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.

Byrom’s religious affiliations almost certainly colored his version of the Dhammapada. He was a follower of the nondual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and retired to an ashram in Florida, where he spent the last years of his life. Now of course a Hindu may faithfully translate a Buddhist text or a Buddhist a Hindu text, but in this case it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Byrom was moved to “Hinduize” this particular Buddhist teaching. The Advaita Vedanta classic known as the Ashtavakragita, a translation of which Byrom published toward the end of his life, includes the line “You are what you think” (1.11). And although theDhammapada doesn’t say that the world is created by our thoughts (or mind), the Ashtavakragita comes close to doing so: “All creation, streaming out of the Self, / Is only the Self,” and “When the world arises in me, / It is just an illusion” (2.4; 2.9).

But didn’t the Buddha himself teach that the world is an illusion? I’m sure some Buddhists believe he did, and the existence of Hindu-Buddhist hybrid texts like Byrom’s Dhammapada is no doubt one reason why they do. But while the Buddha said that we have delusion, or moha, about the nature of the world, he did not say that the world was an illusion, or maya. Maya is an important term in Hinduism, and while it is also occasionally found in the Pali scriptures, it appears there only with more mundane meanings like “deceit,” “fraud,” “hypocrisy,” and so on. The Buddha didn’t deny the existence of the world, although he did point out that we make gross errors of interpretation regarding our experience of it—we see permanence where there is only change, consider sources of suffering to be sources of joy, and believe there is a separate and permanent self when in fact no such entity does or can exist.

Nor did the Buddha teach that we are what we think. “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness” (Dvedhavitakka SuttaMN 19) is superficially similar, but the context makes clear what is meant: that indulging in certain kinds of thought— such as sensuous ones—inclines the mind in a particular direction.

Byrom’s Dhammapada is delightfully lyrical, but it promotes notions that the Buddha would have regarded as “wrong view” (micchaditthi), and from wrong view follows suffering. For a translation more faithful to the Pali and just as beautiful, I’d suggest the version by Gil Fronsdal, who renders the first two verses of theDhammapada thus:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind, 
And happiness follows,
Like a never-departing shadow.

From a Buddhist perspective, thoughts constitute part of our actions, but only a part of them. If there was one thing that the Buddha believed creates us on a more profound level, it was our kamma, or intentional action. We are “heirs of our kamma,” “born of our kamma,” he said repeatedly. Aspiration without application is as ineffective, he pointed out elsewhere, as milking a cow’s horn or crushing gravel to make sesame oil. In the end, our actions may speak louder than our thoughts.

Temple
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