Buddha in Prison by John Eitzen
I didn’t really know as a younger man why the image of prison resonated so powerfully with me so much of my life- yet it had. It somehow felt clear and meaningful and accurate to say, "We are all in prison of our own making". Time and reflection tells me how true this seems to be. Could I argue that my prejudices, judgmental attitudes, ignorance-based-in-my-sense-of-separation are my personal guards insuring I keep my heart locked down---well yes, of course. Is it my arrogance in knowing I’m right and righteous about almost anything I care to be right about and to prove you are wrong in about anything I know you to be wrong about that betrays my addiction to the solitary confinement of isolation, separation, and divisiveness? These global addictions of self serving righteous and prejudice and ignorance are the mange eating the skin off our species but an even better metaphor for this is the slammer, the Big House, yeah—Prison. So maybe one could assume prison is an appropriate metaphor if one could be painfully honest about oneself—maybe so if we fully consider the radical freedom of a Gandhi, or a Jesus, or a Buddha all of whom are master way-showers of our expansive human potential. Maybe, maybe, maybe…. we are all "doing time"!
Now I want you to join me for a little trip to a real prison, sort of like the one in our hearts, but this one not only entraps the mind and heart, but incarcerates the body as well. This is a nearby state prison, Macomb Correctional Facility. It is here that I have received an education in the potential of the human spirit. For the past 2 years a friend and I have helped facilitate a prison Buddhist group run by several dedicated inmates since 1992. Some of these men are long term inmates and I don’t know their crimes, I would not ask and as a matter of course it is not important. The past is a demon we can not afford to let shame or enslave us only something to remember as a measure of how far we have come or how stuck we are. Both of which are priceless bits of information.
So these men, most of whom are still entrenched in their own troublesome mindsets, like the rest of us are to some degree or other, choose to practice mindfulness, meditation and Thich Nhat Hanh’s(a Buddhist monk) mindfulness trainings all while living in an unyieldingly harsh, violent, depressing, and manipulative environment. This demands courage and surrender and faith that there is a way out of suffering. No easy task when we consider how Buddhist practice strongly encourages unflinching intimacy of present moment awareness no matter what—if we are angry, jealous, hateful, humiliated, anxious, depressed or any number of uncomfortable emotions/thoughts we can find ourselves bound in. The point is not to suffer more but decidedly to suffer less. By repeatedly noticing the profound impermanence of our every emotion and thought, (of everything really), by noticing the lack of any solidity of a me or an I that is experiencing reality, and by noticing our deep mental habits of clinging to pleasant experience and pushing away undesirable experience we begin to be less and less caught up in the swirl of perceived drama and trauma around us. We become freer and freer of the clinging and aversion that rules our lives. We live more consciously as equanimity is born with peace, harmony and compassion all pointing the way to our own freedom. I have observed this process in myself and others as well as my incarcerated Buddhist brothers.
One member of group writes:
"I have been incarcerated for over 15 years. I was an angry person until November of 2004 when I was invited to a Buddhist service and my life has not been the same! ….I was moving too fast to see what life is really about. Buddhism has assisted me in finding my spiritually…..Buddhism has helped me understand that living beings are connected! Understanding that, I am mindful to send positive energy whenever I am in a room. I will continue to practice Buddhism because I know it is the truth!"
Another member writes:
"Picture when you’ve been away for a period of time or had one of those long hard days, and recall how good it felt when you finally reached home. I was searching for some kind of rhyme or reason to this life, and when I discovered Buddhism, it felt just as if I had finally reached home."
Buddhism is not a theistic religion but there are many churches active at Macomb Correctional Facility. I don’t doubt that many of their adherents are sincere in their spiritual practice and benefit from it. The point I make is to remember that prison, as I see it from my outsiders viewpoint, surely contains persons with violent and dangerous mentalities and behavior, some inmates are mentally ill, some sociopaths, many for drug related or influenced crimes, we obviously need to protect society, but never ever loose sight of the fact there are also men who are learning to incorporate profound spiritual practices in their lives weather Buddhist ones or from other religious traditions. These can be and are transformative. We know this in our hearts.
So it is with gentleness and compassion I deeply urge we commit as individuals and as a society, genuinely interested in peace, to stop disenfranchising groups of people, weather based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, prisoners, or any other of the artificial barriers we choose to raise. The violence and profound damage we do to ourselves, our societies by disenfranchising one or whole groups of people is a reflection of the ignorance and fear we hold inside, often unconsciously! We believe we are separate, individual, disassociated beings and we fear what is perceived as different from us. Our beliefs imprison us and limit us but they can free us too
—WAKE UP AND REMOVE YOUR PRISON DOOR FROM ITS HINGES—
We can do this…….
--John Eitzen, firstname.lastname@example.org