think? Let’s step back a bit and look at what the opening line of the Dhammapada actually says. The Pali text reads: Manopubbangama dhamma manosettha manomaya. I’d translate this as follows: “Mental states (dhamma) are preceded by mind (manopubbangama), have mind as their master (manosettha), are created by mind (manomaya).” The first two verses of the Dhammapada, both of which begin with the words Manopubbangama dhamma manosettha manomaya, state that suffering and joy inevitably arise from an impure or pure mind, respectively. Although mano can mean both “thought” and “mind,” you’ll note that there’s no mention in the Pali of “the world,” and therefore no suggestion that the world is created by our thoughts. The essential message of the two verses is that the ethical quality of the mind determines whether or not we suffer, so the Buddha was making a psychological point, not an ontological one. Our suspect quotation is from a much-loved version of the Dhammapada by Thomas Byrom. Byrom was an Englishman who taught history and literature at Harvard and Oxford, but nothing in the biographical notes supplied by publishers suggests that he ever taught or studied Pali, which may explain the poetic but very nonliteral nature of his translation.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Become a Supporting Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Supporting Member

Become a Sustaining Member

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Sustaining Member