Mindfulness or Heartfulness?


Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say ”the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. “You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word ”mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

”Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

7 Replies to “Mindfulness or Heartfulness?”

  1. Seth – Thanks for these discerning comments. I was reminded of Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s observation that the Zen tradition, at least in comparison with other Buddhist traditions, places relatively little emphasis on compassion. At the same time, as a part of the Mahayana tradition, Zen promotes the bodhisattva rather than the arahant as its ideal. For my own part, I have found that intimacy with one’s own suffering can engender empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. Perhaps the most important thing is to act, rather than merely talk about compassion. Call your parents. Call your children. You’re right on target there.

  2. Thanks, as always Ben, for your observations. I agree, there is less compassion-speak in Zen then there is in say Tibetan Buddhism, for example. On the other hand, we Zennies have some good history of our own in terms of acting compassionately — I’m thinking of American Zen’s historic role in prison dharma and hospice care. I’m pleased that our local Zen group gets together regularly to feed hungry people at a local soup kitchen as samu practice.

  3. The distinction between ‘who am i?’ and ‘how can I help?’ is going to last very long in my mind, i.e., in my heart. Really!. Thanks for making this point with such a simple explanation. I think I have read a lot about this issue of discerning ‘who am i?’, although I have a very limited source to claim of. But I could never came across this conclusion, of the minute difference in the angle at which you deal with this issue. Therefore, I thanks you for sharing.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. We were just having a discussion in my Shabbat meditation group about reconciling Dogen’s statement about the self (to study the Way is to study the self – to study the self is to forget the self . . .etc.) and the story about Zusya at the end of his life. If you don’t know that story, here it is: Rabbi Zusya, a wise and pious man was near the end of his life and he was weeping. His students gathered around and asked him, ”Rabbi Zusya, why are you crying? You have led an exemplary life.” Rabbi Zusya answered them. ”When I die and go to heaven, the angels will not ask me, ”Why were you not Moses, leading the people out of Egypt?” They will not ask me, ”Why were you not Solomon, offering wisdom to the people?” They will ask me, ”Zusya, why were you not Zusya?” We plan to discuss the relationship between Dogen’s text and the Zusya story at our next gathering. I’m going to share your post as a starting point for our discussion. Thank you!

  5. BOTH! MINDfulness and HEARTfulness are two inseparable things. They are your two “wings”. A bird is not able to fly with just one wing. It may be able to walk with just one foot, see with just one eye, but virtually NOT possible for any bird to fly with just one wing; thus you CANNOT be HEARTful if you are not MINDful (aware) first. YOU need to be mindful (aware) first whether you are living a heartful life or not. Does this make sense? This does not mean that ‘Mindfulness’ is better than ‘Heartfulnes’. They are both “better”; they are both necessary. So the question of “Mindfulness or Heartfulness” is out of the question. There is NO “or” here, but BOTH! _ Ross Galán, Ph. D –NLP Spiritual Life Coach at Life CoachTructing_

    1. Ross, you’re agreeing with me (I think) without realizing it. In my post I state “If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.” I wasn’t suggesting either/or, but was suggesting that a disembodied mindfulness that stays between the ears and behind the eyes and never connects with the heart is a second-rate “mindfulness.”

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