BSQ Tracts on Buddhism No. 18

The Mind, the Heart and the Brain
in Buddhism

An Examination of the Heart Fallacy in Relation to
Buddhism and Other Religions

by Dr V. A. Gunasekara

  1. Introduction
  2. The Heart in the Ancient Indian Tradition
  3. The Heart in the Judeo-Christian Tradition
  4. The Heart in Pali Buddhism
  5. Pali Buddhism and the Scientific View
  6. The Mahayana Approach to the Question
  7. Faith, Rite-and-Ritual, and the Heart Fallacy
  8. The Heart Fallacy in Western Buddhism
  9. Conclusion
First Published: Nov 1995


Sections of this work was published in the BSQ Newsletter, Nov-Dec 1995 under the title "The Heart and the Brain in Buddhism". The present Essay introduces some new material not contained in the original article.

1. Introduction

There can be no doubt that of the all the areas of psycho-physical existence the mind poses the greatest challenge. This is not only a challenge for psychology as the science which deals with mental phenomena, but also for philosophy in general and religious speculation in particular. This essay is concerned with the way in which the mind has been seen in Buddhism, with special reference to the identification of its physical base, comparing it with the other principal religious traditions.

The investigation of the mind is a large subject and it would not be possible to deal even with those aspects that have direct relevance to spiritual speculation in the compass of a short essay. The principal focus of our investigation is to consider the question of the physical basis of the mind. It is not so much the physiology of the human body relative to the mind concept that concerns us but how the way the mind is conceived and localised influences the whole outlook of the religious tradition concerned.

The religious approach may be contrasted with the secular-scientific approach to this question. Of course for a long period there was no real difference between the religious and the secular approaches. What we had were popular beliefs relating to the location of the mind and these were simply taken over by the religions concerned. However with the rise of modem scientific enquiry from around the sixteenth century a gulf opened up between the religious and the scientific approaches to this question. As with many other scientific discoveries this posed a challenged to those religions which relied on the mind-heart relationship. They had to justify their traditional views which were now contradicted by the scientific discoveries.

The two contending locations for the mind have been the heart and the brain. The former has been the traditional one and most religions have been based on the notion that the heart is the basis for the mind. It is our contention that Buddhism provides an exception to this rule, as it does to many other views which are common to most religions. The realisation that the brain was the physical organ responsible for the activity of the mind was a consequence of the secular-scientific revolution. Today this view is hardly contested, but the old view that the heart is the dominant organ has not still given way in religious and spiritual thinking. The way most religions have sought to rationalise it is to treat all references to heart as being purely metaphorical, even though this was not the case with the original religious views on the subject.

The controversy between heart and brain as the locus for the mind has several implications. It is generally thought that the heart, whether considered literally or metaphorically, is the seat of emotion, while the brain is thought to be the seat of logical thinking and dispassionate analysis[1]. If this is so then primacy to the heart may indicate that the emotional aspects are more important than the rational. In the religious sphere this may indicate that the primary emphasis is on belief, devotion and worship. If however the heart is not considered the primary organ then emphasis shifts to the truth of the doctrine and practice based on it. The question whether a particular religious discipline identifies the mind with the heart or the brain is thus an important factor in determining that general character of that religious discipline.

Of all the religio-philosophical systems it is Buddhism that has been most intensely interested in the mind. Not only does this figure prominently in the Buddha's doctrine in general but a great deal of the path it has prescribed has involved a discipline of the mind. The Buddhist path involves a proper balance between three kinds of activities, the development of pa¤¤â (knowledge and wisdom), sîla (ethicomoral action) and samâdhi (concentration). All three involve the mind. Knowledge and wisdoni cannot be achieved without discursive thinking (even though other factors are also involved) and this involves the use ofthe brain with considerable mental activity. In moral action it is intention that is paramount in determining the karma (kaiiinia) involved. Concentration is of course aii exclusive mental activity. This is usually called "meditation" (bhdvaiia) but the English word does not bring out the full implications ofthe Pali term, which generally means "mental development". Since mind is so important to Buddhism a good deal of consideration has been given in Buddhism to the processes involved in mental activity.

The Pali words that are most commonly used to denote the mind in the Pali Canon are mano and citta. It has been customary to translate them by the term "mind". However there is an increasing tendency amongst some exponents of the Dhamma in the West to use the term "heart" to render these Pali terms. This cannot be dismissed as pure idiomatic usage. as it can lead to a certain gloss being put on the Dhamma. There are several reasons for this usage:

  1. A simple resort to an idiomatic usage. In Westem languages the word heart is used to denote the emotive side of human action. While this may tie in with traditional Christian views, this kind of automatic idiomatic usage should be avoided where Buddhist concepts are involved.
  2. Ignorance of the origin of the usage of the heart in the West. This in a sense follows from the preceding because the heart was associated with certain mental factors simply because of a faulty understanding of the body-mind relationship. There is no reason for perpetuating this misunderstanding in the context of modern knowledge on the subject.
  3. Misunderstanding of the Dhamma. This is something that could be discerned even in the earliest translations of the Pali texts. Here translation is accompanied by interpretation, and the greatest care must be exercised. Many of the scholars who were engaged in this enterprise were Christians (some even being missionaries) and it was natural that they could not divest themselves of their Christian beliefs, and tried to translate Buddhist concepts by what they thought were their Christian counterparts.
  4. A deliberate attempt to imitate Christian usage. This is common amongst those who seek to perpetuate the notion that all religions say the same things. This is of course a grave error, and is not only rejected by Buddhism but also by many theistic religions.
While the first two reasons may merit an excuse it is the latter two usages that are the most harmful. Here we can identify a definite fallacy which we shall simply refer to as the Heart Fallacy. This fallacy could be succinctly stated as the proposition that the seat of mind and mental manifestations, particularly consciousness, is the human heart, either literally or metaphorically, and that this implies that emotional faculty is or should be spiritually more important than the intellectual faculty. A corollary of this fallacy is that emotion must play a more important part in Buddhist practice than intellect. This fallacy relating to Buddhism has been particularly prevalent in the West. There it has come not only from native Western Buddhist teachers but also from some Eastern Buddhist monks operating in the West.[2]

In ancient times, both in East and West, little was known of human physiology. The principal human organs were known, but not how they functioned. Quite early organs such as the liver, spleen or heart came to be identified as the physical base of the mind. When literary records begin the choice fell on the heart. This is first seen in Ancient Egypt where the heart the was seen as the centre of physical, emotional, and spiritual life and the locus of personality. As we shall see this is also the case in ancient India and the Middle East. As will be shown in this Essay the Buddha departed from this view. However in some places in the later Abhidhamma, in parts of the non-Canonical Jataka and in the Commentaries there was some reversion to the earlier pre-Buddhist usage. But even in this regression the heart was not given the same prominence that it has received in theistic religion. To understand the place of the heart in Buddhism we have to compare it with the usage in the other major religious traditions. [3]

2. The Heart in the Ancient Indian Tradition

At the time that Buddhism arose Indian thought was well advanced in philosophical and religious speculation. In fact there was a wide range of philosophical and spiritual views entertained, all held in an atmosphere of great intellectual tolerance. As part of his instruction Prince Siddhartha would have been instructed in the orthodox Brahmanical theories, and during the six years of his quest he would have encountered the more unconventional views of the forest dwellers. Thus elements of the pre-Buddhist teaching that was rejected is as important to an understanding of the Buddhist views as the actual views propagated by the Buddha himself. We may look at this pre-Buddhist literature to see what place was assigned to mind and heart.

The earliest stratum of Indian thought, the Vedas, do not contain much that is useful on this subject. The Vedic religion was a sacrificial religion and much of its literature was liturgical and consisted of invocation to the Gods who were supposed to preside over man and nature. The Vedas avoided philosophical speculation and do not contain much that is significance for the problem that we are considering here.

These questions were considered by the Upanisadic seers, and it they who first gave a central place to the heart in the ancient Indian religious tradition. In one of the earliest Upanisads the B.rhadâra.nyaka Upanisad the seer Yâj¤avalkya sums it thus: "The heart is the world (h.rdaya.m loka.h)". He then goes on to identify the heart as the basis on which rests truth (h.rdaye hi eva satya.m);am), faith (h.rdaye hi eva sraddhâ), form (h.rdaye hi eva rûpâ.ni), speech (vâci), even biological existence (reta.h) [III.19.20-24]. Liberation to this seer comes when all desire that dwells in the heart is cast away (sarve pramucyante kâma ye 'sya h.rdi srita.h) [IV.4.7]. The Chandogya Upanisad also expresses a similar idea: "... so far as the world extends so far extends the space within the heart" (yâvan vâ ayam âkâsa.h, tâvân eso 'ntar.hrdayâ âkâsa.h) i.e. everything that is of significance is contained in the heart [VIII. 1.3]. Similar ideas could be quoted ftom other Upani.sads as well.

The Buddha repudiated this line of argument developed in the Upani.sads. He correctly saw that emphasis on the heart as the most important base of sentient existence led to a false metaphysics and ultimately belief in the divine and of an eternal soul (âtman). In fact the Chândogya Upani.sad clearly establishes this nexus between the heart and the "soul":

"Verily does the Self abide in the heart. Thus can it be explained: This one is in the heart, thereof it is the heart. He who knows this goes day by day into the heavenly world." (sa vâ esa âtmâ h.rdi, tasyitad eva niruktam h.rdi ayam iti tasmâd h.rdatam, ahar ahar vd evam-vit savrga.m lokam eti). [VIII.3.3]
Since the Buddha emphasises the negation of âtman it would follow that the heart must be emptied of its supposed content.

In post-Buddhist times the Hindu tradition elaborated even more extensively the notion of heart as a seat of the soul and of the divine essence, combining it with intense devotion and faith (bhakti) in the Godhead. This innovation is usually credited to the Bhagavad Gita, which came to be composed about three centuries after the death of the Buddha. The Gita recognised three paths to liberation, the j¤ânayoga (path of knowledge), the karmayoga (the path of action), and the bhaktiyoga (the path of faith). There is some argument as to which of these three paths is the supreme path. There are some indications that the path of faith is the superior path. Thus Krishna says:

"Be thou a Yogi, Arjuna! Because the Yogi goes beyond those who only follow the path of the austere, or of wisdom, or of work. And the greatest of all Yogis is he who with all his soul has faith, and he who with all his soul loves me" (Bhagavad Gita 6: 46-47, Translated by Juan Mascaro).
When we compare the paths of the Bhagavad Gita with that of the Buddha we may observe that the first two have some similarity in name (but not of course in content) to the two components of the Buddha's path pa¤¤â and and sîla) but there is no equivalent in name or substance to the third path of the Gita. In later Hinduism it was the faith element that came to be extolled almost to the exclusion of the other two methods. One of the best known of the faith cults was that established by Chaitanya, but it is common to most Hindu schools except perhaps the strict monist (advaitya) school. The Western world is familiar with Hindu devotionalism of the Chaitanya tradition in the Hare Krishna movement. This is an even more vulgarised development than that which we encounter in the early Upani.sads, or even the Bhagavad Gita.

The modem-day Bhikkhus, and others, who want to revive the heart-cult and combine it with "faith" could be considered as abandoning the Buddha's enlightening teaching and either regressing to the Upanisadic doctrine or importing the more vulgar forms of Hindu devotionalism into Buddhism. The latter is more likely as many of them are ignorant of the Upanishadic usage. But the immediate inspiration may not be Hindu at all but Christian. This is particularly so of many Buddhist monks operating in the West where Christianity is the established religion. It is to this tradition that we must now turn.

3. The Heart in the Judeo-Christian Tradition

The Judeo-Christian tradition starts with the religious speculation of the ancient Hebrews, and continued in the Christian and even the later Islamic traditions. flere we shall only consider the position of Judaism and Christianity. It is said that in the Old Testament the word heart (1ev) occurs 1024 times. This prominence given to the heart was due to a fundamental ignorance of human biology. In periods of emotional stress the heart beats faster and this was taken to mean that the heart was the organ which reacted to sense stimuli and worked out the appropriate bodily response. Today we know that the heart merely reacts to electrical and chemical signals sent from the brain. But this was not known before the eighteenth century. So when Yahveh says of his chosen people, "I shall put my law within them and write it on their hearts" (Jer. 3 1:33) lie is using the term in a more literal than metaphorical sense. It is also said that Yahweh's counsel comes from his own heart (Ps 33:11). The following are a few references from the OT. which show the importance which Judaism attaches to the heart. In Prov 4:23 we are told: "Keep thy heart with all diligence for out of it are the issues of life". Even wine and bread nourish "the heart of man" (Ps 104:15), In Gen 8:21 in the Covenant after the flood God claims that the "imagination of man's heart is evil from youth". The heart is seen as the locus of logical thought and memory. Thus in Deut 29:4 it is claimed that God has given "an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear" and Moses asks that his instruction not "depart thy heart" (Deut 4:9). Of course emotions are always considered as being located in the heart: thus "Pharaoh's heart is turned against the people" (Ex 14:5) and "gladness of heart" is mentioned in Is 30:29, where it is also said "your heart shall rejoice" (Is 66:14). In the Biblical view it is not only emotion and sentiment that reside in the heart; it is in fact the seat of the mind itself.

Christianity took over this interest in the heart. In the New Testament the Greek word kardia is used to denote the heart. There too it becomes a central term with a relative frequency not less than in the Old Testament. The early Christians are described as having "one heart and one soul" (Acts 4:32). Here we see an echo of the Upanisadic view that the heart is the abode of the soul, but it was probably arrived at independently.

In several places in the New Testament we get a clear statement of the doctrine that good and bad actions spring from the heart:

"A man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of his heart the mouth speaketh" (Lk 6:45). "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, theft, false witness, blasphemies" (Mat 15:19).
The view expressed here is quite contrary to the views expressed in Buddhism. This is seen in the oft-quoted words of the Buddha: "kamma is intention (cetanâ)". Thus when "Buddhist teachers" extol the importance of heart in generating karmically significant acts they are in fact propagating the Christian doctrine, not the Dhamma of the Buddha. In Christianity the Heart is where the Holy Spirit lives (I Cor 6:19). The beatitudes prefacing the Sermon on the Mount speak of those who are "pure in heart" (Mat 5:8). As in the OT the heart is the source of speech: "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mat 12:34), as well as the location for the lesser emotions: "Let not your heart be troubled" (Jn 14:1). Speaking of Simon who wanted to buy the power of healing it is said: "... thy heart is not right in the sight of God" (Acts 8:21) and the Romans speak of the "hard and impenitent heart" (Ro 2:5). Catholicism took the heart-business one step further when it started the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the 13th century. This grew more and more grotesque as time progressed until it was given universal recognition in the Church in the 19th Century. The hagiography of Catholicism contains almost repulsive depictions of this cult especially when the "wounded heart of Jesus" is shown. The Sacred Heart figures prominently in many places in the Catholic religion.

4. The Heart in Pali Buddhism

In contrast to the overwhelming importance attached to the heart in both the Brahmanical-Hindu and the Judeo-Christian traditions the Buddha's original teaching had been free of this particular doctrine. However the work of later exponents saw a reversion to older views, but not to the extent of the Judeo-Christian views. It is only relatively recently that some Bhikkhus and other teachers in the West began to import it into Buddhism mainly from Christianity.

In Buddhism mind (mano, manas) is the forerunner of everything that is spiritually and karmically significant: "mano-pubbangamâ dhammâ manose.t.tâ manomayâ" (Dhammapada I). But what is the mind and where is it located? As we have seen in both the Brahmanical and the Judeo-Christian thinking the locus of the mind is the heart. Modern scientific view is that it is the brain which is responsible for most of the activity which is usually associated with the mind. Where does the Pali Canon stand in this heart-brain controversy? We can answer this question in two ways. One is to examine it in terms of the literary evidence of the Canon, and the other is to examine it in terms of the central propositions of the Dhamma interpreted in terms of modern scientific and secular knowledge.

Before examining these two strands of thought we may begin by stating our view of this question. We start with the position of the great Burmese student of Buddhism Shwe Zan Aung:

"In view of the popular idea - i.e. of the cardiac theory of the seat of mental activity - prevailing in his time, the Buddha preferred to be silent on the point. He did not accept the theory, but if he had expounded his own theory, it would not have been acceptable to his hearers. But he reserved the question of the basis of consciousness for the philosophic teaching handed dowbn in the Pa.t.thâna. Even here he is very careful not to commit himself to the cardiac heory, even by way of concession to the popular view. ... It was quite easy for the founder of the Abhidhamma doctrine to have used the word 'heart' instead of 'that material thing' had he believed that heart was related to the mind as its physical base".[4]
Thus in Aung view the original discourses of the Buddha do not take any stand on the question of which human organ acts as the seat oftlie mind (manoindriya) and that the association of this organ with the heart (hadayavattu) is a later innovation in the Abhidhamma and the Commentaries. We then proceed from this position that the tenor of the Buddhist analysis in conjtlnction with the modem scientific view lead us to the conclusion that the organ involved is the brain.[5]

Aung's views have been accepted by many leading exponents of Buddhism. Ven Narada Maha Thera has stated:

"The Buddha could have adopted this particular theory [of the heart as the seat of consciousness] but he did not commit himself. Mr Aung in his Compendium argues that the Buddha was silent on this point. he did not positively assert that the seat of consciousness of either the heart or the brain." [6]
A similar view is expressed by Ven Nyanaponika Thera:
"In the Canonical texts ... even in the Abhidhamma Pi.taka no such base is ever localised, a fact which seems to have been discovered by Shwe Zan Oung... In the P.t.tâna we find repeatedly only the passage: 'That material thing based on which mind-element and mind-consciousness element function"[7]
It is against the established authority of such modem exponents of the Dhamma like Aung, Narada and Nyanaponika that the modem advocates of the heart theory advance their views.

Consider first the evidence of the texts. The Pali word for heart is hadaya. This occurs very sparingly in the Pali Canon compared to its relative abundance in Upanisadic and Judeo-Christian Scripture. There are some references to the heart as a physical organ but this is often popular usage. In some places the mind is referred to as something different from the heart, e.g. in the Samyutta Nikaya where there is a reference to an "upset mind and a broken heart citta.m vâ te khipissâmi hadaya.m vâ te phâlessâmi" (Yakkha-sa.myutta, S I 207). But such usages may well be idiomatic. The mention of heart in a context that seems to imply that it is the seat of the mind occurs only in later writings like the Abhidhamma Pi.taka and the Jâtaka. A good example of this kind of reference is the definition of citta and mano as given in the Dhammasangani, e.g. "citta.m, mano mânasa.m, hadaya.m pandara.m" (Dhs 6, 17). There is a similar usage in the Nidessa (412). However the references found in the later Jataka (1.65, V.1 80, VI.349. VI.469) can be construed as being idiomatic rather than strictly doctrinal. The Buddha's reluctance to use the term "heart" in his actual discourses was not that he was unaware of the importance of this organ for physical existence but that he wanted to dissociate himself from the metaphysical meanings that had become attached to it in Brabmanical-Upanisadic usage. But some reversion to the old usage occurs in some of the commentaries. Sometimes a distinction is made between hadaya and hadayavattu. While the former refers to the physical heart the latter is taken to be the "heart-base" which may not be physically associated with the actual heart. The use of the latter term occurs more in the later Canonical writings, and in the post-Canonical commentaries. While maintaining such a distinction may be useful in certain situations it is in practice different to conceive of a "heart-base" which is associated with another physical organ like the brain. Thus we may consider that for all practical purposes there is no difference between these two terms.

The brain is rarely mentioned in Brahmanical-Hindu or Judeo-Christian Scripture, but it does occur in the Pali Canon although not too frequently. The Pali words for "brain" listed by Buddhadatta Mahathera, one of the greatest Pali scholars of modern times, are: lasi, mati, matthalunga, and buddhi (English-Pali Dictionary). Of these the first appears to occur only in the commentaries and may be disregarded, but there are significant references to the other three to advance the view that the "brain" was considered by the Buddha to play an important role. The word mati comes from the same root as the English "mind" (via the Latin mens). Its usage in the Pali literature is seen in such terms as purisamati used to denote a man's thoughts (Vin III.138), dumati (a synonym of dupa¤¤a) used to indicate foolishness (J II 1.83) and amalamati used to denote the "pure-minded" (which may be considered as the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian "pure in heart"). There are more references to matthalunga (Skt mastulunga) but this term seems to have been used in a purely descriptive sense to denote the physical organ rather than its role in the thought process. A typical usage is that in the Vijayasutta contained in the Uravagga of the Sutta Nipâta (v. 199). This is a typical listing of bodily organs to be used in the repulsive contemplations. A more elaborate account along these lines is contained in the Visuddhimagga (260) and shows how little of the brain was known even in Buddhaghosa's time. The references to buddhi occur throughout the Canon, as it is perhaps the most fundamental term in Buddhism. If Ven Buddhadatta Mahathera's interpretation that buddhi could refer to the brain is accepted, then many of the references to this term could be taken to mean that the brain is the physical locus of enlightenment. A detailed examination of usages of this term in this sense cannot be undertaken in this brief essay. The textual evidence on the heart vs. brain problem is thus hardly conclusive. Because the function of the brain was poorly understood until recent times what is important in the early Buddhist position is not the unequivocal acceptance of the brain as the base but the rejection of the earlier view of heart as the base as contained in Indian religious thought. That the Buddha was reluctant to import this concept into his system, which he could easily have done given its wide acceptance of that usage in his day, indicates that the Buddha did not accept the heart as the physical basis of the mind.

5. Pali Buddhism and the Scientific View

As we have mentioned the modern scientific view about the location of the mind, as agreed to by both physiologists and psychologists is that it is located in the brain (cerebral cortex). There is a greater justification for the adoption of the brain as the physical focus of the mind if we are to understand the central Buddhist notions in terms of modern scientific knowledge. In the Buddhist scheme the human individual could be decomposed into five groups (pa¤cakkhandâ). The first of these is the material group (rûpakkhanda) and this concerns us here only to the extent as to which physical organ acts as the base of consciousness. This question has to be resolved in terms of the next three groups constituting the empirical persons, viz. feeling (vedanâ), perception (sa¤¤â) and consciousness (vi¤¤âna). It is the argument here that these groups must be associated with the physical organ the brain. The location and functioning of the remaining group (sankhârakkhanda) is problematical. This is the carrier of karmic residue and its physical location cannot be identified with any physical organ we are aware of. It is one of the great unknowns of Buddhism. We will not be concerned with this question here.

The interconnection of three groups of feeling, perception and consciousness with the corresponding physical base (vattu) can be interpreted in terms of the chain of causation (patocca-samuppâda). The six bases (salâyatana) play an important part in the "rebirth process". These bases are: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body (tactile sense) and "mind". To appreciate the role of the brain in this process consider how the first of these six bases, the eye or visual organ (cakkhâyatana) operates. To initiate the process there must first be contact phassa or samphassa) with an external object. This occurs when the visual image in the form of electro-magnetic radiations strikes the retina of the eye generating electrical current. This current is then conveyed to the brain (not the heart!) via the optic nerve. These signals stimulate the visual cortex where the signals are analysed, often using pre-recorded memory (which is the input from the sixth sense organ recognised in Buddhism). It is at this stage that feeling (vedanâ) occurs. It is still in the brain. On the basis of this purposive actions (sa.mkâra) can take place. Of course in almost every situation the eye-contact is accompanied by sensory input from the other sense organs where too a similar nexus is opened between the organ concerned and the brain. As we have seen the mind organ (manoindriya) plays a crucial role. This mano-indriya can only be physically located in the brain for no other candidate exists. A similar process can be postulated for the other bases.

It is true that the texts do not explain the process involved in the way our modern understanding enables us to do. Nonetheless there is nothing in them that precludes the operation of these forces which modern science has discovered. The Buddha could not use such techniques as secular knowledge of his day was very rudimentary in scientific matters. But as could be expected from a supremely enlightened person what he does say is not incompatible with scientific discovery in these areas. Had Buddhism been based on the heart-concept as Upanisadic and Judeo-Christian religion is, it would have to resort to empty metaphysical speculation to bring some rationale to its basic beliefs.

A logical corollary of giving the heart a central place in Buddhism is the view that faith is the cornerstone of Buddhist practice. The Pali word saddhâ (Skt s.raddhâ) means "confidence" not "faith". The word faith always involves an element of blind belief while the Buddha always advocated verification of all beliefs. Even for this some confidence in the doctrine or its proponent is need, and this is only what Buddhism requires. From its inception faith is an essential component of Judeo-Christian religion, but it entered Indian religion only with the Bhagavad Gita where bhakti-yoga is recognised as one of the valid paths to moksha. This is a post-Buddhist development in India, and it should not be translated into Buddhism.

In popular usage thought is attributed to brain-activity while faith is usually attributed to the heart. The latter is only metaphorically true, but it could be allowed if only to distinguish it from rational thought. In Buddhism the opposition between the brain and the heart is nothing other than the opposition between pannâ and bhakti. While the former is the essence of Buddhism the latter has no place in Buddhist practice. Whatever practices Buddhists undertake should be based on pannâ and understanding, not blind devotion. This is particularly important when Buddhism is established in a new country in the modem age.

It is not surprising that those who advocate the primacy of the heart are also advocates of faith, and the practices that go with it such as rite-and-ritual, relic worship, idolatry, etc. Such practices are quite common in ethnic Buddhism as introduced to Western countries. The question of ethnic Buddhism has been explored elsewhere (see the author's Ethnic Buddhism and some Obstacles to the Dhamma in the West) and need not be considered in the present context.

It is important that the alleged primacy of heart and faith, and the denigration of the role of the brain in the cultivation of pannâ, and in Buddhist practice generally, should be refuted in the strongest terms. This is particularly true of the West where several other misconceptions about Buddhist theory and practice prevail. Already ethnic Buddhism, with its propagation of several Asian practices for which no sanction exists in the Buddha's discourses and its crass commercialism, is doing considerable damage to the image of Buddhism in the West. This should not be compounded by the propagation of misrepresentations of the Dhamma itself.

6. The Mahayana Approach to the Question

The Mahayana approach to the question of the heart is not significantly different from that of Pali Canon. There is however a general view that the Mahayana was more tolerant towards the acceptance of the heart as the basis of mind. This view arises from two characteristics usually associated with Mahayana doctrines. One is the view that compassion is the prime virtue, the other is the view that the salvation could be attained by developing intense faith in a Bodhisattva. Both are dubious arguments.

There is no reason for assuming that compassion is more closely related to the heart than the brain. It is only so related in the idiomatic and metaphorical usage that arose from a faulty knowledge of the human physiology. The same may also be said of the prime virtue of the Theravada which is mettâ (loving-kindness). This is also said to spring from the heart. In fact both compassion and loving-kindness spring not from an unreasoning urge to do good but from a conscious attempt to develop these virtues. Indeed according to Buddhism unless the proper cetanâ accompany the exercise of compassion and loving-kindness these acts may be devoid of karmic consequences. Thus the Mahayana emphasis on compassion, however commendable, cannot be taken as an exaltation of the "irrational" side of human behaviour anymore than the Theravada emphasis on mettd can be interpreted as a "rational" kind of activity.

The argument that Mahayana relies on faith may be true of some of the more popular practices of certain Mahayana sects, but has little sanction in Mahayana theory itself. Of course if faith in a Bodhisattva (whether it is Avalokiteshvara or some other form like Kwan Yin), does indeed involve some faith and may be said to be "heartbased". But in mainline Mahayana it is the development of wisdom (prajnâ, bodhicitta) which is the prime virtue and here of course the brain must play an important part even though it may not be explicitly recognised in some Mahayana works.

One of the reasons for the belief that the Mahayana gave a exalted position to the heart comes from the prominence given to the so-called "Heart Sutra" in the authoritative scriptures of the Mahayana. This authorship of this sutra is not known but it was popularised by Hsuang-tsang in the 7th Century who is alleged to have found it in Central China.

The word "Heart" occurs in this sutra only once at the very beginning where the Bodhisattva Avalokitheshvara is said to proclaim the profound "heart of perfect wisdom sutra" (Prajnâpâramitâ hridaya sûtra âryavalokitesvaro bhodhisattvo gâmbhira.m). From the context it is quite clear that the word heart is used merely in an idiomatic sense and not as an organ of any significance. In fact the fundamental principle of the sutra is the doctrine of emptiness, and as all aggregates of being are proclaimed as being empty. In particular the Bodhisattva instructs Sariputra that the aggregates of feeling, perception and consciousness are empty. As in the Pali Abhidhamma the author of the Heart Sutra does not identify heart with the essence of mind, but instead prefers to speak simply of the "mind consciousness element" (mano vijnanam dhatur) which is similar to the usage in the Pali Abhidhamma. Because of its emphasis on emptiness the Heart Sutra cannot endorse the physical heart as the base of mind. Of course it does not also endorse the brain.

While the mainstream of the Mahayana thus is not very different to the Pali concepts in this regard some sections of Mahayana seem to depart from this and revert to the popular Hindu usage. This is particularly true of the Vajrayana schools, and in Tibetan Buddhism which is strongly influenced by Tantric Buddhism.

7. Faith, Rite-and-Ritual, and the Heart Fallacy

It might appear to some that the dispute between the heart and brain as the seat of consciousness is purely a semantic one. It is claimed that even those who use the term "heart" really use this in a idiomatic sense and therefore its continued usage in religious discourse is permissible.

However there is a serious implication in the Heart Fallacy which is particularly relevant to Buddhism. This is that it tends to deprecate the importance of the rational element in human thinking and action, and tends to emphasis what are usually called the "emotional" side of human nature. The religious implication is that those who extol the heart as the seat of mind tend also to emphasise faith, rite-and-ritual as the essential elements of spiritual practice, while those who emphasise the brain tend to concentrate on knowledge, wisdom and mental training. Most of the conventional religions appeal to emotion rather than reason and therefore find the heart fallacy quite convenient even though as a literal doctrine it is quite fallacious. Buddhism however appeals to wisdom (pa¤¤â), ethical action (sîla) and mental training (samâdhi). These fundamentals of Buddhism have little to do with faith or emotion. Therefore the Dhamma of the Buddha does not depend on the Heart Fallacy; on the contrary it actually contradicts this fallacy in an essential way.

Consider the role of faith first as this is the foundation on which rite-and-ritual usually rest. The Pali word that is in question here is the word saddhâ (Skt sraddhâ). A considerable literature has accumulated on the meaning of this term.[8] It is usual to translate this as faith, but this practice has to be deprecated as the English word faith, used in a religious context, has meanings attached to it which are not contained in the Pali word saddhâ. For this reason many students prefer to translate this as "confidence" even though this word is not usually used in a spiritual sense. The word faith always involves an element of blind belief while the Buddha always advocated verification of all beliefs. Sometimes the Buddha uses the term amûlika saddhâ (e.g. M. II, 179) to denote blind faith as that held by Brahamins. Thus where saddhâ occurs without any qualification it should be taken as referring to confidence. [9]. Confidence merely requires that the claim in question should be accepted initially as a working hypothesis and subjected to investigation. As a' result of this investigative process the belief has either to be accepted or rejected. It is some such process that Buddhism requires. In the chapter on the Arahant in the Dhammapada it is said (verse 97) that the liberated person who has seen nibbana is free of saddhâ (assaddho akata¤¤u). Such a person of course would have seen the truth of Dhamma and need not accept it anymore on the basis of faith. The word pasâda (meaning clearness) is sometimes used to denote the person who has transcended saddhâ and achieved a better understanding.

For ordinary persons there are frequent statements that saddhâ is a desirable virtue. Here it is saddhâ in the sense of confidence rather than that in the sense of blind faith that is used. In stereotyped lists where of virtues where saddhâ figures it is usually the first item as it drawing attention to its preliminary nature. Indeed where saddhâ is used in the sense of uncritical faith it is often described as amulika saddhâ. Nowhere is amulika saddhâ considered a virtue, even for a layperson. Of course saddhâ does not figure in the enumerations of the essential requirements for enlightenment like the Eightfold Path and the Limbs of Enlightenment.

As with the usage of the word "heart" there can be observed a progressive back-sliding from the clear position established by the Buddha. K. N. Jayatilleke has identified this regression in thought: "... it is necessary to distinguish at least two strata in the evaluation 'of saddhâ within the Pali Canon. In what was probably the earlier stratum the acceptance of saddhâ was strictly consonant with the spirit of the Kâlâma Sutta, whereas in the next stratum it is not...". [10] There can be some controversy in the actual identification of the two strata; the latter must certainly include parts of the Abhidhamma and of course the commentaries.

From its inception faith is an essential component of Judeo-Christian religion but it entered Indian religion only with the Bhagavad Gita where bhakti-yoga is recognised as one of the valid paths to moksha. This is a post-Buddhist development in India, and it should not be translated into Buddhism. But even in the Bhagavad Gita it is not so much faith as karma that is emphasised, this word being used in the Hindu meaning and not the Buddhist meaning [11]

In popular usage thought is attributed to brain-activity while faith is usually attributed to the heart. The latter is only metaphorically true, but it could be allowed if only to distinguish it from rational thought. In Buddhism the opposition between the brain and the heart is nothing other than the opposition between pa¤¤â and bhakti. While the former is the essence of Buddhism the latter has no place in Buddhist practice. Whatever practices Buddhists undertake should be based on pa¤¤â and understanding, not blind devotion. This is particularly important when Buddhism is established in a new country in the modern age.

It is not surprising that those who advocate the primacy of the heart as the seat of consciousness and are also advocates of faith, usually resort to rite-and-ritual as an element of spiritual practice. Unfortunately a great deal of rite-and-ritual has got attached to Buddhism during its long history. This is seen in such things as pujas, relic-worship, excessive devotion before images of the Buddha, etc. They are all directed at the development of the emotive side of human behaviour and also to emphasise the anti-rational aspects of human conduct. Of course this is not to say that some of these practices can have a valid place in the rational conduct of Buddhism, but very often the resort to these usages are from their valid usages.

The Buddha recognised that addiction to rite-and ritual (silabbataparâmâsa) is one of the impediments that has to be got rid of even to enter the stream leading to full enlightenment (sotâpanna). There is some argument as to what is exactly meant by rite-and-ritual in this connection. It is argued that what is meant is the rituals of the Vedic religion such as the sacrificial rites. One of the most important of these was the a.svamedha or horse-sacrifice which was one of the most elaborate rituals of the old Vedic religion. Even by the Buddha's time some of the more extravagant sacrifices had ceased to be offered, and were often substituted by symbolic acts.

In Buddhism however rite-and-ritual relates not only to the actual rites, but also to their substitution by symbolic acts. For what is important is the mental factors that are associated with the performance of these rites and rituals.

8. The ficart Fallacy in Western Buddhism

In Western Buddhism the Ileart Fallacy has been propagated from two sources. One is from the work of Western exponents of Buddhism. The other is from Eastern monks who have introduced ethnic forms of Buddhism in Western countries, but feel compelled to alter the practices in their home countries to seek an accommodation to what they consider to be spiritual practices in the West.

As we have seen in Western usage the word "heart" is very often used to translate Pali terms like citta and mano. This practice was already introduced by the earliest translators and interpreters of the Pali Canon, and has been continued more or less by even Eastern Buddhists when writing in Western languages. We cannot entirely excuse this usage as being purely idiomatic, because there are certain subtle implications in this usage which give a gloss to the teaching of the Buddha.

Another less subtle reason for this usage is to establish a parallel with Christianity. Christianity has been part of the basic framework of thinking in Western countries that it is difficult for those, even when they reject Christianity, to escape from the frame of thinking associated with Christianity. This involves the acceptanceof the heart fallacy by those exposed to Western Christian modes of thought. As mentioned earlier another reason for this way is thinking on the question is to obliterate the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity and to use Christian terminology to translate Buddhist concepts which are presumed to have some similarity meanings to Christian concepts.

Mrs Rhys Davids may be taken as typical of the Western view on this question. She says: "Years of study in Buddhism has shown me that for [Buddhism] faith is no less important than it is for all religions worthy of the name" (Wayfarer's Words, III p. 1124). ihis is consonant with the frequent usage of the word "heart" in Mrs Rhys David's extensive translations of the Pali Canon. The claim that faith is "no less important for Buddhism" than it is for religions like Christianity tends to obscure the essential difference between Buddhism and Christianity.

The Heart Fallacy has also received some support from the growing ethnic Buddhist movements in the West. It has now become customary to use the term "ethnic Buddhism" to denote the attempt to transplant certain cultural traditions which have got associated with the Buddhism in Asian countries into the West.[12] The ethnic Buddhist movements associated with Theravada Buddhism which have been influential in the West are those associated with Sri Lankan, Thai, Burmese and Cambodian-Lao Buddhism. Of these a distinction could be made between Sri Lankan Buddhism and the South-East Asian varieties. While the latter has tended to concentrate on meditation much of Sri Lankan ethno-cultural Buddhism has been concerned with faith and riteand-ritual. It is in this sense that the heart has been pronioted by some of these exponents of Sri Lankan ethnic Buddhism, even though the textual material which is supposed to validate Theravada Buddhist practices do not give much prominence to the heart.

Sri Lankan ethnic Buddhism has burrowed heavily from Hindu customs. The most important of these, from our present perspective are the practice of pujâs, relic worship, and the use of sutta-readings as some kind of magic incantation. In all such activities it is the emotive side of the "devotee" that is addressed. In fact some Sri Lankan monks refer to the worshippers at ethnic temples as devotees. The singing of hymns (bhakti-gita) is also a common practice in these ethnic temples. Hence the prominence given to the heart by practitioners of this form of Buddhism.

Sometimes the motivation for the adoption of the Heart Fallacy is to imitate Christianity. This stems largely from the ignorance of the exponents of ethnic Buddhist (particularly those from Sri Lanka) of the essence of Christianity, and therefore of its fundamental incompatibility with Buddhism. There is also a mistaken sense of religious ecumenism which asserts that all religions are ultimately the same.

9. Conclusion

This essay has argued against the primacy given to heart and faith, and the denigration of the role of the brain and intellect generally in Buddhist practice which is growing tendency in certain Buddhist circles in the West. There are many streams in Westem Buddhism which seeks its inspiration in the Pali Canon. One of these is the meditation stream which sees Buddhist practice as almost exclusively concerned with "meditation" as this term is understood in the West. We have not dealt with this approach here as it is not directly related to the question we are examining. The second stream is one which looks upon Buddhism as a religion of compassion not different ftindamentally from other religions. A third stream is the ethnic Buddhism which has been transplanted from Asian countries and which relies to a great extent on rite-andritual. It is these last two tendencies which have seen the introduction of what we have called the heart fallacy into Buddhism.

There is another approach to Pali Buddhism that can be adopted. This is the combine the insights of Pali Buddhism with the rationalist-scientific attitude which is the unique contribution of the West to human civilisation. In the West this tendency had to struggle to establish itself against the reaction of established theistic religions. Today however the rationalist-scientific attitude has become universal. Even theologians have been forced to recast their "immutable" doctrines by denying literalism and providing metaphysical justification for their traditional dogmas. Perhaps as a sign of the success of this tactic there has been a religious revival, with the religionists engaging in the convoluted metaphysical exercises to reconcile their dogmas with scientific discoveries.

In Buddhism there is no need to engage in such metaphysical gymnastics. The Buddha's original message, like the modern rationalist-scientific attitude emphasises the human mind and the human intellect as the unique tool that could be used for human advancement. But whereas most of the rationalist-scientific insights have been used to improve the material condition of people, the Buddhist insights could be used to improve the human condition in a spiritual sense. Both the material and the spiritual conditions should be improved and it is for this purpose that a confluence of Buddhist and Western insights become useful. In this confluence what is needed is a return to the original message of the Buddha.

Those who seek to introduce the heart fallacy into Buddhism are actually denying the unique character of the Dhamma which makes it different from all other religious and materialist systems and philosophies which the world has seen. They are in effect obliterating the very essence of the Dhamma. It is for this reason, if for no other, that these interpretations of Buddhism should be controverted and the authentic message of the Buddha once again reiterated.


  1. In reality of course there is no such distinction, and according to the modern scientific way of thinking all mental activity. whether to do with emotion or with rational discursive thinking have their origin in the brain. Nonetheless it may be convenient to establish a distinction between the "heart" and "brain" as referring to these two kinds of thinking.
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  2. A particularly dogmatic assertion of the Heart Fallacy was made recently (Oct 1995) by a Sri Lankan Theravada Bhikkhu who said: "There is no place for the brain in Buddhism; absolutely no place. There is only the heart; it must go from heart to heart". This was complemented by the statement: "Buddhism should be based on faith; faith is the essential prerequisite for practice". Both these propositions, viz. (1) that the Buddha considered the heart as the principal locus of human dispositions, and (2) that faith is the essential ingredient of Buddhist practice, are incorrect and constitute a serious misrepresentation of the teaching of the Buddha.
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  3. In this work we shall consider only the Indian and the Judeo-Christian traditions. The former is important because the Buddha was aware of it. The second is important as Christianity today is the main challenge to Buddhism, especially in the West.
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  4. See the notes to his translation of the Abhtdhammatta Sangaha published as Compendium of Philosophy (Pali Text Society ed), pp 277-8.
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  5. Aung himself seems to imply this position when he says that the Buddha "anticipated the modern view of the seat of consciousness: (op. cit, p. 279). It is time that this association is explicitly made.
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  6. Ven Nârada Mahâ Thera, A Manual of Abhidhamma 4th ed. Kandy: BPS. 1980. p.199-200. While there is no explicit endorsement of Oung's views we may consider that this passage amounts to an implicit endorsement.
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  7. Buddhist Dictionary article on Hadayavattu.
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  8. "The following may be mentioned: F. Ludowyk-Gyomroi, "The valuation of saddhâ in early Buddhist texts" (University ofCeylon Review 1947); K. N. Jayatilleke. Early Buddlust theory of Knowledge (pp. 381-401); Lily de Silva, Article "Faith" in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism; K. N. Upadyya, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavdgitâ (pp.251-271).
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  9. K. N. Jayatilleke has also drawn attention to the term âkâravati saddhâ which he translates as "rational faith". However in usages even where the qualifying adjective akâravati does not appear it may be useful think of saddhâ as rational faith, or confidence.
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  10. op. cit. p.384. Note that the Kalama Sutta is the famous discourse in which the Buddha decried the acceptance of claims simply on the basis of blind faith. If the requirements set out in the Ka~la~ma Sutta are to be met there is no place for faith in the conventional sense in Buddhism.
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  11. In Hinduism karma is the performance of duty mainly caste duty. In Buddhism it is the performance of morally significant deeds.
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  12. The question of ethnic Buddhism has been explored by this author in his Ethnic Buddhism and some Obstacles to the Dhamma in the West (BSQ Tracts of Buddhism Series), and will not be considered in detail the present context.
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