I received a letter from another man from death row. Between the passing in the yard, someone else had shared an intent to start meditation practice. I take a deep breath and with a nervous laughter spoke out loud, “Great! Now I have my address circulating in San Quentin.” It was a surrender that didn’t quite have the relief I had wished for. It was more of an exasperated plea (privacy – what is that?) combined with the awe that a grass root movement is spurred from their desire for the dharma. Somehow, this prison ministry in its spontaneous organic way is becoming my vocation too. A spiritual path is not all Pollyanna. It is not about sentimentalism either. It includes our totality. The ways we wrestle with God with all our twists and turnings with our vices and virtues are part of the journey called life.
One of my client tells me that I am an angel in San Quentin. I don’t know about that. He shared that for many years, he had felt this looming darkness over this state prison in Marin. It is a place where men are forgotten and where the rules of abuse and power reign. There is an organized lawlessness that is sanctioned by the state there. It is a place most of us in the public have voluntarily closed our eyes, willingly placed our blindfolds. Within the narrow hallways of our conscience, we have hid our personal struggles and judgements around the death penalty, human rights abuses, locking up fellow humans in cages. We tremble in our fear and our rage around murder, rape and molestation preferring to stay at oppositions of victims and perpetrators. We shudder at our disgust, hide behind our terror in the guise of silence, rage and hatred. We all “hustle” in our own ways, getting what we want in whatever means that had worked for us. We choose to forget the mental illness and capital punishment that is inbred in our society. Hidden in our shame are those friends and family members we’d rather not talk about. We forget to look at our shadows, preferring the light. We’d rather choose an overarching value system that defines all time and space, instead of being with the nuances of the conflicting feelings within ourselves, the duels between our angels and our demons. The light and dark are really one.
I am simply meeting these men that are stuck in the hole, forgotten by society, highly misunderstood and punished by banishment. How many of us can relate to the banishments of parts of ourselves? The deep sense of lost allows vacated rooms within our psyche to be filled with something other than ourselves. How about when we have forgotten how to occupy our fullest expanded self, and instead have accepted the familiar dryness and lack of elasticity of our beliefs of self and other? When was the last time you’ve felt a moment when you were free from contraction, tension or anxiety? How did you feel when your nervous system was not overextended and overwhelmed? Tell me what is it like to have your eyes rest in the peripheral field towards the back of the head and allow with relaxation the field to come to you rather than you grabbing the field?
I simply show up as a human to another human with you as I do with the men in prison. Something so simple that we each take for granted: looking straight in the eyes of another without an overt power dynamic that triggers survival strategies, normal conversation of listening and sharing.
Because of the work I do in prison, I was recommended to watch a movie called “Dead Man Walking.” I usually don’t watch violent movies. I am careful as to what enters my senses. Watching it made it clear that I was doing something different in prison for sure than what the movie conveyed. I wasn’t there to convert anyone. I wasn’t there to save anyone. I am not after a confession or to even know what crimes these men have done to be there. Somehow, these are irrelevant for me and frankly, none of my business. I am there to simply listen and share the dharma. I have been asked for meditation teachings to help them in prison.
What I have in common with them is that I have experienced being in isolation myself. I chose to go into retreat and sought solitude for many years as a Buddhist practitioner. The first time I was on retreat, the teachings resonated deeply in me. I knew what suffering was in my life and I wanted a way out. The first time I meditated, I felt that I came home. I came home to myself. I felt deep peace within the sea of tumultuous emotions. I was grateful for being given a way.
The difference between me in isolation and them in the hole was it was my choice. I was very fortunate to be taught skills to cultivate my mind and heart. I applied myself wholeheartedly. My devotion and faith were born out of the fruits of the practice. I had guidance from spiritual masters who out of their compassion shared with me their wisdom. I also was safe to pursue this. This means I didn’t have to wear my shoes even in bed because of fear that someone will enter my cell at night and beat me up. Oh, do not mistake that I didn’t have my internal cycling of fear to deal with.
As I set pen to paper to reply to the next student from San Quentin, it was to say that “you will use your cell in there as I had used my cell in the monastery. I will give you the same instructions I was given by my teachers that had been passed on for over 2,500 years from teacher to student. You will cultivate your mind, and write what comes up for you in practice.” This is no different than my oral interviews with my teachers. I didn’t share about psychological content as many do in Western style Buddhist retreats, but instead shared meditation form in the interviews. It was how my teachers guided me in my spiritual practice. And so it is that I pass on this oral transmission that has been passed on to me in the forest monasteries in Asia. I think of Sakyamuni Buddha when he was still in the flesh giving the dharma teachings to Angulimala who had murdered 999 people. I think of Mogallana, second only to Maha Kashyapa in wisdom afer Shakyamuni, killed right outside the monastery. I think of Milarepa who had undergone so much hardships from his teacher Marpa as part of his formation. I think of wizened hermits that if they were to walk into our living rooms today, we would be filled with judgment and turn them away because their appearance and manners do not match our preconceptions of what spiritual is.
Is what I am doing radical? I don’t think so. I am simply called. Many today won’t understand what I mean. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is an old prayer “Calling the guru from Afar To me guru is simply a vehicle the teachings are passing through. It doesn’t matter if it is the Buddhadharma, the Christdharma, the Allahdharma, the Sivadharma, or another form of dharma. Dharma simply means the truth of what is and to see and know it. One of the passages says, “Thinking of a method to escape this prison of endless existences, the source of all suffering…” We all are in a prison of endless existence. Sometimes we know it; more often we don’t. We run away from pain and seek pleasure. It is one continuum. I have been on both sides of this call. In my lifetime, I have been a teacher of many things. One of the most valuable gifts I can give is this: It is actually very precious to recognize that this lifetime is valuable and to take the dharma on as a practice.
May the wheel of dharma (truth of what is) keep turning.