This morning I visited MCI MA (alias) on a dreary, wet and cool morning. I got through security and into the inner prison without delay. One of the inmates/guy/convict/practitioner/prisoner/... my friend's mother passed away a couple of days ago. He is grieving his mother's death and a special Theravadin ceremony was added along with the usual beautiful Theravadin chants. When we got to the last chant having to do with impermanence, they asked me to read what is a several page chant. It basically went through the five skandhas (form, feeling, perception, formation and consciousness) and described in an elaborate conversation (question and answer format) between the Buddha and five disciples how these skandhas are temporary and impermanent occurrences. It mentioned that we are not each of these five constituents and through negation pointed to our transcendent true nature. It was beautiful and an effective method for plumbing the depths of the question "who am I?".
After having finished all the chants, my friend who lost his mother and I left the "battle room" (our meditation hall) and went to an isolated part of the auditorium and had a private conversation which was prearranged and had the consent of the prison administration. Although I cannot be too specific about what was discussed, it was incredibly powerful and so raw and open that it bordered on unbearable. He touched on his relationship with his mother which was good. But he had remorse about not being able to be with her as she was dying. He also touched on the difficulties with his relationship with his siblings and all of the guilt trips his siblings laid on him for being incarcerated. We spent a lot of time discussing how we cannot change others. We can only be genuine with ourselves and others and not get hooked by the hope and fear connected with reestablishing a relationship or not. We can reach out to others who have negative fixed views about who we are, but it is up to them to recognize our basic goodness or not. We talked about how getting hooked into the identities of who we think we and others are is getting hooked into the wheel of samsara. We talked about how the only true refuge we can take is in the innate goodness that we all share.
My friend was interested in the Tibetan view of death. I briefly told him about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I suggested that his mother may be in the bardo (intermediary state between her past life and future life) and that this state could last for about two months. I suggested to my friend that if he wanted to, he could send his deepest love and affection to his mother during this time period and assure her that everything she may be experiencing, either good or bad, is temporary, ephemeral and so there is nothing for her to fear.
My friend was so tender, open and genuine that I just wanted to hug him. However, hugging prisoners is not permitted, so instead I gave him a firm handshake and a pat on the shoulder. Our private time together was over. He escorted me to the door that leads to the next building and eventually outside the prison's electrified walls. We shook hands again at that doorway, which a correction officer guarded, and we gazed into each other's eyes for an extra moment or two. Truly, there was no difference between the two of us.