Kindness and compassion are extremely important in every area of life, whether we are prisoners, prison guards, or victims of crime. It is futile to harbor hatred and ill-will even toward those who abuse us. Cooperation, trust, and consideration are far more constructive. The hostility and negativity of prison life will not change until both staff and inmates can improve their attitudes toward each other in this way.
—His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Aryadaka is slowly dying. One of the first paid Buddhist chaplains employed by a state prison system in the United States, he has hepatitis C, and a transplanted liver is failing. His doctors give him a fifty-fifty chance to live three more years. But he’s not letting his health problems keep him from his prison work.
One of the things that most amazes Buddhist prisoners in the Washington State prison system is that Aryadaka keeps showing up, with his seemingly limitless kindness and good cheer. Clyde Nipp, a prisoner at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, says that most prisoners have been so self-involved their entire lives that contact with Aryadaka’s generosity comes as a shock. That he drives five hours round-trip from Seattle, nearly every week, says more than his words.
“They can’t believe that someone who’s sick himself can take time out of his life to bring peace to our lives,” Nipp says. “A lot of that rubs off, and they say, ‘It’s not just about me, but about those around us.’”
At fifty-five, Aryadaka has an easy way about him, the product of a lifetime of Buddhist practice. He’s often in pain and now walks with a limp. But as he makes his way through the massive steel gates and locked doors of the prison, he jokes with several guards and a Christian chaplain. It’s clear that they’re drawn to his kindness.
Al Fernandez, former religious program manager for the Washington Department of Corrections, said he hired Aryadaka because he “really has a heart for it.”
“His demeanor is soft-spoken, and it speaks volumes to those inmates,” said Fernandez in an earlier interview. “In walks this guy, and he disarms them with his personality, and he really shows them the Buddhist way.”
Born Philip Miller, Aryadaka was the first American to ordain under the tutelage of British Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita. He lived and practiced for four years at Friends of the Western Buddhist Order centers in England during the late ’70s, returned to Europe for his ordination in 1984, and then permanently settled in the United States and started the order’s Seattle center that same year. He is married with two children, and adds that he finds his wife’s support essential.
These days Aryadaka focuses nearly all of his attention on his prison work, believing that it answers urgent needs of a specific group of people.
“What I’ve grown to realize is the importance of being out in the world and working with other people who are suffering, despite our own lack of insight,” he says. “Being engaged with people who are suffering helps you come to terms with your own suffering.”
He himself spent two years in a Finnish prison on a drug charge in the early ’70s, and that experience gave him a taste of the difficulties of prison life, and of the opportunity it can offer to turn toward the dharma. Aryadaka started volunteering at prisons in 1997, and soon was appointed to the state’s religious advisory board. In 1999 he received a contract from the state as a Buddhist chaplain.
The contract is only for ten hours a week, although Aryadaka usually exceeds that trying to meet the needs of the approximately three hundred Buddhists in the state’s prisons. Now, since his time alive may be limited, Aryadaka is looking ahead to a future without him. “As I became aware of the extent of the need, I started recruiting more volunteers,” he says. “I hope that when I can no longer do this work, the programs I’ve set up will be up and running. I really want to make myself redundant, if possible.”
Many of the inmates in Aryadaka’s groups are ethnic Buddhists, including a group of four Cambodians. Others are converts. Because of this variety Aryadaka says he teaches a sort of “generic” Buddhism that can be universally understood, focusing on core teachings of mindfulness meditation and ethics. “The main point I try to get across is that ethics is the main practice,” he says. “I really think we have to think in terms of purification, of freeing ourselves from negative or emotional patterns.”
The constant noise on the cellblocks and the aggressive attitudes of other inmates can make it very difficult for imprisoned Buddhists to formally practice. Aryadaka has adapted to these conditions by suggesting that inmates turn any quiet moments they may find, ten minutes here and ten minutes there, into time for practice. He also advocates cultivating mindfulness in movement—for example, when walking from place to place within the prison. He calls it “finding those places where there’s a gap in your reactive mind.”
“The main thing is they learn to cope with their emotions, especially anger,” he says. “I’ve seen some guys really transform themselves.”
Many of the prisoners Aryadaka works with are in for life, “defined by these 25-foot walls.” While prisoners generally harbor a belief that they’ll find some kind of happiness when they return to the pleasures of the outside world, the lifers don’t have that to look forward to.
“We live in a deva realm here,” says Aryadaka after a recent prison visit, gesturing around a juice bar in an upscale Seattle suburb. “And they live in a hell realm. A lot of the guys are strongly motivated to change their minds, and seek internal peace.”
Aryadaka died on October 6. Said one speaker at his memorial service, “He was a ferocious spiritual friend. He believed all beings were recoverable, if you had patience.”
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