James Allen wrote a very theosophical book called "As A Man Thinketh" that is a life changing tome.  We will take up some of the passages from the chapter called "Thought and Character" for the next two weeks.

The question he is addressing and the one we want to think about in this Art of Living Group is, "What is the relationship between thought and character?"

Here is the first passage to  consider:

THE aphorism, "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he," not only embraces the whole of a man’s being, but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life. A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.

As the plant springs from, and could not be without, the seed, so every act of a man springs from the hidden seeds of thought, and could not have appeared without them. This applies equally to those acts called "spontaneous" and "unpremeditated" as to those, which are deliberately executed.

Act is the blossom of thought, and joy and suffering are its fruits; thus does a man garner in the sweet and bitter fruitage of his own husbandry.

"Thought in the mind hath made us, What we are
By thought was wrought and built. If a man’s mind
Hath evil thoughts, pain comes on him as comes
The wheel the ox behind....

..If one endure
In purity of thought, joy follows him
As his own shadow—sure."

Man is a growth by law, and not a creation by artifice, and cause and effect is as absolute and undeviating in the hidden realm of thought as in the world of visible and material things. A noble and Godlike character is not a thing of favour or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking, the effect of long-cherished association with Godlike thoughts. An ignoble and bestial character, by the same process, is the result of the continued harbouring of grovelling thoughts.

Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armoury of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace. By the right choice and true application of thought, man ascends to the Divine Perfection; by the abuse and wrong application of thought, he descends below the level of the beast. Between these two extremes are all the grades of character, and man is their maker and master.

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To read the whole article or to read any other selections by James Allen here is a website that features all his work.  Maybe some students who know of him can chime in some details about his life and work.

http://james-allen.in1woord.nl/     =James Allen Free Library

This reminds me very much of the Twin Verses in the Dhammapada.

"The mind is the precursor of all propensities.  The mind is foremost; they are all mind-made.  If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him even as his never-departing shadow."

Thank you Nicholas, I have also seen it put this way:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.”- Guatama Buddha

For a long time in the western world the translations of the Dhammapada have been heavily influenced by Max Mullers translation in the 19th century. Muller says his own translation depended on a Latin version made by Victor Fausboll, in 1853. Apparently that was the first translation of the Dhammapada into a western language. Mullers first two verses are as follows:

1. 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 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.

2. 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 a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

A few years ago, when I was studying Santideva’s ‘The Boddhisattva’s Way of Life’ with a Gelugpa teacher the first two verses from the Dhammapada came up for discussion. I was surprised to hear that Muller’s translation was not considered to be an accurate reflection of the verses, and other translations were recommended in its place. One of those recommended was by the buddhist scholar and teacher Gil Fronsdal. The first two verses are translated as follows:

1. 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.

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

There are a number of other translations which are similar to Fronsdal’s.  See, for example, that by Acharya Buddharakkhita  (not the one on Amazon which is incorrect).  See http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/scrndhamma.pdf

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states.  Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

There’s an important difference in emphasis between Muller’s translation and the other two above.  Whether he meant it or not, Muller’s translation of the first verse led to a trend of thinking among some interpreters along the lines of ‘you are or become what you think.’   This certainly seems to be implied in the first sentence of his first verse.  

Fronsdal’s and Buddharakkita’s translations emphasise more the relationship between mind and karma.  Mind being the source of all karmic effects which never fail to return in like kind to the originator.  This was clearly the view of Buddhagosa - one of the most important commentators of Theravada Buddhism, who illustrates the meaning of this verse with a story of how one of the Buddha’s Arhats become blind due to actions committed in a previous life.

Like the Bhagavad Gita and other texts we study on TN, it’s worth becoming acquainted with a number of translations and coming to one’s own view as to which more accurately reflects the original teachings. 

Good points Peter. I've always taken the term "thought" with a very large grain of salt in those translations, understanding that there is a much deeper meaning than merely "human thought" as we are currently accustomed to. I tend to think Kaviratna's translation hits the nail on the head:

1. All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).
2. All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

This seems to go in-line with what you're expressing here. Mind as the source of all "phenomena of existence", or of all "mental states", and thus, of course, of karma (as pertains to cause-effect in the phenomenal world).

Peter, I thought your post on the different translations of the Dhammapada was excellent. It shows just how much we are at the mercy of the translator(s). Assuming that the Dhammapada accurately records the teachings of the Buddha, it is only rarely that we get in a translation what the Dhammapada says rather than what a given translator thinks it says. Many well-respected translators are against literal translations. Yet, the translation of the entire Buddhist canon from Sanskrit into Tibetan is repeatedly acclaimed as the most accurate transfer of spiritual or religious teachings ever made in known history. Their translations were strictly literal, even the translations of technical terms being fixed for them. The Tibetan public could not understand them then and cannot understand them now without special study. Their translations were not “dumbed down” for the public, as so many of our English translations are today, because that is what the public seems to want. It is the public who buys the books, and in that way pays for their publishing. They are published by for-profit publishers.

One of the few translators working today who follows the same literal type of translation as the Tibetans made is K. R. Norman, and for this he has frequently been criticized. His translation of the Dhammapada is called The Word of the Doctrine, and was published in 1997 by the non-profit Pali Text Society. This was after he and O. von Hinuber had prepared a new and improved edition of the Pali text of the Dhammapada, published by the Pali Text Society in 1994. His translation is not sold on Amazon, but must be ordered from Pariyatti, the U.S. distributor for the Pali Text Society.

The translation by Gil Fronsdal has been much praised by the public (see the many reviews on Amazon), no doubt at least partly because he says in his Preface that, “I have tried to be as literal as possible while keeping the text both readable and enjoyable.” He is also a respected Buddhist teacher and obviously a good-hearted person. The public, however, is not in a position to judge how literal or accurate his translation is. K. R. Norman is in a position to judge this. Norman has reviewed Fronsdal’s translation in an article published in the Journal of the Pali Text Society, vol. 30, 2009, titled “On Translating Literally.” I have made a photocopy of this article and scanned it and posted it here. As one will see from reading it, Fronsdal’s translation is not quite as literal as the public thinks it is, although it is still a very good translation. For example, Norman points out that at verse 392 Fronsdal says that sammāsambuddha means “fully self-awakened” and explains why the Buddha was self-awakened. But there is nothing in that compound corresponding to “self.”

K. R. Norman’s translation of the first two verses of the Dhammapada is:

“1. Mental phenomena are preceded by mind, have mind as their leader, are made of mind. If one acts or speaks with an evil mind, from that sorrow follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox.

“2. Mental phenomena are preceded by mind, have mind as their leader, are made of mind. If one acts and speaks with a pure mind, from that happiness follows him, like a shadow not going away.”

The Pali text can now easily be found online, and earlier it was included in translations such as that by S. Radhakrishnan, published in 1950. Both verses begin with the words, manopubbaṅgamā dhammā m . . . . We can now see that what Max Müller translated as “all that we are,” and Gil Fronsdal translated as “all experience,” and K. R. Norman translated as “mental phenomena,” is the now familiar word dhamma, or dharma in Sanskrit, in the plural. That is, the dharmas are preceded by mind (manas). The translations of dhamma by Acharya Buddharakkhita, “all mental states,” and by Harischandra Kaviratna, “all the phenomena of existence” are similar to Norman’s, “mental phenomena,” in that they are standard translations of the term dhamma commonly used by Pali translators. All four of these translators other than Norman, however, add the word “all,” which is not in the Pali.

The post by Peter clearly showed how much of an interpretation the early translation (or paraphrase) by Max Müller was, and the many later translations that follow him more or less. This illustrates how translations from that time period, the ones Blavatsky was obliged to quote in The Secret Doctrine, are too interpretive to be relied on in many cases. This makes her annotations unreliable in these cases, through no fault of her own. When the hoped-for day comes that the Book of Dzyan becomes available in a primary language, it will need to be annotated by the best translations there are. This does not mean the most readable, but instead means the most literally accurate. For the Dhammapada, I would choose the translation by K. R. Norman.


Thank you for this explanation, David. This is very helpful for those of us still struggling to grasp much of the Sanskrit and Pali terms. Seeing both "manas" and "dharmas" in the opening line certainly helps clear up some of the faulty translations.

Thanks, David - I've added K.R. Norman's translation to my reading list.  They have it on Scribd.  The article you attached made an interesting read.  It just highlighted for me the truth of what you said, that members of the public (like me) have no real way of judging how well a translation compares with or conveys the meaning of the original text.  Even the 'experts' appear to disagree on this as your attached article illustrates.  As a non-linguist the best resource open to me is to have a number of translations of the text in question and to keep an open mind as to how they should be understood. Where there is a commentary, that can be a helpful guide, but even these can be misleading.  Perhaps the more we study the background teachings of a particular tradition and become familiar with its key terminology, the more likely we are to spot a translation that has wondered too far away from the original.  But in itself this doesn't tell us which translation is the right one.

You've no doubt thought about this far more deeply that myself.  I'm not entirely clear as to what is meant by a literal translation and why this is necessarily the best  way to proceed with a text.  Isn't part of the problem that there isn't always literal word for word equivalence between one language and another, especially where spiritual terminology is concerned.  I can imagine how this might be less of a problem when translating from pali or sanskrit into the tibetan language, but be more difficult when translating from pali or sanskrit into english, where there isn't the same cultural or spiritual background.  Is it possible to render the meaning of a text in words that aren't a literal translation as well as lose the meaning of a text when seeking to keep to a literal translation of word for word?  These are just my novice questions.  I'd be interested in your thoughts if and when you have the time.

Your questions about translation, Peter, really hit the nail on the head. They are anything but novice questions. Yes, part of the problem is that there isn't always literal word for word equivalence between one language and another, especially where spiritual terminology is concerned. The Tibetans solved this by either choosing a word, however different its common meaning may then have been, or coining a new word, and sticking with this word from then on. That is, they adopted standardized translation terms for spiritual terminology. Thus, the Sanskrit word dharma was always translated as the Tibetan word chos. Tibetans did not have to try to figure out what it means that mind is preceded by “all that we are,” or by “all experience,” or by “mental phenomena,” or by “all mental states,” or by “all the phenomena of existence.” Throughout the whole range of Buddhist writings in Tibetan, dharma is always chos. It did not take long for Tibetans to learn this word in its Buddhist meaning. They did not have to face the confusion caused by varying translations of fundamental spiritual terms.

What this led to is something unprecedented in known history. It did not happen in the transmission of the Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures to China and their translation into Chinese. In Tibet, because of this full consistency of technical terms, a person like Tsongkhapa could accurately synthesize the often complex teachings of the Indian Buddhist texts. The Indian Buddhist texts were regarded as very sacred, as something that must be transmitted as faithfully as possible. That is why the Tibetan translators made literal translations rather than interpretive translations. So Tsongkhapa could draw upon a dozen Indian commentaries in Tibetan translation, and always know exactly what they were talking about. The technical terms remained the same throughout them. This made possible his extraordinary writings where he goes into great detail in weighing the various views of the different Indian commentators before arriving at what he thinks is the right meaning of a particular teaching of the Buddha. This was not possible in China with the Chinese translations, and it is not possible with our English translations so far.

When the standardization of the translations of technical terms was implemented in Tibet about twelve hundred years ago, under the order of the then king, the people complained that they could not understand the Buddhist texts. This remains largely true today. The Buddhist terminology must by learned, and it requires special study. Besides the standardized translations of Buddhist technical terms in the scriptures, the scriptures were also translated almost word by word. Each word used was accounted for, and the word order was kept the same, with the one exception that the verb had to go at the end in Tibetan. In this way, the translated scriptures that make up the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur are written largely in Sanskrit word order rather than in Tibetan word order. This made their comprehension even more difficult for Tibetans. This, too, had to be learned.

The whole idea was that the scriptures have deep meaning. They should be translated as literally as possible, in order to preserve this meaning as much as possible. Interpretation should come later. This is the task of the various Tibetan teachers of the various schools. It is they who re-phrase the texts in order to make them more comprehensible. It is they who feed the people. Interpretation is not the task of translators. Translators are transmitters. When the sacred words are transmitted accurately, through the standardized translation of technical terms, every Tibetan reader sees chos, not someone’s interpretation of dharma. Those who are content with interpretations then get them from the many teachers. Those who are not content with interpretations are free to access the scriptures directly, take up their study, and see where this leads them. This is not possible when the scriptures have already been interpreted in their translations. This is what we face with English translations today.

So, yes, it is quite possible to render the meaning of a text in words that aren't a literal translation. This is what good teachers do. And yes, it is quite possible to lose the meaning of a text when seeking to keep to a literal translation of word for word. This occurred in Tibet. But the meaning emerges through study, and seeing the same word in different contexts. It is then possible to arrive at a meaning closer to the original meaning, even if no such meaning is found in the target language. It is not possible if the word has already been interpreted for the reader, and interpreted in such varying ways that the reader cannot tell it is the same word in different translations.

David, that's very interesting and helpful.  Many thanks.  Would it be correct to surmise that such an equivalence built between the two languages - sanskrit and tibetan - at that time was due in large part due to the knowledge held by those carrying the buddhist teachings from India to Tibet?  It's hard to see how such accuracy with the technical terms could be achieved across two languages without it.   As I was thinking over this possibility I wondered what would be the result if two teachers from different traditions translated the same text into another language, using the method used by the Tibetans.  For example, what if Ramanjuja and Sankaracarya both translated the Bhagavad Gita into Tibetan (presuming the could both speak Tibetan fluently)?   Given that they differ in a good number of places as to the underlying meaning of the sanskrit terminology used in the Gita could they independently produce an identical literal translation into Tibetan?  Or, am I seeing difficulties where there are none of this kind with this particular method of translation?

Yes, Peter, the equivalences were developed by a small group of Indian Buddhist pandits working in Tibet, who knew the meaning of the Buddhist terms. In collaboration with the Tibetan translators, they chose what they considered to be the best equivalents. The then king of Tibet, who had convened this group, put his sanction on their choices, and everyone had to use these standardized translation equivalents from then on.

The example you raised, of whether a Sankaracarya and a Ramanuja would produce essentially the same translation of the Bhagavad-gita into Tibetan, even though differing widely on what this text means, is excellent. That is indeed what occurred among Buddhist translators holding different philosophical positions. Using the standardized translation terms, Sankaracarya and Ramanuja would have produced essentially the same translation of the Bhagavad-gita itself. Their respective interpretations would affect the translation comparatively little, because the technical terms were fixed. So the interpretation would come later. We have a number of examples of this, where two different translations of the same Sanskrit text into Tibetan were made. There are differences in these translations, but the differences are comparatively minor. The main things stay essentially the same, thanks to the main philosophical terms being the same in both.

Of all the beautiful truths pertaining to the soul which have been restored and brought to light in this age, none is more gladdening or fruitful of divine promise and confidence than this—that man is the master of thought, the moulder of character, and the maker and shaper of condition, environment, and destiny.

As a being of Power, Intelligence, and Love, and the lord of his own thoughts, man holds the key to every situation, and contains within himself that transforming and regenerative agency by which he may make himself what he wills.

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Permalink Reply by Don Petros on February 19, 2014 at 10:30am

TN, agreed, we're the masters of our thoughts, and such thoughts can be powerful and transformative. 

I think we can see also that one having such knowledge and associated power confers an equal level of responsibility.  (what's the saying -'with knowledge comes responsibility').  That same kind of knowledge potentially confers a great 'karmic script' with which to work with. 

I think we (I know I do), greatly underestimate this power of thought.  It must be at the heart of the creative power of life. 

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 19, 2014 at 1:15am


After meeting and speaking with Gerry this afternoon I was reminded of the movie, “What the Bleep”. 

The more I study this topic the more excited I get at the notion that we all have the power to create our own lives. Dr. Joseph Dispenza, D.C., a contributor to "What the Bleep", has a new DVD series.  His website informs us that the series are based on the theory that, “Your immortal brain looks at the ways in which the human brain can be used to create reality through the mastery of thought". It looks like a very interesting series.   

Has anyone read Dr. Emoto’s book, “Messages in Water”? He studies the effect our thoughts have on   water.  If we are to consider Dr. Emoto’s theory, then it seems only natural to adopt the notion that we are very much affected by our thoughts as we consist of up to 75% water.

The quote that caught my eye while reading the article by James Allen was, “Men do not attract that which they want, but that which they are”.

I believe an individual’s character can be improved by practicing self-awareness and by regular honest self-analysis. It is only by recognizing our negative thought patterns, irrational fears, prejudices and self-destructive behaviors that we can begin to make the changes we want to see.

I have always loved this quote by the author of the Tao Te Ching, “Those who know others are intelligent; those who know themselves are truly wise. Those who master others are strong; those who master themselves have true power. -Lao-Tzu

Ultimately our attitudes and thoughts are all we ever have control of anyway.

I think the relationship between an individual’s thoughts and an individual’s character is determined by the individual’s actions. The law of attraction applies here I think, a thought will manifest into action which in turn defines your character.  Maybe you can turn this around as well; an individual’s actions determine their character and influence their thoughts which in turn may cause further actions and impact an individual’s character.  And the hamster wheel goes round.  

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on February 19, 2014 at 11:14am

Shari, I have always resonated with Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings.  I guess being from New England I have the transcendentalist itch.  His essay on Self-Reliance came to mind when reading your post. "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string."  The divine power within us has transformative power.  This is what I get from Emerson and I believe Theosophy provides a metaphysical understructure for this innate power within us. And the path laid out in the Voice of the Silence provides the steps.

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 19, 2014 at 3:35pm

Hi Grace!  I also enjoy Emerson.  I included the following quote in my daughter's senior year book. 

"What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us".  I particularly love that quote as it has deeper meaning for me now than when I originally found it in my inbox of daily meditations years ago.  It's a catchy reminder that says so much more to me now as I am older. He found a brilliant way to frame his thoughts so the reader can clearly understand his revelations but left room for contemplation to discover other potential insights.  I haven't read Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance, I'll have to look it up, thank you.  I am new to the forum and theosophy and am a sponge for new ideas and reading material.

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on February 19, 2014 at 4:43pm

Two of my favorites of his are The Over-Soul and Self-Reliance. (For me they are all great.)  They are both written in poetical prose you might say.  But I cannot recommend them enough.  HPB praises Emerson's Over-Soul in the Secret Doctrine.   Self-Reliance is all about the power of turning inwards and trying to find and trust what is divine within us.  Of course this is the time old path spoken of in theosophy.  The spiritual path if you will.  Both essays can be found here on the Universal Theosophy site:http://www.universaltheosophy.com/theosophy/starter-books/     scroll down to the bottom.

Both essays have a lot to say about thought and its relation to character.

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 20, 2014 at 5:21pm

Thanks for the link Grace. Much appreciated!


Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 19, 2014 at 4:46pm

"What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us".

Shari, what is the connection to you, or what insight do you gain. lets say, about the relationship between thought and character that you see in this wonderful quotation you are sharing?

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 20, 2014 at 6:38pm

Gerry,  I relate Emerson's quote to thoughts and character in this way:  

The thoughts (attachments) we have to our past or our futures are often irrelevant (tiny matters) as they don't exist anymore or haven't happened yet.  The really big important work to be done, to look forward to, to be excited about could be happening every moment on the inside. .. to turn or not to turn attention from outsides one's self inward will no doubt affect one's character.  The ability or inability to look inward (self observation) I think is key to character, good or bad.  What do you think. 

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 20, 2014 at 7:03pm

Gerry, When I originally read this quote from Emerson I thought it was perfect to use for a farewell send off to my child. I thought this quote would back up my letter to her as I had written her of how proud I was that she had grown up to become such a wonderful young woman.  I also wanted her to remember who she was and her convictions while going off to college.

Now as I have grown older, I see this quote is so much deeper and much can be gleaned from some contemplation.  Thank you for suggesting I get clearer.  It is more difficult to explain my connection than to just feel a connection. I think I'm gonna love this website. Thank you for putting it together!

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 21, 2014 at 11:13am

I think it shows good character to look for the good in each other.  In theosophy we have the idea that we don't really have a soul but rather we are a soul, a self-conscious being that uses bodies as clothing from life to life. So we try to see each other as souls and not merely as the clothing of life that is visible to us.  This is really hard and takes effort.  Our children are souls and it takes a real effort to stop seeing them as children and accept them as our equals as adults.  At least that has been a challenge for this student.

All great utterances grow and deepen in their meaning to us as we dwell on them.  This is what I love about Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman.  I keep coming back to them and still new meanings and inspiration is waiting in store. I have noticed others in the group feel this same way about the Transcendentalists.  I think this is also true of this fellow James Allen that we are studying here.

I have given his little book, "As a Man Thinketh" to my children and graduating nieces and nephews as a sneeky way of getting theosophical ideas before them for their consideration.

Permalink Reply by Don Petros on February 19, 2014 at 1:21pm

"What is the relationship between thought and character?"

Gerry, I think that if we define 'character' as something related to our ego - something transitory, then perhaps we can say that our thoughts (which also seem somewhat transitory) are mainly responsible for building this thing called 'our character'. 

But if we define 'character' as being that unique something about 'ourselves' that transcends the ego and which is timeless ('swabhava'), then I think that our thoughts would be an expression or reflection of character (swabhava). 




Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 20, 2014 at 4:34pm

Nicholas is recommending this site to fine James Allen writings.


Give it a look see.  Also Nicholas has a forum going on James Allen writings too.  So check that out as well.

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Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on February 20, 2014 at 4:41pm

From the article

Only by much searching and mining, are gold and diamonds obtained, and man can find every truth connected with his being, if he will dig deep into the mine of his soul; and that he is the maker of his character, the moulder of his life, and the builder of his destiny, he may unerringly prove, if he will watch, control, and alter his thoughts, tracing their effects upon himself, upon others, and upon his life and circumstances, linking cause and effect by patient practice and investigation, and utilizing his every experience, even to the most trivial, everyday occurrence, as a means of obtaining that knowledge of himself which is Understanding, Wisdom, Power. In this direction, as in no other, is the law absolute that "He that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened;" for only by patience, practice, and ceaseless importunity can a man enter the Door of the Temple of Knowledge.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 21, 2014 at 11:05am

How might we define the idea of character?

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 21, 2014 at 8:44pm

I think "character" is an adjective that people use to describe one another based on their own beliefs and judgments and the general acceptances or nonacceptance of behavior or traits a person may exhibit in the physical world.  I don't think the word or idea of character accurately describes the substance or essence of an individual as most of us use the term. This afternoon I was reading, "The Real H.P. Blavatsky", many judged her character as being of good or bad.  Although there were many opinions there could be no authority.  In my opinion the idea of character may be used as a tool that others may measure themselves, as long as personal salvation and self preservation is what an individual aspires to. 

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 22, 2014 at 6:55am

Shari - yes, the notion of what is a good or bad character is often made a matter of judgement by others.  During the great wars Pacifists were generally regarded as morally weak in character.   Yet, we can also see the desire to live up to a way of live based on non-killing as a moral strength - real character in the face of the many who held a different view and who would punish or even shoot that pacifist for cowardice.

To answer Gerry's question:  by 'character' we normally mean a set of personality traits that distinguish one person from another - hence we have different 'characters' in a story or drama that we can tell apart.   We may only be able to tell identical twins apart by their character.   We even ascribe character to our pets and other animals! 

We determine characters to be strong or week depending on how well they remain consistent in the face of adversity.  We determine them 'moral' or 'immoral' in relation to how well they live up to the general values with regards to good and bad, right and wrong, held in our society or culture.

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 22, 2014 at 7:58am

Peter- great observations which made me take a different look at the question...Doesn't the idea of character relate to the lower personality and not the higher mana. Characteristics or the character of an individual describe him or even an inanimate object here in the physical world.  But maybe i'm missing the benefit to ones self regarding character.  Although ones character can be used as a guide for others to describe someone's constitution, convictions and behavior here in the flesh, could (good) character also be something of a tool for an individual to strive for to negate or re-balance negative Karmic repercussions?  A tool for one to look inward and work towards if one chooses?  Very good question to contemplate Gerry!

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 22, 2014 at 1:09pm

Shari - I guess it all depends on our definition of the term "character".  Normally it does relate to prominent personality traits.  Perhaps one question might be, 'to what extent these can reflect something of the Individuality (the Higher Triad)?'   So, to develop 'good' character traits would seem to be a useful tool, just as you say.    

Interestingly, there are good and ethical people in the world who do not believe in 'soul' or a spiritual dimension to life at all - believing rather 'that when you die you die'.  It's quite a materialistic view in its own way, yet, that doesn't prevent them from acting morally or in a humanitarian fashion towards other beings. 

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 22, 2014 at 2:07pm

We can talk about character as the entire make up of the individual, strengths and weaknesses combined.  And we can talk about character as being the sum of virtues an individual has at his or her command (patience, courage etc.).   We need to look for the context.

These subjects lead us to an investigation of the subject of the sevenfold constitution of man that we are taught in theosophy.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 22, 2014 at 1:46pm

For the purposes of James Allen's article the term character is used in a particular way, I believe.  I don't think he is using it to describe the traits of a personality.  I think he is using the word character here to indicate moral rectitude, virtues and strength.We hear people talking about individuals they admire for their stand on principle for example as people of character.  It is in this sense that we use the term here I believe.

"6. moral excellence and firmness"  -Websters

"Mental and moral constitution, good repute."  OED

This is the particular sense in which he is using it.  What is the role of thought in the development of virtue?  This is another way to look at what he is discussing here.

We know in theosophy that the universe works from within without, from the metaphysical to the material.  It stands to reason that if we are to grow in our strengths of capacity it must start with our thoughts.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 23, 2014 at 5:59am

To be honest, loyal, devoted, morally upright, loving, caring of others etc etc : - these are all character or personality traits.  There’s nothing wrong in regarding them as personality traits. In terms of our recent study in The Key to Theosophy Study, these are just the kind of skandhas belonging to the personality that will follow the Ego into Devachan after death.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on February 23, 2014 at 1:08pm

Generally, we associate personality traits as something superficial, like I like green beans but not cabbage, or I would rather live in cold climate than in hot weather.  This brings up a good question about the origin of some of our personality traits.  Undoubtedly,  certain ones are from our past lives but is it possible some only last for one incarnation because they are influences of the stars at the time of our birth?   Are their different types skandhas and some stay with us for many lifetimes while the others leave after a short period? 

Because skandhas is a broad term;  maybe we separate traits and refer the ones from a deeper level, which make up our moral fiber, and called them character.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 23, 2014 at 2:52pm

Barbara, I think you are referring to personal tastes or preferences rather than traits.  Personality traits or character traits (they are the same thing) are distinguishing features of a person.   We normally recognise these as part of the 'essential' make up of a person which endures over quite a long period of time, such that when the person acts significantly differently to usual we find ourselves saying something like, "John doesn't seem like himself today" or, 'John is acting out of character.'  

When that kind of thing happens, from John's point of view he might also feel, "I just wasn't myself' or 'I don't know what came over me.'

So these traits are part of the skandhas  (i.e that part we call the mental formations or dispositions), as we refer to them from a theosophical perspective.  Some of these traits run quite deep like well worn grooves in the 'matter' that makes up our psyche and may well have continued from one lifetime to the next. They are not easily changed.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 22, 2014 at 5:51am

“A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”


Are we literally what we think, the complete sum of all our thoughts?  How does this fit in with what we have been studying recently in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna advises Arjuna to discriminate between his essential nature and vehicles through which the he acts, namely the intellect, the mind and the body?

How would Allen's statement fit in with the theosophical perspectives, that thoughts are ‘things’ that we have and not something that we are?

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 22, 2014 at 1:57pm

Yes, whatever capacities of strength of character, whatever virtues a person possesses, whatever nobility or power of purpose a human being can  muster is literally a result of thought. It is another way perhaps of pointing to the key idea in the Secret Doctrine of self-induced and self-devised efforts necessary for the monad to progress through evolution after a certain point.

This does not conflict, in my view, with Krishna's distinction between Kshetra and Kshetragna, the Perceiver and the vehicles.  Theosophically the Self stands outside the manifest world in a manner of speaking.  James Allen is simply making the theosophical point that to grow in any way we must engage manas, the mind and therefore thought.  We know from a deeper standpoint that even Manas is a vehicle but for the purposes of this discussion that might be getting way ahead of ourselves.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 23, 2014 at 5:33am

I think it's more basic than that, Gerry.  It's true that our thoughts and desires shape our lives and our experience.  Isn't it also important to recognise that we are not our thoughts and desires?  Hence the question with regards to the claim that "a man is literally what he thinks."  

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 23, 2014 at 3:17pm

It certainly indicates how powerful are our thoughts and attitudes in creating our experiences in life. I can't quite see how it shows that we literally are our thoughts.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 24, 2014 at 4:15am

That’s a really interesting way to look at it, Nicholas. Thanks. I also like how you draw attention to the different layers of thought within the Auric Egg.  Where I think we differ would be in the conclusions we draw from this.   For example, Man is a composite being, our physical body and astral double are part of that composite nature during the lifetime.  I would not draw from that that Man IS a physical body or an astral double.  The same would go for the elemental essences that make up a person’s psychic nature, thoughts and so on.  These are something we ‘have’ rather than something we are, in my view, though we certainly do become very attached and over identified with our thoughts and feelings.  

We may have “grovelling thoughts” or “godlike thoughts” to use Allen’s descriptions, but we are not “literally” our “grovelling thoughts” or even the noble ones.   We are certainly capable of thinking and of being thought producers, and great good or ill can come of that.  But even then we are more than just thinking beings.  For in those moments of silence when thoughts fall into abeyance we quite often feel we are more truly our real selves, connected to the whole of life, and not just the part of it defined by and thus limited by thought.

If we were literally our thoughts there would be little hope for change. It’s because we are not that we have the freedom to chose not to follow thoughts and desires or to be led on by them.  It is because we are not our thoughts that we can choose nobler thoughts to light the way and grander aspirations to follow.  It is this power to choose that Allen conveys so well and where I agree with him fully.  That said, it is not an easy road to travel as we all know only to well.

Permalink Reply by Shari Frieders on February 23, 2014 at 10:22pm

Perfect material for this topic Nicholas.  

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 24, 2014 at 10:20am

What is the kind of thought that brings real changes in our lives? Would mere cerebration get it done? (Repeating something over and over in one's mind.)  What does it mean to think things through?  What does it mean to be a thinker?

Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on February 24, 2014 at 10:46am

In Emerson's essay "The American Scholar" he tries to elevate the concept of thinking by using the expression "Man Thinking".  I believe this is intended to elevate the activity to something much more profound and penetrating then what ordinarily passes for thinking.

"In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.

In this view of him, as Man Thinking, the theory of his office is contained. Him nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures; him the past instructs; him the future invites. Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student's behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? But the old oracle said, `All things have two handles: beware of the wrong one.' In life, too often, the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege. Let us see him in his school, and consider him in reference to the main influences he receives."

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 26, 2014 at 11:57am

Yes, good point.  Real thinking seems to have to do with getting to the heart of an issue, to the underlying principle, to what is essential.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 25, 2014 at 9:53am

I thought this was very helpful to our subject.  I copy it from Nicholas's forum discussion:

Nicholas commented on their blog post "Wisdom of James Allen" on Theosophy Nexus



Your own thoughts, desires, and aspirations comprise your world, and, to you, all that there is in the universe of beauty and joy and bliss, or of ugliness and sorrow and pain, is contained within yourself. 


By your own thoughts you make or mar your life, your world, your universe, As you build within by the power of thought, so will your outward life and circumstances shape themselves accordingly. 


Whatsoever you harbor in the inmost chambers of your heart will, sooner or later by the inevitable law of reaction, shape itself in your outward life. 


The soul that is impure, sordid and selfish, is gravitating with unerring precision toward misfortune and catastrophe; the soul that is pure, unselfish, and noble is gravitating with equal precision toward happiness and prosperity. 


Every soul attracts its own, and nothing can possibly come to it that does not belong to it. To realize this is to recognize the universality of Divine Law. 


From Poverty to Power

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 25, 2014 at 12:58pm

Yes, some of these are timeless, Gerry.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 26, 2014 at 11:32am

Rather than just affirm it or deny it, can we explore this notion that we are, literally, our thoughts? 

What does that actually mean?  Am I all of my thoughts or just some of my thoughts? Are there some thoughts that are ‘me’, that are tied up with my sense of identity, while others thoughts just seem to exist in some way independently of me?

If I am, literally, my thoughts does that mean I am the mental shopping list I construct in my mind on the way into town and which I keep referring to as I go from store to store over the course of the morning?

Am I the desirous thought which arises in my mind as I pass the Apple Shop and notice the latest MacBook Pro which would very nicely replace my current laptop?  I notice the thougth/desire but feel no compulsion to act on it.  Should I be able to shrug it off so easily it if I am, literally, that thought?

Am I those thoughts that automatically respond to the environment around me, able to name all the objects and people I encounter? Am I the thought “car” or “bus” or “old lady”, “kind young woman” and so on?

I call to mind the idea of a triangle. I turn it upside down in my imagination; place a point in the middle, then colour it blue.  Am I the thought triangle?  I let it dissolve into space. Have I dissolved into space along with it?  It doesn’t seem so.

I’m reading Proclus, ‘The Elements’.  I wonder about the difference between his views and those of Plotinus on the nature of Soul.  Am I, literally, those philosophical ideas for as long as I think about them and play with them?   These ideas appear as objects to awareness.  They are not separate from awareness, but nor are they the awareness itself which is still present when I turn my attention away from those ideas to physical sensations instead.

Can I reject a desire or an angry thought if I am that desire, if I am, literally, that angry thought?  It seems that I can choose not to act on a thought or a desire.  It’s not always easy, for thoughts and desires appear to have an energy and life of their own and can be compelling.  

Maybe I am not all of my thoughts; just important thoughts, the core beliefs that I hold?  Yet these have changed over the years, just as this body has changed cell by cell.  The beliefs I held as a child have been replaced, often over and over again. Yet the sense of ‘I’, of being this particular point of awareness in the world remains unshaken.  

While even my core beliefs are not who I am, they are, literally, view points upon the world both outer and inner.  They are the lenses through which I view, understand and act in the world.  Distorted thoughts are, then, distorted vision which leads to action of like kind.  The nature of the thoughts and beliefs I ‘create’ or ‘hold’ shape my experience, my actions and the consequences which follow. But even so, it appears that none of this is the ‘I’, the awareness or presence in which this whole process arises and passes away.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 26, 2014 at 11:58am

There's a passage in The Key to Theosophy which may have some bearing on the above:

ENQUIRER. But what is the distinction between this “true individuality” and the “I” or “Ego” of which we are all conscious?

THEOSOPHIST. Before I can answer you, we must argue upon what you mean by “I” or “Ego.” We distinguish between the simple fact of self-consciousness, the simple feeling that “I am I,” and the complex thought that “I am Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Brown.” Believing as we do in a series of births for the same Ego, or re-incarnation, this distinction is the fundamental pivot of the whole idea. You see “Mr. Smith” really means a long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory, and forming what Mr. Smith calls “himself.” But none of these “experiences” are really the “I” or the Ego, nor do they give “Mr. Smith” the feeling that he is himself, for he forgets the greater part of his daily experiences, and they produce the feeling of Egoity in him only while they last. We Theosophists, therefore, distinguish between this bundle of “experiences,” which we call the false (because so finite and evanescent) personality, and that element in man to which the feeling of “I am I” is due. It is this “I am I” which we call the true individuality; and we say that this “Ego” or individuality plays, like an actor, many parts on the stage of life.   (p51)

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by barbaram on February 26, 2014 at 12:01pm

Thoughts are elementals;  they are living entities and reside in a reservoir within our aura.  They arise and disappear and reappear in different forms.  I assume they grow and become more refined just like the way we do .  Our lower vehicles are made up of elementals.  If we look at it from this angle, then we are our thoughts and we are shaped by them.  If we identify ourselves as Atma, then we are not our thoughts.  It is helpful if we name the parts of our constitution or principles we are addressing when we use the term "I".

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 26, 2014 at 12:14pm

Good point, Barbara.  For the sake of clarification - by the term 'I' in my post above, I refer to a point or field of awareness.  I was hoping more to describe the direct experience rather than explain with our theosophical terminology.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 27, 2014 at 8:37am

I'm sorry to have caused confusion, Nicholas.  By "in my post above" I was referring to the post beginning "Rather than just affirm or deny…"  See:  http://theosophynexus.com/group/the-art-of-living/forum/topics/thou...

All I was really saying to Barbara was that I was sharing thoughts on my experience 'as I find it' rather than seeking to explain it from a theoretical perspective, when we would need to more clearly define our terms, as Barbara rightly says.

I'd be very interested to hear you say more about the I-field and thoughts.  That sounds very interesting.  I'm not sure how it would fit for my experience, and i think I have said enough about that for the time being.  I did think about what more I could say that would convey the meaning in a clearer fashion, but was unsuccessful.  Maybe the right words will come in their own time.

I posted that passage from HPB right after my own because I felt it resonated with my own understanding and experience and better expressed what I was trying to say about the nature of 'I-am' as distinct from the process of 'I am this person, these thoughts, these feelings, this body etc etc.'

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 26, 2014 at 1:14pm

Barb, concerning elementals: Very much appreciate this comment for clarification.  I believe you have captured the spirit of what James Allen is trying to say.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 26, 2014 at 11:35pm

Very good points Peter. I think, as I think you mentioned earlier, we could reflect on the 13th and 14th chapters of the Gita, where Krishna first defines the difference between Kshetrajna and Kshetra, and then in the next chapter we have the all-important "separating", or rising above, the three qualities, or gunas. I think in those chapters we have a great basis for approaching the question of one's relation to "thought". When we speak of the gunas, we are, in my understanding, essentially speaking of the elementals, as "qualified" into three kingdoms, and which thereafter constitute the substantial aspect of human thought (elementals being the "vehicles of thought", so to speak). So thoughts are "things" (elementals) and we identify with those things, and we "become" in our lower personal self, a kind of composite of vehicles, elementals and identifications, but certainly it seems that Krishna is urging us to understand (and ultimately realize) that who we truly are is beyond the qualities and thus beyond "thought".

Buddha, when discussing the states of Jhana, takes us well beyond the realm or range of anything that could be called "thought" and yet even in those very high states (beyond both perception and non-perception, etc.) one still IS, and can even still be bound to samsara!

The Anupada Sutta lays out the eight (four rupa, four arupa) Jhanas or Dhyanas. And near the end of the Aneñja Sappaya Sutta he explains that even in the highest Jhana (the eighth) when one is beyond perception and non-perception, one may still be bound, unless one does not cling to that state in which case one can become "totally unbound". The arupa Jhanas are, to my understanding, beyond thought, being "buddhic", not "manasic" we might say. And yet the individuality is still there and can still be bound. I think that's an important point when approaching the idea of whether we "are our thoughts".

We could similarly, I think, use the Vedanta division of the three states (waking, dreaming, dreamlessness) and the fourth, turiya, as supporting the same essential ideas: there being states beyond "thought" in which the individuality still IS. Thus the individuality cannot be those thoughts.

There is no doubt some truth to the idea that the thoughts we have, and more particularly the thoughts we cling to, do indeed color who we will become (in our lower nature) in this and future lives, so that we are indeed creating our future personalities through our current thinking, but this is, as you've pointed out, quite different than saying that one literally is those thoughts.

Permalink Reply by Peter on February 27, 2014 at 10:33am

Jon, thanks your earlier post on the dhammapada and for your post above linking this theme to the different traditions.  

If we are talking metaphysics, then from a Theosophical perspective we should admit that everything, without exception, is THOUGHT given that the Universe is said to be a manifestation of the Divine Thought.  We speak about Universal Mind and the Sons of Universal Mind. These then would be individualised "Thought", which is how HPB refers to them in THE KEY, p183 (original edition).  

My own view is that there is a big step between this metaphysical level, the noumenon, and our psychological-phenomenal level of 'hateful thoughts' or 'happy thoughts' - and going on to say that we literally are our thoughts, whether it be a noble thought, a grovelling thought or the thought 'when is the next bus going to turn up?'

We can talk about all of this in general terms and theoretical terms and have it all make sense, one way or another.  My practical and specific concerns come from having worked in the field of mental health for over 25 years and a good number of years before that with people struggling with suicidal thoughts.  It rarely helps to tell a depressed person that you are what you think; just think happy thoughts and you will be happy.

Many of our difficulties arise not from the thoughts themselves but from our identification with them.  We find more space, more freedom within ourselves to respond to the demands of the world (inner and outer) as we become less attached, less identified with our thoughts and desires.   Then an opportunity opens up for us to choose and use our thoughts more wisely, more creatively for ends of our own choosing.  I think this is what Allen also points to.   

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 27, 2014 at 6:53pm

Thanks Peter. Well said. Your approach here is very practical and helpful.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 26, 2014 at 11:56am

Concerning the process of clear thinking, Plato offers up these sage suggestions:

"Every man should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of his first principles: are they or are they not rightly laid down? and when he has sifted them, all the rest will follow."

— Plato, Cratylus

Permalink Reply by Larry Leon Lynch on March 6, 2014 at 9:36am

Hello all, I'm new here…just another one of the many who has dropped into the conversation here on this site.  I offer a single sentence that I adopted many years ago that describes the process by which thoughts and feelings become manifest in our personal reality:  "Our thoughts and feelings are propelled by our choices and decisions, and are compelled by our attitudes and beliefs into manifestation upon the loom of desire, imagination, and expectancy."  So then, the raw materials - thoughts and feelings, choices and decisions, attitudes and beliefs - are fashioned into manifestation using the tools of desire, imagination and expectancy.  We can, as a practice, continuously sift and purify the raw materials and sharpen the tools to create happy destiny.  I don't recall the source of this quote as it came to me some thirty or so years ago during a time of inquiry into many different spiritual disciplines.  However, I have proven it's worth in daily living and am now experiencing some of the spiritual fruits of this practice;  Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, etc.  My very best regards to all…

Permalink Reply by Peter on March 7, 2014 at 7:55am

Thanks for manifesting some interesting thoughts in this forum, Larry, and a warm welcome to the group.

Permalink Reply by Larry Leon Lynch on March 7, 2014 at 8:16am

Thank you, Peter,

I'm already beginning to feel right at home.

Best regards,


Permalink Reply by Grace Cunningham on March 12, 2014 at 1:41pm

Larry your comments bring to mind the idea of impressing elementals with thought energy.