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My time in prison

My time in prison

Silhouette of Gyatso in front of an icy fence in winter.

Gyatso, a trainee at the Abbey, went with Venerable Jigme to a Vesak Day celebration at a medium security prison in southeastern Washington State. He shares his experience as someone doing his first prison visit.

As the mechanical hum and slam of the thick sliding door behind me reverberated, a certain heaviness of the moment began to weigh on me like a blanket. Another thick door awaited, while fencing, layer upon layer of barbed wire, gray stone walls, and other shades of gray surrounded me. I was about to willingly enter, for the first time in my life, a medium-security prison in Eastern Washington, at the invitation of the Buddhist inmates and the chaplain for their annual Vesak celebration.

I tried to enter without any expectations or preconceived notions of what would come, because I had a sneaking suspicion that they would be crushed by the actual experience. Several decades of mass media made it impossible to enter with a blank slate. I grew up with the “war on drugs,” “3 strikes and you’re out,” and other tough-on-crime measures, the indoctrinating effects of which I’d slowly been mentally peeling away. For weeks I had been anticipating this day, wondering what it would actually feel like to stand in a prison and shake hands with people who had been unceremoniously cast aside by society.

As Venerable Jigme stepped inside to meet the chaplain and another volunteer, the blanket and accompanying hesitation evaporated, their warm casual smiles disarmed me and I relaxed into a smile that I knew would serve me well throughout the day. We chatted like old friends, appreciative of all the hard work that had gone into making this day possible, hoping it would be of great benefit for everyone. The excitement built as we got closer to the building that would hold all of us for the ceremony.

As the hall filled to capacity with about 50 inmates and 5 volunteers, it had the energy and joy of a family reunion or neighborhood picnic. Men of all ages, races, ethnicities, sizes, and religions lined up to shake hands and give hugs and warm greetings to each other. They were all so different, but a commonality I found striking was the warm smiles they shared all around the room. This moment broke so many of the preconceived notions I’d accumulated throughout my life. It warmed my heart and reinforced the notion of the capacity for buddhahood residing in all sentient beings. It dawned on me that I was in a prison with over 50 men convicted of unknown crimes, without an officer in sight, and I was totally relaxed and comfortable. What a beautiful day of rejoicing, sharing the Dharma, and connecting with others. I might have gotten more out of the visit than anyone there and look forward to being able to return in the near future.

Sravasti Abbey Monastics

The monastics of Sravasti Abbey endeavor to live generously through dedicating their lives to the Buddha's teachings, practicing them earnestly, and offering them to others. They live simply, as the Buddha did, and offer a model for society at large, showing that ethical discipline contributes to a morally grounded society. Through actively developing their own qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, and wisdom, the monastics aspire to make Sravasti Abbey a beacon for peace in our conflict-torn world. Learn more about monastic life here...

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