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Prison Dharma

Prison Dharma 

written by Mark O’Leary

(from the International Kwan Um School of Zen Newsletter, Autumn 2013)

We arrive at the facility at 8:30 Saturday morning. An officer takes our IDs: myself, Mike Selva, Hari Pillai from Cambridge Zen Center, and Zen Master Bon Haeng, alias Mark Houghton. A sliding steel door. Remove your watch, belt and shoes. Turn out your pockets. Open your mouth. Flip up your collar. Walk through the metal detector. Pat search. Ever been convicted of a felony? Sign the consent form. Next.

Another sliding steel door. Three electronic gates. Twenty-foot-high chain link topped with razor wire. Uniformed guards. Cameras. Towers. More razor wire as we cross the vast open compound. Finally, after twenty minutes, eight locked doors and continuous scrutiny by unseen security personnel, we arrive at the destination: the chapel.

We are here to conduct a 1-day Yong Maeng Jong Jin for about a dozen Zen students who also happen to be inmates in a medium-security prison. Our meager ritual items are waiting for us there, inspected, fluoroscoped and approved for prison use: zafus and zabutons specially made to prison specifications (black, kapok stuffing for the cushions, mats sewn on all four sides with no zippers). Chanting books without the wire binding (wire has many uses in prison, none of them good), a large photograph of a Buddha statue (real statues being forbidden) and a small photo of Zen Master Seung Sahn. And our most recent acquisition, specially approved just for today’s special event: a moktak, which we place in its customary spot on the makeshift altar. The first time we asked permission to bring in a moktak, the Director of Security hefted it in his hand, shook his head and said simply, “That’s a weapon.” But today we have special permission. It must be taken out when we leave today.

At nine o’clock, the men arrive. They are smiling, nervous. Smiling because for the first time a real Zen master has come to teach them, a rare and wonderful occurrence; nervous because it is their first-ever YMJJ. They have been told the name means To Leap Like a Tiger While Sitting. Although they are all experienced meditators, they are worried that they won’t be able to sustain their practice for a whole day.

We make introductions. The volunteers put on their robes and kasas—there are no robes for the inmates—and each man takes his assigned seat. None of the inmates holds formal precepts, so there is no real hierarchy to the seating. Our intent is to create as normal a retreat atmosphere as possible. The chapel is big, maybe thirty feet square. Tomorrow it will be filled with Protestant and Catholic hymns, but today is Saturday. Jesus and Buddha share the silent space.

Practice begins. Three hand claps from the HDT (we have no chugpi, another weapon) and we are off; the tigers begin to leap. Kong an interviews take place in a small hallway outside the chapel. This has been a point of contention with security. The rules forbid closed doors between us and the officers tasked with keeping order. Line-of-sight must be maintained. (Even the stalls in the men’s room have no doors on them.) It took a while to find a setup that would satisfy all parties, but this actually works well. There are arrangements in the free world with less privacy.

Very soon, the prison retreat resembles a normal one. Sitting. Walking. Standing. Dozing. Sore knees, aching back. First-timers nervously await their private encounter with the teacher. This could easily be taking place in Central Square, Cambridge.

Lunch arrives to remind us where we really are. The food is technically vegetarian but otherwise unappetizing prison grub: a salty, industrial-strength hockey puck of a veggie burger, unseasoned white rice, broccoli cooked as gray as our robes. Ketchup, fortunately. A banana—not bad. Accept what is served with gratitude. Do not be concerned with likes and dislikes. And something we don’t normally get at outside retreats: dessert. One of the men works in the kitchen and has made us a coma-inducingly sweet cream-filled cake, special for the occasion. He is very proud of it. It is the best part of the meal. I eat two pieces.

The afternoon continues, and I am again struck by how normal this all is. I know these men. I have been coming here once a week for a couple of years, practicing with them, teaching them, learning from them. Privacy laws forbid us to ask certain questions, but in candid moments a prisoner will sometimes share, perhaps more than he should. Drugs. Assault. Worse. The hand that served me my lunch once took a human life. But they seem so much like other people I know. The difference between my life and theirs often comes down to a fateful choice or two. A kong an pops into my head: prisoner or free person, same or different? If you don’t answer, you go into solitary. If you open your mouth, you go to hell.

Sitting practice ends. The precious, dangerous moktak comes out. Gate gate paragate. Shin myo jang gu dae dharani. The Buddha way is inconceivable. Circle talk. Faces shine with a clear-eyed, just-washed intensity. The room is filled with the calm energy of a dozen men who have spent the whole day grounded in the here and now.

Clean up. Soon the Dharma Hall is once again a Christian chapel. Many bows, many handshakes. Hugging is forbidden. From out in the hallway, an officer’s voice yells, “Movement!” And like that, it is over. But a precedent has been set. Some of the men are already talking about “the next time we do this.” And I’m thinking about it too. Everybody feels good.

Carrying the moktak through the gates back to the free world, I realize the Director of Security had been right: like the Dharma itself, the moktak is indeed a weapon. It destroys fear and ignorance.

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