In some recent teachings I have interpreted the term mindfulness as religious consciousness. I would like to say a little more about this here by making reference to the Longer Discourses of the Buddha, the Digh Nikaya.
Buddha's First Concern
By noble one, in the life and discipline of the Tathagata, we mean a person who follows a holy life. The Buddha’s primary concern seems to have been to teach people how to do this. He approached the matter from different directions with different people. He was familiar with the range of different theories of the teachers and philosophers of his time, but he did not think that strong adherence to any of them was the key to success. Yet he did have a strong sense of the spiritual and the holy and a connection with the Buddhas of the past and the future who all work to help beings live out the holy life. His, was, therefore, a middle way, and a sense of serving a perennial wisdom that transcended particular philosophies, honouring what they pointed at rather than the details of the mode of pointing. He did not regard philosophy and metaphysics as useless - it could inspire a person to holiness - but he saw the danger of dogmatism and of getting lost in theory.
On the other hand, he was not simply a moralist. He taught right and wrong, but not in isolation from the mental culture that is necessary to underpin and give rise to it. Nor is such culture simply some kind of technique. What he taught was an attitude or life wholly directed to the sacred substance and purpose of life, death and existence.
Fruits of the Holy Life
In the second book of the Digh Nikaya, the Samañña Phala Sutta, which we can loosely translate as “The Fruits of the Holy Life”, he sets out his stall on this matter.
He talks about how one should regard things in this world so as to avoid becoming entranced by them. Delight in them but do not get carried away by them. No matter whether we are talking about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible things, or things imagined, he advocates that one avoid such an engagement with it as might lead either to covetousness or dejection.
Then he takes the same principle a step further and uses the term mindful - or we could say, heartfulness (smritimant). He says that in everything one does, “in going forth or coming back” one should have in mind all that is wrapt up therein - the ethical and spiritual significance.
“Also in looking forward or looking back, in stretching out and arm or pulling it in again, in eating, drinking, masticating, swallowing, obeying the calls of nature, in going, standing or sitting, in sleeping, waking, speaking or being silent,” be aware of all that it really means.
There is a contemporary trend that has got hold of the lesser half of this injunction and lost touch with the greater half. The lesser half is the stress upon every possible action. The greater half is to know what it means. T.W.Rhys Davids in one of the first translations of this text from the Pali says in a foot note to this particular verse, that it is the Buddhist analogue to St. Paul’s ‘Whether, therefore, ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’ (I Cor. x.31.).
What is being talked about here is not self-conscious awareness of the present moment or body-scanning or any other mechanical technique, beneficial as some of those techniques might be for certain medical purposes. What is being talked about is religious consciousness, having a consciousness of the high purpose and meaning of everything that one does because everything that one does is part of the holy life within a holy cosmic vision and exists for that purpose.
Loss of Spirit
When people are cut off from their sacred life they become either avaricious or dejected and this leads to fear, resentment, aggressiveness and all manner of evils. Buddha does not teach morality as the goal, but he sees clearly that moral or immoral behaviour is a sign of how closely connected or not a person is with the holy life.
Naturally Honouring Heaven
We said earlier that the Buddha took a middle path in regard to philosophy. He recognises that there exist many kinds of metaphysics in the world. On the one hand he does not want people to get lost in the jungle of competing views, but, on the other hand, he does not advocate a secular rejection of them either. Rather, he points out that a person who practises the holy life in the way he suggests naturally honours all gods, naturally stores up treasure in whatever heaven there may be, naturally avoids the hells and lower regions, naturally creates conditions for a good rebirth and so on. He does not want us to argue about which metaphysic is the correct one because, whichever it is, the practical implication is the same. A person needs a religious consciousness as a foundation and the Buddha calls this by the term that has come to be translated as mindfulness.
Free As A Bird
A person who has such a consciousness is not entrapped by the things of the world but can enjoy it in freedom. He has few physical needs, few enough that he can take them with him wherever he goes, just as a bird carries its wings. He wants us to be free as birds. Then there will be a deep contentment.
Such people hanker not and are free of ill-will and ill-temper. Being light and inspired they do not fall into laziness, fretfulness or worry. The Rhys Davids translation says that they have a “serene heart” and are free from “irritability and vexation of spirit”. They have “passed beyond perplexity”.
Be of Good Cheer
It seems clear to me that this kind of religious consciousness was regarded by the Buddha as an invaluable treasure. The Buddha used a lot of very down to earth examples to make his point. In this case, he says that such a person would feel like one who used always to be in debt but due to a sudden business success can now say “ ‘I used to have to carry on my business by getting into debt, but it has gone so well with me that I have paid off what I owed, and have a surplus over to maintain a wife.’ And he would be of good cheer at that, would be glad of heart at that.”
Buddha is pointing out that there are times when the ordinary person from time to time, due to good fortune, experiences freedom, happiness and good cheer, but, of course, this is dependent upon factors largely outside of his control whereas the person who has religious consciousness has such joy of heart in any situation whatever. Whatever the situation, he sees the deep meaningfulness of life. He feels in connection with the Tao, the gods, Amida Buddha, Olympus and all. He rejoices with them all.