Heart-mind or That’s Understandable

“Not maintaining written words, but pointing directly to the human heart-mind to see one’s own nature to become Buddha”. Bodhidharma

There is a lot of knowledge and there is a lot of emotion in the individual and in the world. Knowledge plays a role, emotion plays a role. But these are only superficial and generally manifestations of the ego. We can learn and analyze facts and theories but realize nothing from all that knowledge. We can be ignorantly smart. We can feel a lot of stuff but not understand emotion. We can be insensitively emotional.

The heart-mind from which both wisdom and compassion flow is that way of being beyond the relative.

I’ve come across the term heart-mind a lot in contemporary Buddhist expressions, in articles, websites and blogs. Quite a few teachers even use this term. Usually there are exhortations to the practitioner to unify the heart and mind.  It is called “a marriage of your heart and mind” , “bridging heart and mind” or “bringing together heart and mind”. This is not really possible. It is cobbling together two elements of personality that are rather shallow. And people waste a lot of time trying to do that.

The heart-mind is already present but not often manifest. It is Buddha nature. Wisdom and compassion are manifestations of that. One cannot develop it, unify it, bridge it, exercise it, force it, fake it. One can only uncover it.

Consider the statement by the Theravada nun Ayya Khema:

In Pali, heart and mind are one word (citta), but in English we have to differentiate between the two to make the meaning clear.

quoted in Mind and Mental Factors

It is unfortunate that English is such an object oriented (noun) language. In other languages emphasis is more often placed on verbs, movements, relationships and processes. That makes some kinds of experiences much more clear. This includes the experience of being. In English we feel at a loss unless we are being something or doing something. Always with the “thing” attached. Always with that separation from whatever else is involved. There is no concept of immersion which exists in other languages.

In the colloquial Hindi of my region, for example, there is no direct way to say “have”.  This is interesting in terms of stating states of being. For example to say “I have a cold”  or “I have a pain” in the way we say it in English,with the connotations of “to have” in a dualistic sense, [there is me, there is the pain] is not possible. One would say literally “I ill” or “I pain” or “I happy”. The illness/pain/happiness is the state of being for the person at that moment. The being, (meaning the experiencer) is undergoing the illness or the pain process, is immersed in that process, is that process being experienced.[There is a connection to certain aspects of Hindu world-view here which I’ll only mention but not go into.] There is no separation between the being and the process occurring to the being. Most people would not even say “I am ill” (literally I ill am) or “I am paining”. The verb “to be” is understood within the process that the being is undergoing, whether it be work, happiness, pain or any other experience.

The reason I bring up that little linguistic digression (and allusion to linguistic relativity and particularly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis BTW) is because the language we use to express both ourselves and our states of being can misconstrue some very important fundamentals. I think that is what is happening with the concept of heart-mind as it is used in English.

Citta (heart and mind) is not two things as we think of them in English. In an anecdotal example, more than a few times in a number of places in Asia I have noticed when people are asked for their opinion about something and they are considering it deeply there is a gesture towards the body somewhere near and slightly above the heart region.  Among many people of European origin the gesture in response to the same situation will be towards the head and will include rolling the eyes upward or scratching the head or putting the head on the hand (ala Rodin’s The Thinker). That has just been my observation over the years.

The heart or mind as an object has little movement, but understood as a process there is constant motion and change. Unification implies fixed objects. And building a bridge between fixed objects implies another fixed thing. This is not the case with either heart or mind or even ego. It is all false construction. So to endeavor to try to build these false constructions, join them with bridges, gangplanks, scaffolds or grappling hooks is to waste a lot of time in practice.

Setting these concepts up as objects leads to rigidification of thought, a lack of opportunity for insight and can lead to a stultified kind of fundamentalism with the concept as concrete and the processes to manipulate concepts mere robotic imitations. This is a kind of conceptual materialism is more of a trap as any other kind of physical materialism because it is much more difficult to break down solidified concepts than material objects. The latter only require a big hammer.

I am perturbed that a few big shot Zen teachers in the west continue to advocate this fixed sort of position. And to pass it on to their students.

Consider the sayings, stories and anecdotes by the ancestors.

“Show me your mind!”

“Dropping body and mind.”

If a Zen teacher doesn’t understand what those statement actually mean WTF are they teaching?

Telling people to unify their heart and mind, suggesting that there is even a thing such as heart or mind which can be identified, worked with as one would knead a ball of dough and placed as part of some unifying element of an enlightened wedding cake is to misunderstand the nature of not only the concepts but what they signify.

To rectify that I will propose an alternative.

Manifestation of Heart-Mind

When a friend says “My lover has cheated on me. I am upset.”

We say, “That’s understandable.”

When a parent says, “I want the best for my child.”

We say, “That’s understandable.”

When someone extends their hand to help when we’ve fallen we are grateful.

That’s understandable.

A co-worker says, “My partner made me this new scarf. Isn’t it great. It’s been made with love.”

That’s understandable.

Where is the “understandable” coming from? It isn’t an intellectual understanding we’ve learned in school nor is it a purely emotional gut reaction. We are thinking about the statement, interpreting it, feeling it, knowing it…experiencing it and then responding to it.  The place from which this immediate response comes is heart-mind. Before thought and feeling and attachment and identification with specifics.

We may have no experience with the particulars in any situation but we all have human experience which helps us to relate with others. When we have self-examined, the generic life experiences  are more easily available to use in order to relate with the world. We are incorporating the other as they experience. We experience with them momentarily.

It is from the point of connection between people, between situations, between things that heart-mind action occurs. It is at the point of intersection or immersion where heart-mind becomes manifest.

When we concretize concepts we cannot experience life. We can merely react to it, isolated and outside. And we can never be free of the concepts. They are like chains that hold us back from realization.

Here’s Patti Smith:



2009 “Know yourself. The Revolution is in your heart…”


Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore.
Baby got big and baby get bigger.
Baby get something. Baby get more.
Baby, baby, baby was a rock-and-roll nigger.

Oh, look around you, all around you,
riding on a copper wave.
Do you like the world around you?
Are you ready to behave?

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.

Baby was a black sheep. Baby was a whore.
You know she got big. Well, she’s gonna get bigger.
Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger.
Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger.

Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.
Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.

(those who have suffered, understand suffering,
and thereby extend their hand
the storm that brings harm
also makes fertile
blessed is the grass
and herb and the true thorn and light)

I was lost in a valley of pleasure.
I was lost in the infinite sea.
I was lost, and measure for measure,
love spewed from the heart of me.

I was lost, and the cost,
and the cost didn’t matter to me.
I was lost, and the cost
was to be outside society.

Jimi Hendrix was a nigger.
Jesus Christ and Grandma, too.
Jackson Pollock was a nigger.
Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger,
nigger, nigger, nigger.

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, if you’re looking,
that’s where you’ll find me.
Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society.

Outside of Society

No one chooses to be outside of Society. Many are marginalized because of skin color. Many because of gender, sexual orientation, ability, belief, economic status or conscience.

Most of the population of the world are outside of Society. The Society that dictates acceptability, normalcy, policy, adequacy, popularity, applicability, hierarchy, inclusivity, productivity, suitability, marriageability, security, allowability, visibility, possibility.

…those who have suffered, understand suffering,
and thereby extend their hand…

You are not as alone as you feel. You are not alone at all.


Ayya Khema’s Dharma Talks at Dharma Seed-around 400 of them available.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis by Daniel Chandler excerpted from his book The Act of Writing-this will be of interest to translators as well as those trying to come to terms with…well, terms, particularly in other languages like Pali.


One comment on “Heart-mind or That’s Understandable

  1. Well, yes and no. ‘To have a cold’ is a phrasal verb – it’s more convoluted perhaps but saying the same thing. It allows us to distinguish between “I have an illness”, “I am ill”, “I feel ill” etc

    Pāli and Sanskrit allow noun only sentences I like ‘I ill’ – i.e. they allow you to drop the verb when it is some variety of ‘to be’. But the verb is still implied and the sentence doesn’t work unless it is implied. Possession is indicated by a genitive case marker rather than a ‘have’ word. Do the Hindi sentences you are thinking of not end with hai? e.g. me rugṇa hai मे रुग्ण है

    In Pāli hadaya means just what heart does in English – the physical organ and the seat of the emotions, as distinct from thoughts. Manas means mind. So the two are distinguishable. Citta can mean just mental activity or mind or heart. A lot depends on context. Sometimes cognitions and perceptions are distinguished. It’s not that ancient Indic languages could not distinguish thought and emotions. In fact all those thinking/feeling words are hopelessly mixed up and that may suggest they were just confused rather than specially knowledgeable.

    But a big yes to your point about process. Experience is not the object or the subject but a process arising from the interaction of the two. Experience is slippery, changing, even when the object is a rock or a diamond that doesn’t change for a million years. Experience bounces around. All we have is a constantly changing flow of sensations, arising and passing away; many dots that we amuse ourselves with by endlessly joining them into pictures of unicorns and stuff.

    Today I’ve been looking at Pāli texts which emphasise that what arises and ceases is only dukkha. Only dukkha arises, only dukkha ceases. It makes for interesting reflections on experience. Also one quote from Buddhaghosa to the effect that paṭicca-samuppāda was not intended to apply to the physical world, and only to the process of interaction of sense organ and sense object.


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