Service, like the Buddha said, will renew humanity.
The Buddha, taking suffering for the foundation stone of his teachings, explained, as you will know as fellow Buddhists, that we suffer as a result of our ignorance.
As a result of their ignorance, many prisoners suffer as a result of having caused others to suffer.
I would like to, to whatever degree I am capable as an unrealized being, help such individuals realize as much as possible the nature of their suffering; to show them, as I myself have been shown by my teachers and members of the Sangha, local and international, that there is another way.
I believe most Buddhists involved in prison dharma come from this place. We are attracted -or more so, called to- work in prisons as they house persons whom society, in its current, rather depraved state, would rather forget about; considering them hopeless cases to be discarded rather than acknowledging their equality in the ultimate sense: their Buddha nature.
I refer to my own experience and can imagine other reasons as well. In my own case, through Dhamma-practice, I have come in touch with own pains and confusions. Through this have gained some clearity and vitality that I naturally want to share with people really needing it. Being locked up must be a very distressing condition. This can be a reason for people benefiting from practice, reaching out doing prison work.
It can as well (as I notice in myself) feel like an action that easily could be extremely appriciated by someone else, making me feel good. Every time I leave my once a week, one hour talk with an inmate, I feel ten miles high. There´s a low risk at being turned down in my project to "do good". As in most activities I think hidden motivations can be present here as well, self righteousness being one of them, however the visit probably benefits the inmate more than one´s own ego project (so keep on visiting!).
Being locked up in some perhaps far away way resembles Dhamma practice in a retreat/monastic setting. I spent some time in longer Dhamma-retreats and can relate to both feeling restricted, locked up but as well after some time finding peace in the fact that I have no choice but following a certain form that simplifies my day and helps me gain focus and clearity. I don´t think a prison and a Buddhist retreat are the same, no need to romanticize, however less violence in the monastic setting should be one of the major differences (however no guarantee as I have myself witnessed). Yet, I was guiding a well motivated guy in Dhamma-practice at a local prison for some months, and he eventually thought him doing time was the best that could have happened him though he was forced to face himself for perhaps the first time in life.
As in Buddhism the focus and the core of this religion is on expressing and practicing forgiving, compassionate understanding and the continued life, Dhamma-practice encourage seeing people as doing deeds rather than people being the deeds themselves. A difference that gives hope and possibilities.
I am right now as a student of social work, very inspired by the work by Dr. Kiran Bedi and how she introduced Vipassana to both the police force as well as the prisoners in Delhi ("Doing time, doing Vipassana"). Perhaps among us practicing Dhamma, there´s a feeing that punishment isn´t the way to go, but rather helping individuals in "waking up" to realizing what our actions lead to (along with the fact that ex. poverty and social injustice caused by our economy and general idea of what life is about, can turn people into criminals) is the creative way as most inmates one day will leave the prison and again join the rest of us.
I´d like to think about it like this.
PS If anyone reading this have visited Tihar jail, done time there or have done any studies on Dr. Kiran Bedi's work, please drop me a line as I am preparing for doing field studies on meditation/spiritual practice in prisons in India.
When I first walked into the room to lead Attica's Meditation Class, my thought was, "At last, after sitting on the mat for decades, now I have a chance to give something of the compassion and teaching back to someone else." But very quickly I realized that wasn't the whole story. After a few weeks, those Thursday evenings became the high point of my week. My time with the prisoners was deepening my own practice.
Their gratitude, toward anyone on the outside who would use their time to give them something, was pure, earnest, heartfelt. It turns out, of course, that we all are giving to each other, with great kindness and compassion. These men work at their practice with an earnestness that impresses anyone who experiences this class.
Recently, we had the first Attica All Day Meditation intensive. These men had an opportunity to do something no one at Attica had ever been able to do -- spend a whole day in zazen. They dove in, and were amazed when the final bell sounded. Where had the time gone? What time? -- There was no time!
Inmates bring to the practice something it is very hard for those of us "outside" to achieve: they have no illusion that after the evening sitting ends and they get up with aching knees and sore muscles, that they can now go back to their nifty lives; for these men, those two hours are as good as it ever gets. For me too, sitting with them is as good as it gets.
PS. To respond to Moreland's question of why more Buddhists aren't doing this work; My experience at our Zen Center has been that the sangha took a great interest in it. There was always a way to get cushions to the prisoners, etc. And recently I've been joined by a little group of sangha members who have entered the prisons' volunteer service certification program, and have begun to join us, furnishing yoga lessons, or simply adding to the joriki in the room by their own presence and zazen. I wouldn't be surprised if serious practitioners of Buddhism everywhere aren't willing and ready to make this a major work of Buddhism in America. As Jason says, "...if you want to alleviate suffering, go to where the suffering is."
Dwain, as a note 'on the other hand' that confirms Moreland's perception: My son has been in prison in Colorado for almost 8 years. He has been a practicing Buddhist for 7, has taken the 5 vows through the generous one-time visit of a local monk, but he has been visited a grand total of maybe 6 times by Colorado Buddhists. Although I live in Eastern Nebraska, I am a member of the Colorado Community of Mindfulness, a web of Sanghas following the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. There is never any discussion at any level I have been at of any social service whatsoever. The Prison Dharma Network was based in Boulder; there is the Shambhala center in the mountains, etc., etc.
But although I really tried to get someone to volunteer to at least correspond with my son, almost no one--2 people sporadically--do. No one would work on a once-amonth volunteer visit to establish some kind of sangha/meditation presence at either of the prisons he was in. Only through an overworked wonderful volunteer here at PDN is he now receiving regular correspondence. He was allowed by prison authorities to start and lead his own sangha in Sterling CO after numerous attempts to get a volunteer; this was quite a concession and shows, I think, how assiduous he was. I know of five sanghas in eastern Nebraska. Only one does any prison work. Contrary to much good work, there is also alot of self-directed new-age dilution of the Service tenet in our primarily middle-class national Zen community. (Better than nothing, I know, and am grateful.) Like the kids say, "I'm just sayin'"
Contrary to much good work, there is also alot of self-directed new-age dilution of the Service tenet in our primarily middle-class national Zen community. (Better than nothing, I know, and am grateful.) Like the kids say, "I'm just sayin'" -- Juanita Rice
Yes, this is a well-said "On the other hand." It is hard not to find the practice lacking when one has first hand experience of calling for help with no -- or pitifully sparse -- answer. In my own case, I sat on the mat for decades without turning any attention to what has become known as "Engaged Buddhism" -- a delightful phrase. Of course, I served the immediate sangha of my zen center, and some of that had some impact far afield. But the plain fact was that I felt I had quite enough on my plate, just keeping my private life corralled and sitting as much as I could. It wasn't until recently that I realized the deep need of working with prisoners in meditation, and that came, seemingly, by accident.
But these movements of mind, these commitments come from such a deep, karmic place, it seems to me. It simply doesn't work to answer a call to service, if the human suffering inherent in the call doesn't ring one's bell really hard. Without that response to a karmic call, a commitment to service will fall flat. Buddhism is still in its infancy in America, we're still babies in the Dharma. It is regrettable that we are not further along, not richer in our ability to engage our bodhi mind with the suffering in our social, political culture. We have a hard enough time just figuring out how to talk with decent people of opposite persuasion.
But, sometimes that karmic bell does get rung, and another enters the stream of engaged Buddhism. We have far to go. Yet each inch of the Great Way is endless. What does that mean, actually? I think it means that we confront in our most intimate lives some analog of the situation you describe, Juanita. We are that suffering, in our millions. If we continue practicing, inevitably we will bring ourselves, each of us, to attend to our own inner suffering, to see first-hand our own unanswered plea to oneself for help and compassion.
Once that happens, everything changes. Once we have really brought ourselves to compassionately minister to our own suffering, the Great Way is neither easy nor hard; the whole world of suffering looks like opportunity knocking. Just as your son saw, within his prison.
Because it works.
Because as Buddhists, we recognize that in our own lives we have been caught by attachments that led to unskillful behaviors that led to the experience of suffering. And we have also experienced freedom. Most of us have experienced freedom as a result of our spiritual practices. We recognize that these practices can bring about change that can relieve suffering and bring about joy. We recognize that with our practice we have learned to make better choices in our lives. Naturally we want to share this powerful tool for change. Many people, or most people I know, are not seeking a way to change their lives. In fact, they don't recognize suffering. They live in a state of denial about the suffering in their own lives or that their actions caused their own suffering or the suffering of family and friends.
Many prisoners recognize that their actions led them to where they are now and they are open to the idea of learning a way of life or following a path that could lead to freedom from suffering. They know suffering; they are open to learning how to be free of suffering. They are also extremely grateful to the prison volunteers who are willing to come to their yards and treat them with respect. As Buddhists, we don't believe that the men and women who are incarcerated are inherently bad and for many of us the vow we take to relieve the sufferings of numberless beings is acted upon when we walk through those gates.
Yes it works; yes, go where the suffering is...and for me, I add that working with prisoners restores a sense of humani dignity for them. I worked as a mental health practitioner in a prison. I worked in isolation. The men were treated as if the goal was to remove "human" from "human being". I was encouraged , well, more like directed to only discuss coping, mood symptoms, and suicidality. I had men who wanted to talk about thier lives...wife, friend, regret, remorse, trauma. I was so conflicted. I don't work there anymore as it was a short term position. At the time my contract ended, I was so sad to leave the men. They would tell me, "Miss Frey, they gonna let you go. They always get rid of the good ones." I was flattered and touched. These men changed my life by giving me the enlightened perspective that the human is still present in them. It was a realization that doesn't come along frequently, a realization of magnitude; it rocked my world. Now I am free to work with them. While I was employed, I had to meet standards, fill in the blanks with the desired info, and "never believe anything they say, there is always a secondary gain at hand!" I just wouldn't and couldn't believe that. How can all of those men in isolation all be after some secondary gain. Wasn't it possible that some of them were in pain...all of them? It wa s important for me to work that short duty for it gave me the sense of calling. I must return to CA prisons...so cal...and work with the men there. I am hoping to be accepted into the Path of Freedom webinar and find a way to volunteer at a prison in so cal. If anyone has info on how to go about volungtering, please let me know. I often contemplate "why" I want to do this work...there are so many reasons. To help, to remind them of their dignity, to provide company, to listen, to share, ...i think mostly it is to BE with them as another human. We are all fundamentally the same. I said that to one prisoner who looked at me as if I was bs-ing...I explained that we were fundamentally the same, eat, sleep, breathe, it was just that he made a choice that somehow brought him to prison and I hadn't...yet. lol Why do I want to help lift...lift with a genuine interest for their well being...why do I? I have parts of the answer, but not the whole answer. It is my mission now though. Will keep you posted if I find out anymore as to why....thanks for helping me think through it further... Kim
Thank you for posting this Kim (as a new member, this response isn't timely; hope you see it) It illustrates how a great deal of what is confronted by those who endeavor to remove the causes of suffering is institutionalized - in this case rules that essentially require you not to hear the human being in front of you, and fabricate a demon instead. I'm not going to make the case that 'we have to address the institutions first' - although as a society I think it's high time for us to take responsibility for what we're collectively doing to each other, including our incarceration practices. Bringing the Dharma, one person to another (in the mutually awakening way that others have mentioned in this discussion), is going to be far more direct and meaningful. I hope you're able to succeed with your mission ... Jane
Sorry, was interrupted and didn't really complete the thought - I was relating to your (Kim's) experience as a prison therapist, and how the rules seemed to cut off actual human interaction. I've seen similar brick walls and wondered what to do about them. Sometimes activists say we should focus on changing the rules - since if we could find better rules, it would benefit more people. With more experience, however, it has come to look to me like being a friend, and especially a committed Dharma friend, even if only to a few or even one person, is much more powerful than changing bureaucratic checklists.
I think the motivation to 'lift' is natural, even though most of us have to 'relearn' what is actually our own nature, and gain confidence in it.
One thing that has come to me many times is that in Tibetan Buddhism anyway, the idea of transforming negative karma is a key aspect of practice. Pretty much all of the men I work with in prison are doing this big time! In the bigger sense of incarnation, the big "us", they are doing "us" all a huge service by their willingness to address their past, forgive all ways they have been victimized from the time they are born, and enter into relationship with their authentic selves.
For us, as Buddhists, to help facilitate this work is great Dharma Work-but especially so if we are engaged in this work/practice ourselves.
With an emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness rooted in our ongoing hope that all beings are free from suffering, and the causes of suffering, and that they have joy, and the causes of joy, Buddhists, I think, are naturally drawn to those suffering in prisons.
Of course, many people of other faiths work tirelessly to help prisoners and their families. But it has been my experience that other faiths are at times hindered by a parallel wish to convert the prisoner, and thus a sort of political stress is introduced into the system.