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.”
For the past two years, Sing Sing’s Buddhist prison program has been run as an outreach project of New York City’s Village Zendo, in lower Manhattan. Randall Ryotan Eiger, Sing Sing’s Zen chaplain and program coordinator, sums up the men’s discipline: “People with their backs to the wall have a great incentive to spiritual practice. Civilians may practice to enhance their lives, but the incarcerated are actually saving theirs.” Ryotan, who travels up the river once a week, emptying his pockets for the front gate officers and walking through the metal detector, doesn’t dwell on the obvious differences in surroundings, but focuses on the similarities of practice. “It’s all about raising the Bodhi mind [the mind that seeks enlightenment],” and the basic teaching is no different from the routine downtown. Both groups practice zazen and kinhin—sitting and walking meditation—and both receive a dharma talk. With one important distinction, of course:after sitting, Dharma Lotus members can’t step out for lattes on trendy lower Broadway the way their sponsors at the Village Zendo can.
The dharma first appeared in the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) in 1986. Officials at Green Haven Correctional Facility, in Stormville, New York, were forced to permit the state’s first penitentiary sangha after prisoners filed a lawsuit charging religious discrimination. But the Green Haven administration’s initial resistance to Zen softened, according to Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Director of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha (NBPS), an outreach network of the Mountains and Rivers Order based in Mount Tremper, New York. “Buddhism offers a different way of working with conflict,” says Shugen. “We just kept saying to the men, incarceration is your teacher, learn from it.” Eventually, “the administration saw changes in them.” Zen’s further cultivation behind bars was inadvertently helped by New York’s policy of transferring prisoners between facilities scattered across the state. Shugen smiles. “It’s like spreading seeds,” he says.
In 1992, a seed took root at Sing Sing. The Reverend Kobutsu Malone, formerly of Dai Bosatsu Zendo, in Livingston Manor, New York, and now of the Engaged Zen Foundation, established the prison’s Dharma Song sangha. In true Zen fashion, Bronxborn Malone smashes the conventional image of a serene Buddhist master. With his tough talk and cigarettes, the rigorous, combative reverend seems the perfect prison sensei. For eight years, Malone alternately led zazen and locked horns with Sing Sing’s administration, or, as he says, “fought tooth and nail to get anything done.” He won the privilege to hold the first sesshins, or weeklong practice periods, ever allowed at the prison. After years of fighting state bureaucracy, though, Malone came to reject any sugarcoated view of prison Zen that fosters contemplation as an end in itself. “It’s bullshit to see prison as a zendo or an ashram,” he asserts. “Incarceration is a destructive environment . . . the bottom-line intersection for all of the failures of our society.” If a volunteer teaching dharma in prison doesn’t bring in this “big picture perspective,” Malone says, then “you’re not doing your job.” Moreover, Malone struggled with the paradox that his chaplaincy was fundamentally complicit in “maximizing administrative control and power,” helping to create more compliant prisoners. In 2000, Malone left Sing Sing, broadening his focus to advocate for prisoner rights on a national scale. He padlocked the basement cabinets full of zafus and gongs, leaving them for anyone who might come after, and disbanded Dharma Song.
Despite his concerns, however, Malone’s work had awakened Sing Sing’s Bodhi mind. The men continued their practice privately (under a new, more receptive administration), and the prison grapevine buzzed with word that the Big House again needed teachings. NBPS’s Shugen was stretched thin leading Green Haven’s Lotus Flower, and overseeing the network’s nearly half-dozen other facilities. “He called Village Zendo,” remembers Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, the zendo’s abbot, “and asked if we were interested. Of course we were!” Enkyo Roshi nominated Ryotan, whose background is in social work, to lead the program. On November 6, 2005, in Sing Sing’s plain basement classroom, Enkyo Roshi led a ceremony to bless the DOCS’s newest sangha, grafting the roots of Dharma Song and Lotus Flower into the seedling Dharma Lotus.
Derrick, a thin, soft-spoken man who serves as jisha, or sangha attendant, welcomes the dharma’s return. On a recent afternoon, his shy turn of the head encompasses the men seated around him. “I feel peace and harmony with my sangha brothers,” he says, as though the room, and the acres of cement and steel surrounding it, had atomized.
At the end of the afternoon, back at the front gate a corrections officer studies Ryotan’s black robes. “Zen Buddhist, huh?” The officer shakes his head. “They got everything for the inmates,” he kids, “but nothing for the guards.” Ryotan reaches into his wallet and hands the man his card.
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