I entered MCI MA and was immediately processed through security and led into the prison, then into a waiting area which is a small room with several chairs and a desk. After 10 minutes or so several other volunteers arrived to the waiting room. For some reason unknown to us we were held there for about 30 minutes. I know the other volunteers from previous visits and joked that we could have an ecumenical service in the waiting room as we comprised Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist volunteers. We talked about the potential for self-transformation among the prisoners and shared various success and failure stories that we've experienced in our prison work. The discussion left us with a good feeling all over.
I entered the "Battle Room" which is where our Buddhist class is held. We did the morning Shambhala chants after which I adjusted two of the new guys' body posture and then led a short guided meditation. We meditated for 20 minutes. As I often do now, I opened things up right away and asked if anyone wanted to share something in particular. One guy had prepared a short talk on a Zen koan. The koan was that a Zen student asks his master "Does a dog have buddha nature?" And the Zen master's answer was "MU! (NO! or "NOT!) He read this koan and a short commentary of it and we contemplated it as he read. One inmate said that the master's answer was beyond "yes" and "no" and that MU was an expression of transcending conceptual/thinking mind. He said that if we see things as they are in the moment, we wouldn't get caught up in judgment about how things are, but simply experience them directly beyond concepts about what we think they are or are not. This blew my mind. We all bowed. Another guy said the the Zen master's MU meant that everything is empty and that even having buddha nature, if clung to, is just another concept. Another bow. Another guy brought up a Zen parable about a Zen master walking with his disciple along a dirt path. They got to a low point on the path that was blocked by a muddy puddle and a beautiful woman dressed in an ornate kimono was wondering how to cross the muddy puddle without soiling her dress. She asked the young disciple if he could carry her over and the disciple bowed and said he could not because a monk is not permitted to touch a woman. So the disciple crossed the puddle alone. After crossing, the disciple looked back and saw his master carrying the woman in his arms across the muddy puddle. Later the disciple was very concerned and worried for his master and asked him why he broke a Buddhist precept. The master's reply was "My dear boy, I left the woman on the far side of the puddle but you are still carrying her." This parable led to several comments. One guy said that it is a question of whether or not one's intention is pure or not that matters most, and not the breaking of a precept. He said that the precept is only a helpful guideline but not an absolute truth. Another guy said that even though a beautiful lotus grows in muddy water, yet the lotus flower in not soiled by the mud. Therefore, even though the Zen master carried the woman over the muddy puddle, he were not soiled by the "breaking" of a precept. The guy said that the master was bound by a greater precept. He went on to say that we are all absorbed in our own worlds of muddy water and learning how to let go of our concepts and judgments about how we think things are is the true path. My mind was blown again. Another guy then talked about a trauma in his life that was an open wound for many years and how he has learned to take responsibility for that painful wound. He said he is now able to let go of it, thus allowing him to be at peace with himself. There was much more discussed. We ended with dedicating the merit of our practice and study to all beings.
I am overjoyed and grateful to be able to study and practice with such genuine Buddhist practitioners.