Does anyone have any experience or knowledge of prisoners successfully practicing Vajrayana in prisons? We provide correspondence courses and support on our meditation path from Meditation Instructors -- mostly through the mails. Some of our prisoners are at the point to receive ngondro, and they are really looking forward to it. We know of abishekas having been given in prison and advanced teachings being given. We also understand that this has caused problems in some prisons because the other Buddhists, who might be 'book' Buddhists, zen, or Theravadin, don't understand or accept it. It can also be thought of as elitist. Another problem encountered has been the fact that prisoners can be transferred at the drop of a hat. We (Nalandabodhi's Mind Without Border prison program) are at the point where we have to make some policy decisions in these areas. I personally would hate to see a meditation path that is empoverished and may make some prisoners feel "less than". However, we need to create a practice path that works for them in that environment. Any thoughts or experience? Thanks, Julia Grac, NYC
I would suggest a Dzogchen or Rime instructor. This way all of the paths are incorporated. (Nyigma, sakya, kagyu, gelugpa) the one text I wholeheartedly reccommend is Heart Treasure Of The Enlightened Ones by H.H Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He was a Rime master and tought extensively on the Six Sylable Mantra. May this be of benefit.
Traditionally one has to receive a Tantric initiation from a qualified tantric master in order to practice tantra. Of course this is pretty much impossible to happen inside a prison. But if such a master can visit an inmate and give the initiation, that's great, but it reuqires many prayers and rituals, including ritual instruments.
Normally Lama Zopa Rinpoche suggests that certain practices, such as mandala offerings, making tsa tsas and practicing thantra can be done when the inmate is released and can attend the proper teachings, etc.
But many of the Nondro practices, such as VajraSattva, can be done inside.
Wongmo (elder Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition (FPMT)
We sponsor three prison groups in Texas, my training is Dzogchen, but the most important thing is that inmates learn to meditate properly using devotion, non-dual sitting and dedication. Practices to develop concentration, visualization, love and wisdom/compassion are essential so that a positive practice routine can be established. We offer a correspondence course in the Lojong teachings that has given very positive responses from participants, it provides an essential foundation and sets out specific contemplations that yield quite wonderful insights. We were fortunate to have a qualified Lama give the group a formal Chenrezig empowerment, and there are a few that have taken to this practice, but it is too advanced for most. The Ngondro seems ideal as long as there is someone to work with and encourage the practice. My recommendation is to begin with the Lojong, there are several excellent texts from a range of Vajrayana traditions to support the study.
Terry Conrad CVCA
Director, Project Clear Light
Thanks, Terry for your comments. I think your suggestions are very good. The spiritual leader of our sangha, Nalandabohi, is The Dgozchen Ponlop Rinpoche. He is a holder of both the Kagyu and Ngingma lineages. We have a well mapped out practice path for sangha members. Of course, you are correct in saying that basic shamatha is the essential basis as well as the understanding a practice of the paramitas, mind training, etc. This is part of our practice path and only those serious enough to have passed through our training under the guidance of one of our Meditation Instructors and who have asked and been accepted by Rinpoche as a formal student, would be eligible for vajrayana practice in the first place. However, even with proper initiation and guidance, I understand that it has been problematic for some to practice vajrayana in some prisons because, for one, it is not accepted by other Buddhist practiioners who think it too esoteric and non-Buddhist. Lojong and tonglen are part of our practice path. At the moment, we are thinking more about extending this portion of the path for prisoners and elaborating it. There are some deity practices, like Tara practice or Chenrezig, that do not require elaborate rituals or feasts. Thanks for your comments. It's good to know what others are doing.
You may want to contact the Committee to Free Jarvis Masters at www.freejarvis.org. Jarvis Master's is a student of Pema Chodron and has been practicing at San Quentin's death row for many years. I believe he practices the vajranyana path. I read his book, Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, and I was blown away. What a beautiful, simple and profound book.
I am a Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist living and teaching in a Theravada country (Thailand), I will say my students have no clue what Vajrayana is all about and most of them think it is Mahayana which I quickly inform them it is not. Although I have only 9 months experience with Vajrayana from living in Dharamshala (Dharamsala) for educational purposes I try to educate my students as best as I can in the matter, I tell them basically it's the same dance just a different tune, in fact we have all of the Buddhas teachings in common we just view them differently. I go on to tell my Thai students to see Buddhism in Thailand with no experience it does not appear to be Theravada and I tend to call it "Thai Buddhism" as it is not pure Theravada but rather a mixture of Thai culture and Theravada. This has worked well for me and it seems to settle the debate over 'what it is or is not'.
Zen practitioners can be quick to annoyance when they think something is 'illogical' or 'irrational' even after being a monk for 10 years I was quick to jump on things I didn't quite understand, I suppose that is just ego and human nature all rolled up in one.
My suggestion to you would be to try to get all of the Buddhist groups together first and maybe go to the extent of telling them it is not Buddhist to take a position on another persons practice. Buddhists are not "tolerant" as to be tolerant means to put up with rather we accept others as they are. To my fellow Zen I point out there is no right or wrong just different.
Thanks for your input to this discussion. One of the things you allude to is the cutural interpretations and trappings of any religion (in this case, Buddhism). There's culture and there are the different schools. We are adding another layer to this when we are involved with introducing Buddhism to the west -- and into prison cultures. Your suggestion about reminding people that it's not "Buddhist" to take a position on other people's practice is very good. Prison as you know is an environment in which people are very much 'divided' into groups and factions, so to really practice Buddhism is to transcend at least some of this (to the point it is possible and 'safe' to do so).
We also stress that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' school -- and different people will be drawn to various presentations of Buddhism according to their personality or karmic connection. It is all basically the same message, but different ways of helping ourselves to realize enlightenment. There can be a lot of confusion especially at first when people are new and have read books from various Buddhist major schools -- like Theravadin, Zen, Tibetan. They don't understand these differences.
We are a Tibetan Buddhist sangha and we offer support for meditation and a progressive study path through correspondence courses, penpal mentors and DVDs. We do not go into the prisons although we may visit specific prisoners with whom we have been closely working. As a Tibetan Buddhist sangha, Tibetan Buddhism what we offer, but without saying any other school is wrong.
When and if one becomes a Tibetan Buddhist, one does not automatically become a Vajrayana student. This demands work and commitment on a progressive meditation path which complements the studies. For one thing, you cannot be a Vajrayana student unless you have chosen a guru, supplicated to become a student, and been accepted by that guru. Not everyone will be drawn to this and for those that are, they have to work with a Meditation Instructor and fulfill certain requirements. Within Tibetan Buddhism and also some other schools, there are 'empowerments' that are more or less 'blessing empowerments' -- Medicine Buddha, Tara, Chenrezig are examples. Anyone more or less could receive such empowerments without being a Vajrayana practitioner. I would always try to be careful, however, that people understand that these representations of deities are not 'real entities' out there but symbolic forms representing a certain kind of energy in our own minds.
My question about Vajrayana Buddhism was really to ask if anyone had experience with prisoners practicing this level of Buddhism within the Tibetan Buddist canon. Of course, one of the elements of Vajrayana is that there is a 'secrecy' component. This could cause some difficulty in prison. It also means that even if prisoners are practicing Vajrayana Buddhism, it would have to be adapted to their circumstances and perhaps limited to certain kinds of vajrayana practice.
The answer (for our sangha) has been answered for the time being by our own guru, the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, with whom the Prison Committee had a meeting to discuss various issues including this one. He wants those student prisoners who have become formal students of his and have been working with a Meditation Instructor and have fulfilled all study and meditation requirements-- to be eligible for Vajrayana Practice. He says, "They should have the same opportunity as any one of us". We are not sure about Vajrayana deity practice. He indicated that for some this might be available, but we will have to see whether we need to adapt the practice. However, preliminary Vajrayana practices known as 'ngondro' will be available which leads to sutra and then Essence Mahamudra, a formless meditation practice presented in a Vajrayana context. One thing that has also come through in our discussions with our teacher -- we tend to get caught up in 'forms' and 'formalities' and forget the pure essence of what we are imparting. This not only refers to the 'pure essence' of the Buddha's teachings, but is true in respect to Tibetan (and Vajrayana) Buddhism which has a lot or ritual and symbolism attached. We can eliminate much of this when we are in a situation where it is not possible to duplicate this -- and still give the necessary empowerment, instruction and perform the practice.
Our sangha has only been engaged in prison work for about three years so this is new territory and we will see what happens. We have been ministering to high security prisons and about half of our student inmates have life sentences, often multiple, or 'life without parole'. We make a long term commitment to such prisoners and their spiritual practice takes on a particular urgency and significance to them.
Nice to know what other people are doing. This work is so vast and so varied.
hello Christopher: so nice to hear your words "its the same dance but a different tune". I get lost with so many choices, or is it, some Centres pushing this and that initiation? I would just like some thing simple without the pressure of "come here and get this or that" oh, by the way, it cost this much money to have this or that and you wil be a "better person". Please comment if you understand my experience.
Perhaps contact Liberation Prison Project.They have accessible material/resources for this.I completed 2 Ngondro practices while in prison,I also agree with Jasons' comment that a Rime teacher may be helpful to those embarking on the vajrayana path.I would also recommend the study of the book"Words of my Perfect Teacher"
I think that there is some misunderstanding on what Rime means. It does not mean an 'eclectic' approach -- a bit of this and that. It means that there is respect and appreciation for all the lineage teachings. Since the Tibetan diaspora, most Tibetan spiritual leaders have a Rime approach. The Dalai Lama is essentially Rime in his philosophy and so is the spiritual head of the Kagyu lineage, the 17th Karmapa.
To become a vajrayana practitioner, however, one must be accepted as a student by a lineage holder (whatever their approach, Rime or not). You can study with different teachers, but you have taken a "lama" or "guru" who gives you empowerments, or indicates what empowerments you should receive through others. This is the meaning. And... it has nothing to do with money -- or shouldn't. If it does, you may be dealing with spiritual leaders who are of lesser calibre. At least this is the way I have been taught.