The Riverfront Tower of New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the 1940's, courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society
The Riverfront Tower of New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the 1940’s, courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

EVERY SUNDAY AFTERNOON, in a basement corner in one of America’s most infamous prisons, a transformation begins with the simple sweep of a broom. Here, on the rocky banks of the Hudson River, beneath Sing Sing Correctional Facility’s chapel auditorium, a small group of prisoners enter an angular, pale-yellow classroom and swiftly clear away the desks and chairs. In their place, the men set zabutons and zafus—meditation mats and cushions—in facing rows. Soon, incense smokes on an altar positioned to catch the sunlight blazing through a narrow, barred window. In moments, a drab prison classroom becomes the zendo for Sing Sing’s Dharma Lotus sangha.

Only a handful of Sing Sing’s nearly two thousand convicts make up the sangha, but Dharma Lotus members are a dedicated bunch. While fellow prisoners file into the chapel auditorium for the Sunday movie, these few are drawn downstairs by a more interior attraction. “I’m pulled like a magnet to come here,” says Leo, a stocky man in his thirties. For him, practice turns “anger and depression” into a “happiness that I can share with others.” It’s remarkable testimony in a sullen environment of thirty-foot walls and countless locks, where a careless glance between men can quickly lead to violence. But peace is common to these sangha members.

“It’s a matter of life and death in here,” explains Hogen, a tall, bespectacled man, as he snaps his fingers. Hogen, one of the sangha’s senior members, has been studying Zen in prison for nearly twenty years. First drawn to practice through the martial arts, Hogen didn’t consider himself a serious Zen student until he found himself in lockup. Sent to the “box”—an isolation ward for disciplinary cases—he was horrified by the desperate screaming he heard echoing through the tier. “I immediately decided I had to sit, to settle myself,” he recalls. Hogen went on to receive jukai, or formal initiation into the Zen community, as an early member of New York’s first prison sangha, Lotus Flower, at upstate Green Haven Correctional Facility. For Hogen, Zen is “a way of life. . . . It’s not something I do once a week, it’s everybody I interact with.” The peace he experiences “extends to them.”

Casual observers might assume a pacifist is at greater risk in a Big House like Sing Sing, where menacing behavior is as common as cement. But according to Jose, Dharma Lotus’s doan, or instrumentalist, Zen practice helps defang the threat lurking behind the next wall. Letting go of anger and dread again and again has expanded his capacity to transform those feelings. “When I feel anxiety, that’s my time to sit and get some focus.” Eventually, “other prisoners see you as more approachable,” he says. Even more important for Jose, who was raised Catholic and has been practicing Zen for eleven years, his family “notices how I handle things now.”

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