I went yesterday into the large State Prison located in the community where I live, as part of a meditation group that is sponsored by a local group of good hearted folks, who are Buddhist-leaning and took on the project about 8 years ago. I have attended with these prison meditation groups on and off for most of the three years I’ve been living here. It’s been on and off because I was, and still am, somewhat conflicted about what was being offered to the inmates at these meetings. My main quibble had to do with the fact that they are called Buddhist even though there was very little actual Buddhist teaching going on, It was more of what I have encountered in the American Buddhist world in general which is a hodge-podge of quasi-Buddhist, part new-age, feel-good pop psychology, and loads of personal opinions about what religion, philosophy, life style, and activities might be more or less grouped under that sort-of-Buddhist umbrella.
So, I have recommitted, to working with these good-hearted folks when I realized that this was indeed an opportunity for me to help, as well as having lots of opportunities for me to look at all of my own opinions and positions that I take in regard to the above activities, which appear in such great variaty in the American/Western Buddhist world.
My biggest problem is reining in my own talkativeness and enthusiasm while trying to encourage, over time, a structured approach and a sort of syllabus that follows and hopefully flows from some basic Buddhist teaching/concepts; i.e. TheFour Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Precepts, Karma, Rebirth, and yes, meditation). Keeping in mind that each groups attendance varies depending on what is going on for the attendees in their prison life and what is going on in the Prison itself. Some days they are on Lock-down (no prisoner movement outside of their cells), or a Section is in a Lock-down that may have a lot of our attendees in it. Also, our “groups” vary in attendance from two to twenty on any given day, depending on a huge variety of conditions; such as actual interest in Buddhism, just getting out of one’s cell and willing do anything to get out for a change of scene, or a gathering of prison-gang elements to be able to exchange information or just meet quasi-socially. Also, there are quite a number of attendees who have cultural heritage of Buddhism and are pursuing or taking up afresh a part of their families history and so forth and of course just pure curiosity.
Another difficulty is that we see these groups, at best, twice a month and once annually for a half day “Buddha” celebration. The prison offers all sorts of religious activities, as attested by the various lockers for the groups at the prison Chapels, but Christian groups of every stripe are the dominant influence and they inform a lot of the policy decisions just by the numbers of attendees for their activities. It makes sense that little splinter groups have to scramble and try to fit in where they can.
Yet, within all that, it is an offering and there is a need and there is accommodation. So, how to proceed within the Actual, rather than some Ideal is really the “koan” encountered. Which reminds me that there are a lot of variation that attendees have experienced as Buddhist practice and teaching; so how be inclusive and relevant and at ease with all is one of the main concerns.
So, yesterday was day of three groups, one in the morning and two in the afternoon. The process of going from place to place within the prison is of course daunting in its own way, and then learning to keep adapting to the various cultures that exist within the prison, the administrators, the chaplains, the guards, the vast variety of prisoner cultures that it is good to be aware of ,and the general energy/karma that is omnipresent and especially noticeable, for me, the night and day after having spent about 6 hours there. It certainly makes me aware and naturally brings up compassion for all the people involved in that system. Everyone that is in the prison for any extended period of time, prisoners, employees, volunteers and so forth; experience an astounding amount stress and frustration day-in day-out. And, I suspect the ways of dealing with it for all involved are not always skillful, in terms of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.
Sadly, that process as we experience it in U.S., is what it is, and won’t be changing anytime soon. And, to know that in most of the rest of the world it is even worse in terms of conditions, is even more sobering.
Then again, from a Buddhist point of view there is no problem, as such. It is just conditions within the world as constituted, and the resulting karma, working itself through. To be in the position to bring little bits of the Dharma into that setting is a pure gift and an honor.
The questions and small discussions that come up at group level, or as short side-conversations, are remarkable. More than a few of these seekers have an intuitive understanding that the Prison, as a place of Dharma practice, is no different than the prison of the ‘Self’ that we all have to become aware of, and learn to train within..
I’ll write a bit more about this adventure in the next few blatherings.
A great teacher of my
acquaintance spoke once of
the caged bird that does not
know the bottom has fallen
Off, because it flies up
to the top of the cage
looking for an escape