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Jail Cell, Monk's Cell

By Judith Toy

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Bending to enter the conference room where we held meditation at Countytown Prison in Pennsylvania, Joshua darkened the doorway. He didn't stand; he loomed. Joshua was a scary-looking six-three or six-four, over three hundred pounds, with a blue anarchist tattoo etched into his shaved scalp. It was a Thursday evening in the second year of our weekly visits to Countytown. A Zen master's warning flashed in my mind: “Don't leave a drunk or a bum outside the monastery gate; you might be excluding Lord Buddha.”

We didn't ask about his jail time. It wasn't until much later, standing in my living room in North Carolina with Josh, that I learned he was a sex offender. Not long after he began his prison sentence, the doctors had diagnosed him with schizophrenia and placed him on anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps because of the heavy drug dosages, he was a mouth breather, adding to his sinister aura.

Forgiveness Too Late

For two and a half years, my husband Philip and I took our practice every Thursday evening to Countytown Prison. Thanks to the collected strength of the inmates in the prison sangha, my initial fears of walking into the prison were quelled. This was the very place where Charles Grand, the murderer of three members of my family — my sister-in-law Connie and my two nephews, 16-year-old Allen and 14-year-old Bobby — had been held prior to his trial. Some of these young men had known Charles.

After becoming Thây's student and after practicing mindfulness for five years, through looking deeply, I came to forgive Charles. Still, I was afraid to face him, and I did not tell him of my forgiveness. He had confessed to the crime and was convicted for three consecutive life sentences without parole. One day it was too late for me to tell him "I forgive you." Charles took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his jail cell. I deeply mourned his passing. Now, at Countytown Prison, I had a chance to give to the living what I owed to the dead.

What I'll never forget from one of those early nights is the flower. A dear friend had brought us a fresh gardenia as an offering for our home altar. On a whim, we took the perfect blossom with its leaves like wax and laid it on the table in the small, pie-shaped conference room where we met with the men. Its fragrance served as both candle and incense; no fire was allowed.

One of the guys was nicknamed Fiji. Fiji had a voice like a cement mixer. He shared with us during dharma discussion that he was a Vietnam vet, that he had committed multiple atrocities in the war. Because of this he had suffered deeply and continuously in the years since, often becoming obsessed with the urge to kill himself or to kill another.

"I wanna put the war behind me and find peace," Fiji said.

All of us accepted the prison sounds — metal clanging against metal, the public address system, the frequent shouts — as the ground of our meditation. Each moment unfolded into the next. As Philip and I prepared to leave the room, we noticed the men's intense interest in the gardenia. They passed it around the room, inhaling its sweet scent, touching its creamy petals and leaves. I keep a mental snapshot of Fiji with his nose in the flower: Fiji and the Buddha, Fiji and the Christ.

Grace of Hugging Meditation

Hugging practice became a ritual. Since inmates are ordinarily prohibited the luxury of human touch, I wondered how many of them attended meditation just for the motherly, fatherly hugs that Philip and I enjoyed with each of them before saying good-bye each week. We practiced hugging meditation to be truly present to each other through three complete shared breaths. Afterwards, we bowed with our palms joined in a lotus bud. It was not we who initiated the hugging, either; it was the men, these streetwise youngsters whose personalities morphed the moment they walked out the door of the conference room and returned to the prison halls — their street. Out would pop the exaggerated swagger of boys who hadn't been properly fathered, the street jive. Thus I began to look deeply at some of the peer pressures on these men. As I got to know them as real and vulnerable and even innocent, my fears abated.

Still there were days when a prison destination was not high on our list of evening recreations. The recliner and a good book beckoned. Or after a long day my eyes wanted to close. On the outside, I often noted my resistance to the strict routine of the metal detector or being subjected to the hand-held detector, arms outstretched, making me feel like ... a criminal! Hmmm.

En route to the prison Philip and I sometimes bickered. Yet without fail, once we settled into seated meditation and walking meditation with the men, our moods lightened. Without fail, by the time we gave and received our good-bye hugs, Philip and I were walking on clouds.

We were supported by a friend from Old Path Sangha. Steven was a devotee of the Indian avatar Sathya Sai Baba and an observant Jew. When we told him that the late father of one of the men in our group, Deepok, had been a disciple of Sai Baba's, Steven asked to join us on Thursday evenings. We were deeply grateful that he was able to stay on, continuing to practice with the men when Philip and I moved away to North Carolina in 1999.

Genuine friendships developed between the two mindfulness groups — our Old Path Zendo Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the sangha at Countytown. We continued the custom of taking a flower and passing it around before saying good-bye. Deepok developed a habit that led to the naming of the prison sangha: as we passed the flower around to the men each week he'd pinch off a petal or a fragment of a petal and file it away in his pocket. He stowed the sweet-smelling bits in his cell as reminders of our times together, as a token of Mother Earth. Later we learned that they were seized as contraband by the guards during a lock-down. They were certainly mistaken for drugs! Deepok told us the lock-down was worth it, and he continued to pinch petals. Such was his longing for what these small fragments symbolized — earth, its flowering, peace, acceptance, new life. We couldn't find it in our hearts to deny him the petals.

Thus the prison group was named by the men: Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

The Making of a Hermitage

At the close of the first year at Countytown, four inmates were growing solid in their meditation and mindfulness practice. Big Joshua was one of them. Others would come and go, some out of choice and some because they were reassigned or released. They consciously dedicated their practice to the folks at Old Path Sangha, and we of the Old Path Zendo Sangha sat twice weekly on behalf of Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

We did not ask what their crimes were, whether they were guilty or innocent. We just sat. We enjoyed our breathing. We practiced silent walking meditation, in peace. We smiled. We hugged. We beamed out our love.

Over the months that Joshua attended weekly meditation, I watched with deep happiness as he took to the practice like an eagle to air, making of his jail cell a monk's cell. He asked deep questions, ordered books on Buddhism and read them cover to cover, recited the Four Noble Truths and the Heart Sutra, studied the five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or habit patterns, and consciousness). Josh was an open vessel, filling, filling.

"I ordered books from Thich Nhat Hanh's Parallax Press, Zen Mountain Monastery, Richard Gere's Foundation, and from Bo and Sita Lozoff of the Human Kindness Foundation and the Prison Ashram Project," he told us at the prison. "The meditation practice makes me look forward to every day," he said, "breathing in and breathing out, working on my form and lack of form. I've found a way to discipline myself, a way to counter the chaos."

"Minds innocent and quiet take [prison] ...for a hermitage," wrote the English poet John Lovelace. Josh's typical prison day began at 4:30 or 5:00 when he sat in meditation for 45 minutes and practiced walking meditation like a cat, pacing the limited confines of his cell. Then he chanted sutras. At 8:00, he went to work in the commissary warehouse, a coveted minimum-security-status job that Joshua attained only after three years of good behavior. After work and dinner in the prison cafeteria, he routinely sat in meditation again for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then he would read from his growing Buddhist library and go to bed.

But it had not always been a monk's cell and minimum security for Joshua. "I started out my prison time right away getting into trouble for fighting. There was this new guy on the block. He must've figured you start with the biggest man and work your way down, because he picked a fight with me. So I just lifted him up with one hand and split his temple with the other. For that I got 28 days in the hole."

"What's the hole?"

"Well, it's a four-by-nine-foot cell that holds a bed, a desk, a toilet, and a sink. The guards take you out every other day for a shower. You have contact with guards only. The officers were actually pretty cool with me."


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