Updated: Apr 5
Dispensing with our differences, we can acknowledge our shared humanity.
We’ve been meeting like this now for over two years, though neither of us has yet spoken a word to the other. Our meetings take place on the north trail of Bidwell Park in Chico, California. I am usually walking east on the trail, and he is walking west.
We’re two old men. He walks hunched over, his body a little twisted and crooked, his head tilted down, so whatever he sees must be little more than the dirt of the path. He walks hesitantly in little mincing steps, a pace perhaps designed to avoid falls. I walk upright, looking down the trail, where columns of trees and shrubs line the path.
To watch him coming toward me, you’d think he’s oblivious to my presence, but when I raise the palm of my hand ever so slightly in a gesture of greeting, he invariably looks up, meets my eyes for a moment, and gives a slight nod of his head. And with that brief encounter, we continue on.
Years ago, I learned that in Chinese the same character is used to convey “heart” and “mind,” and that the two are seen by the Chinese as one inseparable “heartmind.” Thus in the Chinese understanding, there exists no separate thought without accompanying feeling, no separate feeling without thought, no compassion in the absence of intellect—in short: no heart without mind or mind without heart. As messy with potential contradiction and uncertainty as this coupling of heart and mind might seem to those with a Western propensity for analysis, the realization of heartmind is actually a radical simplification with a capacity to gather bundles of complications into a single dharma.
Once, Reverend Master Jiyu Kennett, the longtime abbess of Shasta Abbey Monastery, bowed to me with the words “Buddha bows to Buddha. Buddha recognizes Buddha.” I was startled by the equivalency her words expressed between the two of us—the master of a major Zen monastery and a mere lay student. Only later did I understand that the abbess was addressing our shared buddhanature, and that buddhanature is never two but only one, leaving no basis between master and student for comparative evaluation. The abbess was confirming the nature of all encounters, human or otherwise. I knew even then that this was the truth of our lives here with each other on this planet. In the abbess’s understanding, we are ever and always Buddha meeting Buddha.
The inherent potential of all sentient beings to attain enlightenment.
The renowned 20th-century Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki put it this way: “When everything exists within your big mind, all dualistic relationships drop away. There is no distinction between heaven and earth, man and woman, teacher and disciple. Sometimes a man bows to a woman, sometimes a woman bows to a man. Sometimes the disciple bows to the master, sometimes the master bows to the disciple. . . . Sometimes we may bow to cats and dogs.” Dualistic relationships drop away, because without duality, there are no relationships to compare and all bowings are of a single nature.
The Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa identified basic goodness as a universal human quality, and he held the belief in its abiding presence so strongly that he made it the core of the teachings and training he developed. For these three Buddhist masters, any human exchange is one of heartmind, where the vertical is dispensed with and the horizontal alone remains.
Were “heartmind” a word in the English lexicon, it would be designated as a noun, but in its origin it’s both noun and verb, and the Chinese, who make no distinction between what you are and what you do, would never understand the separation of the two. What you are is what you do, what you do is what you are. Heartmind is simultaneously both being and doing, an inherent coupling that arises on its own volition and does so everywhere and at all times.
On Bidwell Park’s north trail, when one man’s bent back meets another’s uprightness, the simplest gesture of mutual recognition makes the trail more habitable. Even the smallest exchange is an exchange of heartmind: a simple “Good morning” or “Hello,” or a smile, or a comment on the weather. These brief exchanges occur everywhere and at all times on city sidewalks, at grocery checkout stands, restaurants, sports clubs, anywhere that people gather. And in this random incremental way, we shape a culture by what we have in common.
For all the daily, weekly, or monthly exchanges we may have with best friends, we have dozens more with strangers and minor acquaintances. So by sheer numbers of occurrence, the preponderance of human contact is that between strangers. Our lives play out in the company of people we don’t know very well, or even at all. Yet for all of our familiar terms of acquaintance, when heartmind meets heartmind there’s neither stranger nor friend, neither two nor one, only the mutual recognition of an undivided human soul.
At times, even the briefest such encounter will resonate for the rest of one’s life. I once found myself sprawled out on the graveled shoulder of Chico’s 9th Avenue, my bike on its side pressing down on my body, the whole circumstance of my being there a puzzle. Then out of the blur came a voice asking, “Are you okay?” At that point I saw that a young woman, the driver’s side door of her idling car still ajar, had stopped to help me, and that she was lifting the bike off me and was concerned about my well-being. I had come to myself enough now to realize that I wasn’t really hurt, that yes, I was okay. “I had a moment of faintness and must have lost balance,” I told her. “Thanks for stopping.” But she wouldn’t leave until I had gotten to my feet and she’d seen for herself that I was steady, all the time cautioning me to take it easy and move slowly. A mother, father, brother, sister, or close friend has a whole history of reasons for being concerned about what happens to you, but this unknown stranger acted simply out of a caring heart. I’ve never had to go it completely alone since then. There is always a voice asking, “Are you okay?”
Once, when I was stationed at an infantry headquarters in Friedberg, Germany, in the aftermath of World War II, a young Jewish woman who had at great cost survived the Nazi purge, asked me, “Are we friends?” That this was asked of me after nearly a year of shared intimacy measured for me the depth of her question and the required depth of my answer. “Yes,” I said, “We’re friends.” Shortly afterward she left for Spain, having found, after years of longing, the means to escape the shame she associated with Germany. Now, 61 years later, this young woman’s question still occasionally reaches me, and I still answer, “Yes, we’re friends.”
Empathy grows from the center outward, as the affection you have for family and friend’s expands to embrace those many distant souls whom you’ve never met. I’ll walk the park trail this morning, and there I will meet the faces of strangers and perhaps a face or two of closer acquaintance. Walk with me if you like, and if on our journey we do not value one face over another—white or black or brown, wrinkled or smooth— we may come in time to see that the face of the whole world is our own face.