After 12 years of offering a weekly Buddhist program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the Village Zendo has given the first precept ceremony at the maximum-security prison north of New York City.

“It took a long time for the group to have the maturity,” said Randall Ryotan Sensei Eiger, who has coordinated the program since its inception in 2005. “There was a growing interest in that side of the practice, and I finally decided it was time.”

The precepts are a set of ethical guidelines in the Buddhist tradition, and the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts of the Village Zendo include the three refuges (taking refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and the community), the three pure precepts (not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving the self and others), and the 10 grave precepts, which include abstaining from killing, stealing, and taking or giving drugs.

Volunteer teachers from the Village Zendo travel to the prison in Ossining every Sunday to meet a core group of about 10 practitioners. Many of the members have very long sentences, Eiger said, and one of the members has been with the group since its beginning.

Eiger declined to give the name of the inmate who took the precepts, citing privacy reasons required by the Department of Corrections as well as his personal policy.

“I was very happy when he took the precepts. He was really ready, he was going through some really positive changes in his life,” Eiger said.

Eiger and other teachers from the Village Zendo spent six weeks preparing for the precept ceremony, which took place on Oct. 23, 2016. Eiger said that although the group meets in a prison, the program is very similar to what is offered at the Village Zendo—periods of zazen [sitting meditation], a ceremony, and a dharma talk.

Still, the practitioners and teachers have to contend with Department of Corrections regulations and the often-violent reality of prison life.

“It was out of the question that he’d be able to sew his own rakusu [a Zen garment worn around the neck], so that part we fudged,” Eiger said. “Their main concern was that the rakusu might become some kind of gang identification. So they were OK with [him having it] as long as he didn’t take it back to his cell.”

Except for two hours on Sundays, the rakusu, as well as other religious supplies from the different faith groups that offer services at the prison, are locked up in a cabinet.

And while Sing Sing might seem to offer a different set of challenges regarding the vows, Eiger said the way he teaches the precepts is “they’re not separate from the environment that you’re living in.

“They’re going to be different if you’re living in a monastery in India or if you’re in a monastery in the United States, or if you’re working in a law office or if you’re incarcerated in a maximum security facility. The precepts are the thing,” Eiger said. “[In prison], sometimes other guys will confront you, challenge you in some way. They call it ‘being punked.’ And if you back down or flash them the peace sign you can expect to be in danger of your life. So the question we work with at Sing Sing is how you keep the precepts in this environment.”

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