An Interview with Kobutsu

By Carole Melkonian

Reverend Kobutsu, Kevin Malone, is ordained in the Rinzai Zen tradition, and has been teaching meditation in prisons since 1992. The following excerpts are from a conversation with Kobutsu during Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last October.

How did you make the connection between your spiritual practice and prisons?

In 1992 the Vice Abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji, Edio Shimano Roshi’s monastery in upstate New York, asked me to take over a meditation group at Sing-Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. I readily agreed.

What is practice like in the prison?

We begin by cultivating a relationship between the individual prisoner and his community. For example, when a man comes to the prison “zendo,” the first thing we teach him is to bow to the other men in his community. This recognition and respect is the first gift they receive and is so valuable in prison culture. It is very much what Zen training in prison is about.

Before I started coming, the group sat for five minutes of meditation and then had unstructured time. Now, we chant the Heart Sutra and sit in meditation for four 30 minute periods. The “zen do” is open two evenings and one morning each week. We also hold retreats and a basic Buddhism class is taught monthly by a Buddhist nun. We have been recognized by the New York Department of Correctional Services as running a very well-structured program. More importantly, the men are tremendously grateful to have access to Zen practice, and to be able to practice refraining from violence. Those who sit regularly are able to begin to express compassion to their fellow inmates and to corrections officers.

You have been working with people on death row, and you accompanied Jusan Parker to his death in an Arkansas prison. Could you speak about your experiences with people on death row?

On August 8, 1996, Jusan Frankie Parker, my friend and Dharma brother, was executed despite letters from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many other renowned Dharma teachers. During the last six months of Jusan’s life, we worked to gain clemency for him. With the support of thousands of people, we did our best and are without regrets.

I spent the last day of Jusan’s life with him. We held hands and meditated together. I joined him for his last meal, helped him answer letters, and assisted him writing an after death statement which I read at a press conference immediately after his death. We chanted the Three Refuges together as we walked down “the last mile,” a hall lined with officers in riot gear, toward the execution chamber. Our chanting continued as we approached our shrine, a cardboard box covered with a piece of felt on which a Buddha figure sat. We bowed to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Before Jusan entered the death chamber, we did three deep bows to each other. We stopped chanting and I looked directly into his eyes. A single tear glistened as it rolled down his cheek. We embraced, and he whispered in my ear, “I love you, my brother. Thank you so much.” We bowed to each other one more time. This time our foreheads touched. It was the last contact we had. We began chanting the Three Refuges again. The guards ushered me out a side door as Frankie was moved into the death chamber. I saw the waiting hearse and felt totally empty inside. I was brought to the death chamber viewing room where the state witnesses were seated. I continued chanting and watched as he was injected with poison. He died within minutes. His last words were “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”

Since Jusan’s death, I have received many letters from people on death row-some are Buddhist, others are not. I will probably have to watch some of these people die at the hands of the State; that is, at the hands of all of us. I will stand by any person who asks me to, whether a Buddhist or not. All I can do is bear witness and treat those who are executed and the executioners themselves with honesty, dignity, and compassion.

Reverend Kobutsu corresponds with close to a thousand prisoners, including 16 people on death row. To support his work or to receive Gateway Journal, a publication dedicated to the emancipation of the hearts and minds of incarcerated people, please write to The Engaged Zen Foundation, P.O. Box 700, Ramsey, NJ, 07446-0700. All donations are tax deductible. 

Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is a nurse in the intensive care unit of a Northern California hospital.


The following is an excerpt of a letter from Jusan
Frankie Parker to Kobutsu while on death row: “Being convicted of killing two people caused me to seek some way of trying to understand my actions. It led me to karma and the karmic winds that blow us through life, winds that we generate ourselves. I am the first person to become a Buddhist priest while incarcerated in the Arkansas prison system. Through contemplative practice I’ve learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I’ve learned the most important tbing a sentient being can learn-how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the State. I’ll die with a smile on my ugly old face . They will not understand, but you’ll know.”

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Creating Villages of Peace

Summer Camp in Texas

Terry  Masters

One day at my  summer  camp for gifted children, MasterSchool, the children created different villages from around the world. Using their imaginations and whatever materials they could find around the ranch, they built villages in Mexico, India, Israel, France, and Japan.

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In France, in addition to several houses and a lumber yard, there was a sidewalk cafe on the River Seine (a three-legged card table propped on a stump beside a dry creek.) A small protestant church, which was constructed mostly of imagination, stood between the café and someone’s cardboard box home.

There was, in Mexico, a large field of corn (rocks painted yellow) and pumpkins (orange rocks) on the outskirts of the village. On the plaza in town stood a simple Catholic church (a painted refrigerator box topped with crosses made by tying branches together with yarn) and a busy mercado.

The residents of Israel built a kabutz. A child brought his cello from home and played traditional Jewish pieces while his friends taught us tourists to dance.

The girls in India painted their hands with henna and wore saris made of old bed sheets. There were brightly painted Hindu gods perched in trees around the houses where the natives of India lived. Flower petals were strewn on the path leading to the village.

In Japan, next to a computer factory (old computer parts inside a circle of stones,) a child named Tommy designated the space between two trees as a Buddhist temple and announced that he was a monk. He hung lengths of blue yarn from a low branch to the ground, forming the door to the temple. Just inside the door, in a fork of a tree, he placed a Tupperware sandwich box filled with holy water from the swimming pool. Angie brought incense and a candle from home.  Laura shaped a beautiful Buddha from mud. On a length of butcher paper, with a black magic marker, Jane copied from a Zen painting a tiny canoe in a calm lake, rimmed by huge mountains in the morning fog. A fisherman lay in the canoe, not fishing. Jane tacked her painting between the two trees in the temple. I told Tommy that I knew a Zen Master. Would he like the Zen Master to visit their temple? Oh yes, he said, he would!

The next morning I dug through the costume box and found a black high-school graduation gown with the zipper torn out. I put it on backwards, wrapped a man’s tie around my waist and walked slowly and peacefully to the temple. Several curious children followed me. I walked through the blue yarn door and bowed to the mud Buddha. Watching me, the children put their hands together and bowed, too. We sat cross-legged on the dirt, except for Joshua who lounged in the fork of the tree above the holy water. Tommy lit the incense and the candle. We sat together quietly.

Finally, I smiled and bowed to the assembly. I complimented monk Tommy on his beautiful temple. He smiled monastically. I said that Terry had invited me, the Zen Master, to come.

“I have come to listen to your stories and to tell you some of mine,” I said, smiling.

“When we students of Buddhism want to talk,” I continued, “We put our hands together like a flower and we bow. We use the same sign to say we have finished talking. But this offering of flowers is not just a way to get attention, because when we make our hands into a flower, we are also saying to our friends, ‘You are as beautiful as a flower; you are a flower and I want to hear what Flower You has to say!’”

The children sat still, listening respectfully, moving only to swat fire ants away. “Would you enjoy doing this while we talk today?”

The children said nothing, but they smiled and nodded their heads.

Looking around the temple, I nodded to Jane’s beautiful painting thumb-tacked between the trees.

“I enjoy looking at this fisherman’s special place. Does anyone in this temple have a special place like that?” I asked. Hands together, I bowed. The children bowed.

After a pause, Laura put her hands together and bowed. We all bowed to her. She told us about a place under her grandmother’s porch at her lake house.

“No one knows about that place,” she said, softly. “It is cool there, even in the summer time. I can see out but no one can see in. I can think there.” Laura paused, then carefully put her hands together and bowed. We bowed to her.

Each child, very quietly, very earnestly took turns telling about their special places: in a closet behind the coats, in a special chair in the living room, at the back of their yard at home, behind some trees, in tree branches, under the bed. After each story we bowed, honoring each child’s contribution. I then told about my special place, in the rocking chair on my front porch. The candle and incense burned.

After a while the bell rang for our camp to have our morning recess. No one in the temple moved. I smiled and rose slowly. The children smiled and rose. We bowed to each other. Then slowly and mindfully we left the temple through the blue yarn door.

A little teary with joy, I walked back to the costume box where I left my robe and sash, relieved in a way to be out of the hot polyester. When I walked back to the playground, Joshua called, “Hey Terry! I met a Zen Master that looks just like you!” “Really?”  I said.  “Yep!”  He grinned, putting his hands together and bowing. “Oh my,” I said as I bowed back, smiling, honoring the flower in him.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Manor, Texas and practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.

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Twenty-two Years of Plum Village

By Paul Tingen  

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My first visit to Plum Village, twenty-two years ago, is still as vividly engrained in my memory as if it happened last week, probably because it was packed with surprises, ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the jaw-dropping. I arrived in Lower Hamlet on a warm evening in July 1990 during the Summer Opening. The first person I encountered was Shantum Seth, who looked rather splendid in his Indian outfit and who seemed to be the only one who had an overview of what was happening. As I put my ruck- sack down, I asked him where I could sleep, and he replied, “You can put your tent anywhere, or sleep in a room.” I looked around for where I could pitch up my tent, but Shantum’s next question stopped me in my tracks. “You want to join the evening meditation? It starts in half an hour.”

I’d just hitchhiked from London and was tired, but I was also eager for my first experience of what Plum Village was about, so I said yes. Half an hour later I sat in the Red Candle Hall, puzzled by the fact that we were facing the wall and not one another, and impressed by the sound of the big bell. The session turned out to be a guided meditation on death, with phrases like: “Breathing out, I see my dead body festering.” The whole meditation was a visualisation of the process of one’s own corpse decaying until it turned to dust. I was shocked. Some part of me guessed that this was about training our minds to get used to the idea of physical death and to chip off bits of the big rock of our fear of death, but at the same time, as a horror show of images paraded through my mind, I thought, “Are these people morbid or something? Have I ended up in the clutches of some crazy religious sect?”

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears2Fateful Decision 

The fact was, at that point I knew nothing about the practice. The reason I was in Plum Village was that a few months earlier, in April, I had attended a talk by Thay in London. At that time a series of mostly New Age talks was held every Monday night in St. James’ Church, near Piccadilly Circus. I was on a spiritual search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and I also had a lot of suffering that I didn’t know how to transform, so I went every Monday night, looking for answers. I had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong were. After everyone had taken their seats, Sister Chan Khong sang to us and explained the practice of the bell, and there was a lot of stopping, going slowly, and breathing. I recall thinking, a bit impatiently, “This is going to be a long evening.” I looked at the exit and considered going to a local café to have some cake and coffee and coming back later to meet some friends. Then Thay came forward, and from halfway down the church he looked like he was thirty-five years old. Add his gap-toothed smile, soft voice, and extremely simple language, and I remember thinking, “Who is this young upstart and what does he know?” My decision to delay my exit for coffee and cake for a few more minutes turned out to be one of the most fateful of my life.

Ten minutes later I was hooked. Not long afterwards, I started to cry. I cried for the rest of Thay’s talk. When I occasionally looked around me, I saw that at least half the people in the audience were actively weeping. Thay’s talk was extraordinary, and as he kept talking, I realised that there was a wealth of experience, wisdom, depth, and insight behind his very simple words. The main thing I recall is that I was deeply touched by his attitude toward suffering. He acknowledged suffering with compassion and without judgment. It was okay to suffer. Thay showed a way that accepted and embraced suffering with tenderness, but he also offered a way out of suffering that was light, simple, and delicious. As he talked I kept being stunned at how much of what he said was common sense. I recognised everything he said as obvious life truths, yet I’d never heard anyone formulate them before. At that point I had an inkling that I’d found my teacher, and to this day my life is separated into the time before and the time after that April evening.

Naturally, when I found out that Thay had a centre in the south of France, one of my favourite areas in the world, I decided to go. And so a few months later I found myself sitting in the Lower Hamlet Red Candle Hall with horror movie images running through my head. I didn’t immediately plan my exit, but I did go to sleep with mixed feelings. The next morning we all went to Upper Hamlet for Thay’s Dharma talk, which was in the Transformation Hall. The Summer Retreat was attended by perhaps two hundred people, and while most fit in the hall, a couple of dozen listened under the linden tree. Thay was only five minutes into his talk when I experienced the same feelings I had had in London a few months earlier. I was deeply touched, and the doubts that had arisen the evening before fell away. He was indeed my teacher. I had arrived.

A New Direction

Life in Plum Village in 1990 was very different than it is now—for starters, the schedule. I remember that we got up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and began practice at 7:00 a.m. Morning practice consisted of the round of sitting-walking-sitting meditation, followed by sutra reading with sometimes a bit of chanting. Breakfast started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. Thay’s Dharma talk was planned for 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., but because he took so long to casually stroll towards the hall, while chatting with people on the way, he often didn’t start until later. Thay’s Dharma talks often were long, so lunch tended to be at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., after which there was rest time. Walking meditation was usually at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., and after dinner there was another sitting-walking-sitting meditation session beginning at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. (I invite those with better memories than mine to correct these times if I haven’t got them quite right.)

In addition to Thay, there were only three other monastics living at Plum Village: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina (who was still walking around in very striking black and white Japanese robes). Thay and Sister Chan Khong were very available and approachable. Thay would chat with loads of people, particularly before his Dharma talks. Very early on during my stay, he heard me playing my acoustic guitar under the linden tree, and he approached me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar in the meditation hall before the Dharma talk, to calm people down and keep chatting to a minimum while they waited for him. I was very happy to oblige, and it was the beginning of a whole new musical direction for me. When he arrived thirty to forty-five minutes later, he’d sit next to me, listening and waiting for me to finish my piece, after which we bowed to each other and I left the stage.

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It was fairly easily organized in those days to have tea with Thay, and during this occasion I remember being struck by seeing Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving among the five books on his bookshelf. Sister Chan Khong was also very approachable, and I regularly sat next to her in an old Peugeot 505, mostly driving between Upper and Lower Hamlet. I have no idea why we went up and down so often, but it gave me a chance to talk about what was bothering me. She was always very present, and many of her pearls of wisdom are still with me today. I was practicing in an esoteric Christian tradition at the time, and in response to my feeling uneasy about the Buddhist aspects of Plum Village she replied, “You don’t need to feel this is your home; just relax and regard it as a hospital for you to heal.” To my question about how to stay mindful when playing rock and roll on my electric guitar, she advised, “Just breathe before you play, and breathe again after you play.” Simple, and no judgment. She also told me, “Don’t think about what’s bothering you all the time. Breathe and focus on other things, and then, when you’re no longer thinking about it, a solution will suddenly pop into your head.”

It was also Sister Chan Khong who at one point tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Why don’t you join the walking meditation?” As a left-leaning young man who had been strongly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, I had a strong habit energy of rebellion and non-conformism, and didn’t immediately join in with all the practices. The immense tolerance in Plum Village was therefore a godsend for me. For example, for more than a year I refused to bow. Once someone gently asked me why and then appeared to happily accept my answer. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything other than myself. This gave me the space to discover for myself what bowing is about, and when I realised that honouring the Buddha in the other person is a very beautiful practice, I could bow from a place of total authenticity. To this day, bowing is an important practice for me that feels completely comfortable and genuine.

I felt that Thay and Sister Chan Khong personally took me under their wing and opened doors for my Plum Village experience—Sister Chan Khong with her compassionate listening and wisdom, and Thay in encouraging me to follow the new musical direction I had taken. Until my first visit to Plum Village, I was involved in making rock music, but it never felt quite right. With Thay’s encouragement, more and more acoustic guitar pieces came rolling out of me, and I eventually realised that this was my true musical voice. I recorded parts of my first CD in Plum Village in 1993, something that Thay personally made possible, saying that he wanted the community to be able to support artists.

Presence of Compassion 

Until I (temporarily) moved to the U.S. in 1999, I travelled several times a year from England to Plum Village, and every time I arrived I noticed changes that were not to my liking. For example, the wake-up time became earlier and earlier; there were more people, more buildings, and stricter practice; men and women were separated between the hamlets; and gradually Sister Chan Khong and particularly Thay became less available to laypeople. Every time I initially thought, “Oh, no!” And yet, every time, this reaction dropped away within hours as I noticed that the energy of the practice and the presence of compassion and understanding were the same as the last time I visited.

However, as the morning wake-up time became earlier and earlier, I did become a morning meditation truant, eventually abandoning that practice altogether. I could barely function for the rest of the day when I did attend. And after my first child was born in 2002, and sleepless nights became the norm, I learned to grab every second of sleep that I could.

And then, one summer morning in Upper Hamlet a few years ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the big meditation hall, arriving fifteen minutes early for the morning meditation. A few people were already there, and I sat down far away from them, in a quiet corner where I expected to have a lot of space to myself. I had just settled in my meditation when I heard someone enter the hall, move slowly in my direction, and sit down right beside me. I wondered who would choose, out of all the free places in the hall, the seat immediately to my left. I glanced sideways. It was Thay.

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears4Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of a book about the electric music of Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

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