“Our life is the creation of our mind”

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.”

This one’s a translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada, or at least the first half of the first verse. It’s from the Juan Mascaró translation, published by Penguin, which happens to be the first translation I ever encountered. When I read this verse I realized that I was a Buddhist — although I have to say that I now think it’s a terrible translation.

As a minor point, the words “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” are not in the Pali. “Yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” would be acceptable translations for the terms “past,” “present,” and “future,” taken poetically. So I wouldn’t have ruled this out of the basis of that language alone. As I said those terms aren’t in the original, but you’d have to look at the original to know that.

But “our life is the creation of our mind” is very, very far from what’s in the original, which could be translated very literally as “All experiences (or mental states) are preceded by mind, they have mind as their master, they are produced by mind.” And it’s very far from being similar to anything the Buddha taught.

“Mental states” or “experiences” (dhamma could also be translated as “mental phenomena”) and “life” are very different things, and that’s a much deeper distortion of the text, and of the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha didn’t seem to hold any view that our life was the creation of our mind.

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Bodhipaksa

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4 thoughts on ““Our life is the creation of our mind”

  1. Pingback: The book that changed my life | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

  2. My background is in Bible translation and so I can deeply appreciate your concern for accuracy in translating sacred text.

    It sounds like Juan Mascaro was going for a ‘dynamic equivalent’ translation. While I can appreciate the strengths of dynamic equivalence for transmitting broad concepts to large and relatively uneducated audiences, I can’t help but “worry” about the dangers of presuppositions in words and phrases which are common in the given target audience.

    This is all to say, I surely appreciate your concern.

    That being said, I’m not sure I’m understanding how radically different the use of “life” in the above given context is different from “mental state”.

    I have zero knowledge of the original language of the Dhammapada so I’ll happily defer to your expertise on that front. I’m just not understanding how “Our life is the creation of our mind” would be a “fake” quote. I am getting the impression that it would be more accurately classified as “not-so-perfect-translation-of-a-real-quote” instead.

    But if I’m misunderstanding, please clarify. Thank you and namaste!

    • Hi, Craig.

      To me the term “life” is far too broad. An extreme interpretation of “life is the creation of our mind” would be that the external world (“life”) is nothing more than an illusory projection of our own consciousness. And in fact this solipsistic position is found in certain strands of Hinduism. For example, “For the enlightened, all that exists is nothing but the Self” (Īśã Upaniṣad).

      Our “experience” being the creation of the mind is much narrower. The Buddha, as I understand the teachings of the Pāli canon, never argued that the external world was illusory (māyā), but merely that our experience of it is simply distorted (vipallāsa).

      Since Mascaro was influenced by Hinduism, I think he was misinterpreting the text in line with his own religious beliefs.

      All the best,
      Bodhipakṣa

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