When the Buddha is asked what is essential for the pursuit of the spiritual path he often puts shraddha at the start of the list. Shraddha is commonly translated as 'faith'. However, shrad is heart, so it is also possible to render shraddha as heartedness or heartfulness. In India, and also in Japan, heart and mind are not as sharply distinguished as they are in our Western culture. Chitta, in Sanskrit, means both as does shin 心 in Japanese. In fact, the Chinese/Japanese character is based on a picture of a heart. So heartfulness and mindfulness could be the same thing. In our modern culture, however, we distinguish heart and mind, so we could see Buddhist practice as bringing the two back together into a single unity.
We can understand the idea of heartfulness as having two main dimensions. On the one hand, it is love and on the other it is unification of energy.
Heartfulness as Wholeheartedness
When we consider the second dimension, we are talking about wholeheartedness, about doing things with complete effort, attention and dedication. When we hold something in awe, we direct all our attention to it. When we truly believe in something we give it everything we have got. We find a singleness of purpose. When the Buddha described the Eightfold Path, this is what he was referring to. Translations often say, “Right view, right thought, right speech...” and so on, but the term that is being translated 'right' could also be rendered 'wholehearted' or 'complete': wholehearted view, wholehearted thought, wholehearted speech, and so on.
This is also what Buddha means by samadhi: unification of energy toward right purpose. This is the outcome or expression of practice. It is also very close to courage. To live one's life courageously is best. This is an important part of the bodhisattva ideal - not to live one's life pursuing mean and selfish ends, concerned only with self protection and self gain, but to courageously do what one most believes in irrespective of the cost. The English word 'courage' derives from the French coeur, which means heart. We can say that this is the individual dimension of heartfulness: to do whatever one does with all one's heart.
Heartfulness as Love
To understand what it is that unifies life, we have to consider the other dimension of heartfulness, which is love. Buddha spelt this out as loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksha). Loving kindness is essentially the desire that the other – and ultimately all beings – receive what is good; compassion, that they be liberated from harm and obstacles; joy is what arises when this happens; and equanimity is what one needs when it does not happen. Buddha says that these four together are divine (brahma).
Now love always has an object. Although there is a good deal of rhetoric about self-love these days, this is not what is being referred to in the Buddhist text. Love is concern for others, but not just in a vague universal way. Buddha had great compassion for each individual who came before him specifically. Love has to manifest in relation to an object.'Object' here, of course, often means another person. The object of love may be material or abstract, real or conceptual, but it takes fullest form in relation to another sentient being.
It is possible to talk about giving love and receiving love. This is slightly dangerous as it tends to make us think of love as something that is traded, or even as something that is granted or withheld as reward or punishment. However, it seems that we have a deep need to give love, that our deepest satisfaction comes from doing so. This leads to the happy paradox that one of the most powerful ways of loving is to truly receive the love that others give. By receiving their love one responds to their deepest instinct. Thus the best relationships are those in which both parties appreciate and truly receive the love of the other.
A special application of this principle arises in the religious practice of devotion (bhakti). Many texts talk about how it is important to love God. The most profound texts, however, talk about how we are loved. The epitome of practice is to appreciate how we are loved by the Buddhas. When we realise this, we are likely to feel astonished and unworthy. This sense of unworthiness actually contributes further to the depth of our appreciation and gratitude. Mindfulness thus becomes overwhelming thankfulness for the transference of merit or grace that comes to us from the Tathagata. We love the Buddha by deeply appreciating the Buddha's love toward us. This is what nembutsu - mindfulness of Buddha - really means. Nembutsu is a heartfelt thank you.
For the Sake of Beings
Contemporary Buddhist teachings tend to emphasise individual practice and present it as a route to personal achievement of spiritual illumination. Each practitioner is expected to unify his own being on his own cushion. However, in the history of Buddhism, especially that of Zen, it is through an encounter - a 'transmission' - that people become enlightened, and it is misleading to understand this as a personal achievement except in the sense that it is an achievement of sorts to let go of self obsession and give oneself to love. The whole purpose of the exercise is the service of sentient beings. In fact, Zen is Co-zen. It only becomes manifest and meaningful in relationship. Can we be wholehearted, loving, compassionate and wise in our relationships? This is much more important than any altered state of conscious that one might attain while sitting in one's cave. In fact, if the altered state does not subsequently manifest in such relations, it was not the real thing anyway.
Letting the Seed Grow
The original, basic Buddhist meaning of smriti, 'mindfulness', was to hold and cherish the Dharma within one's heart-mind. When we plant the Dharma deeply in our mind, it grows and develops within us naturally until it manifests in a loving engagement with life. Thus, Buddhism is a progression from mindfulness to heartfulness, from taking the Dharma to heart toward heartfully embracing life. However, this seed does not grow through any contrivance of our own. It germinates and grows under the influence of the Dharma rain and the sunshine of Buddha's love. As we realise that we are supremely fortunate, so we are naturally permeated with these beneficent powers, resistance melts and love triumphs.
The full meaning of mindfulness is a lot more than a technique of mental health. The simple act of taking time to stop and stare does have a great value if it leads us to a deeper appreciation of the ocean of grace within which we exist and thrive. The Buddhas have already brought the Dharma into the world and they ceaselessly strive on our behalf. Although we are weak, foolish and vulnerable, we can turn toward and value that great love and, in such gratitude and appreciative regard, we naturally become loving beings. Practice is devotion and gratitude. Such love is the foundational motive for everything we do.