Mindfulness or Mindlessness: It is Our Call

Speaker: Venerable Miao Zang

Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, Los Angeles

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to our friends around the world. This is Miao Zang from San Diego, California, Hsi Fang Temple. Thank you for joining us this online session of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Service. I hope this talk finds you all well and in good health.

Today, I would like to share with you a topic titled “Mindfulness or Mindlessness—It is Our Call.” As part of the introduction, I first listed out four questions, which I will be sharing with you today. The questions are what is mindfulness, what are the differences between being mindful and being mindless, why is the practice of mindfulness so important, and how to develop a good habit of daily mindfulness.

II. What is mindfulness?

Before we look into the practice of mindfulness, first of all, let us learn more about the mind. What is the mind? The mind is formless. There is nothing physical that we can touch or hold. But whenever it comes in contact with sense objects, the mind will appear and letting us know what we are sensing. In the book, Core Teachings by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, he mentioned that, “Our mind is our true nature. It is our Buddha nature.” It is just like what the Buddha said at the moment of enlightenment, “All sentient beings have Buddha nature. The only reason we do not see our own Buddha nature is because it is obscured by ignorance and delusion.” Thus, the mind is an important factor in our practice. It has the potential to be trained mindfully and wholesomely. In Samyukta Agama, it stated, “Because the mind is afflicted, living beings are afflicted. Because the mind is purified, living beings are purified.” So with that we can understand how important it is for us to train our mind and to develop our mind in practicing being mindful at all time.

The next question is what is mindfulness? It is the quality or the state of being conscious or aware of something. Being mindful is not a mind full of all things but having our attention to our present moment. When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of what we are doing, saying and thinking. It is also the ability to remain focused on a chosen object without forgetfulness or distraction. When we are being mindful, we are able to remember things better as we have our mind on it.

III. Being mindful vs being mindless

The next question is, what are the differences between being mindful and being mindless? 

When we are being mindful, everything is clear, everything is focused. Whatever that we perceive, whatever that we have in our mind, all of our thoughts are pretty clear. However, if we are mindless, our mind is not on the things we perceive nor the things we are doing. Also, we will do whatever we are used to do and react in the certain way that we used to react. Oftentimes, we just turn on the autopilot mode, doing things without knowing or seeing things without really paying attention to them. We are not being observant, not being able to stay focused on what we want to do. Just like this man, looking at the mall directory, you are here but your mind is somewhere else. When we have our daily activities, I believe some of us might have similar experiences, where we thought of doing a certain thing but after half way through the corridor, our mind might just go blank and forget what we have in mind before. If we are being mindful, this will not happen. Also, when we are mindless, we are unable to focus. It is just like looking at this photo here. We might just stare blankly at the words or certain things and our mind is somewhere else. This is another example of being mindless. On the other hand, if we are able to stay focus, we will be able to see what is really in front of us and not being led by our emotions or habits. Thus, these are the differences between mindless and mindful.

IV. Why is the practice of mindfulness important?

So why is the practice of mindfulness important? The practice of mindfulness is important because we will be more aware of what we do, what we say and what we have in our mind. When we are not practicing mindfulness, we might just follow our habitual tendencies in doing the things we usually do and not knowing what we are doing. It is just like we are being reminded from time to time not to touch our faces before washing our hands, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. However, how many times do we touch our faces in every hour? According to Health line, it is an approximate of sixteen times in an hour that we might touch or scratch our faces. This is habit. It is something that we are so used to do every time and our mind is not on it when we are actually doing that.

Personally, I have similar experience where I was overwhelmed with the things I need to do and my mind was taken over by habits. I remember there was one time, the temple was in an urgent need of mailing labels. So, I drove out to the nearby Office Depot. When I stopped in front of the store, got off the car, I just realized that I was in front of Staples, instead of Office Depot. It is because I was used to going to Staples for printing materials, my mind was actually driven by the habitual tendencies without knowing it.

Now, let us look at the photo. Can you find a mistake? As part of our intellectual habit, our mind is led by our assumption and focusing straight onto the numbers. However, look again and we will see the mistake. If we reflect upon what we perceive and conceive, oftentimes when we hear a certain word or see a certain thing, our mind develops and interprets in a way of how we would like to see it. Not the way as it is. Thus, we will not see the things as they are but things we have in our mind. 

From this experience, we can learn that when we are emotionally driven or habits driven, we are not being mindful. Worst still, we might do or say things that we might regret later. Remember, we have three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance, embracing us in the moments when we are not paying attention. Just like the iceberg theory. On the surface, we can only see the tip of the iceberg when we are mindful, whereas we will not be able to see the whole iceberg that is underneath the ocean when we are mindless.

Take for example, how do we like to eat a certain food from the first place? It started with the first pleasant experience when we tasted the food. The second time when we tasted again, similar experience but this time with a slight greediness to eat more. If this were to continue, we might have ended up overeating as we are not aware of the greediness within our mind. This becomes our habit.

The same goes to if we experienced something unpleasant, we become frustrated or agitated. If similar scenario were to happen again, we will have hatred embracing our mind. Eventually we have unintentionally cultivated this unwholesome habit. On the other hand, if we can practice being mindful at all times, we will try our best to be aware of our actions and act wholesomely. We constantly ask ourselves, is my action wholesome or unwholesome? Are my words truthful or not? If we can practice mindfulness at all times, we will be able to conduct ourselves as per the practice of Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. When we all practice mindfulness, everyone will conduct mindfully and righteously. Eventually, the whole household, society, nation will be more harmonious. Then, the vision for world peace will be realized. This is why it is important for everyone to practice mindfulness at all times so that we will be aware of our action, speech and mind.

There was one occasion during the rainy season during the Buddha’s time. Upali, Purna, and Sariputra, the great disciples of the Buddha, were discussing how this would be a great disaster and countless lives would be lost.

Upali remarked, “It is the rainy season now, and clear days are nowhere in sight. Countless lives will be lost in this disaster.”

Purna added: “Since the beginning of existence, sentient beings have been revolving in the cycles of birth and death within the six realms. It is like being in the midst of a wild horse stampede; it is beyond human control.”

Sariputra also expressed: “Wherever there is heavy rainfall, roads are washed away. The floods make traveling impossible and human misery is everywhere.”

When the Buddha saw them in deep discussion, he said to them: “Since the immeasurable beginning of the cycle of birth and death, sentient beings have turned on the wheel of rebirth and are ignorant of the origin of suffering. For example, during a flood, countless lives and property are lost and destroyed. The disaster is mainly caused by the lack of preparation and prevention…”

The Buddha further explained that most of us do not learn from our past painful experiences and fail to change. Instead we leave it as it is and natural disasters keep recurring. The same goes to our lives. There are many things happen and we thought that it is “nature”, but it is not. It has been repeating itself over time and we actually cultivated that. Then, this becomes a habit, and we then called that “nature.” In this way, we keep turning on the wheel of rebirth. The Buddha ended with a verse, “A bowyer adjusts the angles of a bow, a sailor masters the art of sailing, a carpenter is familiar with the structure of the wood, a wise man cultivates oneself.” Therefore, we should mindfully cultivate the wholesome and eliminate all that is unwholesome.

V. How do we practice mindfulness on a daily basis?

After learning more about mindfulness, knowing the importance of being mindful, the next question is how do we cultivate daily practices of mindfulness? Let us look at how the Buddha practiced mindfulness on a daily basis in the Diamond Sutra. The first paragraph of the sutra states:

“Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha was in the city of Sravasti at the Jeta Grove Monastery with a gathering of monks numbering 1,250. At mealtime, the World-honored One put on his robe, picked up his bowl, and went into the city of Sravasti to beg for food. After he had gone from house to house, he returned to the grove. When he had finished eating, he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, straightened his mat, and sat down.” 

From this paragraph, even though we cannot find any word like mindful or meditate, but the Buddha and the whole sangha were practicing mindfulness at all times. Even a simple act like sitting down. This reminds us that we should practice to be mindful in our daily routines, starting from the moment we wake up, brushing our teeth, washing our faces, having breakfast…Remember, do not let our mind turns on the autopilot mode. Be a mindful pilot of all the actions we do. Can we do that?

Let us take Venerable Master as an example. In his entire life, he always tries to give the best and to observe the needs of others. For example, everyone wants a piece of his One-Stroke calligraphy as a blessing to them. Even though Venerable Master is unable to see, his hands are shaking badly and very painful at times, he always tries to write One-Stroke calligraphy with insightful Dharma words, to share the Dharma and to give others joy. He is constantly being mindful of others’ needs and puts others before himself.

As for myself, from time to time, I might accidentally turn on the autopilot mode and acted mindlessly. So, as part of my daily reminders of being mindful, I ask myself, “Am I breathing?” With this reminder, it helps to bring my attention to my breathing and to the present moment. Especially when I might be impatient over a certain wait or overwhelmed with many things to do, with this reminder of “Am I breathing?” it brings my attention to my thoughts and reactions at the point of time. Breathing is essential. Breathing is what we do since day one. If we can relate breathing to mindfulness as what the Buddha suggested, whenever we are being agitated or tempted by what we perceiving or experiencing, we remind ourselves to breathe. When we are aware of our breathing, we kind of pause for a while and bring our focus to the present. If we can be aware and mindful at all times, will we still be emotionally or external influenced? If we make it a wholesome habit of reminding ourselves, breathing and being mindful, we will then put our mind into the things we do and the words we say.

Another mindful practice we can cultivate is mindful hand washing since we might be washing our hands more often than before. When we are washing our hands, what do we usually have in our mind in that 20 seconds or more? Do we have our mind on it? I would like to share with you this mindful hand washing. First, we wet our hands. Turn off the faucet. Apply some soap onto our hands. As we scrub our hands with soap, going through fingers by fingers, nails by nails, palm by palm, in our mind, we can start mindfully observing our breathing.

Breathing in, may I be well. Breathing out. 
Breathing in, may I be happy. Breathing out. 
Breathing in, may I be healthy. Breathing out. 
Breathing in, may I be filled with loving kindness. Breathing out. 
Breathing in, may I cleanse my mind as I cleanse my hands. 

By then, 20 seconds has passed and our hands are clean. Then, we mindfully turn on the faucet to remove the soap and cleanse our hands. With this practice, not only we practice mindfulness on washing our hands, we are practicing mindfulness of the resource of the water we use to wash our hands. When we turn on the faucet to wet our hands and turn off the water while we scrub our hands with soap, on average, we can save approximately 25 gallons of water daily.

Due to the limitation of the time, we can refer to the booklet on Starting a Daily Practice by Venerable Master. As part of the introduction, he said: “All we need is the right intention to begin any form of spiritual practice, whether it is bowing to the Buddha, chanting the sutras, repentance, meditation, or other such practices. Any of these can form the basis of a daily practice.

VI. Conclusion

To conclude for today’s sharing, the practice of mindfulness in our everyday life is crucial. We will be more aware of our actions, words and thoughts. When we are more aware and mindful, we will not be emotionally influenced and habitually driven. We will have more wholesome conducts, making sure what we do and say are being mindful towards the welfare of others. Remember, there is no reset button in our life. All actions will have effects influencing others in a direct or indirect manner. Thus, mindful or mindless, it is our call. 
Now, let us join our palms, dedicating the merits from this Dharma session to our family, our friends, our society, and to all beings. Last but not least, thank you for joining us in this cultivation session. If you find this Dharma service helpful to your practice, please subscribe to the FGS English Dharma Services Youtube Channel and share it with your friends.

May Buddha bless you and your family. See you next week. Omituofo.