Just as a fletcher shapes an arrow, so the wise develop the heart/mind [Citta],
So excitable, uncertain, and difficult to control.
Dhammapada, Chapter 3: verse 33
Ever since 2014, the VIMS sangha has gathered on New Year’s morning to welcome the incoming year. We sit in silence, and afterwards we reflect on a few verses from a chapter of the Dhammapada, which is a collection of short, poetic lines from the Buddhist teachings––many of which can also be found in various other places within the longer, collected discourses. Each year in retrospect, the selected verses seem to have had some strong, almost unconscious influence on the unfolding of the year within our sangha.
For example, on January 1, 2018, we reflected on verses from the chapter titled “Appamada,” a word that is variously translated as “appreciative awareness,” “diligence,” or “caring.” “Caring,” along with the other related definitions, turned out to be a theme for us all that year––internally and externally. During 2018, we saw our wonderful Sangha Support network grow exponentially in providing care to those in our community in need. Our strengthened connection with the UVIP network brought us even more fully into the world of social justice in general, and into immigrant justice specifically. Ruth King’s June visit and powerful talk, “Mindful of Race,” sparked the creation of two book-study groups, through which we have cultivated a fuller understanding of racism and the role of mindfulness in addressing it. We also saw the arising of racial affinity groups within VIMS.
After our welcoming sit on January first of the recently deceased 2019, we reflected on chapter three of the Dhammapada with its simple title of “The Heart/Mind” and its message about the importance of wisely and kindly shaping this powerful force. Neuro-biologist Dan Siegel refers to this as “a flow; a processing of energy and information.” There are a number of words in the ancient Buddhist teachings that are translated into English as “mind.” The Pali word used here is citta, which refers to the workings of our mental lives and which includes thoughts, emotions, intentions, perceptions, volitions, etc. The verses encourage us to become familiar with the nature of citta––to understand its role in the creation of our direct experience of our perceived inner and outer worlds––and to use our growing wisdom to steer us skillfully towards less distress and agitation for ourselves and for others. And, indeed, this is what we have been doing all year.
This is what I have been doing all day and why not?
Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
We have been fletching the arrow of our heart-minds, just as the verse at the beginning of the Dhammapada’s Chapter 3 (and of this essay advise). Last January, in order to more fully understand what the metaphor that is used might suggest, some of us sought out more information about the nature of the arrow and its refinement. What is meant by fletching? we wondered. We learned quite a bit about archery, and, specifically, we found out that a fletcher’s job is to put the feathers on the shaft of the arrow. It is these feathers that guide the direction of the arrow––straight to the target.
Friends, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true [straight] method, for the realization of nibbana [nirvana], namely, the four satipatthanas [four fields of awareness in which to apply mindfulness]
Buddha, the opening to the Satipatthana Sutta
Together this year, we have been carefully and kindly, wisely and patiently fletching the arrow of our heart-minds. The VIMS sangha has seen the steady continuance and growth of Dharma study in each of our weekly groups, as well as the birth of the wonderful Dhamma Study Group. A new offering, this study group has been working directly with the Satipatthana Sutta quoted above, and has delved deeply into the workings of the heart-mind––deconstructing them in such a way as to allow the application of skillful mindfulness to address the human situation laid out so clearly in the Four Noble Truths teaching. In related, very important, and consistent ways, all of the VIMS study and practice groups as well as our daylong retreat offerings have been refining and sharpening our understanding of citta, and thereby carefully guiding the direction of the heart and mind. Through these same groups, as well as in our friendships and collegial relationships, we have also been supporting one another in the practical applications of the teachings beyond our formal meditation and into our daily lives, thereby clarifying and easing our experiences within the many personal and social worlds we share with all beings.
More than a thief,
More than an enemy,
A misdirected heart
Brings one to harm.
Neither mother, father,
Nor any member of a family
Can give you the blessings generated
By your own well-directed heart.
Dhammapada Chapter 3: verses 42-43
Although you will be reading this essay in 2020, I must submit it to the newsletter crew before the end of 2019. In the next issue, I will let you know more about our welcoming reflections for our new decade! I can say now that when the morning of 2020 opens to the light of day, some of the VIMS sangha will be sitting together in silence and then reflecting on the Dhammapada’s advice from Chapter Four, which is titled “Flowers.” The year of the flowers. What will blossom for VIMS in 2020? And in our larger shared world? May it be beautiful: free from hostility and ill-will; and may it be of great benefit to all. Happy New Year!
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. –– Carl Sagan
Keep calmly knowing change. –– Bhikkhu Analayo