Prison Dharma | Thubten Chodron The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Sat, 24 Jun 2017 12:46:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Photos with inmates Sat, 28 Jun 2014 00:34:19 +0000

Venerables Chodron and Samten sitting with inmates in Medan women's prison. Venerable Chodron speaking while prison volunteers and inmates listen. Venerable Chodron with prison inmates in Pacific, Missouri. Prisoners at a Singapore prison listen as Venerable Chodron gives a Dharma talk. Venerable Chodron with Andy and Ken at South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri. Venerable Chodron standing with inmates at SCCC prison in Licking, Missouri. Venerable Chodron standing with a group of inmates.
Prison pagoda of loving kindness Thu, 10 Dec 2015 06:51:46 +0000

“Wouldn’t it be great,” mused a Buddhist practitioner on McNeil Island, “to have a quiet place, something like a stupa or a pagoda, where we could meditate together.”

That’s a reasonable aspiration, except that McNeil Island is the site of a Washington State Corrections Center and the practitioner with a beautiful vision is in prison there. The idea inspired the prison Dharma group, however, and together they vowed to pursue their “impossible dream.”

And they succeeded! Despite prison bureaucracy and all the other obstacles that can arise, the group successfully petitioned for, acquired, and constructed a “pagoda”—a six-sided, half-walled cedar gazebo, about 12 feet in diameter—a sacred space in the prison yard for meditation and other spiritual activities.

Inmates at the concecration of the new pagoda.

I joined three Buddhist volunteers from the Zen tradition, prison officials, and Buddhist residents to help them consecrate and celebrate in a daylong “Buddhist Banquet and Pagoda Dedication.”

Amidst the joy of the day, there was a pervading sense of amazement. Although they had pulled off this feat with their own hands and hearts, the McNeil Island residents seemed to not quite believe it had happened. And they were justifiably proud—a rejoicing-kind-of-proud—that I and the other visiting Buddhist volunteers encouraged in our talks with the men.

Metta—loving-kindness—was the theme for the day, and it soon became apparent that loving kindness was the force that brought this meditation pagoda into existence. The sincerity of the Buddhist group persuaded the new chaplain to go to bat for them. His enthusiasm kindled the kindness of the prison CEO. Support from both of them was necessary to get the project through the maze of prison regulations.

The project required the Buddhist group to cooperate together on planning and execution, and they in turn invited the participation of others.

Because McNeil Island is, in fact, an island, they had to arrange for building materials to be ordered, delivered, ferried over from the mainland, unloaded, and safely stored until they were ready to build. Over time, it seems the entire prison population got involved in some way, and enthusiasm grew.

The group put out a call for anyone who had worked in construction to come and help, thus bringing together men with a diversity of philosophies. They also had a diversity of ideas about how to put the pagoda kit together. Several of the non-Buddhist volunteers spoke with something like awe at how they managed to work out their differences of opinion and work together for the common cause.

One fellow asked the group, “How many religions does it take to build a pagoda?” “Five,” he continued, “Buddhist, Christian, Native American, Pagan, and Atheist,” the professed faith of each person directly involved in the construction, “and we worked out our differences and got the job done peacefully.” His face beamed satisfaction, tinged with disbelief.

For me, it was a joy to bear witness to the success of this project. “This pagoda came from goodness,” I told them. A virtuous project like this could only come from a virtuous cause, a fact I wanted to emphasize.

It’s hard enough for people on the outside to get over our ordinary, low-self-esteem view and recognize our Buddha potential. How much more so for people who have made mistakes, have harmed others, and landed in prison. One young man repeated incredulous gratitude to the Buddhist guests that came to celebrate the pagoda. “You know what we’ve done,” he said to me. “I can’t believe you would come all that way to visit us!”

One by one, over the course of the celebration day, McNeil Island residents shared stories of the power of loving kindness. They especially noted the care of their Buddhist group leader, whom I’ll call Kevin, whose compassion inspired them to try his methods for themselves.

“I never thought much about Buddhism,” said one dapper man in his 60s, “because I never heard of an African-American Buddha … until I met him.” He pointed to Kevin—a long-time Buddhist and longer-time prison inmate, a large man with a cherubic face and gentle smile.

“I watched how he reached out to everybody,” said the man I’ll call Geoff. “Didn’t matter who—inmates, guards, visitors. He had a smile, a kind word, an extended hand for everybody. And I thought, ‘What is this guy up to?’ When I started coming to the Buddhist group, I found out.”

Geoff went on to describe his first experiment in testing Kevin’s—that is to say, Buddha’s—methods on a fellow he particularly disliked. Geoff’s enemy served on the breakfast line, and every morning, he slapped Geoff’s food on the plate with hostility. Geoff first tried saying, “Thank you,” for each serving, even though he was still seething inside. Learning to apply thought training, he began think to himself, “Without this man, I won’t be eating at all,” and so his “Thank you” became increasingly genuine.

One day it occurred to him to say, “Good morning!” His enemy was taken aback with that one. So “Good morning” and “Thank you” became Geoff’s norm. Slowly, over time, the enmity turned to friendship. And Geoff, who now considers himself Buddhist, finished his talk exclaiming, “This Buddhism stuff really works!”

For me, their stories illustrate the transformative power of one person’s kindness. And the power of the Dharma to transform lives.

With the completion of the pagoda, the Buddhists decided to share their sacred space with the other spiritual associations in the prison. Any group can sign up to use it, and once surveillance cameras are in place, individuals may be able to use it for private meditation. That’s an unheard-of privilege in prison, but the chaplain is hoping it will work out.

A pagoda is the Chinese version of a stupa, representative of the Buddha’s mind. May this sacred presence in the gravel yard at McNeil Island Correction Center, enclosed by 12-foot fences and razor wire, rain its enlightening influence throughout the prison, growing loving kindness in the hearts of all who use it to find inner peace.

The grief and resilience of a mother Wed, 15 Jul 2015 06:10:36 +0000

I have been thinking about sharing this experience and woke this morning with a sense of urgency, my first thought was that I really might die today, I honestly have so little control over what happens to me in life so let me take what I do have control over and put it to good use and hopefully in so doing, maybe help someone else.

My lovely boy who is now 33, the one with the amazing sense of humor, big smiles, big heart, the one kids instinctively adored and animals wanted to play with, well, he ended up on the front page of his town’s newspaper under the heading, “Drunken thug attacks strangers on night out.” One of the strangers landed in hospital and has no memory of being knocked out.

When I saw the article, with a blurred photo of my son leaving the courthouse after being given a two-year suspended sentence—suspended only because of his previous good standing in the community—and thought about him and these poor individuals he had hurt, my heart shattered. Were it not for my practice of mindful breathing, I just know I would have had a panic attack. I know because the only panic attack I have ever had happened when he was 17. The sweetest, smartest, brightest, kindest kid that everyone adored at 17 experienced a pot-induced psychosis that changed his life. It was so bad he heard voices and believed what they said. Fortunately at that time they were not angry voices and he agreed to get help, take meds, and finally took refuge in his church.

I know he struggled at times, feeling he was a failure compared to his old school friends, feeling he had lost so much and that the potential he had had was over as he could no longer concentrate like he used to when he was an honor student. The meds made him feel sluggish and he gained weight, but it eased up and over the years he slimmed down and seemed more at peace, appearing to develop a good sense of self-worth, looking happy again.

Then this. All these years later, I don’t know why, perhaps he thought he could handle a night out with his co-workers. Maybe more was going on than I was aware of, but here he is and the psychosis is back, only this time he has refused meds and cut off contact with all friends and family. It is like his whole world changed and he stepped into a hell realm and I can see him but he can’t hear me and I can’t reach him. I have tried, we have all tried, and he has cut off all avenues of contact. My heart explodes in grief and fear, and when it does I have to allow it the space to come out without “offering it tea,” so to speak, because suppressing or indulging it will make me ill.

Being a mother I carried this being in my body, falling in love with him before I even saw his face. My body fed him, I so loved and nurtured him, I enjoyed every single moment with him, even the 2:00 in the morning ones. Those were to me the most special, just alone in the early morning quiet, the warmth of that little body close to mine. Growing up with him, teaching him to be kind, those smiles, the little hugs turning into big hugs. How does this turn into “thug”? Where is my child? How do I wrap my head around this? I look at all his photos, and now the last image I have is a blurred one of him leaving a courthouse. I recognize those arms, I have felt them bear-hug me, but now where is my son? Is all of this him? Is none of this him? They say the things children learn in the formative years are important for the rest of their lives. In his formative years he learned only good stuff. What happened?

Mother hugging her son.

I think of all the mothers just like me and I do tonglen for all of us. (Photo by Paw Paw)

The teachings on emptiness, the teachings on dependent origination and rebirth are what brought me to the Dharma. I bring them to mind as I struggle with this habitual grasping to an inherently existent son that so automatically kicks in, investigating carefully as I bounce from one of the two extremes to the other trying to find the middle way. I turn to the wisdom teachings when my mind is less emotional, and when the pain and fear are most intense I turn to the compassion teachings, I think of all the mothers just like me and I do the taking-and-giving meditation (tonglen) for all of us. I am so grateful for the Buddhadharma.

Recently, before all this happened, I volunteered to help the Abbey send Dharma books to prison inmates. Helping prisoners who want help helps me. I so appreciate the opportunity to do this.  

The beings that come into our lives as our children come with their own baggage. We really don’t know who is taking up residence in our bodies and our homes. They, just like us, come with their own unique karmic imprints of all kinds that if watered when conditions are right, will explode in life. My fear is that he doesn’t really take the help and ends up hurting more people or hurts himself one day. I catch myself all too often wasting time torturing myself with imaginings like this about what may or may not happen, which is pointless really and just a waste of time and energy. Worrying won’t stop it from happening, and maybe it won’t happen and then I have worried for nothing. Still it can be hard to stop.

Time is precious. Life is precious. May this karma burn up quickly, may he and all sons and mothers, all beings everywhere, be well and kind to themselves and others. In all my future lives may I never be separated from the Buddha’s precious Dharma. A quote by His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds me every day to really open my eyes and look and just be kind no matter what is manifesting, “Basically, everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile.”

Connecting with women inmates in Indonesia Wed, 10 Jun 2015 17:58:25 +0000

In June, 2015, Venerable Chodron was invited to give teachings in Indonesia over a two-week period. In addition to two retreats and several public talks there was also an invitation to visit a prison for women. Over the years Venerable Chodron has visited many prisons where the inmate population is male—this was to be the first time for Venerable Chodron and myself to visit female inmates.

Together with some Buddhist volunteers who regularly visit the prison and a translator, we drove to the prison, which was outside of Medan, in Sumatra. When we entered the prison, we were greeted by prison staff who handed us a tag to wear around our neck. As we entered the courtyard we were struck by the sight of women in civilian clothes moving about in a relaxed manner, flowers in bloom in pots and cats strolling about: a stark contrast to any prison facility in the US.

Venerable Chodron and Venerable Samten sitting with a group of inmates in the Medan prison chapel.

Venerable Chodron teaching at the women’s prison in Sumatra. (Photo courtesy of Finny Owen)

When Venerable Chodron began her talk there were two women in my line of vision who kept their gaze lowered and would only look up from time to time. Their facial expressions communicated a great deal of mental pain and sadness, but as the talk continued they were able to look up more often and their facial expressions got softer and lighter.

A number of times throughout the talk, I felt very close to tears. It was striking to realize that we and the inmates have everything in common: we all want to be happy and we don’t want to experience suffering. With that kind of recognition there is no room for anything but meeting each other with an open mind and heart.

The women were deeply attentive to every word spoken by Venerable Chodron, and the room after a few minutes was charged with energy of Dharma being taught and received. When the time came for Q & A or comments, the women seemed to be too shy to speak. Finally, one of them, speaking on behalf of everyone, explained that they were in prison because they had been tricked. This brought a lot of nodding heads. Venerable Chodron’s response was skillful and direct: she said that while others may try to deceive us, when our wisdom is on the back burner we allow them to do that. We are responsible for our decisions, so it is extremely important for us to use care and discernment who we choose to associate with and who we trust. We can’t blame others for the situations that we find ourselves in when our choices have contributed to us being there. This also means that we have the power to change our situation in the future by increasing our wisdom and making wiser decisions. At this point I was wondering if this would elicit some adverse reaction, but the women stayed with Venerable Chodron and they continued to nod their heads indicating understanding and agreement.

Venerable Chodron also spoke about the Buddha nature, our potential to become fully awakened Buddhas. The fundamental, pure nature of our mind is like the pure sky and our disturbing emotions and wrong views are like clouds obscuring the sky. The sky is always there; it never goes away. Once the clouds are removed, we can see the sky. The practice of Dharma, especially of subduing our attachment and anger, helps us to remove the clouds. This is something all of us can do if we try.

The women then requested to do some chanting, so we all chanted Chenrezig’s mantra, om mani padme hum, together. The visit concluded with Venerable Chodron responding to the women’s request for the chapel to receive a name. Sravasti Chapel elicited a great deal of happiness and joy from everyone present! Sravasti Abbey now has a heart connection to the women who will go to the chapel to hear teachings, to reflect and meditate on them, and to chant and pray.

By the end of our time there, the two women who seemed to be holding the most pain were looking quite transformed; both were smiling and looking much lighter.

May the teaching given that day at Sravasti Chapel benefit all those in attendance in this and future lives. May the karma created by those women to be in prison finish quickly, and may all the seeds that were planted that day ripen and allow for love, compassion and wisdom to grow in this life and all future lives until full awakening is achieved. May Sravasti Chapel remain for a long time and may the prison population eventually decline so that in the future, the facility will no longer function as a prison but as a place for Dharma practitioners to gather.

Nelson Mandela’s advice Sat, 18 Jun 2011 22:13:12 +0000

Nelson Mandela looking out prison window.

The cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. (Photo by BK)

“You may find that the cell is an ideal place to get to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education… but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men—qualities within the reach of every soul—are the foundations of one’s spiritual life… At least if nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say of about fifteen minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life, but the tenth attempt may reap rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”

A remarkable story Sat, 18 Jun 2011 19:15:30 +0000

Cover of Working with Anger.

Buy from Shambhala or Amazon

Amazingly I received the notification that these properties were available. Assuming they were in the Shasta, California area, I responded right away, knowing full well how quickly properties appear and then disappear off the California real estate market. However I subsequently discovered they were located in the lush quietude of Eastern Washington. This was a little further than I wanted to seek a new address, but the way of the fates had a different reason for pointing the way.

My oldest son was jailed for six months for spousal abuse. Angry all of his life, wearing the weight of a huge chip on his shoulder, there were no words or counsel that would encourage to seek help. We were so very sad when he lost his house, wife, children, and everything he owned during those six months.

It was then that I was prompted to peruse books on Amazon for anger. Being a novice practitioner, I particularly wanted to find something that could inspire him in the way that taking refuge in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition did for me over a year ago. (That is another complete story in itself). I must have looked at nearly a hundred books, reading carefully the first few pages that were available to read and make a decision based on its contents. I was scrolling when I saw one of the books offered for sale, framed in a bright golden light. None of the others had used that idea, so I went to its pages and read, not wanting to stop, and was convinced this was the book to send to my son in the county jail.

I wrote telling him of my book find and went back to the same page to copy the information. I had to do some searching, because when I found the book again, it didn’t have the golden frame around it. I wondered why they had taken it off because it was so effective as an “attention getter.”

My son received the book, and when he had it unwrapped and placed in his hands, he sat before opening it and asked the spiritual world that he be able to absorb and understand the meaning of the words inside in order to have the help he needed. He read and reread and reread it again, and then one afternoon alone in his cell, as he explained to me, it was like an electric switch turned to “on”! A flood of recognition rushed over him as though he had been given a new set of eyes, a new brain, a new heart, a new being and purpose. He wrote an energetic, positive, stream of consciousness, six-page letter to his father and me. Gone like a darkened bird from the top of a roof, he did not sound like the same person.

He took the book to his counseling session and told the counselor that if he read this book, he would think of approaching his psychological techniques in a totally different way. He gave his book to the counselor and in two weeks a dozen copies of the same book had been purchased through Amazon used books. The counselor expressed that he would and did change the way that he approached counseling sessions with the inmates based on his reading of the book and how it impressed him to change his techniques.

My son declared to everyone he would never be violent or verbally abusive to anyone for the rest of his life. These are not solid words when you are incarcerated and everyone has an animal survival consciousness, waiting for the prey, looking for the attack, preparing for the most negative of circumstance. People challenged this odd behavior with the threat of beating him up, killing him, and setting him in different questionable circumstances. He held his peaceful ground. The inmates nicknamed him “Holy Man” and began to come to him asking questions, wanting answers, asking for help. He referred them over and over and over again to this book on anger. People read the book and contacted their families they had not spoken to in over a decade and asked them to read the book. It changed their lives as well.

A race riot was brewing in the quad one evening; things were getting very negative and violent. My son jumped up on a table and invited everyone to look within and see who they were even if they were trapped in the circumstance of being bars and lack of freedom. He asked that a representative of every one of the races who felt they were an example of an intelligent and spiritual leader to come forward and to shake hands. All races were represented, and all shook hands. They began to shout from the tiers, “Holy Man! Holy Man!” He replied, “No it is not me! It is you—you made the decision to change in that moment, to change what you did and thought.”

Even the police remarked that they had never had anyone turn things around using that approach and saw that there was something to this person. Every sentence, every paragraph, every focused presentation of the Dharma has been a life-altering present one gives oneself.

When he left prison, the Native Americans sent him off with a song, the Latinos shook his hand, and the African Americans called him “brother.” My son truly thought much of all of them.

He has exceeded expectations in counseling now that he is on the outside. Others constantly ask him to speak at meetings and seminars, and all he can say is that it is a simple story from a simple person who had a chance to change his life due to a book his mother saw on the internet. He has tried to find as many ways as he can to personally apologize to others for having caused pain or suffering in their lives. It has left many with a codfish expression of voiceless open-mouth disbelief at his change and his apology.

I know that this is a long story, but when I clicked on to the page where Sravasti Abbey had its information, I kept seeing the smiling face of Thubten Chodron. All of a sudden it hit me! This is the very person whose words, assembled on paper in Working with Anger before my son’s eyes, changed his life, his focus, his way of thinking, doing, and being. I am eternally grateful for her perception, her outreach, and her sharing of the Dharma.

My son now, is a novice practitioner as am I, and we exchange our stories, our travels, and the tiny precious droplets of wisdom we have gleaned.

And to answer your question: I don’t know how you even had my email address to send the message about the property to me!

Now I am beginning to wonder if, once again, I am being led to discover the deeper, more complex meaning behind the communiqué received about the land.

Thank you for writing,

Jobekah Trotta