Since the heart, physiologically, is an organ which has a purely physical function in our body, it is not a sensory organ, where does this concept of the heart that exists in both the common vernacular as well as in spiritual writing come from?
Before I explore this history, let me share with you my initial reaction to this question. The heart is the source of life. It is the organ which brings blood and oxygen to the body. The brain on the other hand is basically a switchboard, an incredibly complex computer which controls/directs all of our body and thought functions. And since the thought processes of the brain are programmed by life experiences, we will be controlled/directed by the brain in quite different ways depending on those learned experiences. That is consistent with the Buddha’s central teaching of dependent origination.
Since the heart is the life force in us, it makes sense that the heart is seen as the force of goodness in us because the life force is good. The brain on the other hand is a largely mechanical organ. Since all of our memories are stored there, and our thoughts and value judgments derive from the brain, it makes us more like a robot than not, as unflattering as that may be. It is those established synapses, the programming of our brain, that establish our habit-energies and that by the time one is a grown child have totally buried the unborn Buddha mind, the goodness, we were born with.
In delving into the history of this semantic phenomenon, I came across various things. First, there is the Buddhist term, “bodhicitta.” Bodhicitta is a mind totally dedicated to the welfare of others and to the achievement of enlightenment for the benefit of others. “Bodhi” is the Sanskrit word for “awakening” or “enlightenment.” “Citta” means the mind or consciousness.
This would appear to be directed to the function of the brain, since that is the seat of the mind and all consciousness. Indeed, citta is thought to be the storehouse of consciousness, which is certainly the brain. But in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha and the language in which all the sutras were originally written, “citta” is defined as heart/mind, emphasizing it is the emotive side of the mind as opposed to the intellectual side. Again raising the question, how does heart come into play here?
Actually, it turns out that in all ancient languages, whether Chinese, Pali, Hebrew, or Greek, when referring to the emotive process referred to the heart. For example, in the Bible, whether in Hebrew or Greek, the word “heart” is used to refer to both the center of physical health as well as emotional/moral/intellectual activities, as in “Pharoah’s heart was hardened.”
The answer to the question I posed is that until the function of the brain began to be recognized, during the 1st millennium BC, the heart was thought to be the seat of emotion and intelligence. But even as that scientific knowledge increased, the term “heart” continued to be used to refer to the essential goodness of man.
So where does that leave us, modern man and woman, in reading and making sense of these texts. In an earlier post, “Proof of the Nature of Mind - Fear, Ego, and Buddha Mind”, I offered proof that Buddha mind and ego-mind are not two separate things but rather two sides of a continuum. This is consistent with the concept of “citta” which contains all consciousness and can be directed one way through meditation and another way by the ego.
But because “Buddha nature” or “Buddha mind” is a concept foreign to us, and because as I noted above all thoughts in the brain are learned while the heart is our primal life force, it is sometimes easier for people to refer to one’s heart, which is always understood to be unblemished and unadulterated, as the symbolic source of goodness.