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Buddhist Practices in Prison Outreach with Ven. Thubten Chodron

Updated: Mar 28

This week's podcast features Venerable Thubten Chodron speaking with Fleet Maull on her work with Sravasti Abbey and her experiences providing resources and support for incarcerated individuals.

  • The transformative nature of compassion when working with incarcerated individuals

  • The importance of diversity in the Buddhist teaching groups offered to prisoners.

  • Offering incarcerated individuals tools/skills before release to ease the transition


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Ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in 1977, Venerable Thubten Chodron is an author, teacher, and the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey. Sravasti Abbey is one of the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries for Westerners in the U.S., and holds gender equality, social engagement, and care for the environment amongst its core values. Venerable Chodron teaches worldwide and is known for her practical and humorous explanations of how to apply Buddhist teachings in daily life. She is also involved in prison outreach and interfaith dialogue. She has published many books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and is currently assisting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the writing and publication of The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, a multi-volume series of teachings on the Buddhist path. Visit thubtenchodron.org for a media library of her teachings, and sravasti.org to learn more about the Abbey.


Buddhist Practices in Prison Outreach with Ven. Thubten Chodron Transcript


Fleet Maull: 

Hi! Welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. My name is Fleet Maull, your co-host for this session. I'm really thrilled and honored to be here today with our longtime colleague and Dharma sister in this work, Venerable Thubten Chödron. Welcome, Venerable Chödron. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Thank you. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wonderful to be with you today. So I'm going to share a little bit of your background with our audience. And then we'll jump right into the conversation, all right? Good. So the Venerable Thubten Chödron was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in 1977. She is an author, teacher, and founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey. Sravasti Abbey is one of the first Tibetan Buddhist training monasteries for Westerners in the US. The abbey holds gender equality, social engagement, and care for the environment amongst its core values. 


Venerable Chödron teaches worldwide and is known for her practical and humorous explanations of how to apply Buddhist teachings in daily life. She is also involved in buddhist practices in prison outreach and interfaith dialogue. She has published many books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation and is currently assisting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the writing and publication of the Library of Wisdom and Compassion, a multi-volume series of teachings on the Buddhist path. 


You can find more about Venerable Chödron's work at ThubtenChodron.org. And also at Sravasti.org. So again, welcome, Venerable Chödron. Thank you very much for being part of our summit and for the decades of Prison Dharma work that you've been doing. So you are a longtime Buddhist monastic and really an international Buddhist leader and renowned teacher. And so I'm curious, how did you first get involved in prison Dharma work? 



Venerable Thubten Chödron:

It's an interesting story. I was the resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle. I got a letter one day from an inmate in federal prison in Ohio. He was asking some questions and wanted some material. So, I started corresponding with him. And then eventually, I had some courses in Wisconsin, so I was able to jump over to Ohio for a weekend. I went and visited him in prison. I asked him, "How did you find me?" Because I have never done prison work before. He said that he sent out a letter to 25 Buddhist organizations, and I was the only one that answered. But then he looked at the list of centers where he had sent letters, and the place where I was was not on the list. 


Fleet Maull: 

Oh, my goodness. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

So how I got his letter is a mystery, but that is what started me on the whole thing. 


Fleet Maull: 

What year was that? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

That was probably maybe '97. A while ago. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Still in the early days of the Buddhist Prison Ministry. And yeah, very similarly, you know, the way Prison Dharma Network got started is while I was in prison, Buddhist prisoners were starting to reach out to Buddhist communities and asking for support and help. There really wasn't much experience in the field of Buddhist communities at that time. This is back in like 1986, '87, '88. There had only been a little. Of course, Bo Lozoff and Sita Lozoff's work is in a more contemplative prison ministry. 


I think John Delury was getting a little something going in New York State, and there been some pure land Buddhist ministry among kind of Asian more pure land Buddhist prisoners, and so forth. But there really wasn't much going on. And people actually started sending me letters in prison because I published some articles. They said, "Well, Fleet would know what to do with these." I was able to correspond with prisoners in state prisons and county jails but not federal prisons. That was against the rules. 


I didn't know that they'd let me do the other. I just did it. They never stopped me. That's kind of how it got started. I think a lot of people got started in this work because a center they were part of got a letter from a prisoner somewhere. Yeah. It's wonderful. So eventually, you went into prisons and taught directly in prisons? What was your experience like of actually teaching inside correctional facilities? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

It was fine. When I told people I was doing this, they were going, "Aren't you afraid?" "No, I'm not afraid. Why should I be afraid?" I'm not afraid to go in. So, that was just out of the question, but it was strange how people were very concerned about that. 


What I did realize, and I only realized this when somebody pointed it out to me. I had gone into a prison in Wisconsin with a friend of mine who was kind of guiding the group in prison. We wanted to have a discussion. I said, "Let's sit in a circle." I threw out some questions, and we started talking. It was a very good discussion. After we left, I commented to my friend. I said, "Wow. Those guys really spoke up, and they had some really good ideas. I was quite pleased with the discussion." And he commented, "Well, that's because you treated them as equals. You treated them like everybody else." 


That kind of made me sit up when he said that because, again, the usual feeling about, well, you know, these people, and they're different from us, and this kind of rubbish. That hadn't entered my mind. It's like they are human beings just like me. They were in some circumstances, you know, and then they wound up in prison. But why would I treat them any differently? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

So for me, it was always an experience of sharing, actually. People would say to me, "Well, what are you teaching them?" And I said, "They're teaching me." Yeah, because they really were. I learned so much from the people that I work with. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, that's really so important to this work. In my experience during my years of incarceration, it was such a blessing to go to some kind of program with outside folks who didn't treat you differently or didn't come across like they were trying to fix you, or there wasn't a slightly parental kind of thing, right. 


And where I got that was in the recovery groups with AA and NA, you know, they were just fellow addicts, fellow drunks. There was no energy in that. The other volunteers, from time to time, will get involved in our Buddhist group there in prison, very much so. I think that's been a strength to the Buddhist prison ministry. For whatever reason, I think most western Buddhists just kind of naturally have that mindset of, you know, not separating from the people who are inside. 


This doesn't fit in because a lot of well-meaning prison volunteers come in with all kinds of programs, religious and secular, that are very well-meaning but they just haven't gotten that contact to know how not to kind of treat the prisoners in some kind of other way or special way. It makes a world of difference because when you're in prison, you're suffering under this tremendous, you know, having been really demonized throughout your court process and a process of incarceration and then treated as less than human. 


And then, you have encounters every day that are incredibly demeaning with the staff and with your fellow prisoners. And that's not to say it's all negative, but there's a lot of that. And so, when you have the experience of somebody coming in from the outside, and they just treat you as another human being, adult to adult, human to human, it is so healing, it is really profoundly healing. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, after my friend made that comment to me, it really made me see that so much of prison work is just being yourself and treating everybody else the way you would treat anybody. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, absolutely. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

And that it's how you are as a human being. That really, like you said, makes the healing and restores some sense of no normalcy. This prison is not a normal environment. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, to say the least. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. 


Fleet Maull: 

So actually, you know, the research, the social sciences research on all kinds of change work, and specifically in the field of corrections, says the most powerful driver of change is the quality of that relationship between whatever kind of teacher guide is coming in. The content is less important than that relationship. Not to say that the content they're bringing in isn't impactful, but it's that relationship and the quality of that relationship that is most impactful. That's really interesting. 


I'm curious, though. In your experience of doing this kind of work over the years, both in person and through correspondence and with your community, what is it in the Buddhist tradition that seems to connect with prisoners? Or what do they connect with most in the Buddhist path, the Buddhist tradition? What touches them? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Compassion. Compassion, without a doubt. It's mostly men that I work with, but they are so hungry for just talking about compassion, hearing that they too can generate compassion for everybody equally, even for the prison guards. The force of just compassion exists in this world as something that we have seeds and that we can cultivate. That just resonates so much. It's so important. Now with across the board, I think, with all the guys that I deal with. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow. So, certainly during the early years of my incarceration, throughout but certainly in the early years, when it was, you know, very traumatic finding myself locked up in prison for a long time, obviously, and dealing with that environment. Two of the core practices that really helped me navigate that just personally, psychologically, and spiritually were the metta practice, the loving-kindness practice, and the Tonglen practice. 


In the Metta practice, I used to go out and walk the track and just do that the whole time for all beings, for my fellow prisoners, and for myself. And the Tonglen practice, I worked with, you know, anyone I was having challenges with, you know, in terms of my whole process of incarceration, and having ended up there as well as, you know, what I was dealing with on the inside. Just continually working with the Tonglen practice of changing self rather than practice. 


So, yeah, those were incredibly important. Somehow that became my road to greater self-compassion and reclaiming my dignity as a human being, or at least not that I had to reclaim it, but feeling like I was in touch with it. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Well, prison is not a compassionate environment. 


Fleet Maull: 

No. Not at all. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Incarcerated people grew up in families where compassion was lacking or grew up in communities, you know, where life was difficult, and people didn't necessarily help each other show compassion to each other. So as soon as you talk about this and say, "You too can become like this." The sky clears. And they see something that they can become and want to become. And then, they also see how compassion acts as an antidote to anger. And certainly, in prison, you have a lot of anger. Not only around you but in yourself because it's a difficult situation. 


And so, how to look at these people is that people that, you know, you were in touch with before that were involved with your going to prison, or with the prison guards and the way they treat you, or with family members who don't write. And so, anger comes up, and then they just hear about compassion. And, you know, seeing the other person as a human being with their own problems, with their own defilements, and having compassion for them because they're just like us. We're all trapped in samsara because of our afflictions. That's something that heals the anger and opens the heart. I think what people really want is an open heart. 


Fleet Maull: 

I'm curious. In your experience, how does that then connect with self-compassion and self-forgiveness? Because often, people who are incarcerated are dealing with everything you just mentioned. But many also have been involved in harmful behavior that they have trouble forgiving themselves for. And also many, many cases. They left children behind on the outside. So, I'm curious about your experience of working with them and how these practices have helped them with self-forgiveness, self-empathy, self-compassion, and so forth.

 

Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. They're very effective, I think. Again, just the whole idea because if we can cultivate compassion, it means that we are not fixed personalities. That's so often the view is, you know, we are an inherently existent personality who cannot change, and something is really wrong with me. And that's why I'm here, or something is really wrong with other people, and they did things, and that's why I'm here. Everything is really concretized. 


When you talk about compassion, and that it's possible to cultivate it, you know, then they see, oh, yeah, not only for others, but I can start to forgive myself too. That's really important. That's something I really try and emphasize. This works for people on the outside, too. It's not different inside and outside. We've all made mistakes. If we can look back at the person we were with a sense of understanding that we knew that that person that we were in the past very intimately, we know what their circumstances were, we know how they were thinking, we know the wrong ways they were thinking too and how the mind created all sorts of stuff. 


So, if you can look at that person and see, you know, they were doing their best, given the circumstances they were in, which weren't always good. And as they themselves, what they brought to the circumstances also wasn't always good, but we can look at it as understanding, and that understanding is just for the fact that we are all human beings trying to do better. We all want happiness. None of us want to suffer. We're all equal in that way. So, we can have compassion for the person that we are, and we can have compassion for our family members. Often, there's a lot of troubles in the families, and we can have compassion, you know, if you left kids behind or whatever. 


And so that helps with the self-forgiveness and just the fact that "Oh, I can develop this." This gives a sense of self-confidence. I'm not a fixed personality. I can develop new qualities. And what's so splendid about the Buddhist teachings is the Buddha didn't just say to be compassionate. How do you be compassionate when you don't know how to cultivate it? He actually taught the methods. Meditate on this, then think about this, then contemplate this. And he gave us a step by step way to do it. And if you follow those steps, you can see the change in yourself. 


Fleet Maull: 

In your prison work, you offer specific contemplations for the prisoners to do related to compassion. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Ah-hmm. [Nodding] also, another thing that I found very helpful with them is in the Tibetan tradition, we do visualizations. For example, by visualizing the Buddha in front and then you create a friendship, you create a relationship with the Buddha. We often speak of purification practices, which start with expressing our regret for what we've done. Imagine that the Buddha is looking at you with total acceptance. How many of us have ever let it into our hearts that others can look at us with total acceptance? That's a hard thing for many people inside or outside. 


And so when I say, okay, the Buddha is looking at you with acceptance, with compassion, there's no judgment. And then imagine that light from the Buddha in front of you. You imagine it coming into you, you know, filling your entire body-mind complex. What's the Buddha's compassion? And then you rest feeling that connection with the Buddha and with the light filling you. That is also very, very peaceful, very healing for people. I find those kinds of visualization practices also very good. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, It's very powerful. In terms of the kind of classes that are offered in correctional facilities all over the country, and of course, that's all been kind of really limited due to the pandemic over the last couple of years, but hopefully, it's all starting to open up again. But there were many, many classes in correctional facilities all over the country. Part of our work has been kind of connecting all the dots there with the Prison Dharma Network. 


Many of the classes, even if they're in the prison chaplain and are ostensibly called a Buddhist meditation group or something, you know, they're presented almost in a very universal, it's an almost secular way. They focus on offering a practice of meditation, of mindfulness of some kind, offering some kind of mindful movement, yoga, or something, and then dialogue. It's given the people, the participants, the opportunity to talk about what they're experiencing, and so forth. 


And then there are other programs that are really clearly secular, that are offered through drug treatment programs, education programs, and they're by design, quite secular, but are still offering the practice of mindfulness. And so I'm curious about your thoughts about programs that would include more Buddhist teaching, some that focus mostly on the practice of meditation, other practices that are purely secular mindfulness practices, whether you see value in all of this or whether you see differences in some of it, I'm just curious about your thoughts about that. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Well, both. I see value in all of it, and I'd see differences in them. That's why I think a diversity of different programs is good because people have different needs. They see things in a different way. Some people want just general mindfulness. Some people want to learn Buddhism, per se, as a spiritual path. And so, since people have different wishes and different goals, then it's good that there are classes for all of these different things. I think they're all needed. 


Fleet Maull: 

In some areas and regions of the country, this can be true in Western Europe and other places, as well. But here in the US, at any rate, and in Canada, there are areas where there's quite a concentration of different Buddhist groups and traditions. California, obviously, but other places, and in the US, as well. And so there are some prisons that benefit from having two or three different groups offering classes there, right? And in my experience, prisoners tend to be pretty eclectic and are and are less concerned with the sectarian differences that maybe we are on the outside. They go to lots of groups, they'll go to all the Buddhist groups, and they'll even be going to other religious groups. They're pretty eclectic. 


Often, in the networking work, we do, and sometimes when I'm in an area offering a program, we're connecting with people doing the work. There are sometimes a couple of different Tibetan Buddhist groups, a Protestant group, a Zen group, or a different group, and they're all going into the same prison, but they don't know each other. They don't connect with each other. And in some cases, we've been able to connect. 


I'm curious about your experience with this and whether the prison work seems to be one opportunity for different traditions to intermingle and connect and maybe have more of a Maha Sangha approach because the prisoners don't seem to care so much about the sectarian differences in my experience. I don't know about yours. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah, that's interesting that you say that because I've run into a few situations. Not all of them. People in the group will tell me, you know, "We come from different traditions." Sometimes there's a little bit of friction about how to run the group. Someone wants to do this, and somebody wants to do that. And, you know, from different traditions. 


And so, yeah, that's my experience sometimes, I have to say, but we're all Buddhists, and the teachings we practice came from the same teacher. Talk about how helpful it is to our own practice to learn from different Buddhist traditions. We may follow one of them. That may be something that we really resonate with within our hearts, but we can certainly learn from all the other traditions. I'll talk about how I've done that myself. 


Fleet Maull: 

You practice in both the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the Vipassana tradition, right? Were you ordained in the Theravada tradition? Or maybe I'm mistaken. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

No. I've always been into Tibetan Buddhism. 


Fleet Maull: 

Oh, I'm mistaken about that. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

The very first course that I stumbled into. But working on this series of books with His Holiness, he wanted information. Not information. He wanted teachings from the Theravada tradition, from the Chinese tradition. And so, I went out, and I learned from these traditions. Also, I lived in Singapore, where there were many different Buddhist traditions. And my full ordination was in Taiwan. So I have had some experience with different traditions already. I found that very, very helpful. 


Fleet Maull: 

That's certainly been the case for me. I mean, I've been deeply involved in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition my whole Buddhist life as my core tradition, but I've also studied Zen, Vipassana, and other forms very deeply as well. 


Another thing I wanted to discuss with you. Some incarcerated persons actually get very deeply involved in Buddhist paths, even receiving or going through certain rites of passage, taking precepts or novice files, or just taking refuge or the Bodhisattva vows, or jucai in the Zen tradition. I had already taken many rites of passage, but while in prison, I had the opportunity to become a novice monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. 


I also ended up taking jucai in the Zen tradition. Precept practice was a very important part of my journey. I'm curious about what your experience has been, whether you've offered the precepts or offered ordinations, or these aspects in prison work. I'm curious about what your experience has been around that. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Okay. Yeah, some people have requested to take refuge and to take the five lay precepts, and I do give those. I have given them in a group situation a couple of times, but more often, it's the incarcerated person themselves, rather than the group will say, "I want to take refuge. I want to take the five precepts." And so then, the ceremony was organized by the chaplain. And so, I've had to call the chaplain and explain what it is. The incarcerated person also talks to the chaplain, and then we arrange a phone call and everything. 


I've seen that be very, very beneficial for others. It's a little bit eye-opening, too, for the chaplains because I don't know about you, but my experience has been that many of the chaplains don't know much about Buddhism. I mean, I just have one person I went to, and the chaplain was trying to convert me to Christianity. It's like, "Huh?" Sometimes the chaplains are so rooted in the Christian tradition of proselytizing, and we're going to convert everybody and everything. Sometimes you have to educate the chaplains. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yes, absolutely. That's gotten a lot better. It was pretty bad years ago. It's gotten a lot better, although you can still run into that. I'll tell you a funny story, though. When I first got there. There was a Catholic nun who came in regularly to the prison, a volunteer, and she was very elderly, probably in her early 80s. And she was absolutely wonderful. She spent a lot of time in the hospital. It was a federal prison hospital. She spent a lot of time at the bedside, just meeting people with a lot of love and compassion. But we interacted in the chapel because I was meeting a Buddhist group, and they're involved in hospice work. I was in a chapel a lot. 


Early on in the first couple of years, she knew I was formally Catholic. I was raised Catholic. So, I'm a lapsed Catholic, right? So she tried to reconvert me to Catholicism, right? She's always talking to me about it, right? And we'd have these little conversations. But within about two years, that completely shifted. And when I'd run into her, she was telling me about the latest Pema Chodron books she'd read, or this or that thing, and she was getting much more interested. And we started having discussions about Thomas Merton's teachings and the Buddha's teachings. And so it kind of went the other direction. 


But yes, you know, it was actually the rites of passage. Some of them went relatively easy with the chaplain, but it was always quite a thing. Venerable Trungpa Rinpoche came in to do my novice ordination, and also an obvious shake-up for me. Importantly, the chapel was supported then because they had to shut down the chapel for a whole day and all these things. It was a very unusual occurrence. 


Later on, when I received novice priests ordination in the Zen tradition, it kind of got approved, and other administrators realized we didn't want to approve this, but we had to go ahead anyway. So they wouldn't allow any pictures to be taken. And as part of the ceremony, I was, you know, the robes were put on me, but then they had to take the ropes, take them out of prison. They wanted no proof that this had ever happened. They didn't set a precedent. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. 


Fleet Maull: 

But you know, I had the thought during my years in prison. I think there was something I read about, maybe, from Sulak Sivaraksa and what was going on in Thailand at one time around environmental work, that some Buddhist monks in Thailand were actually ordaining old-growth trees because foresters would not cut down old-growth trees if they knew it had been ordained. Right. 


And so I kind of read that, and I got the idea that somehow, especially for prisoners doing a long time or doing life in prison, or doing really serious, long time, that if they were into it, obviously, or offering ordination could be kind of protection for them, in a sense. I'm curious as to your thoughts about that. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah, I thought about it a bit. In terms of the incarcerated person, the ordination, yes, can feel really like protection. I would usually stick with the five precepts because being a monastic isn't just the precepts. There's much more involved in being a monastic, and the prison environment doesn't give you the environment that living in a monastery does. And so, for that reason, I haven't given ordination. But I feel like the five precepts are certainly good enough because all the monastic precepts, if you summarize them, come down to it. 


Fleet Maull: 

An elaboration of that. 

Venerable Thubten Chödron: 


So if you take those and really keep those very well, it doesn't matter whether you're wearing robes and shaving your head or not. And often, when explaining the precepts, I'll do it from the Tibetan view. But I also liked the way that Thích Nhất Hạnh does this. Yeah. I really liked that. Especially the one about intoxicants and how it isn't just, you know, drinking and drugging. It's whatever we use to distract ourselves. That's really powerful when you start looking at your life and how much you distract yourself. 


Fleet Maull: 

There's a connection between wakefulness and sobriety. There may have a different nuance, but they're actually ultimately very similar things, the idea of wakefulness. You brought up the monastic environment. A lot of people have tried to make parallels between being in prison and being in a monastic room or an ashram environment. You're all wearing the same clothes, you get three meals a day, and you don't have outside responsibilities, but that's about where the parallels end, right? 


Most people in prison, you know, monasteries, ostensibly are spiritual centers set up to awaken and encourage that. In prisons, everybody's trying to kind of numb themselves out, not be there, just get through their time. Now, I didn't do that because I knew I was going to be there for a long time, and I was a serious practitioner already. So I wanted to be awake and alive and go through that experience, as difficult as it was. But a lot of prisoners are just kind of trying to numb out, shut down and get through the time, right? 


And, of course, there's a lot of negativity and anger and all the rest of it, so it's not really. But with the right mindset and resources, I think. Certainly, I did. Prisoners can take advantage of being in that kind of controlled environment without a lot of outside influence and make it into something like a monastery or ashram for themselves, at least on an inner level. I'm curious about your thoughts about that because you've lived a monastic life. Right? You've spoken with a lot of prisoners. I'm wondering if you can see any parallels there of possibilities. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah, parallels and possibilities. Also, with the military. You have a schedule. There's a structure to it. Even in prison, you have different responsibilities. Maybe you have a job to work on while you're there. Lots of people tell you what you don't want to hear. That happens in monasteries, too, because there's somebody organizing the whole community, and you're part of that community. They'll give you this or that responsibility, or whatever. 


And so the mind that says, you know, don't tell me what to do, you know, that comes up in all these different environments. Yeah. So it is a very good opportunity to really look at our minds. And here's where I think the low jump teachings, the mind training teachings, and the Tibetan tradition are so powerful. And when people can train their minds in those, then whether you're in the military or prison, or a monastery or married, it happens in marriage, too, doesn't it? Then, you know, if you have nourished your own heart by practicing the mind training teachings, learning them, and meditating on them, then when situations come up, you apply them, and you're able to work with your mind and quiet your mind. 


There's one inmate that I've worked with for a number of years. He's in for a double murder. Yes, life. Yeah. And he is one of the best practitioners I've known. Constantly because he lives, you know, I mean, you know what it's like in a dorm with 300 people. Some are snoring, and some are swearing. Some are talking, and some are sleeping. 


He just has the idea in his mind every day. Whoever's in front of me, I'm going to be kind to that person. And he really practices that. It's quite amazing. And when he sees other people having difficulties, he'll go and talk to them, help them process what they're going through. He doesn't hold grudges. He may get triggered for an instant with anger, but he'll calm himself through applying the teachings. I really respect that. 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. I don't think people on the outside always realize this. There are some really deep practitioners in prison, especially among the so-called lifer population. I have met practitioners that have been practicing two to three hours a day for 20-30 years. They're very, very deep practitioners. Absolutely. Our hope is that, in some cases, they will eventually be released because they can come back to their communities and really be of tremendous benefit to their communities. 


Maybe that's a segue into talking about this. One of the great challenges in this work, from my perspective, I think a lot of people in this work would share that it is the release transition and post-release work. Because, you know, the infrastructure board is just really not there. Most of the halfway houses in this country were originally religiously founded, often Catholic, but they mostly all became secularized. They're mostly all for profit now. Many of the, you know, evangelical Christian ministry is very big in prisons, but they have a huge infrastructure in this country. 


In fact, a lot of prisons have rules that the people going into the prison to offer programs can have no contact with people when they come out. So there are some Christian groups that have people delivering the program in the prison, and they have other people that meet and work with the person when they get out. But you know, most Buddhist communities in this country where it's not far enough along and mature enough to have the resources, the infrastructure to be able to offer that. 


And then even at times when we've tried, like when we're based in Colorado, and we were even trying to offer some post-release work with one juvenile facility that's well-known Lookout Mountain up in Golden, Colorado. But when people were released, they were released all over the front range from as far south as Pueblo to as far north almost as Wyoming. So where are you going to put your group? And, you know, very, very challenging to do the post-release work. 


And then also, you know, there can be problems when prisoners, even those who've gotten really involved in meditation or the Buddhist path, per se, come out. And you know, the available Buddhist centers may be a long way from their neighborhood and maybe in a kind of different cultural setting. This is true with, I think, a lot of religious traditions. Even though they have volunteers going in, sometimes they're a little uneasy about prisoners coming back and joining their communities, right? They're just human. There's fear that comes up. Right? I'm curious about what your experience has been about whether you've had the opportunity to support any people coming out of prison or reintegrating into the community and continuing their path. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. Well, there are two things here. One is being able to have a halfway house or a place where people can come and help with employment. And you really have to have a strong Buddhist group, and you have to have people who don't work nine-to-five jobs. Nowadays, most people are working. It's hard to find people who have that kind of time to set things up. I guess you could do it if you pay them. Usually, we try and do things with volunteers. But if you really want to do it in a serious way, you'd have to pay people. Most Buddhist groups don't have the extra finances to be able to do that. 


What my experience has been when people have been released is so different, and it depends really on the person. There's one person who I worked with a lot when he was incarcerated for quite a while. He stayed in touch when we got out. He was in Ohio. This is different from the first guy, but he was in Ohio, and he wound up he now lives in Spokane. And so he comes up to the abbey quite regularly. And he's part of the group here. And so, that turned out really, really well. 


Other people will write for a short while, and then I stopped hearing from them. Now, I'm not the one who stops, but they stop. I think what happens is when they're in prison, they have so much time learning Buddhism and receiving letters, personal letters. They have the time for that. They love the correspondence. They love reading. But when they get out, they're going to their families. Some of them go back to their old neighborhoods, which is a disaster. That's not where you want to be when you're released. They're so excited about the sense world. 


Now, all those things that you dreamed about in prison, you know, a hot pizza instead of cardboard pizza, and, you know, a real chocolate chip cookie instead of a plastic one. And friends to talk to and control over the television set. You can watch anything you want. That when they're out, they just get lost in that, I think. And yeah, they get lost. And so the friends that they made while they were incarcerated and the Dharma itself gets put to the side because of the vibration of, you know, pleasure. 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. Often, there's a bias where you hear that, well, you know, prison religion doesn't stick, right? They often discount even. Are they really sincerely involved while they're inside? Right? I think that's really unfair because I think people are very sincerely involved. But so many people, when they get released, they're just at survival. They're trying to get housing. They're trying to get a job. Often they end up back in the old neighborhood with all those influences, and they're put out there with no resources. 


I have a colleague as part of our organization that delivers our Path of Freedom program in a huge County Jail in Los Angeles, and then Central Jail, as well as the Twin Towers. They literally let people out there one minute after midnight because they don't let them out until they have to, and they have no money and right into a terrible drug-infested neighborhood. Right. Welcome back to the world. Right? So, it is really challenging. How many of us anymore in modern life correspond with anyone with written letters that we put in a post office, right? And so, people get out in the modern world, and they're inundated with everything. So yeah, it is very challenging. 


I think it's something those of us in a Prison Dharma move really need to figure out how to try to facilitate that transition. I know the 12-Step movement of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anon, and so forth does a pretty good job of being able to meet people when they get out and get them right to a meeting. I think it's an early transition. There's an advantage there that those meetings are pretty universally available all over the country. They're in lots of neighborhoods, whereas it's not the case for your meditation centers and Buddhist centers. But anyway, I just aspire that we can find a way. 


A group that I was involved with in Boulder, Colorado, and we tried to get the contract for the halfway house. We thought we had a chance. It turned out it was kind of rigged in the same corporation that has had it for a long time was really going to get it, but you know, lots of people have talked about trying to establish a contemplative or meditation or Buddhist focus halfway house. I don't think it's happened yet. 


Bo and Sita Lozoff did have a kind of transitional housing situation at the Human Kindness Foundation briefly for a while. But anyway, I think it's something I really hope in my lifetime that we can see that the post-release part of the Prison Dharma movement can begin to happen in some way or another. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

I don't know if you know Kalen McAllister. 


Fleet Maull: 

I know the name. Yeah. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. So Kalen is involved in prison work. And she set up a bakery, and a lot of the guys she worked with in prison came out and now work for her. 


Fleet Maull: 

She's out in Missouri, right? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Right. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yes. Yes. Okay. I know all about it. Yes. Yeah. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. So, you should really interview her. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. We really should. I'd forgotten about her work. Yeah, she does great work there in St. Louis. And, you know, actually, there's a lot of like the Greyson model of the Greyston Bakery that my Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman started. And there are other situations where a lot of people are coming into those facilities, who are coming out sometimes out of homelessness, sometimes out of jail, sometimes out of prison, but to find their way into some of these post-release facilities that aren't ostensibly Buddhist or even contemporary, but there is some program. We've offered programs and facilities like that. So sometimes you can make use of existing infrastructure and go offer programs. Yeah. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yeah. And for so many people, getting a job is difficult. She hires them to work in the bakery. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. That's an ideal situation. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

And the bakery becomes theirs, which is really, really wonderful. Another guy I know. Also, you know, Fleet, it depends on somebody's attitude while they're incarcerated. Because some people, while they're incarcerated, they are consciously preparing for their release. They are meeting people and making connections so that when they're released, they have people that they know and who can help. 


I was just thinking of one man that I corresponded with for many, many years. He's also in Missouri. He got released. I also met his mom because, you know, his mom, he would tell his mom about the teachings, and then his mom wanted to meet me. And so we had many phone calls. And then, when he was going through the whole parole business, we were in touch. But he got out, and because he had his family behind him, he had a place to live. But while he was incarcerated, he learned how to do I make videos and edit videos. So he learned a skill quite deliberately. 


He used to make films for the Department of Corrections in Missouri while he was in prison. When he got out, then he did some volunteer work for us, making some videos for us. But then he got a job at a TV station where he lives. For him, doing this, you know, he had started way before thinking about it, planning about it. And so the people who have that mindset, you know, they have connections. They know what they're going to do. In my experience, they usually do pretty well once they get out, once they get settled with a roof over their head. They have friends. They can get a job. They can, you know. 




Fleet Maull: 

Right. That's really important. Venerable Thubten Chödron: 



Yeah. But then there are other people who they're just flying, you know. 


Fleet Maull: 

Right. When they see other paths. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Right. Not making preparations for getting out. Yeah, they're not thinking about jobs and how to present themselves. They aren't learning about how to write a CV and so on. So, you know, as much as we can also encourage people to do these kinds of very practical things that are not ostensibly Buddhist. But wow, if you do them, you're going to make your life easier and your practice easier. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, that can be very helpful too for those of us offering meditation and dharma groups inside prisons and jails to bring in a little bit of that practical training, especially for people who are getting close to release and help them, support them, in that focus. 


Venerable Chödron, this has been really wonderful. I certainly want to give you the opportunity to share any last thoughts with us. But before that, one last question I have is for Buddhist practitioners, and you know, anyone on a committed spiritual path or contemplative path, meditative path on the outside. Just the path of being a Prison Dharma volunteer. I wonder if you could say something about the value of that path and the experience and how it fits in with someone's spiritual development, their development as a Buddhist practitioner to be involved in prison work. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

I think it's really great. It's the perfect opportunity. Especially if you're in a tradition that emphasizes compassion and benefiting sentient beings, it's the perfect opportunity to do so. And so, you just step out and do it, and you learn so much. You learn about yourself. You learn about what incarcerated life is like. You learn about all the different kinds of dispositions and interests sentient beings have. 


For me, I have felt very privileged when I've gone into prisons or when I'm corresponding with some people because I learned much more than I give, and I received much more than I give. So I would encourage people to try it. Some people are a little bit nervous at the beginning. Kalen, who I just told you about. She eventually got hired to work in the Missouri DOC, but in the beginning, when she was interested, she was really nervous. I took her in, and we went together for her first prison visit. And that all she needed was somebody to hold her hand during the first visit. And then, she just took off and ran and has done really wonderful work. 


Fleet Maull: 

Thank you. Absolutely. It is a perfect expression of the bodhisattva path. We did learn so much. I think if people can come in with that mindset like you did, where, you know, these are just fellow human beings, and you're going to learn more from them than you have to offer. I mean, you are bringing something in, but you'll learn so much more and receive so much more. I think people were involved in really deep service work of that kind we just saw up in here that I get so much more than I feel like I give, right? So, absolutely. Any other final thoughts you'd like to leave our audience with Venerable Chödron? 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Nothing offhand, but to thank you for everything you're doing. And you know how you came out and really jumped in and made years of service work your life, and it's wonderful. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, I'm very grateful for the opportunity. I can understand well. Some people get out of prison, and they want to leave it behind and never think about it again, which is very understandable. I was in it long enough that it just became part of my life, and all the people who are incarcerated, they're just kind of innately my brothers and sisters. So it was a kind of choice just to continue, but I feel very grateful for the opportunities I've had to be of some service.


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

You're serving them. And you're also bridging the gap between people on the outside who are like this [acting aloof] regarding incarcerated people and helping them to see they're just regular people. They happen to be in certain situations. If we had grown up in certain situations or been in certain places at certain times, we might very well be bound up in prison ourselves. So, to make that connection, I think it is so important because to benefit incarcerated people, we need the federal government and state governments to see the benefit of doing that. And so that depends on the volunteers too, so by introducing, you know, people on the outside to people on the inside, and vice versa. I think that, in another way, it can work in a very beneficial manner. 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. It is so important because I think there's been a natural effort to try to isolate the world of prisons, and it's kind of this collective social shadow that we just think we can isolate. We really need to open that up and bridge those worlds and see people that we're all just human beings, whatever our situation is. That's so important. And for citizens who know nothing about that world to see that prisoners are people just like them, and they are to the extent that they have made mistakes, they are completely redeemable, and they have inherent value and have a tremendous amount to offer when they come out to their community. We need to make that more visible to people. Yeah. 


Well, Venerable Chödron, thank you so much for being part of our summit and for your time today, and for all the incredible work you've been doing for so many years to support people who are incarcerated and all the leadership you offer in terms of women in Buddhism, and female monastics and all the challenges they face around the world. And just thank you so much for your work and your service. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Thank you, too. And can I just point out one small thing? 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Okay. One of the inmates I work with, he and I did a book. It's called Unlocking Your Potential: How To Get Out of Your Own Way


Fleet Maull: 

That's wonderful. So, you co-wrote that with someone who's incarcerated. Oh, that's absolutely wonderful. Didn't you have a series of small pamphlets that were written for prisoners at one time? I've been trying to find those. And it seemed like I remembered them from a long time ago. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Not small pamphlets, but I had many. Actually, they are little booklets. 


Fleet Maull: 

Little booklets. Yeah. Yeah. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

When you said pamphlets, I was thinking about--. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, little booklet. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

Yes. They were published for free distribution. They're still published for free distribution in Singapore. If you're interested, I could give you the contact. You can write and ask them. We always make a donation to them. And, yeah, we send those books out to a lot of people. 


Fleet Maull: 

That's wonderful. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

We may touch with the Corporate Body of the Buddha, which sounds like a weird title, but it's an organization in Taiwan that's dedicated to printing material for free distribution. So they're the ones who did Unlocking Your Potential. If you send them Buddhist material, it has to be Buddhist, not secular. Then they're very happy if they're able to print it for free distribution. And then, you know, like, we have many copies of this book that we give out to people. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, that's wonderful. We will follow up with you about that. And yeah, there are so many Asian Buddhist organizations that have been very generous in that regard and publishing, you know, books in hundreds of thousands and millions really to make them like old Lama Yeshe's books, and so forth. Yeah.

 

So, I'll just let people know you can find out more about your work at ThubtenChodron.org, and also at sravasti.org. So again, thank you so much for your time today and for everything you do. Thank you, Venerable Thubten Chödron. Thank you very much. Be well. 


Venerable Thubten Chödron: 

You too. Continue on. 


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