Each morning at the monastery, the sangha, or community, gathers in the dining hall to chant the work verse before receiving their work assignments. Early in my training, I remember listening for my name to be called while also being astounded by the wide range and variety of jobs required to take care of the buildings and grounds that take care of us.
I heard a couple of the senior practitioners assigned to “prison correspondence.” I felt intrigued, but remember not feeling especially pulled to get involved. It brought back memories of my only experience of a prison back when I was a college student.
Our sociology professor had arranged for a small group of students to take a tour of a nearby state penitentiary. Walking through the series of gates was like entering another realm. What stays with me still is the constant noise of TVs and men’s voices competing with each other to be heard, and the profanity-laced shouts that the inmates leveled at us as we walked by their cells. When I think of a hell realm, those images still come to mind.
One thing I’ve learned since becoming a formal student, though, is that those things that I have the most aversion to have something to teach me—something important that I need to see with fresh eyes. So despite my initial lack of interest, I eventually began asking questions about the prison program and talking to fellow students who were practice advisors. I learned about how one inmate’s request for access to the Dharma from a nearby prison back in 1984 led to the development of the Monastery's National Buddhist Prison Sangha (NBPS) program.
That single request and initial response has been repeated and continues to manifest in myriad ways. Since establishing a meditation group in a nearby prison, NBPS has corresponded with several thousand incarcerated people and chaplains in prisons across the United States. We offer training manuals on zazen, liturgy, the precepts and art practice developed specifically for those living in prisons.
NBPS assigns practice advisors to those who establish a sincere and regular meditation practice so that they can receive personal guidance on all aspects of their practice. Practice advisors are jukai students—people in formal training at the Monastery who have taken the bodhisattva vows—who Shugen Sensei has approved to take on this responsibility. They receive training on how to serve incarcerated people in this unique service position and relationship.
When I first became a practice advisor several years ago, I felt nervous about those first letters I received. How could I meet each person where they were? What could I offer them that would be of most help to them in such challenging circumstances? What was the most skillful way of answering their questions and expressing my understanding of the Dharma?
During that time, I was also helping out with some of the NBPS administrative work one day a week at the Monastery. So I was fortunate to be able to read many practice advisor letters to inmates before I printed them and put them in envelopes along with a training manual, an issue of Mountain Record, or an article that relates to a specific aspect of their practice.
I saw that each practice advisor had a unique voice and way of expressing the Dharma. They all had an underlying warmth and encouraging tone, while asking questions that were either pointing to something that the person should look at more closely, or trying to learn more about their experience of practice.
Being a practice advisor is a service position that continues to teach me in surprising ways, like:
- The degree of sincerity and intimacy that can be transmitted through pen and paper between two people who have never seen each other. I’m still struck by how open-hearted and honest many of the people living in prison are in their letters, and how important it is that I respond in kind.
- How the Dharma can transform lives even in the most inhospitable of conditions—both those who are practicing it, and those with whom they are in close contact. I’ve seen people gain insight into the truth of karma, accept responsibility for their past actions, and vow to take responsibility for their own lives.
- Becoming more aware of, and informed about our criminal justice system, how the U.S. has more of its citizens imprisoned per capita than any other country—a disproportionate share of them people of color.
- How fortunate I am to live in conditions so favorable to practicing the Dharma, living so close to the monastery and to my teacher. When I read about the dedicated practice of people living in the adverse conditions of prison, I feel regret for the many times that I have squandered my good fortune.
- Seeing how wisdom and compassion truly are “the birthright of each and every one of us,” as Daido Roshi would often say. And how each of us can realize them and actualize them wherever we are.
Not too long ago, I was in a meeting in which a group of us was reviewing all the various programs at the monastery. The lens through which we viewed each program was the question: “How is this of benefit to those affected?”
When someone posed this question about the NBPS, Shugen Sensei answered simply: “It’s saving lives.”
He didn’t specify whose lives. Sangha is one the Three Treasures because we need each other. Though our practice is ours alone, by cultivating openhearted spiritual friendships we help each other wake up—even when those spiritual friends are separated by steel bars and concrete walls.
100% of the proceeds from our self-published manual The Still Point support the work of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha.
Read about our Zafu Cushion Donation Program.
Read about the life and death of John Shido MacKenzie, MRO, one of the founding members of our Lotus Flower Sangha at Greenhaven Prison.
Richard Kokuan Lawton, MRO, is a long-time student in the Mountains & Rivers Order. In addition volunteering in the National Buddhist Prison Sangha program, Kokuan also serves on the Monastery's Board of Directors. He is Executive Director of the New Jersey Sustainable Business Council and Founder of Triple Ethos, a company that helps for-profit businesses and organizations become more socially and environmentally responsible, and mission-driven businesses become more effective, sustainable, and resilient.