Saturday, November 1, 2014


     It has been observed by philosophers that many disagreements, even among intelligent, well-educated people, are the result of undefined or badly defined terms. Two scholars, for example, may argue for years over the merits of communism, or whether or not Spinoza was an atheist, while their respective definitions of "communism" or "atheism" may be unexamined, vague, and/or very different. And even if they finally come to an agreement, they still may be miles away from each other's point of view because they aren't really agreeing about the same thing.
     People who aren't professional scholars may be even more prone to do this sort of thing. In fact, they may often use words without any clear idea at all of what they mean. I've noticed this lately more often in Western women than in men in general; although men are very capable of it also. For example, as I've mentioned in a previous blog post, male Buddhists in Asia may dismiss Hinduism's qualified acceptance of self (atman) without knowing or caring what the Hindus are even talking about. "Hindus believe in self" is considered to be sufficient grounds in and of itself to warrant dismissing the credibility of Hinduism. And whenever people, male or female, discuss Free Will they are almost always laboring in a state of confusion.
     But getting back to Western women, one term that is used rather frequently by some of them nowadays is "integrity." The word may be tossed around as though it were a very familiar term, but I've found that if you ask for a definition of this term, few are able to come up with one. Does integrity imply living up to one's own standards, or living up to someone else's standards? If the former, then would a person who sincerely considers lying and stealing to be entirely justified have integrity? Or if the other case is true, then is hypocritically imitating the rest if the herd a symptom of integrity? I wonder.
     Another such undefined term, methinks, is "judgement" (with or without an "e" right after the "g"). One can make a general observation, about people especially, and one may hear in reply, "That sounds like a judgement." They say this with disapproval, so I don't quite understand why their own statement isn't also a judgement. I've read too many philosophy books to define "judgement" in a predominantly negative way. For me, even to say "The apple is on the table" is a judgement. Judgements are no big deal. It would seem that in some societies in the West, "judgement" simply means an opinion that somebody doesn't like.
     I really don't mean to pick on Western women in this article. Seriously. But even so……To give another example, many years ago, before my ordination as a monk, I worked with a young woman who was, and I think I'm not exaggerating or making a "judgement" here, a radical militant feminist. In addition to strongly preferring to read books written by women and to watch movies about women, she walked like a guy, dressed like a guy, and swore and punched things when she was angry like a guy—yet she considered herself to be "feminine." It seemed that she made no distinction between "feminine" and "female." Any woman, presumably, is automatically feminine. Plus "feminine" and "feminist" are almost the same word, except for the last two letters.
     Much more recently, I was conversing with a different young American woman, and made the statement/judgement that gentleness and compassion are "feminine" qualities. My friend disagreed, arguing that men may be gentle and compassionate also. This is obviously true; but still….I asked her what qualities are feminine, then, if gentleness and compassion are not—for instance, what qualities would a man have to have in order to be called "feminine"? She was unable to answer. She was totally stumped. She did have the word "feminine" in her working vocabulary, however, especially in terms like "the Divine Feminine." It seems to me that "masculine" traits and "feminine" traits are qualities commonly associated with the stereotypical man and woman, respectively, with the terms used as a matter of convenient communication of ideas; but if it becomes politically incorrect to speak in terms of stereotypes or to make "judgements," then words like "feminine" would become practically useless, and possibly meaningless as well. Unless "feminine" and "female" are simply synonyms.
     Which leads to a term that is much used in the West nowadays, and which definitely has feminine connotations to it, and that is the word "heart." Heart is a big deal nowadays in the West, and is a big deal in Western Buddhism also. Shortly before leaving Bellingham last year I gave a talk on head and heart in Dharma, and it was very well received; then later while in California I gave a very similar talk on the same subject to a group of intellectual Asians (mostly from Sri Lanka), and received plenty of blank stares. It didn't even feel right while talking about the subject to this group. It just wasn't part of the way these people thought about Dharma, or about life. This isn't to say that they don't have gentleness and compassion, but traditionally Theravada Buddhism is a predominantly top-heavy philosophical/yogic system, and gentleness and compassion are present, and important, but heavily intellectualized. For me it was an interesting contrast to see the very different receptions of essentially the same talk.
     Anyway, Heart is considered very important and very good in Dharma circles in the West—more so in New Age than in Theravada, but it's much more of a big deal in Western Theravada than in Eastern. In the West, "heart" has come to have positive connotations, and "head" to have negative. To speak with heart is to speak deeply and well, while to speak from the head is shallow and practically useless—at least in the judgement of many people in the West. But the talk of some "heart people" and their corresponding behavior has often been very confusing to me, and it was only very recently, while unmindfully sweeping leaves in the yard of the monastery's congregation hall, that the whole conundrum "clicked," as though a key piece of the puzzle finally fell into place. "Heart" has two very different meanings which are typically confounded by the people most likely to use the term.
     There appear to be two main ways in which the word "heart" is used by Dharma-oriented people in the West: One is to place more importance on feelings than on the intellect, which I will call a "heart-orientation"; the other is to be deeply, spontaneously compassionate and loving, which I will call being "open-hearted." Many people simply do not differentiate between these two, applying "heart" to them equally. But it turns out that being heart-oriented and being open-hearted can be very, very different, and can, in some cases, be almost exact opposites. 
     To clarify this point I'll use the more obvious example of the head. Obviously, a head-oriented person is not necessarily wise, or open-minded, much less having the "Third Eye" sixth chakra opened (to use some Yoga terminology). A head-oriented person, a hardcore intellectual, say, may be very narrow-minded and dogmatic, practically the opposite of a wise person with an unshackled mind. In fact, one common symptom of an extreme head orientation is a dogmatic, egocentric need to be right, which is certainly not indicative of wisdom or open-mindedness. 
     Thus a heart-oriented person, not only in spite of very sensitive feelings but even because of them, may be fearful, distrustful of others, closed off, and bitter. She may talk about heart this and heart that, and may say things like, "I don't think so, I feel so," yet deep down she may be terrified of wide-open, intense intimacy with another person, terrified of love, terrified of having an open heart—BECAUSE she is terrified of being vulnerable, and very much wants to feel SAFE. So, ironically, she may then develop strategies and work projects, "practices," for opening her heart…while at the very same time, deep down, she doesn't want it open. If she really wanted it open, it would be open, without any need for work projects. The resultant game often takes the form of maintaining a kind of semi-intimacy with another person, keeping that person at arm's length, so to speak—not too far away, because being alone is scary, but not too close, either, because intense intimacy and honesty may be even scarier. As Dr. Eric Berne declared in his classic self-help book Games People Play, most people are simply incapable of deep intimacy with another person, romantically or otherwise. And this is regardless of whether they are more oriented to the heart or to the head. Thus one may be very heart-oriented, yet still have one's heart surrounded by a brick wall.  
     Meanwhile, a manifestly head-oriented person may be without that wall; it may be that his heart is so small and dry and chewy that he simply doesn't feel the need to protect it, or if he does, a small picket fence or a few warning signs may be sufficient. His heart may be smaller or just less in the center of things, as far as he is concerned, but it may still be more OPEN, just as a very heart-oriented person may have a more open, wiser, more liberated head and mind.
     It is true that a very head-oriented person may transcend thoughts of which he is well aware, yet remain stuck in crude, rudimentary feelings of which he is only semiconscious; and that a heart-oriented person may transcend feelings of which she is well aware, yet remain stuck in crude, half-baked beliefs of which she is only semiconscious (I've noticed the former case particularly in Western monks); but aside from this there may be little correlation between -oriented and -opened. Really, in many cases there may be no correlation whatsoever—i.e., between a person who identifies with his cogitations and one with the Third Eye open, and between a person who identifies with her feelings and one who is deeply, compassionately accepting of all the world. Almost needless to say, though, if a heart-oriented person opens her heart, it is likely to be a very big heart, and if a head-oriented person liberates his mind, it is likely to be a very powerful mind. But the choice of words like "head" and "heart" in both cases may amount to a matter of mere convenience, and coincidence.
     So it is good to be clear about what one is declaring, and thinking, and feeling, and it is advisable not to automatically confound "heart" with notions of positivity and wisdom and the great hope of the world, and "head" with something radically otherwise. Either may be positive, and either may be negative.
     Besides, regardless of orientation, it is good to have an open heart AND an open mind, if we can manage it. Both are equally wonderful, and both require a fair amount of courage. And it is good not to identify with thoughts, feelings, or anything else. Even if there is a self somehow, neither thoughts nor feelings, neither head nor heart, ultimately, are you.

painting by Susan Grace


  1. " small and dry and chewy that he simply doesn't feel the need to protect it." Very funny description you write here.

    How does a heart-heart-orientated" person or a "head-orientated" person become "open-hearted" and embody more compassion and gentleness?

    1. I'm not sure how a heart-oriented person would further develop her/his heart, because I'm naturally of the other sort. Maybe you should ask a wise heart person the answer to that part of the question. Ram Dass, in one of his books, advised doing anapana and trying to feel the breath going into and out of the heart as a way of developing the heart chakra. Aside from that, maybe a good way would be to practice Metta meditation of some kind. But probably the best way would be to associate with really developed heart people. They say that the best way to ripen fruit is to put it next to fruit that's already ripe, and I expect that hearts ripen in much the same way.

  2. What would a "head orientated" person do? Or is compassion and gentleness simply not valuable for them?

    1. Well, there's still the Ram Dass thing I mentioned, and the ripening fruit thing. Associating with heart-opened, wise people would probably be about one's best bet. Ayahuasca ceremonies definitely help. Also there is the very idea that compassion is a very different state from a head-oriented one, and that it is a whole different dimension to existence. It's good to remember that.

  3. I don't exactly understand what you are saying here, "Also there is the very idea that compassion is a very different state from a head-oriented one...." What is a head-oriented one? If compassion is at a different dimension, should we desire it?

    1. A head-oriented state is objective, symbolic, and thought-oriented. Genuine compassion isn't objective, symbolic, or thought-oriented. Then again, the highest Reality also isn't objective, symbolic, or thought-oriented. (Or subjective, or feeling oriented either, for that matter.)

      Maybe we shouldn't desire anything, but still compassion is a good thing to have, at least as good as objective rationality.