I have been chompin’ at the bit to tell you all about an event that happened at San Quentin last night. I've been restraining myself because as you all know, lockdowns, fog-lines and other prison-related obstacles can easily, randomly and suddenly thwart even the best-laid plans!
Sunday night marked the first of hopefully ongoing Devotional Music Nights at San Quentin State Prison. I am so lucky that my supervisor who is the Catholic Chaplain there is as open minded and progressive as he is to give me the green light to go forward with this. He really is a visionary, as Interfaith as they get, and really, a great Bodhisattva wearing this incarnation as a Catholic Priest!
I want to frame this story with stating my background as someone who has produced and promoted literally dozens, probably hundreds of events and festivals: from Dharma events to music to classes to festivals; a lot of experience with events but Sunday night's event took the cake! Maybe close was a puja my lama did in Bolinas, CA but never mind! Off the charts! Major hit of shakti! I barely slept all night, thinking of the miraculousness of it all.
And all this is not to ring my bell, but rather an honoring of the work all of you are doing, especially you old timers like Fleet Maul, Jacques Verduin, Rochelle Edwards and James Fox, just a few I happen to know or know of. And Jacques is one of my supes next to Father Williams at the Q.
This event could well have never happened if Bo Lozoff and his wife Sita had not dedicated so much of their lives to providing a compassionate witness for the lives of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.
For this reason last night's event was dedicated to Bo Lozoff.
Here is my intro to the evening:
“First I want to thank you all for being a part of this first evening of Devotional Music of the Heart.
One thing I’ve seen come true over and over since I began coming into San Quentin is the power of truth, connection and interconnection.
So many of the groups and programs here lead to a journey of discovery of one’s own truth, one’s own path.
As we bear witness, sometimes gently, sometimes painfully, to the beauty and truth of our heart’s unfolding and our soul’s journey, eventually a different experience of love emerges. This love, this connection, exists far beyond the limits of personal love, even beyond the limits of religion-it moves us from connection to interconnection.
Music does this naturally and magically and Devotional Music even more so.
There is a back story to this evening’s event, another story of connection which I want to share with you all.
Many of you may know of Bo Lozoff, author, musician, interfaith humanitarian, founder of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. Bo and his wife Sita worked to improve the lives of prisoners and former prisoners for over 35 years. Bo even came here to San Quentin 10 or so years ago and performed some music. His book “We’re All Doing Time” has been hailed as one of the top 10 books in the world that everyone should read.
Bo and his wife Sita were pioneers in bringing a compassionate presence and witness to the lives of incarcerated men and women.
Bo was a personal friend and an inspiration to both of my supervisors here, Father Williams and Jacques Verduin. I have read all his books and learned from him as well. He also had a connection with Jai Uttal, being a part of the same satsang, decades ago.
On December 1st of 2012 I woke up excited for the Zen Precept Ceremony I was going to attend here at San Quentin later in the day. I turned on my computer to the news that Bo Lozoff had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Hawaii just a few hours before. What a strange feeling that was-knowing that I would be sitting with the Zen sangha later that day, knowing that in some ways Bo Lozoff’s incredible dedication to working with prisoners and prisons had indirectly laid the foundation for so much of what is good in San Quentin.
I came to the prison that day intentionally honoring Bo and his wife’s life work. The joy of seeing a few men I know taking the Zen precepts and getting new names from their lineage made me forget the tragic story of Bo’s death.
After the ceremony I spoke with GS, whom I knew had met Bo. I had intended to tell G about Bo’s death. Instead, we struck up a conversation about a topic we love, that of Bhakti, the path of Devotion. We spoke of how devotion is alive in the hearts of so many of the men here as they open to their true selves. We spoke of how we love kirtan, singing the names of God as we will do later this evening. I fantasized how wonderful it would be to have an evening of Devotional Music here at San Quentin. We agreed it would be a great event and god-willing, let’s make it happen.
That night I pitched the idea to Father Williams. To my surprise and delight, he too had a deep love of kirtan after living in India and experiencing it first hand. He was all for bringing Devotional Music to the chapel at San Quentin, not just for one evening, but maybe even once a month.
And so the thread of Bo Lozoff’s life work runs through this event tonite.
Thank you Bo, thank you Father George, Jacques, James, Jai, and everyone here for being a part of this first night of Devotional Music at San Quentin.
We hope you enjoy it and will come back for more!”
We had guys dancing in the aisles, pogoing even! Christian and Muslim guys singing Namah Shivaya, Bolo Ram and other chants that Jai led us on! We had Bo's picture on the video monitors there in the Catholic Chapel, filled with easily 80 inmates.
One of the Native American inmates who plays magical flute prayed us in and out with stunning dedications to our ancestors, and our life givers, prayers supercharged by the grandmother full moon rising over the prison as he spoke. Some of the men played a Taize song-another sang a sweet and upbeat song he wrote about the satisfaction of finding the Divine no matter where you are.
When Jai and I first walked in he expressed nervousness. At the end, he was saying with vehemence "I want to come back, will you have me back? When can I come back?
Thanks to the open-ness of my supes there and thanks to the depth and open-ness of the inmates, it seems this event will happen monthly. We even had a harmonium donated to the chapel! One of the inmates last night, a guy I've known slightly but not well, identified himself as a Sufi. First kirtan, next Zikr!
I am inspired. Not only did the heart of devotion get honored at San Quentin, two more people, Jai and his drummer Radhanath, had their brains re-aligned in terms of their projections and feelings about prisoners. One by one by one, hopefully a change is gonna come!
Susan Shannon, M. Div.