One of my key teachings which flows from the earliest Zen teachers in China is regarding Heart-Mind. Our very own little heart-mind is also the heart-mind of the universe. Or in Buddhist terminology, our own Buddha-nature includes within it the entire universe.
In my next couple of posts, I will discuss the five following dimensions of heart-mind. As we open up more and more to each of these dimensions, we are able to rest quite naturally in heart-mind without getting all tangled up in our heads. The dimensions are:
Physical; Mental; Emotional; Openness; Full/Empty.
The physical dimension can be a wonderful source of our energy and it is such an important component of our meditative effort. Zen meditation is all about anchoring ourselves in our immediate experience of taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight without discriminating between good and bad sensations with no contamination by our thoughts and feelings.
Once, many years ago, I ran into my first Zen teacher on the sidewalk in San Francisco. He was carrying what appeared to be a large grocery bad. “Look what I have!” he exclaimed, and he opened the bag so I could peek in. I was greeted by green spinach, red tomatoes, yellow squash, purple onions—myriad of colors, textures, and odors.
“Delightful,” I exclaimed to myself, crisp and fresh and ready to be eaten. When we are immersed in the physical, before the intrusion of evaluation, judgment, or criticism, we often feel a sense of vitality. The next moment he exclaimed further, “Only two days old. Almost fresh!” I looked into the bag again and this time the vegetables looked brown and shriveled, maybe even moldy and wormy. “Disgusting!” I said to myself, and I rushed off, afraid we would invite me to dinner.
The physical dimension invites us to experience life directly without thought as a mediator. If I hadn’t been swept up so quickly by my judgment, I might have had a wonderful time sitting in his small den attached to his kitchen, eating a bowl of almost-fresh vegetables in a soup. Instead, my heart closed down, my mind flew up into my head and I rushed off.
Both my first and second teacher emphasized how important it is to do our physical actions with easy attentiveness. How we move a chair across the floor or handle our food affects our ability to keep the mind from splitting off from the heart. At Tassajara Zen monastery years ago, Suzuki Roshi made me attendant of the young Zen adept Chino Sensei, who was a master of ritual. He had brought Chino to Tassajara because Chino was able to embody ritual. It was like a dance for him. I was pretty clumsy at ritual, but Suzuki said, “Chino Sensei will show you something every day.”
It was difficult being Chino’s attendant. I tried to follow along and pay attention see where Chino put his cup down so I could get it back to him when the moment came. In Japan, the teacher’s attendant completely immerses in the physical to support the teacher’s specific movements.
Chino had me come to his cabin every evening after dinner but instead of teaching me ritual, he whipped up ceremonial green tea. It was delightful to watch him whip the tea into thick foam and then serve it in such a delicate way- as if he was attending me! Every evening, he asked questions about American culture or about books I was reading.
I discovered that Chino didn’t even like ritual. Neither of us had much interest in it, so he didn’t teach me anything about ritual. But when Chino did ritual, he completely gave himself to it.
He taught with his body. When he moved, it was as if his whole being was moving, with a gentle and natural one-pointed focus. Once a small group of us were trying to cross a raging creek on a log. Chino didn’t have better balance- but he crossed the log with ease- with no intrusion of thought or fear. The rest of us were freaking out, struggling to stay on the log and worrying about falling off. Chino didn’t seem to worry; he just walked.
The second dimension of heart-mind is the mental. Often meditators believe they need to slow down their thinking, inhibit it, or transcend it. Instead of doing that, can you notice whatever comes into your mind without judging it? Can you honor each thought as it presents itself? As the story changes, can you just watch it and notice if your mind seems to be stuck in a closed loop? Can you practice opening up through that constriction?
We are only imprisoned by the mental dimension because we cling to a single point of view. But one of the best ways to help the mind sink into the heart is to open up to other points of view than the one which is predominating. When we practice the tetralemma which originates with Nagarjuna we can remove beyond a single point of view to experience its opposite. Then we can move on to embrace both. When we do this, we free ourselves from the tyranny of one, or even two or three descriptions.
Let’s say you are obsessing about giving up smoking but making no progress. Can you move beyond your thoughts about what an awful habit you have and open to the other side? How much you enjoy smoking because it is relaxing for you? And can you create enough mental space so you can hold both your desire to quit and your enjoyment of it simultaneously. If you do this as a regular practice, you may be surprised to discover that your mind can let go of both sides. But first they both need to be acknowledged and honored. As you continue this tetralemma practice, your mind becomes both supple and resilient and it quite naturally descends into your heart.
It seems as if thoughts slip into our mind fully developed without any inclination to fall into the heart. But if we continue our meditation practice, our comparing, criticizing, and complaining are replaced by just opening to each story without getting caught by it; a good sign that the mind is descending into the heart, which is its true home. In my second piece on heart-mind, I will discuss the final three dimensions: emotional-affective, openness, and fullness-emptiness.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher