He who puts an end to former crimes
By taking up the way of peace,
Illuminates the world
Like the moon freed from a veil of clouds
—The Buddha, Angulimala Sutta
In 1985 Fleet Maull, a Buddhist practitioner and senior student of Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), was indicted for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a prison term of twenty-five years without parole. Despite the obvious challenges of pursuing meditation in prison—the overcrowded conditions; the violent, chaotic atmosphere; the lack of personal space—Maull committed himself to a path of Buddhist practice. While incarcerated, he ordained as a novice monk and completed the foundational practices of Tibetan Buddhism, which include over one hundred thousand prostrations.
Maull spent much of his sentence in a federal prison in Springfield, Missouri. It was there that he founded the Prison Dharma Network, an international organization that supports Buddhist and contemplative prison ministry, as well as the National Prison Hospice Association, which develops end-of-life care programs for terminally ill prisoners. Following his early release from prison in 1999, he has served on the faculty of Naropa University, where he teaches courses in meditation, Engaged Buddhism, contemplative social action, and peacemaking.Tricycle editor Peter Alsop spoke with Fleet Maull in December of 2003.
I’d like to begin by asking you about your own journey. How did you find yourself in prison? I came of age during the cultural revolution of the sixties. I’d been on some kind of search since childhood, ever since the magical connection I felt with the world very noticeably disappeared, probably about the time I started elementary school. I discovered both Eastern philosophy and LSD as a sophomore in high school. I graduated in ’68 a culturally alienated, politicized, angry young man and fell headlong into the counterculture of that era at a large state university—antiwar politics, drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. I got into hard drugs for a time and entered a really troubled period in my life. I knew I had to get out, but I couldn’t turn back. I came from a basically good family, but I just couldn’t relate to their world or values at that time. I had always dreamed of traveling to South America, so I took off to Mexico with a friend, ended up living on a sailboat in the Caribbean for nine months, and eventually found my way to Peru. That was an incredibly healing time for me. I lived in a remote valley, at over twelve thousand feet, in the Peruvian Andes, and worked on a small farm, living among the Quechua people. I started meeting other travelers who were on some kind of spiritual search, who’d been to India, who had practiced meditation and yoga. I began to pursue my high school interest in Eastern ideas and spirituality in earnest. I was reading Gurdjieff, Taoist and Buddhist texts, especially the Evans-Wentz Tibetan classics, and trying to learn to meditate on my own.
And it was while you were in Peru that you got involved in drug trafficking? Yes. Eventually I ran out of money and I fell into an opportunity to find a source for someone who was down there trying to purchase cocaine. I made a little money, and it became a pattern. I could make five hundred or a thousand dollars at a time and live for six months. I lived this way until, in 1974, I read an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Naropa Institute, a new Buddhist college in Boulder, Colorado, founded by a Tibetan teacher named Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Something in the article just grabbed me. I knew I had to go there.
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