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Prison Dharma

Prison Dharma

A cartoon drawing of a person in jail clothes(black and white stripes) trap inside bars surrounded by the words:Fear, Anger, Pain, Innocent, Shame and Trust.
How do you keep from getting angry when someone is in your face, deliberately taunting you to get a rise out of you and you want to retaliate? (Photo by Michael Hanscom)

During the summer and autumn of 2001, I had the opportunity to speak at a number of prisons around the United States. I never intended to do prison work: it came to me. But now that I’m involved, I find it very rewarding. In doing it, I learn much more than I give.

A talk on anger

Pat picked me up at the Asheville, North Carolina airport, and we were off to Spruce Pine, the site of the prison that houses Sam, an incarcerated person I’d been corresponding with but had never met. Sam and Pat had arranged for me to give a talk on anger to the Buddhist group and anyone else who showed up. Present were fifteen incarcerated people and four Buddhist volunteers. I was delighted that the chaplain—a friendly, interested woman—also attended, because at some prisons the Christian chaplains are not receptive to the needs and wishes of Buddhist practitioners.

We meditated for a while, and then I spoke on anger. The interesting part began when the men asked questions. These people know anger intimately. They have experienced their own, which may be the cause of their being in prison, and they have experienced others’, for anger reverberates in the walls of prisons. Most people on the outside do not realize what a violent and dangerous place prison can be for those incarcerated. Rapes, attacks, and threats occur daily in American prisons.

In prison, Buddhist teachings have to be presented as relevant to the lives these men lead. Their shit detectors are acute, and if someone tried to give them a fairy-tale method to deal with their own and others’ anger, they would have howled. They want straight answers, and that’s what I gave them, as best I could.

Many quarrels in prisons happen because someone feels disrespected by another. How do you handle a situation in which someone is trying to take advantage of you? If you’re nice, they’ll keep on doing it; if you argue back, the conflict will escalate. I suggested speaking to the other person firmly and directly, yet kindly, which of course requires a lot of inner work.

How do you keep from getting angry when someone is in your face, deliberately taunting you to get a rise out of you and you want to retaliate? One man smiled when I told him that if you retaliate, you’re doing exactly what the other guy wants. He’s been successful in setting you off. If you want to maintain your own power in the situation, keep your cool.

Closer to home, how do you let go of anger towards yourself and forgive yourself? I suggested to first recognize that you are no longer that person. That person was in the past. Then look at the person you were when you did that action, see how he was hurting, and have compassion for him.

We discussed these issues and more, the men actively participating and being open about their own fears and concerns. While people on the outside may think this is “normal,” a safe environment in prison where men can open up without danger is not easily created or to be taken for granted.

After the talk, several of the men came up to me to talk. The expressions on their faces had changed since they had entered the room. One man had such a winsome smile I couldn’t help complimenting him on it. Another later sent me a copy of an article he wrote for the prison newsletter about the talk.

The bodhisattva vows

The regular volunteer who leads the Buddhist group at the correction institute in Marion, Ohio, arranged for me to visit the group. I had been corresponding with a couple of the men and one had, after lengthy studies, requested to take the bodhisattva vows. The group wanted to witness this, so we decided that I would give a talk to the entire group and at the end do the ceremony of conveying the vows.

The security people checked everything thoroughly. “This is the big gong. This is the striker for the big gong. This is the cushion for the big gong,” and on and on. I’ve found that security in prisons varies widely. At one, the staff didn’t check us at all, at another they checked off everything on a list of Dharma items we’d sent in advance. At yet another, we passed through a metal detector and bags containing essential items only were x-rayed.

Before the ceremony, I talked with Doug, the man wishing to take the bodhisattva vows. Gospel music floated in the background as we were talking in the chapel area. Previously he had written me about his childhood. He had experienced considerable abuse as a youngster, as have most incarcerated men. Now, sitting with me, he told me how he found the Buddhist meditation of seeing all sentient beings as our mother and remembering their kindness so effective for his mind. He found his heart opening to others. This is hardly what one would have expected him to say. Westerners who have experienced a more comfortable and secure childhood than this man have trouble with this meditation. But incarcerated people who are sincere in their spiritual practice have a way of breaking through tough things in themselves that the rest of us dance around.

Doug told me that a few years ago, after he was incarcerated, he began asking his mother about her life. She too had been abused, first by her family, then by religious leaders. The more he understood what she had experienced, the more he felt compassion for her suffering. He saw that it was her own pain and confusion that had made her neglect her children. It was not that she was evil or that he deserved to be mistreated because he was bad—both of which he thought as a child and even as an adult. As he understood her suffering and its causes, he was able to forgive her. In the process, he discovered he loved her very much.

I remember an excellent book, Finding Freedom by Jarvis Masters, a man on death row in San Quentin, in which Masters describes a few events from his childhood. Some involved his family, others didn’t. They were horrific, and I wonder what else had happened that he chose not to include in the book. Yet, when, as an incarcerated person, he received news that his mother had died, he wept. Another incarcerated person said, “Hey, man. Why you cryin’? I thought she’d neglected you as a kid?” Jarvis responded, “That’s true, but why should I neglect myself by not admitting that I love her?” Reading that had stopped me in my tracks. This man had tremendous wisdom. Since resentment harms only ourselves, why hold on to it? Since others harm us because they are suffering, why hate them and want them to suffer more?

After Doug and I had finished talking, we went into the main room where the volunteers had been meditating with the rest of the group. I gave a Dharma talk as part of the motivation before giving the bodhisattva vows, talking a lot about kindness, love, and compassion. Suddenly I remembered that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, before giving the bodhisattva vows, would do the aspiring bodhicitta ceremony. While the vows were for people who were prepared, he permitted everyone who was interested to participate in the aspiring bodhicitta ritual. So I decided to do the same and opened up the aspiring bodhicitta section to all the men who wished to join in. Much to my surprise, almost all of them did. Here, enclosed within concrete walls and barbed wire, thirty men recited:

With the wish to free all sentient beings,
I take refuge at all times
In the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha
Until the attainment of full enlightenment.

Today in the presence of the enlightened ones,
Inspired by compassion, wisdom and joyous effort,
I generate the mind aspiring for full Buddhahood
For the wellbeing of all sentient beings.

For as long as space endures,
And for as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

I could barely believe my ears, nor could I believe my fortune to be present at that moment.

After the talk and ceremony were completed, several of the men came up to talk to me. I had noticed one of them during the talk. At that time, he had had a tough, grim look on his face, and the thought had popped into my mind, “Wouldn’t want to meet this person alone.” Yet now his face was filled with joy as he smiled. We chatted for a few moments and he asked for help with his meditation practice. My previous preconceptions about this human being vanished.

A typical Sunday morning

I went to visit Michael in Elkton, Ohio, once again. Due to prison rules and regulations, since I corresponded with him, I was not allowed to be a volunteer in the prison and thus could not speak to the Buddhist group. Instead I went in as a friend, through the visitors’ channels. We arrived at the visitors’ room about 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, thinking it would take the usual twenty minutes to be processed before entering. No way. We waited two hours while the clerks and guards processed the large group there.

Sitting in the visitors’ room, I saw people of every age, race, and ethnicity. Of course most, though not all, of them were women—the wives of incarcerated men. They had their children with them, kids of all ages—infants, toddlers, young kids, teenagers. I thought about their lives. How does going to visit your dad in prison affect you as a kid? How much do they understand? How are these young minds affected by the stark environment—the bare fields without trees, the concrete buildings, the barbed wire?

While we waited two hours, the mothers had to keep their children amused, while at the same time talking with other mothers they met there. When you visit a prison, you can’t take toys, coloring books, balls, crayons, or anything with you, only a change of diapers and a bottle. That’s it. Here were American kids growing up in the waiting room of a prison. It flashed through my mind: our country has one of the highest rates in the world for incarceration of its citizens. This same scene is going on in thousands of prisons nationwide this morning. For many Americans this is a “typical Sunday morning.”

Something is very wrong. Are American citizens in some strange way imprisoning not only the perpetrators of crimes but their wives and kids as well? What kind of citizens will kids growing up in prison waiting rooms become? Imagine a story in The NY Times Magazine entitled “A Typical Sunday Morning” that talks about families of incarcerated people going to visit their loved ones on Sunday. It would describe daily things—keeping your toddler occupied when he can’t walk anywhere, changing a diaper, diverting a brother and sister from teasing each other so a fight doesn’t begin, talking about your kids and family—only it’s all happening in a prison waiting room.

Meanwhile other kids are spending Sunday morning with both their parents, taking a walk in the park, reading a book, or eating brunch.

In the room, too, were elderly parents. I, in fact, had come with Michael’s mother. I couldn’t imagine the grief they must feel seeing their son in a prison uniform. Parents always remember their kids as babies. How do they put that image together with this?

A safe place

One of my students runs anger management programs in which he has made use of Buddhist principles and meditations without mentioning Buddhism at all. He conducts some programs at a jail and another at a prison. He invited me to be a guest speaker at an open talk in a prison outside Madison, Wisconsin.

We sat in a circle, four of the prison staff, including the assistant warden, joining the fifteen men for the talk. I discussed Buddha nature, saying that the basic nature of our mind is pure and free from defilement. Negative emotions are like clouds blocking the sky. They obscure the unobstructed sky-like nature of mind, but, because they aren’t the nature of the mind, they can be eliminated. I also talked about how to cultivate kindness, forgiveness, patience, and generosity.

After the talk, I opened it up for questions. One man, whom I had noticed because he had a strong chin and a mean expression, spoke, “I want you to know that I have a social disorder and it’s terrifying for me to speak in front of a group of people. But you were just talking about generosity, and it’s important for me to say to the men here that that’s how I want to live. I want to give to others. I want to be kind.”

I was dumbfounded. Another one of my preconceptions flew out the window. We had created a safe place in this environment where he could say what was in his heart.

Afterwards the assistant warden came up to thank me. “The men here get so many negative messages. No one hesitates to tell them what’s wrong with them. It’s so important for them to hear positive messages, like what you said.” She then invited me to do an in-service with the prison staff next year.

A free boat ride

Residents and visitors to the Pacific Northwest like to take boat rides on Puget Sound. On a bright sunny day, Washington State gave me a free ferry ride to a prison near Steilacoom. I had been there a year before and had been writing to Michael, an incarcerated person, for several years. He was new to Buddhism when our correspondence began; now he was requesting to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The chaplain that welcomed us was friendly. He had taken part in some Zen sesshins before. I was glad that he was there, as it had required some persistence to work with another chaplain that had been there previously.

Another man had joined Michael in wanting to take refuge. I spoke with them both privately before the ceremony, to make sure they were prepared and to learn more about them and how I could help. I was surprised to learn that the other man was in prison for a violent crime that had rocked the Seattle community several years ago and had been in the paper for weeks. Of course, not reading the daily paper, I knew little of the event, though later I recalled that the son of one of my students was friends with one of the people who had died.

The refuge ceremony was in a sunny room and from where I sat I could see the Sound. “Wow, what a view! People would pay high prices for beach property like this,” I thought. Then my eyes focused on what was between me and the water—coiled barbed wire. The shape of the coils reminded me of those on the walls surrounding wealthy homes in El Salvador. When I had visited there to teach a few years back, I marveled that from the outside, these wealthy homes looked like mini-prisons. Maybe they are. Extreme wealth literally imprisons us.

Like some of my teachers, I often spend a lot of time on the beginning of a text or the preparatory section of a ceremony. The time went by, and, when the bell rang and we were only midway through the ceremony, that was it. The men can move from one part of the prison to another only during certain ten-minute slots during the day. Since this one preceded “Count,” when they are counted in their residences, being late would bear particularly bad consequences. I had to shorten the ceremony so we could finish in two minutes. From letters I received afterwards, I was happy to learn that this didn’t detract from the ceremony’s value and impact.

San Quentin

Just the name “San Quentin” sounds ominous when we think about this maximum security prison in California. Nevertheless, I was delighted to receive an invitation to speak there from the Buddha Dharma Sangha Buddhist group in the prison and the Zen practitioners who regularly go there to lead the sessions. We crossed into this oldest prison in the state, established in the 1850s, through a large gate that, if I didn’t know better, looked like it led into a castle. About forty men attended our three-hour meeting, about half of them lifers—people who will spend the rest of their life in prison, mostly on murder charges.

After telling them a little of my background, to satisfy the usual curiosity people have about Western nuns, we meditated. The energy in the room was concentrated, and there was less squirming than I usually encounter in Dharma centers on the outside. Following this, we did slow walking meditation, something valuable not only for people in a chaotic prison environment but also for stressed out people on the outside (who, by the way, often don’t like to do walking meditation). Then I spoke about the mind, meditation, anger, and compassion. We got into an interesting discussion about the September 11th tragedy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They asked: How can we stand up for justice in the face of oppression and aggression and yet still be compassionate and support non-violence?

I’ve never heard the word “justice” mentioned in Buddhist teachings. What do we mean by justice? If we mean “punishment”—as many people do after September 11th—Buddhists would not support it. Rather than punish, we seek to stop harmful actions without being motivated by a mind of revenge. Justice meaning “an eye for an eye” is also not a Buddhist concept. As Gandhi said, that would leave the whole world without sight, which is useless. Justice meaning “fairness” or “equality” as in economic or social justice does have corresponding Buddhist meanings that we can work towards with compassion for everyone in the situation, not with partiality towards one side or the other.

After the formal session ended, a number of the men came to talk to me, and some told me what it was like being a lifer. According to one, people who know they will be released sometimes don’t try so hard to make the best of their situation in prison because they know they will leave. Lifers, on the other hand, know that prison will be their whole life and thus seek to find a way to be happy there. Religion and spirituality come in here, for after trying so many other things in their lives that haven’t brought happiness, self-examination and internal transformation appeal to them. That showed in their respectful demeanor towards the Buddhist volunteers and their peers in the group.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.