Being Present in Prison

By Mark French I just finished reading Chan Khong's book, Learning True Love. It is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. As a combat veteran of Vietnam in 1968, I was particularly touched by her book. I felt a certain connection to past experiences after reading about the struggles of Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others, and how they overcame obstacles to bring help to the Vietnamese people.

I just recently became involved in a meditation group here in prison. Our meditation began with only three to five inmates, as well as a staff sponsor. In the last month, two new people joined our group. We meet every Friday and sit in meditation for 20 minutes, then our staff sponsor leads us in a discussion. We just finished reading and discussing Zen Keys, and now we are reading a book called Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. I have a lot more time to do here in prison and I now face each day with a much better outlook, thanks to the meditation and mindfulness I have allowed into my life.

My dad was a Baptist minister and I was the typical rebellious "preacher's kid." Isn't it ironic that while most would think I had the ideal religious environment to grow up in, I am now 45 and in prison, and finally I have some spiritual peace and wholeness in my life? I try to sit twice a day, for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening. I live and work on the prison dairy farm, so there is plenty of opportunity for mindful working. As far as I am concerned, the only way to do prison time is simply by being in the moment.

I have been in contact with Open Way Sangha in Missoula, and they have expressed an interest in coming to the prison periodically to help us out with establishing a meditation group. The prison chaplain is not the most cooperative person when it comes to something like this. Nevertheless, since our building at the Religious Activities Center is intended for all religious activities, I have hopes that the administration will allow the people from Open Way to come in and help us out. I have also written to the Engaged Zen Foundation that has successfully started Zen meditation groups at other prisons, and perhaps they will have some helpful information.

It amazes me how people in the Buddhist community seem to care so much, unconditionally, for those of us who are incarcerated. I also belong to a veteran's group here at the prison. Our group has some funds to spend on worthwhile service projects, and I suggested we send a small donation each month to help the children of Vietnam. I will share the information I have about Sr. Chan Khong's work in Vietnam. Other Vietnam war veterans are also planning to send a small donation each month. Perhaps someone reading this might feel that if someone in prison can afford to donate $10 a month, then just about anyone can.

At times it makes me think how much I wish I could get out of here and really get involved in a Buddhist Sangha. I recently read about a Vietnam vet who suffered greatly from PTSD. His search for answers and treatment took him to France, and of course, Plum Village. There, his treatment program was to live in the Vietnamese village and overcome his fears. It was a tremendous account of changing his life. I often wish I could do the same thing. But when those thoughts of freedom come up, I just get into my breathing: "Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I think about my personal mission, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sr. Chan Khong, and how lucky I am to be here this moment, to be able to share Buddhism with others, and how meditation can make 'doing time' so much easier."

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Mark French is an inmate in Deer Lodge Correctional Facility, Montana.

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