Sangha Building Within Prison

By Nancy Lee Koschmann I have two Sanghas in my life. My home Sangha is a group of mostly working, middle-class people like myself who have discovered Thay’s writings or have attended retreats with him. My other Sangha is composed of inmates at a nearby men’s maximum security prison who have difficulty even acquiring Thay’s books.

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On Friday mornings I sit as a volunteer with the prison Sangha, hopefully providing support and encouragement to the inmates as well as the official leaders, a nun and her assistant from the Syracuse Zen Center. Recently we held two partial day sittings — the first in the history of the prison — during which the men who gave the Dharma talks spoke of the immeasurable comfort and strength they drew from our small but committed prison group. While my home Sangha plays a central role in my life, the prison Sangha has also become a place of deep motivation and supportive connectedness. It has offered me valuable Dharma lessons, companionable meditation, and regular guidance in mindfulness. If that is true for me, think how true it must be for my incarcerated Dharma brothers who have very little else in their lives.

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Thus I think a great deal about Sangha building in prison, wondering how to create a supportive Buddhist community within those tall, thick stone walls. One way, I believe, is to maintain contact with Sangha on the outside, but prison regulations make that very difficult. Those of us from the outside try to bring in materials from our home and affiliated groups: magazines, newsletters, and thoughtful writings. We have to get permission for any items we bring; in addition we must arrange several days in advance to have everything listed on a gate pass. We are in the process now of getting approval for several volunteers so that they can visit the Sangha as embodied proof that those on the outside care and know about the men. The process includes forms, background checks, fingerprinting, and a great deal of time.

The Nail That Sticks Up

While maintaining the strength of our little prison Sangha is crucial, equally important is the effort to reach out and include other inmates in our practice and our services. Prison regulations in New York declare that each inmate may designate only one religion and attend only one type of service. This is, of course, rather antithetical to the way Thay has taught us to think of the Dharma, but there seems no way around the rules at present. To change affiliation is to call attention to one’s self — not a good thing to do in a prison environment where, as the Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets hit on the head — so unless people are unusually motivated, they are unlikely to request a change. Inmates are allowed to attend a religious service as a guest three times, but for most people this is not enough exposure to determine whether or not they want to change affiliation and forgo the formal services of their root tradition.

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Last summer I decided to offer a course on Buddhism so that more inmates might have an opportunity to explore the ideas and practice of meditation. I offered a four-week course on “The Science and Practice of Meditation,” and while the men seemed to enjoy it and attended regularly, it was much too short to scratch the surface of either the science or the practice! This term I am doing a fourteen-week course, entitled “Introduction to Asian Meditation.” We are fortunate to have the official backing of both the Cornell Prison Education Program and Cornell University’s East Asia Program to help pay for books and photocopying. My local Sangha paid for the first course’s texts, Be Free Wherever You Are and The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Twenty-one men joined the present class. Together we are reading about and discussing the benefits of meditation — mostly research reported in the Mind-Life Institute of the Dalai Lama. We will study the historical life and context of the Buddha and then move on to the teachings, including Thay’s Being Peace and several articles from the Mindfulness Bell. We meditate briefly at the beginning of class and then again for the last forty minutes or so, alternating guided meditation with walking meditation and silent meditation. The men are keeping a journal on their attempts to meditate on their own during the week. One man wrote in his journal this week, “I love this class. I haven’t figured out how to concentrate yet, but at least I know it is possible. When I leave class, I am calmer and happier than I’ve been for years.”

No Stone Walls

Will any of these men join our prison Sangha? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: the men in the Sangha are encouraged to know that there are others out there in the cell blocks who are at least exploring the same path. I remind my students often that this is a class about Buddhism, with some practical experience in meditation, but that it is not a class that aims to “convert” anyone. Meditation, I tell them, is part of all religious traditions and if they practice, they will learn more about themselves, about others, about compassion and how to handle destructive emotions and be free and peaceful wherever they are. The teachings are about a more skillful and peaceful way to live. Yes, I hope they come to our Sangha, at least to visit, but whether they do or not, I believe I am contributing to the real meaning of Sangha: a broad community of people walking the same path — whether we call ourselves Catholic or Sufi or Jew or Zen Buddhist, whether we are in prison or on the outside. In such a Sangha, there are no stone walls.

mb52-Sangha4Nancy Lee Koschmann, Opening the Path of the Heart, taught psychology and women’s studies for twenty-five years; she is now a life coach and volunteer who practices with Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY and ShoShin (Beginner’s Mind) Sangha at Auburn Correctional Facility, Auburn, NY.

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