Many years ago I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a fellow inmate who followed the Soto Zen practice of shikantaza, “just sitting.” One of the very first things he shared with me was a verse from the Dhammapada, which reads in part, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”

I was hooked from the moment I read that passage. After all, I live in a world of my own making, a world of stone and steel, a world of consequence where guard towers loom at every turn. My thoughts and actions in life built these walls around me as surely as mortar and trowel. It is the same for most of us here. What we thought, we inevitably became. How could it be otherwise?

I am fortunate to have practiced the dharma for some nine years now. During that time, there have been anywhere between five and fifteen Buddhists incarcerated in this institution. Unfortunately, due to security procedures, most of us have never met. In my twelve years here I have known only a total of six practicing Buddhists. We are widely scattered throughout the institution’s five separate cell houses. As communication between cell houses is deemed a security risk and is therefore forbidden, each cell house is assigned a separate day and time for weekly chapel services.

The fact that some of us are able to meet at all is a wonder in itself. Things have a tendency to run very slowly in prison. Nobody simply grants approval for a request—there is paperwork to be filed, departmental considerations, chains of command within each department, and the infighting that ensues. It took three years, some outside influence, and a chaplain willing to go to the mat for us before we were allowed chapel privileges and provided with a room for our sangha meetings. At first, that room was no more than a hastily converted broom closet. Its furnishings consisted of an old piece of carpet scrounged from a condemned building that had been torn down a few months earlier, and a shelf with a handful of Buddhist-related materials donated by inmates and outside dharma centers. After several more years we were provided a much larger space with a bigger carpet and a framed picture of the Buddha, drawn by a death row inmate with a set of colored pencils.

We have no formal services at these sangha meetings; there is no Buddhist chaplain here to direct us in any specific school or meditation practice. Most who attend only learned of Buddhism after their incarceration. A few are outright beginners, just recently having begun to familiarize themselves with the dharma. In lieu of any formal services, we come merely to sit together, to share personal insights and concerns about our practice. We open ourselves to one another, exposing the ignorance that brought so much suffering. Out of that intimacy we gain an understanding of the truths that Buddha taught. Every struggle in our lives becomes an opportunity for growth, the cessation of suffering, hope.

I count myself fortunate to have learned the Buddha way during my time inside. I count myself blessed beyond measure to have known people who strive for truth, understanding, and transformation, both for themselves and others. If such a thing is possible in here, surely it is possible everywhere. Buddha-nature shines forth right here, right now, for anyone willing to look. Do any of us here see completely? No. But at the end of our sangha gatherings each week, somehow things appear different. If but for a moment, the gun towers seems not as tall, the razor wire not as sharp. Instead, there is blue sky, the warmth of the sun on our faces, the world engaged and engaging.

 

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