How should we interpret the word ‘Chitta’ – the heart-mind – as we take our understanding and practice deeper?

A student writes:

I have a question about the scope of meaning of the word ‘chitta‘. At first chitta as the ‘heart and mind’ seems to cover it, but as it becomes clearer through the Living the Awakened Heart Training that everything we know is Awareness, and that even our most unenlightened experience is merely distorted activity of Chitta, we begin to see it as Indestructible Heart Essence. The IHE course book points to that, which is then discovered through working through the other books…

Lama Shenpen responds:

It is tricky isn’t it?  ‘Mind’ has many meanings in English and ‘Chitta’ has many meanings in Sanskrit, as does ‘Sem’ in Tibetan.  ‘Awareness’ is used for being attentive in English – conscious of what is going on – and could be a translation of smrti – mindfulness.  I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable with using just ‘awareness’ for Vidya or Rigpa – ‘awareness’ doesn’t suggest understanding or recognition or the True Nature when not obscured.

Every question I am asked I have to work out which meaning the questioner has in mind when asking any question really, and when answering I have to be aware that the words I choose to use need to be put into context, so the questioner is brought onto the same page about how we are using words.

You need to look into your experience and be clear what in your own experience you are referring to, even if having to use different terms for it.  Good luck with that!

Often simply to break the question down into possible meanings in a respectful way is helpful in itself – and then you find a simple question turns out to be a series of questions. That approach can help students learn how to approach their own questions – gradually gaining clarity over time.

‘Mind’, ‘heart’ and ‘awareness’ all work in various contexts – but not in a particularly precise way – but look out for when ‘mind’ seems to be taking you into your head and thinking – ‘awareness’ doesn’t do that to such an extent but seems to be more like an observer than the mysterious Nature of Reality that doesn’t actually break down into observer, observed – material or mental in the way we tend to see things. ‘Awareness’ doesn’t really work for that does it – ‘mind’ may be a little better but not necessarily.

It is all spiral learning isn’t it?

Lama Shenpen Hookham

[Indestructible Heart Essence – what Lama Shenpen also calls our Buddha Nature in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – the Awakened Heart, the Truth of our being, our True Self. What is unborn and non-compounded and non-conditioned. Also called Tathagatagarbha.]

Find out more about Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at