“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. If man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that neverleaves him.”
It is now generally agreed that man is a member of the animal kingdom, and that like the other animals—to whom he is related—his existence has been brought about by the long processes of evolution. Like other animals man is born as a result of the mating process, he needs food, drink and rest in order to grow and remain healthy, he experiences pain, sickness, and ultimately death. Yet in one important respect man is different from the lower forms of life, for he alone of all the creatures of this planet has the power to think imaginatively, creatively and constructively. A man can think, and his thoughts make him what he is.
The ability to think, the power of thought, is man’s greatest gift. It is thought which moulds civilisation and which created many of the things we take for granted. As a tiny seed can produce a beautiful flower, as a small seed can produce a mighty tree, so can thought produce the most wonderful things. Every book ever written, every symphony ever composed, every temple ever built, every scientific discovery ever made, every religious or political system ever created began in the mind of a man as a thought. Religion, philosophy, art, science, politics, and all the things we mean by civilisation begin as a thought. And it was by his power of thought that Siddhattha Gotama became Buddha and gave his Dhamma to the world.
Among the religions of the world it is in Buddhism that the power of thought is given the strongest emphasis. The Dhammapada reminds us that “all that we are is the result of what we have thought,” and further reminds us that “the wise man shapes himself.” It is of the character-building power of thought in our own lives that I would have us give our main attention.
The creative or destructive power of thought—for it can indeed work both ways—is a great truth that has been known in the East for many centuries. It was the Teaching of the Lord Buddha. In the West we came to the knowledge rather late, but our psychologists now corroborate the ancient truth and tell us that many of our physical and mental ailments are due to our thoughts. So worry, for example, is one of the major causes of ulcers, while fear anger, hatred, and the constant dwelling on lewd thoughts, all take their toll. The same is true in the moral realm. Evil thoughts, constantly entertained, weaken the character and make one more susceptible to temptation. All evil words and deeds are preceded by evil thoughts, and evil thoughts allowed to remain unchanged will lead eventually to evil words and deeds.
Thoughts then can be either good or bad and can give rise to results that are either harmful or pleasant. It is claimed that some have gained such control over the mental processes that they can suspend thought all together, and for a long period keep their mind a perfect blank. Few of us are likely to achieve this. For most of us thoughts of one sort or another will always be milling around in our heads, and if they are not good thoughts they will inevitably be bad. Since noble and base thoughts cannot co-exist in the mind at the same time, one will always expel the other.
We are not to blame if evil thoughts occasionally enter our minds, but we are at fault if we give them a welcome and allow them to remain there unchecked. As the Eastern proverb has it: “We cannot prevent them from alighting on our heads, but we can prevent them from building their nests there.” A keen gardener will root out a weed as soon as it appears in his garden lest it should take hold and eventually destroy his good plants. We should act with the same urgency with evil thoughts, for they too will quickly take root and destroy the noblest flowerings of our minds. The surest way of keeping evil thoughts at bay is to discipline our minds to think constantly of that which is beautiful and true and good. When the mind is full of that which is good, the evil will seek for an entry in vain.
The Dhammapada warns the wise man to guard his thoughts, for they are, it says, “difficult to perceive, very artful, and they rush wherever they list. Thoughts well guarded bring happiness.” The Dhammapada further says:
“Let no man think lightly of evil, saying in his heart: ‘It will not come nigh unto me.’ Even by the falling of water drops, a water-pot is filled; the fool becomes full of evil, even if he gathers it little by little.
Let no man think lightly of good, saying in his heart: ‘It will not come nigh unto me.’ Even by the falling of water drops, a water-pot is filled; the wise man becomes full of good, even if he gathers it little by little.
Slowly, like a jar beneath a dripping cave, we accumulate vice or virtue. The choice is ours. The choice is important, for, “If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage … If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”
We are thinking beings, and out of our thoughts we can create wondrous things. But more important than any work of art, more important than any majestic building, more important than any feat of engineering is that of shaping our selves. And we can do just that as we direct our thoughts towards pure and noble ends, knowing that by our thoughts—which in turn govern our words and deeds—we are preparing for ourselves a harvest of joy or sorrow