Daniel Troyak, Australia’s first full-time Buddhist prison chaplain, works at Long Bay Correctional Centre, an institution near Sydney that accommodates over a thousand inmates. According to Dan’s website, when he isn’t busy at Long Bay, he also offers “counselling, meditation coaching, corporate mental health chaplaincy, and mindful nature walks.”
Dan’s parents emigrated from Croatia in the 1980s. He grew up speaking Croatian in a “very Yugoslav,” if not particularly religious, family. “I was always on a quest for something more than what was around me,” he says. After school, he became an international flight attendant and worked for Qantas Airways for over twenty years. This made it easy for him to take his spiritual search abroad. While in his 20s, he began meditating with a guru in India. “It was a wonderful, life-changing experience,” he says, but he still hadn’t found what he was hoping for. Everything changed about seven years ago when he accompanied a friend to Japan.
It happened that his friend was planning to attend a three-day retreat in Tokyo led by the Tibetan master Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Dan had no intention of joining her. “As soon as she said ‘Buddhism,’ I said, ‘Oh no, not that. I don’t like institutions; organized religion is not for me.’” So while she headed for her retreat in an ancient temple, Dan went to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks (“And I don’t even like Starbucks!”). That’s when he realized his friend’s cushion was still in his knapsack. Knowing she’d need it, he went back to the temple, gave it to her, and was encouraged by the coordinator to listen to the teachings at least for a little while. “I tucked myself into the back of the temple near the door so I could escape. As soon as Rinpoche arrived and began talking about bodhicitta, that was it. I was done. I stayed for the three days.”
Dan went back to Australia, did some research, and “fell in love with the dharma.” Now a Vajrayana practitioner, his current teacher is (Seattle-based) Avikrita Vajra Rinpoche. Not long after his love affair with Buddhism began, and with his teacher’s blessing, he dove into chaplaincy. He attended the Australian version of CPE (continuing professional education) under the auspices of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales, and was accredited and certified by the regional College of Clinical Pastoral Education.
For a guy who looks like he might just as easily be tussling with large reptiles in the outback, Dan’s enthusiasm for chaplaincy, CPE, and the dharma is quite compelling. Given that professional Buddhist chaplains are still something of a novelty Down Under, I asked Dan how he’s perceived at work. “They call me the Happy Chappy!” he says with a grin.
I’m curious about the other chaplains in your environment—I’m assuming that most are Christian—how do you guys get along? In my correctional center we are incredibly fortunate. We have a wonderful group of human beings who are absolutely supportive of each other’s faith and chaplaincy work. Yes, most are Christians and we have one Muslim imam, and we have beautiful conversations about each other’s spiritual paths. Whether one considers one’s path to be true over another is not the agenda. The agenda is that we care for one another.
When you say you’re the first full-time Buddhist chaplain in Australia, do you mean in all fields or in prisons? In correctional centers. There may be others in other fields, I don’t know. There is very little full-time paid work in chaplaincy in Australia other than in corrections. Hospitals, universities, and other institutions may have chaplains, but I believe that in health care, at least, many of the positions are reserved for Christians because many of the hospitals have a Christian heritage.
What does a day, or a week, look like for you as a full-time chaplain? Due to COVID, a lot of my work right now is one-on-one. If someone is interested in Buddhism or mindfulness, or I can see that he’s struggling mentally or emotionally, I can invite him into the chapel for a meditation session or perhaps a dharma talk—something that can really help him get through it. It could just be practical advice.
Also, I hold staff meditation and dharma classes, as well as offer individual support. Many of the Hindu and Sikh prison officers will come and talk to me about faith, religion, meditation, mindfulness, the Buddhist path, all that sort of stuff.
I work in the different sections of the center, including in palliative care and in the hospital. Outside of our complex, a section of a local hospital is reserved for inmates and we go there as needed. With terminally ill inmates, I hate to say it, but the pattern is that those that die in prison die alone. Their family and friends are no longer there for them, so they’re by themselves, and that’s frightening. It’s frightening for any human being to be alone in their own space for a moment, let alone to know that the end is coming. Our work is so important with end-of-life care. It doesn’t matter about religion; presence alone is comfort.
The job of a chaplain in a correctional center is not purely religious; it is to be a support through mental, emotional, or spiritual care—one or all of these. We meet the person wherever they are. We create relationships. We may be called upon to diffuse situations between inmates and staff, or among staff, or to advocate. We do a number of things to just be there in the background, ready to help wherever and however we can.
You say that sometimes you’re called in to defuse situations. Did you receive specific training for that? We do receive specific training through the correctional center regarding personal safety and so on. As far as specific training for defusing problems and issues in centers, no. We’re working with people all day long in such a volatile environment that we naturally pick up those skills on the job. It’s instinctive. And when it comes to defusing situations, there are dharma teachings on how we can connect, meet people where they are, and work with whatever’s going on in the mind, then and there.
Tell me about meditation in prisons. Meditation is incredibly powerful in a prison setting, and there’s something about Buddhist meditation that’s different from the clinical mindfulness that’s promoted by psychology. In Australia, the statistics are something like 76 percent of all inmates suffer from mental health problems. And if they didn’t have issues before they went in, they’ll develop them while they’re there. In New South Wales there are a lot of inmates, and our psychologists don’t always have the luxury of speaking to everyone who has problems, because, let’s face it, everyone has problems. As a chaplain, though, I have the freedom to be able to work with any inmate at any time.
Specific practices can help with specific problems, such as meditations that focus on stabilizing emotions or that can help us deal with anxiety. For inmates who have mental health problems or who find it difficult to focus and sit still, we might use mantra recitation. I make my own content, so I have booklets, magazines, and Post-it notes with mantras, specific teachings, and meditation guides that they can take with them as a reminder of what was learned.
In addition to seated meditation, I teach something that inmates can use on the go. In the prison yard, which is very stressful for most people, because anything can happen in that outdoor environment, inmates are usually on high alert. Their minds are very active, and it’s tiring—it drains the adrenal glands very quickly. Day in, day out for months and years can turn you into an emotional and physical mess. So instead of escaping reality and letting the mind wander, which is what leads to danger, meditation teaches you how to exist in the yard, standing up against the wall, eyes open, breathing, observing everything that’s going on around you, very much in the moment, alert and aware. If anything should happen, you’re present, you’re there, and you can get yourself out of trouble. So meditation can be very practical in a prison setting.
What about the indigenous populations? Do they connect with what you’ve got to offer? We’re working on a multifaith program right now that incorporates one’s own spiritual path with aboriginal beliefs and teachings, finding similarities and unlocking the potential for both. For us Buddhists, it’s such a perfect match—there is a real similarity between Buddhism and indigenous culture; they merge beautifully. When I sit down with my First Nation friends and talk about the dharma, it’s often like ducks to water.
Are there specific practices that get you through the day? For me, it’s waking up in the morning and arousing bodhicitta in my mind and in my heart. It’s going to work and leaving my problems at the prison gate. I try to place down everything that is of concern in my personal life and walk into that center cultivating bodhicitta. I’m there to care for, love, respect, and just be a support wherever I possibly can. This is my purpose.
What have you learned about yourself? Hmmm. That there is an enormous capacity to love with such openness and without conditions. That it’s possible. It is possible.
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