All That We Are

Are you the product of your own thoughts?

The Dhammapada, traditionally ascribed to the Buddha himself, remains one of the most cherished texts of Buddhism today. Although it is believed that the Buddha spoke the Magadhi Prakrit language, the oldest copies of the Dhammapada survive in Pāli and Sanskrit.

I read the first verse of the Dhammapada about five years ago, and have often found myself contemplating its fascinating proposition. As with my encounters with most ancient documents, not being able to speak the language of the text presents many challenges, but I have included several translations of the same verse below to provide a broadened sense of its meaning (and to highlight the variety of ways translators have tried to render its meaning in English):

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. (Muller)

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. (Byrom)

All experience is preceded by mind,
Let by mind, made by mind. (Fronsdal)

Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind. (Maitreya)

Fore-run by mind are mental states,
ruled by mind, made of mind. (Roebuck)

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. (Buddharakkhita)

Preceded by mind are phenomena,
led by mind, formed by mind. (Wallis)

Some people stop here to declare that neuroscience affirms this proposition (i.e. that our conscious experience is only an internal representation of the “real world” beyond us). This interpretation might be summarized in the classic statement by Douglas Adams: “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe is specific to you” (Adams, 1992).

While this perspective does indeed offer a dazzling array of creative opportunities — “Everything you can imagine is real” is an unsourced quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso — this is not the precept of this verse, evidenced by the following verses immediate concern with ethical and moral behavior. This passage speaks to human choice rather than human cognition. In other words: what we feed our mind determines who we become. As Gandhi echoed: “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes” (Gandhi, 1922).

In the moral sense, the full weight of this passage bears its meaning as the following verses juxtapose a “corrupt mind” with a “clear mind,” declaring that the kind of “mind” we nurture will determine the kind of people we become.

It is in this sense that what we think is truly what we will become.

Who you will be tomorrow is intractably connected to what you choose to think about today.

Few propositions are as sobering and as liberating as this.

Sources listed in order of reference:
The Sacred Books of the East. Volume 10. Part 1: The Dhammapada, ed. trans. Friedrich Max Muller (Elibron Classics, 2005), p. 3
The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, Thomas Byrom (New York: Random House, Vintage eBooks, 2012)
The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic, trans. Gil Fronsdal (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2005), p. 1
The Dhammapada, trans. Ananda Maitreya (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1995), p. 1
The Dhammapada, trans. Valerie J. Roebuck (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2010), p. 3
The Dhammapada: the Buddha’s path of wisdom, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2003), p. 21
The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way, trans. Glenn Wallis (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 3
Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless (New York: Ballantine, 1992), ch. 9, cited in Alexandra George, Constructing Intellectual Property (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 10
Mahatma Gandhi, Ethical Religion, (Madras: S. Ganesan, 1922), Chapter 6, p. 61

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