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Support Network Grows for Inmates' Buddhist Practice

May 30, 2001

Support Network Grows for Inmates' Buddhist Practice

By GUSTAV NIEBUHR

STORMVILLE, N.Y. -- In a room where the cinder block walls are painted white, 14 men sit in facing rows, each man on a small, round pillow, his legs folded, his gaze lowered. Nearby sits a robed Buddhist monk, a small altar at his back. The stillness is so profound it seems to muffle the blare of a television in the next room.

The Lotus Flower Sangha, as this group is called, is meeting deep inside the Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison that houses 2,000 men convicted of serious crimes like armed robbery and murder.

Every Wednesday morning, this group gathers with the monk, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, who arrives from Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill town of Mount Tremper, to lead them in zazen, the sitting meditation that underlies a practice emphasizing emptiness, the insubstantiality of the self and the interdependence of all things. The men who participate say it is transforming.

"Through this practice," said Bob Gashin Burgess, 45, a tall man with a goatee who keeps a small altar in his cell, "I've learned a lot of compassion and respect for others." And Milton Pratt, 43, said there were times when he could not get enough of meditative sitting. "It really helps," he said, "because when things are going really wrong, it seems I come out renewed."

The number of practicing Buddhists in America, estimated to be about two million, has grown exponentially since the 1960's as interest has risen among the native-born and as Asian immigrants have entered the country. Buddhist study centers and temples have sprung up in cities coast to coast, monasteries have been founded, magazines started and books written for a growing audience.

Buddhist meditative practices have also begun to take root inside the nation's prison system. Some organizations, beginning with Zen Mountain Monastery, have moved to help.

The Prison Dharma Network in Boulder, Colo., for example, has developed contacts with 250 prisoners across the country, sending correspondence and donated books. It will shortly publish a book about Buddhist practices for prisoners, said Kate Crisp, the associate director.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley, Calif., has worked with the San Francisco Zen Center to sponsor meditation groups in eight Northern California prisons and jails. "More and more people are being incarcerated, and conditions are brutal in many cases," said Diana Lion, director of the fellowship's prison project. "People are looking for some way to find peace and solace and meaning in the midst of tremendous suffering."

Buddhism's foundational principles, the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago, seem well suited to prison life. The teachings, in brief, declare that life is characterized by suffering and that suffering has a cause (which is desire), but an individual can be freed from suffering, and that way is to follow Buddhism's eightfold path, which includes precepts like right speech and right living.

"The Buddha was dealing with questions that are intrinsic to all human existence," said Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, who is known as Shugen Sensei, a title that combines the name given to him during his Buddhist training, Shugen, with the Japanese word for teacher.

Buddhist meditative practices, he said, hold particular value at a time when most prisons offer little but punishment. "It's abundantly clear to these guys that if anything's going to change, they're going to have to make it happen," he said.

James B. Flateau, a spokesman for the State Department of Correctional Services, said it felt an obligation to support inmates in their religious practices, "if we know it's a legitimate religious community." Gov. George E. Pataki, he said, has said the department should support religious practice because it can help improve inmates' behavior and provide them with a support system upon release.

Organized Zen practice at the Green Haven prison dates to the mid- 1980's, when John Daido Loori, a scientist who is Zen Mountain's founder and abbot, received a letter from an inmate seeking help with his meditative practice.

The abbot, known as Daido Roshi (roshi is a Zen title meaning venerable teacher), did not look forward to the visit. While he was in the Navy in the 1960's, he said, he disobeyed an order to peel potatoes and spent 10 days in solitary confinement, which he remembered as terrifying.

Passing through "all those gates" at Green Haven was distressing, he said. But he said he believed that his presence made a difference to the inmate he visited.

Eventually, the monastery began meditation sessions at Green Haven. Not long thereafter, word spread far beyond that prison.

"I don't know how the prison grapevine works," Daido Roshi said. "We started to hear from inmates from around the country."

As many as 5,000 prisoners, seeking information about Zen, have contacted the monastery, established in 1980 and now home to 12 men and women who are ordained in the Mountains and Rivers Order. In recent years, Zen Mountain has established a computer database with the names of 1,000 male and female inmates, linking each to a volunteer committed to at least three years of corresponding about Zen practices, answering questions, offering advice and lending encouragement.

Zen Mountain has also begun developing training manuals for inmates who want to develop meditative practice on their own. The first, dealing with sitting meditation, contains illustrations showing exercises designed to make it more comfortable for the novice.

Shugen Sensei, 43, an Atlanta native who retains a trace of a Southern accent, has been a monk at Zen Mountain since 1986. He began heading the Lotus Flower prison group six years ago. Typically, it attracts 15 to 30 prisoners, fluctuating as men are transferred or released and as newcomers arrive.

"One of the interesting characteristics of these sanghas is they go across all ethnic lines," Shugen Sensei said. By contrast, outside the prison, most native-born American practitioners form "an almost exclusively white Buddhist population," he said.

He said he did not forget that the men in the Lotus Flower group were convicted of serious crimes and that they left behind victims.

"One of the things I've always been aware of is, the victims are very much a part of this," because of the crimes, he said. But, he said, "the reality of our situation is, we care about everybody, but we're responding to who's knocking on our door."

At Green Haven, meditation sessions meet in the prison's Protestant chapel. On a recent Wednesday, the session closed with inmates chanting the Heart Sutra ("all dharmas are forms of emptiness," it declares, referring to the universal truths taught by the Buddha).

One of the inmates, Anthony Zitelli, 39, said he began meditating a decade ago, thinking it would offer him a path to self-understanding. But what it did, he said, was convince him that he needs to be concerned with the wider world and with others. "I can't just look at life in terms of me," he said. "I have to take myself out of the picture a lot."

Afterward, as Shugen Sensei sat in the prison's main reception area, he reflected on Zen's message for those in prison and those outside. "Nothing you do can be singularly about yourself," he said, "and once you see it that way, everything changes. Of all the things that Buddhism has to contribute, I think that's a profound thing for us."

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