Prisoners of our minds…

I went to the Washington State Prison yesterday for one of two annual events that a local meditation group set into motion some years ago, along with bi-weekly meditation sort of get-togethers for five different groups of prisoners. The two annual events are called Buddha Day and sort of celebrate Buddhism and its Founder (Year 2563, in Buddha Calendar),  with the prisoners. There is a larger Celebration in May and a smaller one for another “side” of the Prison, which was yesterday.

There were 15 prisoners, four guards and their Sgt., as well as one of the Prison Asst. Chaplains present, as well as the main volunteer of the local group and myself. Lunch was served, chicken with all the trimmings , as well as with two vegetarian options and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Really good food and lots of it, and not the usual fare the prisoners ordinarily get, but sort of a gourmet offering because the volunteer paid for it and the kitchen went off-menu a tad.

We had two shortish talks on Buddhism and a longer discussion/question period. It went well and we had great participation, good comments and questions. The Prison staff were great in their helpfulness and the Chaplain was very respectful and took  pictures of all attending, individually with the “presenters”, so attendees could share with families, etc: Nice touch!

My part was a role as a teacher in the sense that many very basic Buddhist teachings are rarely given in those settings, simply because of attendance variability along with interest variability. Those two factors are very much contingent, and central, aspects of general prison culture, in that groups of “associates” are always open to an opportunity to get together in a variety of settings that may not actually be of interest to most of them.

There are various efforts being made so that the groups get smaller because then they will be more focused on actual religious practice and teaching rather than social time amongst people with other agendas. It will be interesting to see how this little experiment works out. As in all group endeavors there are differences of opinion about all of it, every which way.

Personally I’m struck by the fact of the rigors of prison life and with the variety of social and mental conditions, how many of the basic Buddhist teachings are readily apparent as being of practical use to the inmates. I tried both days to stress that Buddhism is mostly an experiential process, because one has to engage on many levels with changing how one relates to oneself and how one does things; how one relates to others and how one does that; how one relates to the things (objects as well as situations), in one’s life and how one does that.

And, we begin that willingness to change by looking at how we currently do all that; and that meditation is one way to get different perspective on ourselves, through ourselves. The next part is often, what do we, practically do, to effect afore-referenced change of view?   And for that, the Buddha and his followers have passed down the Eightfold Noble Path and all the Precepts that are practical and actionable guides to actual conduct, behaviors and deportment.

I can remember that “Deportment” was on the back of my Elementary School Report Cards as a category of gradation within “Behaviour”. I always did very poorly in all those along with scholastic achievement. I was well rounded throughout my turbulent school career. In English too. Huh?

Anyway, It was wonderful to deepen some acquaintances and friendships and start others, while simultaneously challenging my own training and practice by doing my best to adhere to what the Buddha taught in all of this endeavor and, to be willing to be wrong and perhaps learn more. I’m sure I’ll revisit this. Future time.

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