Jail Cell, Monk’s Cell

By Judith Toy

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 lockdown 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.”

“What would you do if that inmate picked a fight with you today?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” Joshua quietly replied.

An Unexpected Visit

About a year after Philip and I bequeathed the prison sangha to Steven and moved south to North Carolina to found Cloud Cottage Sangha, Joshua phoned us to say he was out of jail. We’d stayed in touch, and now he had an important request.

“I want to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings,” he said.

“We’re hosting a dharma teacher from California, Lyn Fine, in North Carolina this September, Josh,” I said. “If you can get yourself here you can stay with us, and we can arrange a ceremony to have Lyn and the sangha offer you the precepts.”

It took a huge effort on Joshua’s part to make the journey. First he secured permission from his halfway house to go on leave for religious reasons. Then he got the okay from his supervisor to take a leave of absence from his job. Finally, he needed money for bus fare; his grandmother complied with a loan, and we set a date for his arrival.

On the long Greyhound ride, Joshua wrote untitled poems:

Impermanence is the
only constant.
Change is the one true
Suffering, joy, hate,
love, these too
shall pass. Sitting still
I center,
Quiet my mind,
Rest in the joy of
my breath.

Josh’s Greyhound bus arrived on time. Back at Cloud Cottage, which is truly a cottage in size, Lyn slept on the futon in the den and Joshua put his giant body down on our living room couch.

“I have to talk to you,” he said. “I have a question. Can someone who’s a sex offender receive the precepts? I…I’m not sure I can do this because of my crime. And Judith, I don’t even remember what I did! I was blacked out on drugs!”

Ironically, just at that moment into our back door came a sangha member who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. Just as she walked in, bearing a gift of soup, I was answering Joshua, “Of course you can receive the Trainings. Your past doesn’t matter.” My mind raced in quick succession to Charles Grand raping my sister-in-law Connie and murdering her, of the Buddha accepting a penitent mass murderer as one of his monks, of Jesus eating with prostitutes.

Fortunately, our friend with the soup at the back door escaped hearing any of this conversation, or it might have made her dinner difficult. Just then, Lyn Fine came out of the other room to join us, and I introduced her to my friend. We served my friend’s carrot soup with a hearty bread. There we were, an unlikely gathering, teachers, perpetrators, victims — no self, no other — gathered for a mindful meal, a true Zen Eucharist. In this way, we practiced interbeing.

One Dharma Journey

Lyn led the retreat that weekend, in a friend’s house set on a vast, tree-dotted lawn in a mountain cove. On a crystal autumn day of marigolds and maple leaves, we held the ceremony for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Tearfully, I watched as Joshua brought his massive body down to touch the earth, receiving each of the Three Refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life;
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness;
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.

After the ceremony, Lyn gave Joshua his lineage name, Peaceful Light of the Source, linking it to mine and Philip’s, also given by her — Clear Light of the Source and Shining Stream of the Source.

Our linked names mean so much to me, for it was Josh who had transformed my guilt and regret at never having contacted Charles, to say in person, “I forgive you!” It was five years after the murders that I was able to forgive the boy who killed my family — five years of daily meditation and mindfulness practice. But before I’d been able to tell him so, Charles killed himself. Might I have saved his life by telling him of my forgiveness? Perhaps.

I saw on Joshua’s ordination day that Joshua’s journey was my journey. Joshua and I inter-exist. Despite a long and bumpy ride, I, too, was learning to “rest in the joy of the breath.” Like Josh, I was unfolding my heart to the perfect understanding that transforms hatred and degradation into love and forgiveness.

In the chaos of prison life, Josh had longed for peace. There, he had come to discover his inner teacher, his true self. Back home in Souderton, Pennsylvania, after entering the stream of our Buddhist tradition, he founded Dharma Rain Sangha.

“I met one of the Countytown guards on the outside who told me, ‘I knew you didn’t belong in there,’” he said. But maybe he did belong in there. How else for this gentle giant? How else would Joshua’s dharma journey have begun?

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Minding the Fire, Zen Stories of Forgiveness. Other essays from her book can be found in Best Buddhist Writing 2006, published by Shambhala, and in the new Buddhist quarterly, Right View.

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Sangha Building

This latest issue of the Mindfulness Bell is just bursting with treasures for Sangha practice (as well as a very helpful article on the aspirant training process!). It really helps those of us with young Sanghas and provides us with inspiration and direction with wonderful examples from practice. Thank you for putting this issue together for us!

Laurie Seidel
Roanoke, Virginia


Thank you for focusing on the topic of Sangha building. Bliss Run Mindfulness Community in Columbus, Ohio just turned one year old. The stories featured in the Bell were both inspirational and informative. Our Sangha has experienced flooding in our room while we were meditating, finding ourselves locked out of the building, having our meeting room turned into a storage room, and dealing with some hostility from people who are suspicious of meditation groups. We have had “key” people disappear, for no apparent reason. We have had people come for only one time, despite our deep commitment to welcoming people with warmth and enthusiasm. Nothing has deterred our core group of six people. As Thay encourages us to focus on Sangha building, I sometimes find myself struggling. I know that even when we only have six people attend, that’s enough, as Thay also reminds us. Yet, there is a part of me that longs to have a greater attendance. Craving lurks just around the corner, even in the meditation hall.

Yet, with each issue of the Bell, I am reminded that I do sit with a worldwide Sangha that includes people from all corners of the globe. Sangha building is not a numbers game. It is a way of life.

Diane Strausser
Columbus, Ohio


Last May we had a wonderful retreat with Thay in the Netherlands.

We sold a lot of books, DVDs, and CDs in our bookshop. From the revenue we would like to send € 1000 [$1420] for issues of the Mindfulness Bell for prisoners.

Greet de Weger Meppel,
The Netherlands

Reply from David Percival:

Greet, this is really generous of The Netherlands Sangha and we are indeed grateful for your support. Please let all of your members know that we deeply appreciate their assistance. And many prisoners stuck in some lonely prison will also be grateful as this allows us to bring the practice to them and help them to deal with their suffering. We frequently hear from prisoners about how the Mindfulness Bell makes a real difference in their lives and how they usually share each issue with other prisoners. Bows and smiles to you and The Netherlands Sangha.


Another year has passed and once again I’ve been offered an extension on the gift subscription to the Mindfulness Bell that I was given years ago.

Through the kindness of others the Dharma is shared with prisoners such as myself. Thank you and all those who make the Dharma available to others in need. I can’t imagine a greater gift.

Last year my reply to your subscription offer was printed in an issue of the Mindfulness Bell. As a result I received a kind letter from a fellow reader, ex-prisoner, and Dharma brother, John C. He has been a wonderful source of information regarding Buddhist history and practice, and is but one of the many treasures that have come into my life as a result of my study and practice.

Today, in many ways, I am more free than I have ever been. The gift of the Dharma has given me what I never thought possible: Peace.

To you and countless others who share the Dharma, I say again, thank you. I am in your debt.

Lee S.
Gulf Correctional Institution
Wewahitchka, Florida


First, let me thank you for continuing to send the Mindfulness Bell. I share it around among other inmates here and we all love reading the magazine. And it has helped me so much with my practice.

Once again thank you for your support, concern, and love. Thank you very much for caring for me and for allowing me one more year’s subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. It means a lot to me, really it does.

Fabio V.
Union Correctional Institution
Raiford, Florida


I would be most grateful if you would renew my subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. It’s such a blessing to receive information and news on the Dharma, Sangha, and those who spread the seeds of love.

I really enjoyed the Prison Sangha article in the Autumn 2008 issue. It inspired me to make a cell Buddha. I can pull him out when I am in need of his calming presence.

I found deep satisfaction in reading Sr. Chau Nghiem’s article, “Resurrection in the Present Moment” (Winter/Spring 2009). It was inspiring how she was able to move beyond the judgments and racism that were bestowed upon her. Even from her own grandparents. What can I say, I was touched.

And as always Thay’s words set my mind at ease and put a smile on my face.

Thomas. A. S.
Green River Correctional Complex
Central City, Kentucky

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Dear Editor:

The last Mindfulness Bell was a rich and diverse offering on mindfulness in education. I’m still enjoying it! In 2008, I started a blog: www.mindfulkids.wordpress.com. This might be a helpful resource to add to the list of mindfulness in education resources as it features many of the practices developed by the Plum Village community for children (also with some practices translated into French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish). Parallax Press will release a book on practicing mindfulness with children this coming spring, based on the Plum Village children’s program manual.

We recently returned from Florence, Italy, where we helped lead a mindfulness camp for children and parents in the woods. We built a hut in the forest, created a nature mandala, and practiced outdoors. Based on the Waldkindergarten, or Forest Kindergarten, model, our main teachers over the five days were the path we walked through the meadow and the beautiful Imprugneta forest that warmly welcomed us.

Thank you for this wonderful resource and enjoy the pictures!

Sister Jewel


Dear Sangha Friends:

This letter is in response to the articles on Sangha building (Summer 2009), from a grateful recipient of the caring energies of the Laughing Rivers Sangha. Two years ago, I was driving to my second home in the Laurel Mountains of Pennsylvania for our Sangha picnic. I was hurrying a little, and as Thay reminds us, I should have been driving more mindfully. I let my car coast back while turning around, and as I headed forward again, the accelerator stuck. The car became airborne and headed into the woods, knocking down some trees before coming to a halt. I ended up breaking my back. I survived, but spent some weeks in the hospital and my back still hurts, two years later. We did, however, manage to have one last heavenly picnic before I moved to a senior living community. Since then, the Sangha has been marvelous, driving out to have weekly mindfulness meetings with me, from which I always come away rejuvenated.

At Christmas time, Sangha members helped me prepare my Christmas letter. I received many responses fi with messages of concern and kindness which touched me deeply and made me cry. There has been so much sympathy and many heart-warming verses. I never cease to be amazed. Dear Sangha, all of your tender loving care has done so much for this 82-year-old woman.

A lotus for each of you, with palms joined in my heart,

Joanne Stephenson
True Realization of Home


Dear Friends:

Please renew my subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. I greatly enjoy reading every issue. Your magazine provides inspiration and guidance for our prison Sangha. We read and discuss the Dharma topics covered in each issue. Thay’s teachings are truly inspiring, as well as all the other contributors. I was saddened to read of Thay’s stay in a Boston hospital and I hope that his current health is good. Keep sending the Dharma my way and know that you are moving mountains here on the inside.

Thank you,

Thomas A. Scott Central City, KY

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The Joy of Practice Cannot Be Contained

By Leslie Rawls and Carl Dunlap, Jr.

To our respected and beloved teacher, Thay Nhat Hanh, and to the stream of ancestral teachers who have preserved and transmitted the teachings, we offer an ocean of gratitude.

mb57-TheJoy1From Carl

December 5, 1988 was the coldest, darkest day of my entire life. I committed the vile act of murder and was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Taking a life never resonated well in my heart at all. Because I was raised a Baptist Christian, I knew that for forgiveness, I had to sincerely repent and draw closer to God. However, during my Christian experience, something didn’t feel complete. I began asking questions. Why are we the only ones that will be saved when this God comes back and destroys the entire earth? You mean to tell me that this great loving Creator gave us life and is now saying if you don’t believe in a certain way, he is going to destroy us and torture us in a burning hell forever? It sounded absurd. So I found the confidence to explore other ways of life and tried to find peace in my heart, while being someone who could make a positive effect on life.

That’s when I met a guy named Daniel, sitting outside, meditating. He looked so peaceful and serene. Several days went by, and I could not forget that look or the feeling I experienced when I encountered Daniel. I eventually approached Daniel and asked him what he studied and what his way of life was. He said Buddhism, and that he was in the process of trying to get a Sangha started here at Piedmont Correctional. I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about and asked if he had any information that would explain. He said, “I have a book that I want you to read. Read it and get back with me.”

The name of that book was Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. The book was incredible. Thay offered so many precious jewels of wisdom that were simple and liberating. I knew this was what I wanted to do. What really sold me is the fact that Thich Nhat Hanh says that his teachings are not to fight, kill, or die for. They are only a way to develop understanding and compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh says if his teachings are for you, then use them, and if they are not, then abandon them. Man, what humility, style, and grace.



After reading Being Peace, I asked Daniel how could I be a part of this Sangha and be filled with the teachings of liberation. Daniel said, “Next week we will be starting a Sangha here and Leslie will be coming in to teach.” I went to the meeting and was absolutely amazed at Leslie’s composure and sincere compassion about humanity. I wanted to cultivate that in my life and be a solution to suffering and be helpful as well as compassionate to every being I encountered.

After attending meetings for a little over a year, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a beautiful transmission ceremony. The transmission was very important to me. My family, friends, and peers noticed a very big change in my life and I owe it all to the practice. Being in the practice taught me to be mindful in all my actions, to be aware in each living moment. Because I practice, people see me as someone who strives to relieve suffering in myself and others.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine the effects of being mindful about how I ate, breathed, walked, sat, or lay down. It is an awe-inspiring experience. Now my daily life, as I practice, is filled with being aware and staying in the present moment, never worrying, just trying to be present, and taking care of each moment as situations arise.

In this dog-eat-dog world, people are motivated by many different things, which leads them to be suspicious of true kindness. For example, my job assignment here is commissary clerk in the kitchen. The job only requires for me to pass out food, be prepared for that day, and keep inventory on the stock. Well, one day, I noticed a big pile of pots and pans heaped around the sink.

My mind immediately went back to something Thich Nhat Hanh had said: “When we wash dishes, we are aware that we are washing dishes.” I said to myself, “What a perfect time to practice being in the present moment and be aware that I am washing dishes.” I poured myself into it and experienced the beauty of being there and taking my time to wash every pot and pan there, and the ones that continued to come.

About an hour and a half went by and the guy assigned to washing dishes came back, expecting to walk into a big load of work. To his surprise, everything was caught up and clean. He asked, “Which supervisor told you to do that?” I told him nobody asked me to do it and I did it on my own. He then asked, “Well how much do I owe you, because nobody does anything around here for free.” I smiled at him and said, “You don’t owe me anything,” as I walked away. Because for me, as I was there in the present moment, I imagined myself at Plum Village, serving with my brothers and sisters, washing dishes with a big smile on my face.

Aware that words are just labels and they don’t depict who we truly are, I don’t go around with a big sign around my neck saying that I am Buddhist. Therefore, it was quite refreshing to encounter my next experience. One afternoon, an officer approached me and asked me to sit in the infirmary with a man who was dying of cancer. The nurses were understaffed and they needed someone to just sit in the room with him, in case he tried to get up out of bed because he was so weak and he could not walk on his own strength without falling down. While sitting in the infirmary with him, I thought of impermanence. Old age, sickness, and death are certain to come for everyone. Also, I knew it was not a time for words so I just simply sat with him and occasionally, he would smile. When he spoke, I just listened and let him know that I was there for him.

My daily life consists of practicing the principle of dwelling in the present moment and staying mindful of my breath. Throughout the day, I smile and try to handle everything with the correct attitude. I’m not always successful, but just being aware of the process of unwholesome seeds when they are present helps out greatly. My appreciation for the practice is boundless. My teacher, Leslie, is a beautiful person who takes the time to teach me with compassion. I am truly honored, with much humility to be her student and dear brother.

From Leslie

Our Sangha has supported various inmate North Carolina Sanghas for years. For over a decade, the distances kept me from participating more than a few times annually. A few years ago that changed. Daniel, an inmate I knew from a mountain prison, transferred to Piedmont Correctional, about an hour away from me. And Daniel began to build a Sangha. I came only a few times before going to Plum Village to receive Lamp Transmission. When I returned, I was surprised to learn that Daniel had transferred out. But Daniel had started the wheel of practice. Our tiny inmate Sangha now meets every Monday, thanks to Daniel’s initial push, the energy of our practice, and the ongoing support of Chaplain Michael Haynes.

Thirty-nine-year-old Carl has been a Sangha regular since we began. Because he is serving a life sentence and North Carolina has abolished parole, we can expect that he may never be on the outside. Carl has told me that sometimes he wishes he could be outside, so he could visit Plum Village and practice with the Sangha. He also recognizes that his practice is very helpful to people right where he is.

In the years since the Sangha began, Carl’s practice has blossomed. I have seen tension lessen in his face, seen him walking mindfully and peacefully, and heard from those he lives with about how his practice affects others in the prison. One Monday when Chaplain Haynes was out, another staff member oversaw our small group. As we packed away our blankets and inflatable cushions, the staff member commented on how peaceful it had been to sit with us. (He had been across the room, behind a desk, trying to keep his chair from squeaking.) Then, he spoke about Carl, telling me that Carl is a source of peace to other inmates, guards, and staff. He too had seen the strength of Carl’s practice. Other times, I’ve seen Carl listen to Sangha members with a tender heart and respond with words of compassion and understanding. His practice offers a rare and sorely needed balm for troubled hearts.

A regular in our Piedmont Correctional Sangha has asked, more than once, why I come. I have no words to answer, and sometimes tell him, truthfully, that I don’t know. But my heart knows that it’s something like this: I come to the prison every Monday because transformation is possible through these teachings, because everyone matters, and because transformation, like happiness, is not an individual matter.

mb57-TheJoy4Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Enlightenment, is a founding member and the Dharma Teacher for the Charlotte, North Carolina Community of Mindfulness. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh during the 2008-2009 Winter Retreat in Plum Village. She edited the Mindfulness Bell from 1996 to 2001, and currently serves on the magazine’s Advisory Board.

mb57-TheJoy5Carl Dunlap, Boundless Compassionate Heart of the Source, was raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He practices every week with the Extended Charlotte Community of Mindfulness Sangha in Piedmont Correctional Institute. He is the father of two and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

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A Ten Minute Lesson on Self-forgiveness in San Quentin

By Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem)


Now I see why Jesus told the disciples to visit the prisoner. The prisoner lives at the physical locations of human retaliation, at the place where life keeps dissolving into death-making. If we lose contact with this place in our culture, we abandon justice and forgiveness. Side by side, prisoner and free, we are in it together.
— Cynthia Winton-Henry, What the Body Wants

When Jun Hamomoto invited me to visit the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin state prison, I immediately felt drawn to go. On a Sunday afternoon, Jun picked me up and we enjoyed the beautiful drive from Oakland to San Quentin with the sun sparkling on the bay. We arrived at San Quentin and I left in the car any articles that could be a hindrance to getting past the security checks. I brought only a book as a gift for the sitting group, and even then, carefully removed the CD from its back jacket as Jun said it would require special clearance.


At the guard house by the main gate, we handed our IDs to the guard, a big, sturdy, Caucasian man, and signed in. We heard over the intercom that there had just been a stabbing in one area of the prison. Someone later explained it was a fight between Latinos and Caucasians. I asked the guard what the prisoners could use to stab each other.


“Those guys can create a weapon out of just about anything. They take pieces of metal out of their bed and sharpen it to make a blade, filing it down with their plastic cutlery. They file down springs in the bed to make sharp projectiles. They even make spears by wrapping wet newspaper in a cone shape around a sharp metallic head. You wouldn’t believe how creative they are at finding ways to harm.”

I said how important it was to channel that creativity into more constructive areas. The guard looked dubious and replied, “It is probably too late for many of these prisoners, better to start with kids still in school. But that’s why people like you are here. To help them be more positive.”

We asked if we could take a few pictures in front of the sign outside the gate before we entered. The guard came around the gate with us and zoomed in and out, trying several angles to get the perfect shot, first with flash, then without. Then he had us move to the other side of the sign and went through the whole process again. I was touched by his generosity and care because he came across as pretty gruff at first. I guess prison guards have to do that.

Jun asked if we could still go in after the stabbing, and the guard nodded. We walked through the staff parking lot toward the main entrance. I admired the white stucco Spanish architecture of the prison, its outer walls decorated with rows of beautiful blue tiles. The watch tower loomed over the several-story structure.

We signed in and showed IDs a second time to a younger Caucasian guard who stamped neon numbers across our wrists and allowed us to pass through one gate. Then we showed our IDs to a third older Latino guard sitting behind a glass window, and he let us in through the final gate. We entered a beautiful, grassy courtyard. Men were sitting on the ground near a guard station. We signed in yet again and let a pretty African-American woman guard know we were heading toward the Buddhist sitting group.

Jun explained that all the men were sitting on the ground because of the recent stabbing. On an alert, inmates have to sit down wherever they happen to be. (This was also the reason many of the men couldn’t get to the sitting group that night.) The men sitting down were friendly and seemed relaxed, sharing in soft, mellow voices. The two closest to us were African-American, one older, another younger. We exchanged a smile and turned to enter what Jun told me was the Muslim prayer room, which the Buddhist sitting group was allowed to use every Sunday night.

We entered the spacious, rectangular room, in which about fifteen men in bright blue prison uniforms and five visitors sat in meditation. All were on green mats and cushions arranged in a rectangle on the floor. An elder Dharma Teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, Seido Lee deBarros, sat in a chair at the front of the room. Jun led us to our places. I was slightly skittish when I realized I would be sitting right next to an inmate. Young and with a short buzz cut, he looked Asian or Latino. But my nervousness quickly passed. I was really glad to be there.

Dignity and Discipline

I closed my eyes and followed my breathing, allowing my body to settle and feeling my excitement at being in this new and unfamiliar place. I quickly felt a real peace and presence in the room. Except for occasional far-off shouts and the low rumble of men conversing good-naturedly in the courtyard, it was quiet.

After about five minutes, one of the inmates stood and announced, as a guard entered the space, that there had been a recall because of the stabbing. All inmates had to return to their cells. We were a bit stunned. One of the visitors who sits regularly with the group said this had never happened before.

Several men came up to greet me. A forty-something African-American man thanked me for coming and shook my hand. He said he was sorry we couldn’t have our usual two-hour meeting and they were sad to miss hearing my Dharma talk. A tall, twenty- something Caucasian man also thanked me for coming and said they would have liked to share more with me. I shook hands with an elderly Caucasian man who started this sitting group over ten years ago, before anyone from the outside joined the group.

All of them had a clear, bright expression in their eyes. I was moved by their dignity and the discipline in the group. There was a kindness, friendliness, and openness that helped me feel immediately connected. It was also clear from the graceful way they accepted the unexpected interruption of our gathering that they had lots of practice with letting go.

I offered Thay’s book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, to Seidosan as a gift for the whole group. One of the inmates thanked me for it and said they would enjoy reading it.

After leaving, in the warm 7:00 p.m. sun, the five visitors, Jun, and I informally introduced ourselves as we walked back through the two gates and signed out. I reflected in our small group how good it was that we were meditating and cultivating peace around the time of the stabbing. Our energy was helping to balance out the violence and anxiety in another part of the prison.

The Group of Hope

I shared with the other visitors that if we had been able to spend the evening together as planned, I was going to tell the men the story of the Group of Hope, a humanitarian group in Brandvlei, a maximum security prison near Cape Town, South Africa. Visiting them in 2008 was one of the most profound and memorable experiences of my two weeks in southern Africa.

The Group of Hope began in 2002 with the intention to raise awareness about HIV in prison, to help reduce discrimination toward prisoners with HIV. The men wanted to do something for prisoners dying with AIDS, and so they began a garden and grew vegetables for them, visited them in the prison hospital, and sent cards home for them.

The inmates’ care and desire to educate others about the realities of HIV soon led them to sponsor twenty-six HIV-positive orphans, who came to the prison to visit with the men once a month, bringing them lots of love and joy. The Group of Hope threw birthday parties for them, grew vegetables for them, and made them clothes (they raised enough money to buy several sewing machines for this purpose).

When a volunteer introduced them to the first HIV-positive orphan they were to adopt, Thabang, the men asked the prison administration for the clothing in which they had entered the prison. They cut up their own clothes and hand-sewed clothes to fit Thabang. Bonding with him and the other children, they got a taste of fatherhood, and their life in prison began to have much more meaning and purpose.

By 2008, their social work from behind bars had grown exponentially to include making clothes for disabled children and elders, sponsoring orphanages and street children, visiting the sick in the prison hospital and making cards for them, as well as organizing festival events in the prison to commemorate World AIDS Day and to promote awareness of violence against women and children. They even established a memorial outside the prison entrance to honor and house the urns of their program’s AIDS orphans who passed away. The group’s good energy had a powerful effect on other prisoners.

Although the word “prisoner” was printed in small letters all over their bright orange uniforms, I felt it should instead say “free person” because of their great compassion and love. When we are free from hatred and discrimination, we are free people. Many people living “outside” do not look as free to me as the men in the Group of Hope.(2)

I found it very inspiring to listen and share with the Group of Hope. Because of their harmony and kindness, my first visit to a prison was positive and pleasant. Theirs was also the most racially integrated group I encountered on my entire trip in South Africa. While the majority of inmates were black, a number were white and “colored,” an Afrikaans-speaking ethnic group in South Africa, descendants of early Dutch settlers and native Africans. San Quentin’s Buddhadharma Sangha had a similar racial diversity, which I very much appreciated.

I asked the San Quentin visitors to share this story with the men the following week, and they promised to do it. Before we left, one of the women offered us bags of cherry tomatoes still on the vine from her garden. My, were they sweet! We enjoyed their juiciness and vital smell of just-picked freshness. Seidosan said, “Just like the Dharma, sweet in the beginning, the middle, and the end.” We all smiled, enjoying that precious, quiet moment of cherry-tomato-togetherness. I decided to offer some to the guard and slipped back through the gate to hand him a bunch. He was surprised and smiled broadly in thanks—another sweet moment of connection. Back outside the gate, our group kept lingering, not really wanting to part company, perhaps also feeling pulled to be with the inmates. The sun was edging further and further toward the horizon. Finally we offered bows and last words of appreciation for the time together.

Jun and I returned to her car. We drove a few yards down the main street and parked by a small beach. We walked down the wooden steps to the beach and as Jun stood still, calf-deep in the water, I walked back and forth along the length of the small cove, enjoying the waves coming and going. We watched the first stars come out and the lights of the cars dancing over the bridge. It was a beautiful ending to our visit.

For the Whole World

Thay speaks about knowing the taste of the whole pot of soup just by tasting one teaspoon of it. Our very short visit to San Quentin was a spoonful of a delicious, nourishing pot of inmates- who-practice-deeply-and-really-have-a-Sangha soup! I feel lucky to have had even just five minutes together, and to touch their humanity and goodness through the briefest of smiles, handshakes, and words of greeting.

The San Quentin sitting group, like the Group of Hope in South Africa, is a powerful example of self-forgiveness. When we decide to engage in positive, meaningful, transformative action in the present, we are releasing the bonds of the past and affirming that our lives are worth living and living well, to the best of our ability. By taking action now to water what is good in us, we release the wrongdoing committed in the past, not handcuffing ourselves to memories, self-blame, and recrimination, and ensuring that we will do better at avoiding harmful actions in the future. Whenever we water the good seeds in us, the seeds of suffering in us grow weaker all by themselves. For inmates, simply showing up to meditate and practice together is a bold statement of self- appreciation, self-love, and self-care; they are showing up not just for themselves, but also for each other, as friends, brothers, fellow travelers on the path.

Whenever we choose to keep going despite our past wrongs, to connect and deal openly with whatever is in our reality now, with hope and kindness, that is a moment of self-forgiveness. Doing what we can to build connection rather than create distance, to honor ourselves and others rather than to criticize and blame, that is self-forgiveness. These wholesome actions are also ways of forgiving life for the fact that our past wasn’t what we wanted or needed. Every day, we can choose to show up for life just as it is, determined to bring the best of ourselves to it.

Although I was asked to offer the inmates a teaching that Sunday evening, it was really they who gave me the Dharma talk! I am so grateful for such memorable teachings, shining from each inmate simply because they showed up and were truly present. I am thankful for their practice of awakening, moment by moment. What they do in San Quentin is for themselves, but it is also for the whole world.

  1. San Quentin is one of the largest prisons in the S., housing over 5,000 inmates. It is California’s oldest state prison, with the only death row for male inmates in the state. It is also home to the well-respected Buddhist practitioner Jarvis Jay Masters, author of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row and That Bird Has My Wings. Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin prison was founded in 1999 by Seido Lee deBarros and a few inmates. Outside members of the Sangha are affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Community of Mindful Living, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. More information can be found at www.shoresofzen.com/sanquentinzen/
  2. Unfortunately, in 2010, the Group of Hope was shut down for security reasons, but the inmates are trying to start it up The group’s website, www.groupofhope.co.za, is out of date but still functioning, and it shows nice pictures of the men and the orphans they took care of.

Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1999. She is delighted by the ever-increasing avenues to practice and share mindfulness with children and young people, and to bring mindfulness to teachers and schools. She currently lives at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany and is editor of Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Transforming Self, Transforming Society

An Interview with Cheri Maples

mb61-Transform1 Cheri Maples was given the Lamp Transmission in 2008, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked for twenty-five years in the criminal justice system. She was a police officer for twenty years, ending her career as the Captain of Personnel and Training for the Madison Police Department. She was also the head of probation and parole for the State of Wisconsin and an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. She is a licensed attorney and a licensed clinical social worker.

Cheri has learned peace in one’s own heart is a prerequisite to providing true justice and com passion to others. She specializes in translating the language and practice of mindfulness into an understandable framework for criminal justice professionals. Cheri also helps health-care workers, teachers, and employees of social service agencies to manage the emotional effects of their work, while maintaining an open heart and healthy boundaries

Cheri Maples was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 11, 2012, for this special issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share some of the meaningful experiences from your time there?

Cheri Maples: I’ve only been in Plum Village twice—once for a summer retreat in 2002, when I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and again when Thay transmitted the Lamp to me in January of 2008. It seems like yesterday.

When I went on my first retreat with Thay in 1991, it was the beginning of a self-transformation that continues to this day. I wouldn’t have had the kind of career I had as a police officer and as head of probation and parole or as the Assistant Attorney General without Thay’s teachings.

The most significant experience I had at Plum Village was writing Thay a letter about my aspirations and putting that letter in the bell. I was in a challenging place as a police officer at the time, feeling very much on the victim continuum at times and the oppressor continuum at other times. The next day I was sitting in the back of the meditation hall during Thay’s Dharma talk. He spoke about the different faces of love and about fierce compassion and gentle compassion, and the need for wisdom and skillful means to combine them in the job of police officer. I sat in the back with tears streaming down my face. My heart was blown wide open.

Somethig very significant happened that day that affected the way I did things after that.


MB: Did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CM: At that retreat I asked Thay during the question and answer session if he would do a retreat for police officers. He agreed, and the next year we had a retreat for criminal justice and helping professionals in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Just as memorable was receiving the Transmission of the Lamp. Thay said to me that carrying a gun with compassion in one’s heart can be an act of love. He gave me a directive to take mindfulness practice to police officers and criminal justice professionals.

Another highlight was Thay meeting with the police officers at the retreat. When they first arrived, they were so angry that Thay was saying things like, “You can never fight violence with violence.” They asked me, “Cheri, what are we supposed to do when we go to a call and people are beating each other up?”

So Thay met with them for an hour and it was incredible to watch the energy in the room change. At the end of the retreat, the police officers were asked to do a presentation to the community. I’ve never seen police officers so open, sharing what it is like for them. It was a lesson to me in how understanding can be created by just getting people talking to each other.

After the retreat, the sixteen officers from my department who attended held hands and did walking meditation. Sixteen police officers holding hands, creating peaceful steps on the earth together, forming a circle afterwards, and bowing to each other, and hugging each other. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d ever see anything like that.

A couple of weeks later, a friend who had attended the retreat told me: “I saw two of your young officers who had been at the retreat; they were arresting somebody and they very gently put the person in the back of the car, then they turned and bowed to me.” That’s what interbeing has come to mean to me—no separation. No separation between the person bowing and the person who is bowed to, between the person we are arresting and the person we are protecting. Each of us has all the elements in us and we have to take good care of all the elements.

The other experience that has been particularly transformative to me is Thay’s emphasis on practicing mindfulness in daily life. I knew nothing about any of the intellectual concepts or frameworks of Buddhism when I went to that first retreat. Now all of them make sense to me, and I’ve learned them intuitively by practicing. At first my life was so busy, I could only find moments here and there to walk or eat or meditate. I was in law school and raising two young children and working full time and I still found a way to preserve my sanity with the practice. And over the years that just got stronger and stronger.


MB: What does “the Plum Village tradition” mean to you?

CM: I think the strongest part of our tradition that I don’t see in other Buddhist traditions in the same way, is the emphasis on Sangha and community. And also, the emphasis on engaged practice, taking your practice out into the world but being part of the practice organism. What that means to me is to build community wherever I am. To build relationships with all the people I work with and all the people I interact with, not just in the practice Sangha but in the workplace. It means seeing community and interbeing everywhere.

MB: Could you give a couple of specific examples?

CM: Our Sangha has taken on a prison project where several of us teach meditation and mindfulness. We have two people who do prison chaplaincy work and we have a number of people who run circles of support for people coming out into the community. We’ve had a few people released from prison who have become members of our Sangha.

I also travel around the country talking to different agencies in the public and private sectors about how to bring mindfulness to their organization and their daily lives. This includes attorneys, judges, and police and correctional officers, as well as people in social services who work with the families of children who have been neglected and abused. People who see horrible things that many people in society don’t see. People are starting to understand that the employees who experience trauma as the result of the violence they see over and over need help to do their job compassionately.

I also lead unconscious bias workshops as a way of personally committing myself to doing something about the incredible racial disparities in the criminal justice system throughout this country.

The thing that I am most excited about right now is an organization called the Dane County Time Bank, working to change the agreements around money in community through creating a bartering system. Many of the organizations and agencies in Madison (Wisconsin) belong, as well as over two thousand individuals. The philosophy is that one hour of my time is worth one hour of your time, so whether you’re a lawyer or work at McDonald’s, your time is valued the same.

When I spend an hour teaching somebody mindfulness, I get an hour building a website or learning accounting, having electrical work done, having the oil in my car changed. When you see this working in challenged neighborhoods, it creates public safety, because people start to see themselves as part of the community rather than just consumers and critics. Now I’m working to take time banking into a prison in Wisconsin. This is such a great way to transform the underground economy, which is usually based on drugs, to one based on human relational skills. They could provide hospice care for each other, they could tutor each other, they could sit with each other when they’re sick, they could provide legal work for each other. There are so many things that can be done.

MB: It’s moving to hear about this. It sounds revolutionary.

CM: When you start practicing in this tradition deeply, and you begin to see the connections, and you begin to do things from a place of compassion and caring, your heart gets so much more open. It gets really fun.

I’ve been honored to be part of restorative justice days in prisons; they have been phenomenal. When I deal with victims who are only interested in punishing the perpetrator, they don’t heal. But when they start looking for some meaning from the experience, which includes forgiveness and reconciliation, they begin to heal.

MB: How have you been able to be in the midst of violence and all of the emotions that go along with it, while maintaining your own inner peace and being a peacemaker as well?

CM: Fierce compassion means knowing how to set high quality boundaries while continuing to be part of stopping violence. It’s being clear about the intention in my heart. Am I angry at this person and wanting an eye for an eye? Or do I want to protect this person from the karma of their unconscious behavior as well as the people they might hurt? That’s a very different set of values to be armed with.

And it is very difficult and there are times when I feel angry and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the wounded view of my own self, not being attached to that view. And then helping others do that.

When we do unskillful things, it’s often because we’re attached to a wounded self. Victims can develop a sense of entitlement that can be just as dangerous as the oppressor’s abuse of power. We also have to learn to have faith in our Buddha nature and accept our humanity. I encourage people to ask themselves, “When will I be enough? What would make me enough?”

Although I do have the faith that the energy of the universe is always available to me, I also know it is important to take care of myself. I can’t expose myself to violence and suffering every day. I take time to water the seeds of joy and engage in the things that to me are very refreshing and healing.

In order to engage with compassion, which means to have an open heart in response to suffering, one has to have the tools of equanimity or you’ll get lost in anger. I see myself as a drop of water in this ocean of consciousness, that can be relied upon. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my ups and downs, but they don’t scare me anymore. I’m not trying to fence myself off from them.

Everything in life to me is the Dharma; everything is an opportunity to learn something.

MB: How do you water your own seeds of joy?

CM: I bicycle, I boogie board, I go on sailing trips with friends, I go on solo motorcycle camping trips, I spend time with my family and the people that I love. I live in a place that allows me easy access to nature. Meditating to me is a joy. I make sure I take time to go on a couple of personal retreats each year where I’m not teaching but I’m just a member. Sometimes I go on very long personal retreats. I’m a big baseball fan. Baseball waters the seeds of joy for me. To me, it’s a very Buddhist sport because it’s a timeless game and the goal is to come home. Most important, I get my next year’s calendar ahead of time, and I put in all the things I want to do to nourish myself; then all my teaching and work experiences are scheduled around those things, so I make sure that I have time for me.

mb61-Transform4I’m very committed to making sure the most important things for me are not at the mercy of the things that are less important. I try to live consciously in that way. And that has meant renouncing, giving up living in fast forward. I feel like I’ve found that balance of being of service and making sure that I take care of myself. “When I take care of me, I take care of you; when I take care of you, I take and have to sit with it. But I work on finding that balance between compassion and equanimity. Equanimity means transforming the care of me.”

MB: Do you have any advice for people whose lives are stuck on fast forward and don’t know how to transition to a more sane life where they’re taking care of themselves?

CM: To understand that being on fast forward is a choice. It might be an unconscious choice; it certainly was for me. This culture rewards us for striving, for achieving, for being competitive. Here are three pieces of advice: 1) Look at your attachment to a wounded self. Is it there? It doesn’t have to be. 2) Proactively manage your time so that the things that matter the most are not at the mercy of the things that matter the least. 3) Understand that everything you do is a choice. Being exposed to this practice and the tools that allow us to work deeply with our own capacity for freedom is a privilege, so take advantage of it.

MB: Is there anything you would like to add?

CM: I would like to send my love to the entire Order of Interbeing and particularly to Thay and the monastics, who have been so crucial to my self-transformation.

Edited by Barbara Casey 

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