I don't remember my old university, the University of Toronto, being practically-minded. So it was with a little hesitation that I contacted a professor in the Department of Religious Studies there (where I got my BA) and offered to give a short talk to his class in East Asian Buddhism on prison dharma work. Would students more accustomed to wrestling with the various schools of Buddhism and the works of Santideva and Najarjuna find a discussion of the modern-day use of Buddhism interesting?
After he'd reassured himself that I wasn't trying to convert his class to Buddhism, the professor gave the OK. Now it was up to me to focus my thoughts and deliver a short introduction to prison dharma.
I started with the fact that this was very much a type of 'outsider Buddhism' in that the people we reach aren't part of the typical groups who come to Buddhism (those who grew up with Buddhism or who, like me, encountered it in university, for example). Then I looked into who exactly was in prison, using demographics to prove my point (overwhelmingly male, black or hispanic, under 45, drug/violent crime, repeat offender etc.). This gets to my point - why do these people come to Buddhism and what do they get out of it? Is it different from what attracted me or is it only the way we approached it that differs?
The discussion turned to who does prison dharma work - individuals, temples, PDN and Angulimala. Then we looked at what can be done in a prison setting - sending books, writing letters, visiting and programs. Finally I touched on the benefits ("visible here and now," as the Buddha taught) I'd been seeing with the people I've worked with in the US prison system.
After a polite pause I started to get some questions. Most revolved around what sort of materials to send to prisoners, how to help inmates learn (I think they were concerned that inmates might not understand the teachings - I explained that there are some great books out there and, after all, the teachings are pretty clear if you have the chance to meet them with a clear mind) and how, mechanically, the program worked.
My original 5 minute presentation turned into a half hour discussion.
I found it really interesting to think about what to say to the class, to dwell on what I had been taught by my encounters with inmates and to consider what motivates me to participate in this work. Overall, I feel re-confirmed in the value of what we're up to.
The upshot of this work is that I've started a distance-learning MA in religious studies. My thesis, once I refine it, will likely look at the questions that began my presentation - what's the immediate value of the Buddha's teachings in a prison setting? What do they get out of it? How do they come to this path? You can be certain I will be tormenting you folks further to get your insight on these points!