This morning I got an early start to the prison, and so decided to skip Dunkin’ Donuts altogether 😉 and instead visited a state nature preserve only 2 miles from the prison. It was a cool, breezy morning with a pleasant mixture of clouds and bright blue open sky. A flock of geese were wandering on the green, and I wondered what they were all pecking at. A beckoning pond was just beyond the geese, reflecting the patchwork sky. I fell into reflection for 20 minutes and then drove to the prison.
Today was the Theravadin Sunday morning gathering. This is a group of inmates who have largely practiced meditation and studied Buddhism for many years. These guys have also become my friends and I cherish every moment I have with them. We began with the most lovely chanting in Pali (with english translation below the Pali) which lasted about 30 minutes. I love the rhythmic and soothing Pali chants. We then meditated for 20 minutes.
Today’s topic of conversation, chosen by one of the inmates, was “what is suffering and what is happiness?” We went around in a circle giving equal time for each person to speak. The following is what three of the inmates shared with the group. The first guy said that suffering is not getting what he wants or getting what he doesn’t want. He added that being with sangha (community), meditating, studying dharma, and appreciating the goodness that we all inherently have makes him happy. A second guy said that letting be and letting go to whatever he fixates on makes him happy. And conversely, whatever he holds on to and fixates on makes him suffer. By example, he shared that he has four children and said that he spoke to them on the phone yesterday. He was happy to learn that they were all doing well. He said that he often misses his family and dwells on his situation in prison in an obsessive and negative way, which creates more suffering. Other times when he is talking with his family he is able to feel his emotions (“positive” or “negative”), let them be, and let go after the conversation which allows him to be content and happy. He actually chose to use the world “joyful” instead of happy. He thought “joy” conveyed a more complete and inclusive experience. A third guy shared that when he recognizes that everything is dream-like and empty of solid existence, he can relax and rest in whatever circumstance presents itself which is the source of his happiness. He said that when he cannot relax and rest in this knowledge he panics, loses his natural balance and suffers. He also said that suffering should be met with a gentle mindfulness, and that trying to mindlessly avoid suffering only increases it.
I must admit that this gathering ranks among the most inspiring I have attended at this prison. We ended the class with our hearts full of happiness and joy. My final words to them as I left the room was “don’t worry, be happy!”