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Doing retreat in prison

Doing retreat in prison

Cell block
Lockup is boot camp for meditation development. Photo by Robert Crow

A letter from a person in prison to a retreatant.

I live in an open dorm with 300 men. All those people you see on the news doing bad things live with me. For the most part, they are completely egocentric. Noise, movement, interruptions are the normal occurrence for me, all the time.

I was doing 30 to 40 minutes of Qigong (moving mediation) the Tai Chi variation, but the “system” developed a fear of this. They don’t understand, and I have found people tend to fear what they don’t understand. So the “police” banned me from doing it, at least for now. I am working on having approval for this. Maybe in a year.

I’ve never had the good fortune of actually meeting a lama before. Almost of all my practices come from books or letters. I wish I could have been at the initiation given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. I’ve read a few of his books.

You do six sessions a day! I can’t even imagine that here. While I’m doing the sadhana, someone will bump the bunk bed (I’m on top) or turn on the light (it’s 2½ feet from my face). I also do not recommend chanting while rap music is playing. Or the “Police” are making announcements over the loudspeaker. Or my favorite, the fire alarm, where we all go outside. There is no wood or paint in this human warehouse, and the mattresses are fire retardant. Amusing. I look at it like this. I read about a Zen student who went to meditate on a street corner, so he could develop non-attachment to his senses. I figure this is the bootcamp for meditation development. If I can do this here, I can meditate anywhere. I tend to stand out here; this is a society that judges all actions by violence and strength. I’m not putting these people down (I am one of them). For the most part we are addicted to our attachments, all of them, but mostly it’s greed all the way.

So when you said that your mind and experience has been all over the place, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Fever, flu, cold—yeah, been through that. The runny nose is interesting, but the bad gas is by far the winner, especially expelling it. I am a vegetarian, and this prison seems to think all we eat is beans, so I get plenty, sometimes cooked, sometimes not.

I am not following the list of the ten destructive actions in order to find things to purify. I have no problem finding harmful actions to regret. They seem to line up, asking to be next! My focus had been that daily moment-to-moment mental anger that I direct at people in general. For example, someone bumps into me and doesn’t apologize. Then all these negative thoughts and emotions arise. The practice is working and helping me with this. I do notice a difference. Throughout the day, when these negative thoughts start to grow, I repeat the short Vajrasattva mantra as a sort of penance/ weed-killer. The overall result is that I am much more attuned to my thinking, and that’s my goal. In fact, it’s the most important one for me at present. The practice benefits me (I actually, physically and mentally, feel better) and so I tend to be more tolerant and understanding. In that way everybody benefits from my doing this practice!

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.

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