A close call
A close call
This is yet another installment in the ongoing saga of Dharma behind bars in North America. This incident that took place nearly two years ago in a federal prison and has to do with handling a potentially violent and harmful situation in a way that negated those potentialities. I was sitting in a TV room one evening. There were three other men in the room. I don’t recall what was on television at that time. I wasn’t really there to watch the television. My cellie had just returned from work at the factory and I was giving him a little personal time in the cell.
Some dialogue was taking place between a couple of the men in the room, but I wasn’t really paying too much attention to them, until they mentioned the name of a person who played in the band with me. They were accusing him of stealing a book. I started listening better. John said that George (the singer in the band) had stolen a book from him. Robert said, “No nigger is going to steal anything from a white man as long as I’m in the housing Unit.” Robert is a Hispanic-Anglo who hangs out with the white supremacists. John was also a racist Anglo.
I knew that George hadn’t stolen John’s book. George is a talented singer who has fairly good ethical conduct—he’s trying to get out the gang lifestyle—and he has enough money to buy what he needs. I also knew that John had accused George of taking this book before, and when George heard about it he went to John and told him he hadn’t stolen the book and if John ever said that to anyone again, he (George) would punch him in the mouth. John’s response to George’s threat was to cower and apologize.
Now John was mouthing off about George, and George’s cellee “Snake,” saying that both of them had stolen his book and that they were “no-good, thievin’ niggers”. His friend Robert was really getting worked up now. He stood up and said he was going to go confront those two “fuckin’ niggers”. It was all getting very ugly.
Hoping to stem an ugly situation in the bud, I turned to John and looked him in the eyes. I said, “George didn’t steal your book John. If I remember correctly, you already discussed this with him, and he told you that if he ever heard of his name coming out of your mouth again he would punch you in the mouth.” You could see the reality sink in on John. He slumped down in his chair and began inspecting his shoes, the floor, anything that allowed him to look down. I said, “George is a friend of mine and I know he didn’t steal your book. You shouldn’t accuse people of things like that in front of other people.”
But Robert was all worked up. He was raving about how that was all bullshit, and all niggers are thieves and scumbags and if John was too scared to do something about it, then he (Robert) would. He started for the door. John called out to him and asked him not to go out there. John said, “They’ll beat my ass if they find out I’ve been talking about them again.” He was visibly upset.
I said to Robert, “Don’t get involved in this man, you’ll only get John hurt, and maybe yourself or someone else too. It’s not worth it.” But Robert continued to mouth off. He’d talked himself into a position he felt he couldn’t back down from without looking weak in front of others. He opened the door to leave, to go to George and Snake. John called to him again and begged him not to go. I suggested once more that Robert not go. But it did no good. Robert was out the door in a flash.
I told John he should have kept his mouth shut. He didn’t have any proof that George and Snake stole his book. He’d already been in a confrontation with them once over it already and he’d apologized and backed down because he knew they’d beat his butt. Now here he was running his mouth in the TV room again, involving someone else in his hate gossip and accusations, and now someone was going to get hurt. John sat there looking miserable. The fourth person in the room was just sitting there shaking his head in disgust.
I decided to go find Robert and the people he was confronting, so I might say something to disarm the situation. I found Snake and Robert on the upper tier, talking angrily about what John had said. I stepped up to them and said, “Hey you guys, leave this alone. This is nothing to get hurt over. Don’t go to the Hole over what some dummy says in a TV room. Just leave it alone.” Then I went to my cell to get a cup of tea.
Then I went back to the TV room to see if things were resolved peacefully. John, Robert and the other guy were still the only one’s in the room. I sat down and asked if everything was okay. Robert and John remained silent. So I turned around for a moment to think the situation over.
Instantly, the door opened, and I turned to see George and Snake come in. Two other black guys were standing outside the door. George and Snake walked into the room. George went over to John and said, “You talkin’ ’bout me again?” John remained silent. George said, “I thought we talked about this.” John remained silent. George said, “I didn’t steal anything from you. Is this about that book again?” John looked aver at Robert.
Robert got up from his chair and kicked off his shower shoes (a sign that he’s ready to fight). George turned to face him.
Robert said, “Leave him alone.”
“This is none of your business,” replied George.
“I’m making it my business.”
“Why don’t you stay out of it? This is between me and him” (indicating John).
“It’s between us now,” Robert growled.
“So what do you want to do about it?”
“Whatever you want to do about it.”
I couldn’t believe things had escalated to this degree. At this point I stood up and approaching Robert and George, said, “Are you guys really going to do something?” They both turned to me. I continued, “If you really want to fight, why don’t you go someplace?” I was trying to break their train of thought. “Are you going to do this here?” I said. I could see their minds working, but they didn’t reply. Finally, I said, “Well, none of this has anything to do with me. So if nobody minds, I’m going to leave. I don’t need to be caught up in any of this bullshit.” Both of them indicated that they had no problem with me leaving, so I stepped between them and went to the door.
I looked over at the fourth person who was watching TV and said, “Do you want to leave too?” He indicated that he did. He stood up and walked towards me. As we stepped out of the door I said to him, “Come on, let’s get out of here. What a waste!” He and I left the area.
I headed for my cell and had just walked into it and said to my cellee, “You won’t believe what’s going on with Robert and …”
There was a knock on the door. It was George, Snake and their two friends. I motioned for them to come in. George stepped in, left the door opened so his friends could hear us, and he asked me, “Did you bring up the subject of me stealing John’s book? Or did he bring it up?” I told him the truth, that John had brought it up. George said that John and Robert told him I had brought it up. Of course this wasn’t true. I said, “You all know me. You know how I carry myself. Do you think I would do that?” George answered, “I told them you wouldn’t.” I went on to tell George and the others that my only part in the conversation was to tell John he should shut up about it; that he’d already been warned; and that Robert should stay out of it because it was none of his business and I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt over some dumb shit. By the time I finished, George had already headed out of the cell. Everyone there knew I wouldn’t lie to them. It’s important to be a man of your word. People know they can trust what you say. It can resolve things in good ways. It’s helped me and others in many situations in potentially violent situations in prison.
My cellie and I had a brief discussion about what just happened. We came to the conclusion that in order for George and his guys to walk to my cell that quickly, Robert and John must have panicked when I left the room and immediately began talking their way out of an ugly ordeal. The conversation after I left the room could not have lasted more than two or three minutes. In that time period they must have tried to throw the whole thing off onto me so they could get out of the room in one piece. After all their loud talk and accusations, when actually confronted with the fruits of their actions, they tried to throw culpability off onto me. It didn’t work. The thing that prevented it was that people knew I wouldn’t lie to them.
I walked down to the TV room, to speak with Robert and John. I wanted to ask them why they tried to throw everything onto me when they both knew I had nothing to do with it. But when I began to talk with them, Robert immediately told me they didn’t want to hear anything I had to say.”You’re a disgrace to your race,” he said. “Don’t ever talk to me again.”
I left the room. There was not going to be any productive dialogue at that time.
The next day during lunch break, I was in my cell alone. Suddenly the door opened and a soldier for the Aryan Brotherhood walked into my cell. He closed the door behind him and stood with his left hand in his pants, obviously holding a knife (this was later confirmed). He was staring at me as though I’d killed his brother. I asked him what was up.
He told me that his “brother” Robert had told him what happened the night before. I asked him what that was exactly. “A bunch of niggers rode up on Robert in the TV room. You broke and ran on him like a coward.” I asked him if he believed that. He said Robert was his “dog.” He had to believe him.
I told him that if something had really happened, and if I had been stupid enough to get involved, then I would have helped George because he was my friend and Robert was in the wrong. So Robert should be glad that I left when I did. I would have been one more person for him to fight.
Of course I was being facetious. I wouldn’t have hit anyone under any circumstances. His response to this was, “You’re a disgrace to your race!” He was red in the face and fondling his weapon.
“What race do you think I belong to?” I asked him.
“The white race.”
“You’re wrong. I belong to the Buddha’s race, a race without stain. We are all colors. I am a child of the Buddhas. I don’t hate people because of their skin color.”
I could see in his eyes that, behind the anger, he was surprised at what I said. I continued, “You know I practice Buddhism. Everyone here sees me around the compound. I don’t switch up. I practice nonviolence, and you know I have friends of every color. George plays in one of my bands and he’s not a thief. He didn’t steal John’s book, and he’d already told John that if he heard his name come out of John’s mouth again, that he would do something to him. Robert had no business getting involved. It was none of his business. All I did was try to prevent someone getting hurt, and nobody did get hurt.”
The Aryan told me he’d heard it differently.
“I’m sure you did, because Robert and John were scared to death. They’d even tried to throw the whole thing off onto me.” He was calming down now. I could see it. I continued, “Look, if you want to stab me, then go ahead. I won’t try to stop you. I’ll stand here and let you stab me if you think it’s the right thing to do. I didn’t run out on Robert. He was wrong for getting involved, and I wasn’t involved so I left. It had nothing to do with race. Now you’re getting involved in somebody else’s mess. I made a vow never to harm anyone or anything ever again; so if you really think you’ll accomplish something by stabbing me or killing me, then go ahead and get it over with. I won’t hurt you. I’ll pray that whatever negative karma your actions generate will manifest on me, so that you won’t suffer from what you do.”
He looked like a kid caught doing something wrong in grade school. His confidence in the validity of his action was broken. He doubted his “brother” and the version of the story he’d been given. We talked for a little while more, and I told him all about what really happened. Then I went on to tell him about the Buddhist path. He shook my hand before he left.
This guy is still a soldier in the Aryan Brotherhood. He has killed at least a dozen men for them. He was well known at USP Leavenworth, Kansas, for hitting a lot of people there. He had a reputation for going into a job without asking questions and hitting the target without a moment’s thought or discussion. I changed his entire record. Now he’s 12 to 1. Now he’s finally found that place in his mind where he can pause to consider what he’s about to do. He also knows there’s a nonviolent solution. By the time I left that institution, he and I had many more discussions, and he’d developed a genuine doubt about the organization he belonged to. He said on several occasions that he was going to write to national headquarters of the A.B. and ask them about things I’d brought up regarding their philosophy. The night I left to be transferred here, he was at my going-away party, shaking my hand, hugging me, and complimenting me on being consistent and devoted to my path.
As a last note to this story I would like to mention that at no time during our confrontation was I ever afraid of dying. It was definite possibility that I would die. He was the guy to do it, and he’d come there to my cell for that purpose. But the possibility didn’t frighten me, which would not have been the case in the past. Previously, I would have been worried. I would have shaken and talked quickly; saying anything to prevent my death. But back then I didn’t have complete faith and confidence in the Triple Gem. I didn’t have unshakable faith in the Buddha potentiality existent within the continuum of my own consciousness. Before, I wasn’t prepared to die. I didn’t understand death or how we could create the causes and conditions that could lead to this type of situation. Not understanding this, I would have reacted differently. I may even have provoked him into killing me when otherwise he may not have.
Now I understand that whatever happens to us is the direct result of actions we have done in the past. If I’d been stabbed to death in that cell, it wouldn’t have been unwarranted. It would have been the fruition of some seed I had sowed sometime in the past, perhaps many lifetimes ago. By understanding karma, I was able to remain in a place where I was accepting of any resolution and motivated to prevent him from creating the causes and conditions for his own future suffering. I think it was this motivation and mindset that made things work out for both of us. Sometimes we get so scared that we hurt ourselves or others. Remaining calm, open to whatever happens, and carrying our intent to prevent harm to others with us into every new moment, we are able to help ourselves and others. We distance ourselves from the self-centered, knee-jerk reaction that so often hurt us.
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.