A Ten Minute Lesson on Self-forgiveness in San Quentin

By Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem)

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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.

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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.

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“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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Letters

Dear Editor,

I love the magazine and the articles always feed my meditation practice. I have plans to find a center in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition and hopefully stay on the path and deepen my practice. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your generosity by giving us these free subscriptions. I always give my copy to other Buddhists on the compound and then it ends up in the library so future followers may also enjoy your wonderful magazine and develop and deepen their practice as it has done for me. I thank you and send all my blessings.

Gassho,
Robbie Jinson
Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, Florida 

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Dear Thay and dear Sangha,

Thank you for publishing your lifeline to Buddhist practice. The minute I take it from my mailbox I am awakened with joy! In the Autumn 2012 issue, you published a beautiful article by Eveline Beumkes about Sister Chan Khong. Included was an explanation of a “hugging meditation,” which inspired me to begin two more meditations. One is the “bus meditation.” As I enter the bus I breathe in, recognizing the Buddha nature of driver and all passengers. Then I breathe out, sending them respect and love. I continue this on the ride; it completely relaxes the judgment and sadness that enter my mind otherwise. Recently I have had to visit quite a few hospitals to see relatives and friends, and doctors’ offices and labs for my own health. I began to do a “hospital meditation” in them while I entered, rode elevators, walked corridors, or sat in waiting rooms. I breathe in, taking on the fear and pain. As I breathe out, I send every being in my path a white light of healing and peace. There is no room for sadness in my heart as I do this practice over and over. I am so grateful to Thay for this, and for his many years of teaching and practice.

Sincerely,
Linda Lewis
San Diego, California

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Dear Editor,

I just want you to know what a wonderful, nourishing gift the latest issue has been for me. When it arrived last week, I thought, “Oh! They sent me a copy of the last issue. Darn!” Of course, on a closer look, I saw that the articles and pictures of Plum Village were for an entirely new issue! Here’s the good part. As I looked at the pictures and articles, and enjoyed my breath, I had this wonderful experience of actually being transported to Plum Village again, and being in touch with the energies of the wonderful “Science and the Buddha” retreat last summer. As I told my buddy and Sangha cohort Dat, I feel as if Plum Village is my spiritual home. When I’ve needed, I have been able to visualize myself walking to the Upper Hamlet Meditation Hall, and the energy of all that is PV is instantly available and I feel peace.

A Lotus and a Big Smile to You,
Bayard Walker, Immeasurable Treasure of the Heart
From the Land of Hurricane Sandy

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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.

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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.

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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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Free Where I Am

By Patrick Doyle

I’m currently serving my fifth year of a ten-year sentence for armed burglary. I can get out in 2016. When I got arrested in 2007, I was an angry, young, confused gang member looking at a life sentence. I didn’t care about life anymore.

mb61-FreeWhereIAm1I was adopted at age five. Never really bonded with my “parents.” I got arrested for the first time when I was thirteen. Ever since, it’s been a continual battle to stay un-incarcerated. I got married at eighteen; that too didn’t work out. Two daughters later, after a lot of violence and hatred, we separated.

“Failed love,” gang banging, hatred, violence, and revenge were my life. Trust no one because they all want to hurt you. I’ve been stabbed and beat up more times than I can count. And done likewise back, numerous times. I was a ticking time-bomb waiting for an excuse to explode.

Then July 23, 2007 came. I got caught with about eight stolen rifles and some handguns. My co-defendant testified that I did everything. A complete lie, but it didn’t matter because for the state of Florida, I was a habitual felony offender who fell under the Prison Release Reoffender Act and I had committed a life felony.

December 2007, my now ex-girlfriend informed me that I had a son on the way. One DNA test later confirmed she was right. Now the state was not only determining my future, but my son’s as well. I got to see my son (born March 20, 2008) only twice. I wasn’t communicating with his mother or my parents except when I needed money. In January 2010, I decided to file for divorce. So my prison account was hit with a legal claim for $400. I was unable to pay anyone to serve my wife divorce papers.

Now I couldn’t get money, which only made me angrier. When I first came to prison I was a gang member who had rank and was doing drugs, smuggling cell phones onto the compound, selling drugs, and fighting. Now I increased the drug selling and smuggling. December 8, 2010, I got caught with a cell phone. I went into confinement, lost all the good conduct time I had, and got transferred to Controlled Management for six months. I hit rock bottom like a freight train. No money, no stamps, no mail, and unable to use the phone for almost ninety days. I completely crumbled inside.

I finally got to use the phone one day, and when my father picked up the phone, I didn’t know what to say. I asked how things were going. He informed me that he had had a heart attack and two surgeries, and that my mother was in the hospital with a blood infection and no use of her legs. Both were seventy-seven at the time. I was completely shocked, unsure what to do.

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Then one day I found two books on the book cart: The Dham mapada translated by Easwaran, and Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. I was positive that this was the right path I was supposed to walk. With nothing but time on my hands, I started meditating and reading only Dharma books. I made the decision to fulfill any necessary obligations within the gang so I could get out, and did so. I got transferred to my current compound where I immediately covered up my gang tattoos with a lotus, a sun, a moon, the letter Om in Sanskrit, a Buddha, and a Dharma wheel saying “Eight Fold Path” with the Japanese character for karma in the center. I also got a tattoo saying “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Sanskrit. There is only one other Buddhist here at the work camp with me on a compound of three hundred. We just started a meditation session on Wednesdays.

My mother’s been in the hospital for almost nineteen months. She’s seventy-nine years old and her health is currently stable, as is my father’s. Our relationship has changed dramatically. My father, with whom I hadn’t had a full conversation in about six years, talks with me for fifteen minutes every week. We tell each other we love one another, something I never thought would happen. My mother and I write to each other lovingly.

I’m no longer confused, angry, vengeful, or hateful. I practice mindfulness in everything I do. I wake up daily feeling peaceful, happy, and calm. I sit zazen in the morning and at night. During the day I do walking, laughing, and working meditation. I chant Om Mani Padme Hum all day, as well as the Medicine Buddha’s mantra.

I have a future and a purpose in life, and nothing can take that Buddha nature away from me. I have read Thay’s book Be Free Where You Are, and one issue of the Mindfulness Bell. I love children, as does Thay, and I hope upon my release to not only meet Thay, but to visit Plum Village and become an OI member. I can truly say that I am free where I am, and that I have arrived, I am home. I have a great love for Zen and all Buddhist teachings. Thank you, Plum Village, Thay, and the whole Sangha.

Patrick Doyle lives in a correctional institution in Florida. He wrote this letter in response to the questions: When and how did you meet and fall in love with the practice? How have you transformed difficulty into peace amongst your family and loved ones?

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