So I have a question... (which I hope might stir up some discussion)
It seems a very 'nice' thing to do to go in & be with prisoners, or to write to them & help them to deal with a life of (for many of us thankfully) unimaginable stresses. ...seems humane, compassionate and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it (& personally derive great satisfaction & personal benefit).
But I'm concerned. What happens when people get out, or get ready to get out. I know that at least in my area, the residential dharma centers require folks to be 'out' and 'readjusted' (for a period of at least 1 year) prior to applying to be residents in a practice environment. I'd hazard that most of the folks I know currently or recently um 'released' from residential dharma facilities entered from very unstable places [recent divorces, depression, job transition etc.].
While I don't imagine that dharma centers could HOLD all of the folks who are making the transition from the 'inside' to um, the 'inside', I believe we have a responsibility to the folks with whom we have cultivated relationships. If you have been working with a serious practitioner over the course of YEARS, isn't there a commitment that could extend beyond the confines of the institution?
Folks need our support even more as they make the transition to the so-called 'free world'. (And honestly, I imagine that making the transition from prison life to monastery life might just be EASIER than making the leap from the corporate world to monastery life. I'd like to see more openness to welcoming a well grounded member of our prison sanghas into our outside institutions with the same rigor and questioning that we might have for other residents (rather than the flat policies I've seen). Is having a prison record enough for you to want to exclude someone from YOUR local sangha? Do you know?
Are there practice environments out there in the rest of the US that have less strict policies than the ones I've run into?
What responsibility do we as a community have to the people we as individuals and 'vassals' of institutions support?
Does YOUR community have a 'policy' on parolees and/or recently released? Are you in alignment with this policy?
Onegaishimasu, I checked wopg.org and it is not my cup of tea, sorry. We cannot all be the same and are blessed by and with our differences.
Wonderful topic! I wish I had been active when it was posted and fresh. But I'll say my two bits, late as it may be.
I fully believe they should not discriminate simply because someone is an ex-offender. You made a wonderful point in noting that people entering into residential (or even Dharma practice in general) are coming from places of immense suffering. Isn't that was taking refuge is about? I believe I heard Pema Chodron explain she had just come out of a divorce when she found Buddhism, and a year after finding it became a nun. And look at the tremendous good that has come from her transformation of those experiences, initially rooted in an "unstable place", as you put it.
As Dharma students, aren't we taught to transcend perception, to go beyond labels? If so, then why put specific stipulations that blanket all ex offenders or fresh re entrants?
I do believe a Sangha has a duty to protect it's members. You wouldn't likely invite someone in for tea who was busy chopping up the guy next door. But check out a guy/gal's prison record? Had they been socialized in prison, or did they stay in solitary for some reason. What kind of discplinary actions were taken against them in prison? What was their practice like during their time down? Have they maintained communication with the center in question?
I was discouraged recently looking at a center in West Va. Just that they did a criminal background check kinda bothered me, and not a conviction check, but an arrest record, or so they inquired about such. I didn't understand it. For one, before doing long-term residential, it was required that you do so much time in smaller retreats. These smaller retreats didn't require the background check. Why not? And don't most places have a probationary period anyways?
I fully believe the transition to a nearly monastic life from a prison life is not so great a transition. The biggest obstacles on the path, to me, are attachments. Going to jail or prison is difficult because we're stripped from our attachments, like a band aid from the still-raw wound. But hopefully we adjust. In jail/prison you have little property. Your meals are sparse, and your life is pretty routine. You're not likely to enjoy romantic and intimate experience with the opposite sex. You're not going to have fancy clothes by which you associate your identity. You may already have to have a nearly-shaven head. Incarcerated life is the closest thing to monastic life I can imagine. Well, you know what I mean and don't mean by that.
Didn't Milrepa try to poison a village, and/or do black magic to destroy crops of his enemies? And he's one of the most venerated of Tibetans. And who was the guy in the Buddhist stories, Angulimala (I had to look the spelling up). From various versions I've heard, the same basics are told, that this man was murdering hundreds of people and cutting their fingers off and wearing them on a necklace. His name means finger mala, I remember that much. So here in the midst of Buddhist history is this extremely violent guy who became a devoted follower of Dharma. No adjustment period, no background check.
Sure, it can be suggested that people coming out of prison may be hiding in the Dharma center to avoid dealing with the real world. Ok, who else in there is doing otherwise?! "I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha." Maybe for recent ex offenders, two outta three ain't bad?
I think Angulimala's name was enough for a background check ;)
I think this is a problem for each sangha to discuss and come to its own decision. Each has to do what it can with the limited resources it has to offer. I also think a background check would be apropos: you're assuming an applicant isn't going to have an active warrant for his arrest. "Hiding out" in a monastery, while somewhat stupid, sounds like something somebody would try. I mean, people have tried to rob a bank by pretending to have a gun and writing a note asking for all the money on the back of their pay stub (true story). The intrusion of the police into the vihara would create more difficulty. It also assumes that the vihara is going to change its mind once it sees an arrest record. I'm not entirely convinced it would.
My personal feeling on the subject is that I can and should give as much as I can up to the point at which I start to harm third parties. I cannot and will not force my wife to suffer so I can rack up the good-karma credits, so to speak. My guess is that a dhamma center or vihara makes the same kind of trade-offs; anyone working from a fixed income has to make that call at some time or another.
I feel you there Chris, in regards to a warrant or whatnot. I hadn't thought of that angle . I guess what I'm talking about, overall, is more of what the gentleman said earlier, about an automatic rule regarding waiting a year before before applying so as to "adjust." Adjust to what? Society, so the person can leave it after gaining a newfound attachment for it? Dharma center or not, I do feel a lot of people have an inherent reservation about dealing with ex offenders. To an extent it's human nature.
But for instance in my area of Virginia, some state Universities have been in the news over the last several years for horribly violent and tragic events, the most tragic being the mass murder at Va Tech. The way these schools have advertised dealing with the problem in part is to clamp down on admissions background checks, going beyond the traditional conviction search, and checking arrest records, too. Even our regional news paper said in several articles that they had gone too far by that. The irony is that none of the murders in any of these schools had to do with ex felons, nor any backgrounds (criminal or other) that would have barred their admissions. It's already difficult for many ex offenders to get higher education due to their convictions, but now the Universities here have to worry about media backlash (more of it) should there be a tragedy on campus and this individual have a questionable background. It's bad press, and mom's and dad's who pay heavy tuition don't like this. Sure, they say they'll take it on a case by case basis, but will they? Not likely, when you have thousands of well qualified applicants that get turned away already. I kinda feel that way about this topic we're discussing here. But not to the same extreme.
I'm definitely not saying to not do a background check. Open warrants are one thing, convictions are one; but arrest records are tricky because they allow a prejudice to be used against someone in a situation that apparently never even made it to court. For instance, let's say a guy wanted to live in a Dharma center. Dude's been clean his whole life, but somehow along the way he was charged arrested for something serious, but false. He was never found not guilty, but that arrest record may still be there, depending on the state he lives in. In Virginia, if memory serves, being found not guilty is not enough of a legal reason to have a charge expunged! Imagine that! Not saying they won't or can't, but it's no sure bet. They want legal evidence, more or less, that you're innocent. I had a charge like that in my early twenties, found not guilty, that I could have expunged but only because there was witness testimony saying this guy attacked me and I only defended myself. Had I just been found not guilty by lack of evidence, I couldn't necessarily expunge it, and would be subject to prejudice anytime anyone did a background check beyond convictions.
And I totally agree with you on the part about not doing harm. Like I said, there's no reason to bring in a person who's a eminent threat. I'm just not so sure on the waiting a year, especially in a Mahayana tradition where the bodhisattva vow is upheld. I'm just never a fan of a canvassing procedure. Check people out individually, but blanket policies often are bureaucratic and a lot is lost by them.
Yes! Angulimala's name is enough of a background check! (As is his mala!)
The problem, as I see it, is that it's next-to-impossible to get other people not to hold mistakes against those who have messed up in the past. Doing that myself is often very hard, but then, this is one of the reasons to sit :)
I agree totally. I'm not sure it's really reasonable to expect people as individuals to not do that. However, I have higher expectations for organizational structures which, though comprised of individuals, may be able to set aside much subjective discrimination in order to shape a policy of expressed intent--in the case of a Mahayana residential center, that would be to let go of one's ego attachments (social prejudices) for the benefit of ones spiritual progress. To say to someone coming out of doing, say, three years in prison, that they need time to adjust to non prison life, but to not apply this adjustment time to someone who, for instance, just left a marriage or some other heavy attachment, seems out of synch--a prejudice against a label. But it's like you said, or I think it was you! Take things on an individual basis.
And I'm with you in regards to still holding things against people. With me I'm backwards though. I don't get hung up on people's past mistakes so much as their immediate ones. In jail, I could be very non judgmental and loving towards anyone, regardless of why they were there, or what background they came from. The problem arose within me when those people still kept up the same game they had on the street--controlling, hurting, stealing, intimidating, etc. Their past was not simply their past, but was still being played out, with no seeming interest in changing their ways. Similarly, at work, someone can do something that really frustrates me and I'll get this conditioned response that equates that person with some negative concept within my mind. Thankfully I can let go of this pretty quickly, but the reaction is still there.
My point in the second part of this reply is that, for me, I'm not so much concerned about what someone has done as much as what they're doing and trying to do. That doesn't mean I'm indifferent to people's pasts; and I understand, to extents, how past shapes the present.
I wonder if anyone knows of any bad situations that have happened by ex offenders entering into residency or monastic communities? Do these policies come from past incidents, or are they shaped from our greater societies way of viewing ex offenders? Do Eastern monasteries do criminal background checks, or do they have "adjustment" periods? I'm willing to bet that those that do have these implements in effect are part of a busier and more industrialized society, and those that do not, may be more rural. But that's just my guess, my projection.
Thank you for these conversations, Chris. I enjoy reading your insights and viewpoints.
Well in Zen, it used to be that if you wanted to join a monastic community, you were left outside the front gate for 3 days, during which you were not to move. In Theravada traditions, there is a period where one is a novice and has the chance to learn more about what the monastic community (and 200+ rules for ordained bhikkus!) was all about. I'm not sure what the procedure is for Vajrayana. If you wanna be a Catholic priest there is a probation period; ditto a Catholic monk or nun.
My guess as to why they would prefer prisoners to adjust to life on the outside is that the great idea to become Buddhist monk straight out of prison might look less appealing once you're out in the world again. If I were an abbot? I'd want to make sure that the person seeking ordination has had the opportunity to examine life in the outside world fully before deciding to renounce it.