Working with Buddhists Behind
By Andrew Clark ©
Andrew Clark: What do you
make of the fact that with roughly 2 million people currently incarcerated,
the United States has the largest inmate population in the world?
What does this say about us?
Ven. Chodron: We're
suspicious of others, we're fearful, and we don't want to think
about what causes people to get involved in crime. It seems like
voters are more interested in protecting themselves from people
who they think will harm them than preventing young people from
growing up to be criminals. So citizens are willing to vote for
a new prison, but they don't want their tax money spent on schools,
education, and after-school projects for youth. They aren't making
the connection that if young people grow up in poverty, without
education, without skills, if they grow up in a family that's a
mess, it's very natural for them to get into criminal activities.
It makes perfect sense why they landed where they did. I think we
have to start looking at the cause and remedying that.
Also, I think the idea of "Punish them!" reflects a broader
American policy of "Use might to solve problems." This
is the same kind of attitude we have toward how to deal with Al
Qaeda, the Palestinians, and anybody else who does anything we don't
like. We use force against our own citizens, and other countries,
and there seems to be this idea that "I'm going to treat you
really badly until you decide to be nice to me." It doesn't
work on a foreign policy level, and it doesn't work with people
who have gotten involved with criminal activities.
Punishing people doesn't make them want to be nice. It makes them
bitter and angry. They stay in prison and don't learn skills. Later
they're released without any kind of preparation for facing the
world. It's a setup for recidivism, which is one of the reasons
why prisons are so crowded. People get out and go right back in
because they don't know how to live in the world. The prison system
doesn't teach people how to live in the world; its only focus is
And the punishment doesn't just happen within prison, it continues
after they are released. They are highly restricted as to jobs they
can get; many of them come from neighborhoods where work is hard
to come by anyway. And some of the jobs that do exist aren't open
to them because they're convicted felons. Well, they have to eat;
they might have a wife who wants child support, and the only way
some of them know how to make money is illegally. Also, supposedly
they've done their time, but for the rest of their lives they can't
vote. What does that say about our belief in democracy?
There's an assumption here that people can't be rehabilitated. If
we really believed that people could be rehabilitated, we would
send them through a rehabilitative program; we'd let them vote and
get jobs. But the punishment continues-in some cases, throughout
Can society make some effort to create jobs for felons, who will
then have a chance to show that they can do the job? For example,
let's say a felon is out of prison for five years, has a job, and
doesn't cause any trouble. That should be enough proof that he's
changed. Society should create opportunities, such as giving tax
breaks to employers who hire felons, just as we should do for employers
who hire disabled people. There could even be foundations that specialize
in this. After all, we let white-collar crooks get away with murder.
Blaming and scapegoating is a major part of why people don't look
at the causality behind crime. Drugs is a clear example. African
Americans, especially, go to prison on drug charges with sentences
that are two, three, or four times what whites serve for the same
crime. That to me is clearly scapegoating. We have yet to deal with
our racist heritage, and that includes us liberals. Many white people
have a knee-jerk belief that blacks commit more crimes, and that's
not based on evidence. We're afraid and we don't want to look into
the causes of the fear. It's a lot easier to scapegoat blacks or,
if you're in the middle class, poor people. It functions as denial:
we don't want to look at the violence in our own lives and that
our lifestyles perpetuate.
Andrew: I want to ask you about some disturbing statistics
I've seen: 65 percent of people committing felonies lack a high
school education, 50 percent were under the influence of either
alcohol or drugs when they perpetrated the crime, and another 33
percent are unemployed. How do you think these statistics contribute
to the typical stereotype of felons--that they were born to be criminals?
If 50 percent are under the influence of something, how do we interpret
that? One interpretation could be that these people are all lazy
bums, they're drunks, they're druggies, they're scum. My way of
looking at it is to ask why they are using drugs or alcohol. What
are the causes of that in their social background?
We should also remember that alcohol is the drug of choice in our
society, and all classes are abusing it. So if you're drunk while
you're committing white-collar crime, does anybody keep that statistic?
Ven. Chodron: There's
a difference between violent crime and white-collar crime. White-collar
crime is carried out over a period of time. You don't just fudge
the books one day, you fudge every day--for years. The people who
are in prison for violent crimes, something got a hold on them,
then "Boom!"--there they were. It's a very different type
of activity. In a violent crime, there's a lot of strong emotion,
and the strong emotion catches people's attention, it makes them
afraid. Whereas when people hear about a business that is dumping
toxic waste into a river, it doesn't produce that powerful, immediate
effect the way it does when people hear about murder or rape.
Andrew: Given that half
of the 2 million people in jail or prison in the U.S. are African
American, while African Americans make up only 13 percent of the
total population nationwide, have you found that many of the inmates
who attend your teachings/meditations are African American?
Ven. Chodron: It
depends a lot on the group, but generally, no. In some prisons a
group will be half, or sometimes two-thirds African American, but
mostly a group is predominantly white, with a few African Americans.
Some prisoners have remarked about that to me, saying that they'd
like more people of color to come. But often the African Americans,
if they're looking for another religion, will look to Islam, where
they feel their identity or their roots are.
Another factor is that there is strong pressure on blacks to stay
in the church, the various Protestant denominations, because that's
such a part of many black communities. Also, the Nation of Islam
created an African American identity for itself. To convert to Islam
is acceptable to some black families, but to become a Buddhist may
be considered a betrayal of both family and the whole race, because
they see the church as so much a part of their identity. I haven't
heard this from people in prison but I have heard it from other
Andrew: Have you seen any correlation between the
type of people attending the teachings and meditations, and the
type of crime they are doing time for, or the length of sentence?
Ven. Chodron: Almost
everyone I write to in prison is in for violent crimes. The last
time I was at San Quentin, of the roughly 40 people that came, most
were lifers. Afterward, I asked them about this. They said that
most of the people who are in for life are much more likely to seek
out spiritual things, and also programs for change, because they
recognize that their whole life will be spent in prison. So they
want to make the most of it. People who are in for shorter periods
of time--say, for robbery, or a short drug term--are often angrier.
They're already thinking about what they're going to do when they
get out-- all the fun they're going to have. Also, the people who
are in with short sentences tend to have more contact with the outside
because their families haven't cut them off. They are also more
related to gangs and what's happening on the outside.
Santikaro Bhikku: In many cases, we
don't know what the individual crimes are; prisoners tend not to
talk about that in front of the group. When I find out, it's usually
through private communication.
Andrew: How has this work affected your practice?
I find these guys inspiring. When I hear them talk about the situations
they struggle with, and I meet people who are committed to practicing
in much more difficult circumstances than I have to deal with, that's
inspiring. So are those who are dealing with AIDS, cancer, extreme
poverty, or rape. I think of these people when I'm feeling lazy
Ven. Chodron: Some
of the guys I write to have committed the crimes that most terrify
me. What is interesting is that I'm able to go beyond my fear of
what they've done and see them as human beings. When they write
letters, the stories they tell me pull at me sometimes. For example,
someone in solitary will write about his loneliness and being cut
off from his family. Then there's the pain of those who live in
the big dorms. People are constantly in their face, day and night,
in very dangerous situations. The fact that they turn to the Three
Jewels for refuge, and that it helps them, inspires me about the
efficacy of Dharma practice. Seeing how some of these guys change
over time and learn to deal with their stuff, that's very inspiring
also. They tell me what they used to be like, and yet here they
are, open and willing to look at stuff inside themselves. I always
feel that I receive much more than I give.
Andrew: Do you think that being a Buddhist monastic
changes the way you go about doing the prison work, or the way prisoners
respond to you?
Ven. Chodron: Sure.
You're wearing the "Buddhist uniform," so, just as in
the rest of society, they relate to you in a different way--whatever
their preconceptions happen to be. Some people are more suspicious
of you, others respect you more. The men I write to get a sense
of commitment from the fact that I'm a nun. Many of them have had
difficulty with commitment in their lives. Also, they may feel starved
for sense pleasure, but here we are, we've voluntarily given it
up and we're happy! They think, "Oh, they're happy and they're
doing without the same things I'm doing without. Maybe I can be
happy without that stuff too!"
A lot of prison staff perceive me as clergy, and to some extent
give me more respect than if I were a layperson. Prison is a very
hierarchical system. Also, a lot of guys identify with me more easily
than with the lay volunteers. As they've put it, they can't have
sex, I can't have sex; they have to follow lots of rules, I have
to follow lots of rules; they don't have much choice of clothes,
I don't have choice! Some of the men picture their cells as monastic
cells, even if they don't really know what a Buddhist monastery
Andrew: How does this work fit in with the life of
a Buddhist monk or nun?
Prison is a good place to practice socially engaged Buddhism. Prison
brings together a lot of social issues in this country: racism,
poverty, class, violence in society, rigid hierarchy, and militarization.
Also, it's challenging for me as a monastic in this country, where
it's still so easy to get away with a middle-class existence. Our
Buddhist centers are overwhelmingly middle class, or even upper
middle class. We have a lot of places with nice gourmet food and
all kinds of little privileges. Working with prisoners is one way
I'm trying to have a connection to people who do not have middle-class
privileges or backgrounds.
Another aspect of my life as a Buddhist monk is to share Dhamma,
and these are just more human beings who are interested in Dhamma.
A prison is such a brutal, hierarchical, paramilitary system--and
here we are meditating! And it's not just about the prisoners, by
the way. The guards are not very privileged people either. They
are, for the most part, poorly paid and not well respected. How
many people want to grow up to be a prison guard?
If some of the big companies were to invite me to go in and give
Dhamma talks, I'd go there too. If Dubya invited me down to Texas
for some meditation discussions, I'd go.
Ven. Chodron: If
prisoners were on the outside, they might not go to Buddhist centers,
which often are not in neighborhoods where prisoners would feel
comfortable going. So prison work is a very precious opportunity
to connect with and touch people in a way that you don't have on
Some of the most moving experiences I've had in prison were when
I've given refuge, or precepts. When I give the precept not to kill
to someone who's killed, it really moves me. I've been so amazed
at the discussions I have with the men in the prison groups. They
are in an environment where nobody wants to listen to them, where
nobody cares about what they think. When they come in contact with
somebody who's genuinely interested and wants to know what they
think, they open up.
Sometimes I have the choice to teach at a Dharma center or drive
three hours to see a prisoner. I'd rather go see the prisoner! We
know that person is going to take in what we say, whereas often
people on the outside act as if the teacher has to be entertaining.
They don't want the talk to be too long. They have to be comfortable.
Sometimes people on the outside aren't quite as motivated to practice
as guys on the inside are.
Andrew: What would be your advice to someone who
is interested doing prison work?
Ven. Chodron: Be
very patient with the bureaucracy. Be firm, don't give up, be patient.
Push, but push gently. Be respectful of the staff.
Don't think you can cut corners or not follow the rules, because
the one who will pay the price isn't you--it will be the prisoners.
Examine your class and race issues. I've met volunteers who come
off as superior because they're more educated or from a "higher"
class. Effective volunteers are willing to look into their own class
bias and lingering racism.
Ven. Chodron: And
look into your own fear, your own prejudice against "criminals,"
and your own fear of being hurt. Look at your motivations. Are you
thinking that you're going to convert these people and put them
on the right path, or are you going in there with respect for them?