Perhaps one of the most pernicious misconceptions about Buddhism is that it requires practitioners to reject and eliminate emotions. The Theravada tradition in particular tends to be characterized as austere and emotionally flat. Maria Heim, a scholar of classical South Asia at Amherst College, is determined to challenge this stereotype. For Heim, Buddhist texts provide some of the most intricate and nuanced examinations of human emotion available to modern readers. In Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India, she presents 177 terms for emotions drawn from three classical Indian languages: Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit.
Heim’s book continues in the longstanding literary tradition of treasuries, or koshas. One meaning of the Sanskrit term kosha is a “storehouse of gems,” but the term can also refer to a collection of words, poems, and literary passages. Since the 5th century, Indian poets and scholars have compiled treasuries of words to catalog different aspects of human experience, treating each entry as a jewel. Heim’s treasury consists of words used to describe and evoke emotions within classical Indian texts, ranging from “simmering wrath” (Skt. manyu) to “dispassion and disenchantment with the world” (Skt. vairagya).
Each term in Heim’s emotional storehouse is conveyed using illustrative passages and anecdotes from a great variety of genres and traditions including ancient medical texts, political treatises, epic poems, guides to aesthetic theory, and the lists and lexica of the Pali canonical texts known as the Abhidhamma. The diversity of source material (combined with the alphabetical arrangement) provides for unexpected and sometimes delightful juxtapositions: entries from the Kama Sutra sit alongside Buddhist instructions for charnel ground meditations, and the sublime attitudes of the brahma-viharas are sandwiched between the malicious and the macabre.
Heim categorizes all the texts she pulls from as “classical,” a term she uses to refer less to a particular historical period and more to a class of literary and philosophical works that speak to us across time and space, thereby expanding our understanding of what it means to be human. Rather than simply appealing to a universal set of experiences, these classical texts confront us with difference, illustrating and evoking particular experiences that may be unfamiliar to the modern reader.
Indeed, the treasury’s celebration of the particular gives rise to its most surprising and engaging moments: the “petulant, surly sulk” (Pali appaccaya) of grumbling monks who rebel against the stringency of Buddhist monastic codes; the “stinginess and spitefulness” (Skt. matsarya) that sends one to an afterlife as a hungry ghost, doomed to wander through their own excrement in perpetuity; and the “morbid desires and pregnancy cravings” (Skt. dohada) of a pregnant crocodile that must be obeyed at all costs—not to mention the blast of “joy” (Pali piti) that once sent a young pregnant woman soaring through the air to a moonlit mountain shrine. Such entries will likely land the reader somewhere on the spectrum of the “smiles and laughter of mirth” (Skt. hasa), which range from a restrained smile befitting the gods to convulsive, violent, and sometimes paroxysmal laughter.
Emotions are deeply embedded in—and produced by—their specific contexts and environments.
In presenting illustrative examples for each of these emotions within particular contexts, Heim takes what she calls an ecological approach. Just as a tree exists within a vast ecology of other species, emotions are deeply embedded in—and produced by—their specific contexts and environments. Sometimes these contexts are socially conditioned: anger and jealousy, for instance, are categorized and perceived differently according to the gender, class, and relative power of the person experiencing the emotion. The entry on anuraga (Skt., “affection and attraction”) contains 64 subvarieties identified by the 11th-century scholar King Bhoja—“fickle attraction,” “faithful devotion,” and “violent agitation,” to name a few. Each shade of attraction is then divided into subcategories such as “eternal or temporary,” “disclosed or hidden,” and the like, ultimately providing 12,228 shades of attraction—and even this list isn’t exhaustive. After all, as the author of the Kama Sutra states in the entry on kama (Skt., “sensual pleasure”), “the things people can imagine are infinite . . . who could survey all the forms?”
And just as emotions are best examined in their social contexts, so they also must be understood in relationship to each other. After all, in a chest of jewels, each gem illuminates the others, sometimes in unanticipated ways. To emphasize this interconnectedness, Heim closes each entry with a list of related terms, encouraging the reader to skip around and follow threads of particular interest. In this sense, each entry is an entry point into further exploration, not complete within itself. Sometimes suggested terms point to similar affective states; others are considered enemies or possible antidotes to the emotion in question. Guiding the reader through these intricate ecologies of emotion, Heim lays out some of the therapies that Buddhist texts suggest for uprooting the desires and afflictions that keep us trapped in samsara and paving the way for true joy. Sometimes the pathways to freedom are unexpected: the 5th-century commentator Buddhaghosa suggests that shame and scolding can snap us out of our own hatred and that cultivating disgust can counter lust and vanity. Such paths of emotional cultivation are often contagious, as states like the brahma-viharas tend to break down barriers between self and other so that all may get swept up in the spread of delight.
This contagion can also take place on the page. Many of the treasury’s entries not only describe particular emotions but also evoke them. One such entry is adbhuta (Skt., “wonder, the fantastic”), which Heim defines as stunned amazement. In literature and drama, adbhuta is evoked through fantastic, otherworldly occurrences and images of heavenly beings. But as Heim notes, sometimes wonder can be evoked by something that seems much more mundane. In one sutta, the Buddha’s cousin Ananda is asked to recite the “wonders and marvels” of the Buddha, among them his miraculous birth and his past lives spent in pleasure heavens among the gods. After listening to marvel after marvel, the Buddha adds yet another: that for him, “feelings are known as they occur, as they are present, as they disappear.” He advises Ananda to remember this, too, as a “wonder and marvel of the Buddha.” As Heim glosses this sutta, being fully aware of one’s own emotional experience is a wonder, a miracle. In this light, Words for the Heart offers the reader 177 entry points to wonder. By mining its depths, we may be able to draw closer to the everyday marvel of sharpening our awareness of our own emotional landscape and, in the process, expand our capacity to feel.
Read an interview with Maria Heim by Sarah Fleming here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.