Hearts and Minds


This image is the same as the banner of the website, the word xin (pronounced a bit like sheen in Mandarin). I had a recent experience with xin and a dear friend.

I was looking at the original Chinese text of the poem I introduced in my blog on the circle and wave, “The identity of the relative and absolute” by the 8th century Chan master Shitou. Looking up the words in a Chinese-English dictionary was not very productive, so I showed the text to my friend Ping, who loves to read Tang dynasty poetry.

She shook her head. That’s a very difficult poem, she told me.

I pointed to the first symbol, the first word, xin. I know that one, I told her, it means “mind.”

“Ooohhh nooo, Ralph” she pointed to her chest, shaking her head again with a deep and sincere look, a kind of yearning and supplication in her voice, expression and gesture. “It is heart, it is soul.”

Ping is a Catholic. I don’t know how she sees the soul, not exactly. I don’t think much about the soul. Shakyamuni Buddha wasn’t on board with the eternal soul of the Brahmanic religion of his time. I think it is a fair bet that Shitou also had something different in mind from Ping, but then, how can I be sure? Maybe xin transcends the differences of time and religion that separate Ping from Shitou. As she said about a Chinese friend of hers who is a Buddhist, they had different religions but the same heart.

In any case, I got this much of Ping’s message: don’t conflate xin with the brain, with everyday thinking and perceiving.

Ping is a special person. So let me tell you another story about Ping and words.

Two years ago Ping asked was going to visit family in China and she asked me what she could bring back for me. I asked for some Chan calligraphy.

When Ping got back she handed me scroll in a cardboard tube. She was hesitant, even apologetic. She didn’t think I would like it.

She went though a lot to get it. She asked a friend in Beijing about Chan calligraphers and she had to go across the city to find the one that her friend recommended. Crossing Beijing is not a trivial task! When she met the man she had been referred to he was dressed in a garish gold colored robe. He claimed wearing gold colored clothing was his right and even duty as a member of the last Emperor’s family. There seems to be some question about his ancestry on the Chinese web, and there is nothing about him in English. He also told Ping that his qualifications, beyond being genetically linked to the last son of heaven, included having done some very deep and special Chan retreats. That’s his story, he’s sticking to it, and who doesn’t like a good story?

She wanted a small sample of calligraphy, something she could buy off the shelf, and he refused. She took me literally, so he was going to do an interpretation of the word Chan. It had to be spontaneous, and it had to have POWER. It had to be big and bold. She wanted to wait while he did it but he wasn’t feeling it right then. She would have to come back in a few days. So she did. She was given a black swarm of ink on white paper mounted on an ornate gold cloth.

She was disappointed. She thought I wouldn’t like it. She knows I like simple, not garish, that more often than not I lean towards less is more when it comes to aesthetics.

I loved it the moment I looked at it. It just blew me away. It is amazing. It is powerful. It is more than a word.


Which brings me back to words, back to xin.  How much can we trust words? In Buddhism we talk about “Mind,” but it’s a word we are translating from the Japanese word from the Chinese word from the Indian word for something that is beyond words! We use a finger to point at the moon, but we are told not to mistake the finger for the moon.

Of course on the other hand, in the West we use heart in a similar way. Look at some of the paintings of Christ with his heart jumping out of his chest. We talk about actions or words that are sincere as being “heartfelt”. The heart symbolizes romance and love. It also symbolizes compassion. But it is, after all, just an organ, a pump made of muscle and tissues that generate an electrical signal. So how literally did the ancients take xin as the heart? Was it simply their recognizing the visceral reactions to emotional states? Perhaps, but I think we should be careful not to be too condescending.

Xin starting the poem “The identity of the relative and absolute”, xin in Chan and Zen, isn’t about an internal organ, heart, brain or any other. It has long been translated as Mind when Buddhist texts are translated into English, and that seems to capture something Zen teachers want to convey. The point is the experience, the truth, the reality. What is the identity of the relative and absolute, the identity of the wave and particle, the brain/mind and ……… xin?

Photograph courtesy of Susan Levinson

One thought on “Hearts and Minds

  1. Pingback: Autumn in the Heart | spaceship china

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