Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Letter from Prison

"Prison Dharma" became a major part of my practice in 2011. I started volunteering in a local facility in April, teaching meditation to prisoners. This started out with me thinking, "I will teach them, and they will earn from me." How wrong I was. I have learned far more from time spent meditating with these men than they could possibly have learned from me.

I began writing to an incarcerated man in June. My teacher, Zen Master Bon Haeng (Mark Houghton) had received a letter from an inmate asking for Zen teaching, which he simply did not have time to answer. "You're doing prison dharma already--why don't you write to this person?" he said. So I agreed to try my hand. 

That correspondence grew. The prisoner and I have exchanged more than a dozen letters. It's been very instructive and rewarding.

Then word reached the powers-that-be at the Kwan Um School of Zen (my school) that I would reply to letters from people in prison. Now I keep regular correspondence with ten or twelve men. I send them books (when the facility's rules allow it), answer their questions if I can, and offer encouragement to people who, in some cases, are probably going to die in prison. 

The latest development is a new program we started at one of our local facilities to bring Asian-born and -trained monks into the facility. There's a sizable Asian population in US prisons, and many of these people identify as Buddhists. But in most places, there's very little in the way of religious support for these prisoners. (Jesus runs the show in the majority of American prisons.) 

The lay practice of Buddhism in Asia consists (mostly) of offering material support to  monks and nuns in their daily activities; few people in Asia actually meditate, chant, etc. themselves, relying on their accumulated "merit" to give them a good rebirth in their next life, at which time they hope they will be able to practice themselves. When we began teaching generic mindfulness meditation in April, the Asian men came around, took a look, and said, "Very nice, but do you think we can get a monk to come in?" So we began to look into it.

Last week, we brought the first monk into the facility. A dozen men showed up. (Typically, we would get only 2 or 3 men at our meditation groups.) The monk led chanting, bowing, meditation. He gave a short Dharma talk. The men loved it. Before we knew it, the two hours we had been allotted had passed. 

Last night I began training to be a facilitator in a program called "Path of Freedom" being offered by Fleet Maull and the Prison Dharma Network. Session #1 was great, very informative, very useful. The prison thing is growing. It is becoming a significant part of my practice--yes, I said MY practice. Helping these men helps me. It's weird, but I really think it's helping me on the path to understand my true self.

I have no idea where this will lead, but it's been an interesting trip so far.

Note: Institutional rules, prisoner privacy laws and a general caution about such matters require that names of people and facilities not be used in this post.