Prison Sanghas

By Rowan Conrad

Prison is a foreign country with a unique culture. This article attempts to address frequently-asked questions about practice with prison Sanghas. I share from my limited experience-three years practicing with inmates in two different institutions. Every prison has unique elements and my experiences may not match yours. Security levels, state regulations, and views of minority religion differ. Thay has reminded us that the only right view is no view.

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The front gate of a prison is like an international border. Past that portal, assume you don’t know how anything works. Engage beginner’s mind. Please start by asking and listening. “You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”-even if you are in Kansas. Respect the culture, the rules, and the people. You are a guest. Inmates and staff are your teachers. If we teach anything in prison Sanghas, we teach by the example of our own mindfulness, not by proselytizing. The variety and options “inside” are severely limited, so everything expands to fill this space. Little is big, medium is huge, and big is super-jumbo. All actions have meaning and impact, but within prisons, the meaning and impact will be magnified.

Respect that this is the inmates’ Sangha. Give guidance, suggestions, and support, but do not take over the details of the structure, leadership, or program of the Sangha-no matter how extensive and deep your personal experience may be. Inmates have very little control in their lives. Let any naming come fully from them. It is more important that the Sangha is theirs than that it have our ideal structure, process, or teaching. Our purpose is to support them in their own practice, not to impose ours.

Be yourself. Inmates have a lot of time to study people. They can spot phonies at 50 paces. Talk with people; don’t talk “Dharma” at them. Don’t talk down or judge.

Don’t ask about specific offenses. It is rude and invasive. But be prepared to hear about the offenses without judgment if the information is volunteered. My experience is that people do volunteer this information at some point sometimes as a kind of “final exam” to see how I respond.

If you work with opposite sex prisoners, you may be the only non-staff person of the opposite sex they see outside the visiting room. Life in prison can be very lonely. Expect a rich fantasy life to develop around you. Take care to dress down and act with great propriety. Do not allow yourself ever to be alone or out of sight with inmates of the opposite sex. Monastic rules for conduct with members of the opposite sex are good guidelines. Helping build a prison Sangha takes time and commitment. If your Sangha is interested in working with prisoners, realistically consider how much time and energy you’re willing to spend and estimate how long you’ll be able to sustain your commitment. Choose an activity that suits your ability. You can support prisoners by writing letters, sponsoring a meditation group, or visiting. If you can only visit once, don’t try to start a new group. Like any budding  Sangha, a prison Sangha deserves our persistent, dedicated practice.

When you’re ready to start, contact the community affairs office or the chaplain about how to proceed. Most prisons require volunteer training. Most volunteers write to prisoners from a post office box. Even if you trust your correspondent, others may get information from letters by simply looking over a shoulder.

Prisoners leave prison. The transition is exceedingly difficult and often made with little orientation. Most people coming out of prison have few resources and great need. If your Sangha has supported a prison Sangha, consider that upon release, these people may be joining your Sangha. How are you ready and willing to help with the transition? What are your judgments about people who have committed crimes? Violent crimes? Sex crimes? If the people are condemned in the Sangha for past behavior, they will leave. Every resource they lose increases the chance of recidivism. But to completely ignore risks posed by specific individuals is foolish. Be realistic. If you are going into prisons, be ready as a Sangha to deal with “prison Buddhists” who become “community Buddhists.” People in prison are like people out of prison. Some are trustworthy and straightforward; some are devious and manipulative. Don’t vilify prisoners, but don’t be blind either. A good Buddhist motto is “Expect nothing, be ready for anything.”

Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, practices with the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.

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Dharma Talk: New Century Message From Thich Nhat Hanh

Tu Hieu Temple and Plum Village December 7, 1999 

To All Venerable Monks, Nuns, Lay Men And Lay Women Of The Sangha In The Tu Hieu Lineage, Inside And Outside Of Vietnam:

Dear Friends,

The Twentieth Century has been marred by mass violence and enormous bloodshed. With the development of technology, humanity now has the power to “conquer” Nature. We have even begun to intervene in the chemistry of life, adapting it to our own ends. At the same time, despite new and faster ways to communicate, we have become very lonely. Many have no spiritual beliefs. With no spiritual ground, we live only with the desire to satisfy our private pleasures.

We no longer believe in any ideology or faith, and many proclaim that God is dead. Without an ideal and a direction for our lives, we have been uprooted from our spiritual traditions, our ancestors, our family, and our society. Many of us, particularly young people, are heading towards a life of consump­tion and self-destruction.

Ideological wars, AIDS, cancer, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction have become major burdens of this century. At the same time, progress in the fields of electronic and biological technology are creating new powers for mankind. In the 21st century, if humans cannot master themselves, these new powers will lead us and other living beings to mass destruction.

During the 20th century many seeds of wisdom have also sprouted. Science, especially physics and biology, has discovered the nature of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self. The fields of psychology and sociology have discovered much of these same truths. We know that this is, because that is, and this is like this, because that is like that. We know that we will live together or die together, and that without understanding, love is impossible.

From these insights, many positive efforts have recently been made. Many of us have worked to take care of the environment, to care for animals in a compassionate way, to reduce the consumption of meat, to abandon smoking and drinking alcohol, to do social relief work in underdeveloped countries, to campaign for peace and human rights, to promote simple living and consumption of health food, and to learn the practice of Buddhism as an art of living, aimed at transformation and healing. If we are able to recognize these positive developments of wisdom and action, they will become a bright torch of enlightenment, capable of showing mankind the right path to follow in the 21st century. Science and technology can then be reoriented to help build a new way of life moving in the direction of a living insight, as expressed in terms of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self.

If the 20th century was the century of humans conquering Nature, the 21st century should be one in which we conquer the root causes of the suffering in human beings our fears, ego, hatred, greed, etc. If  the 20th century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the 21st century can be character­ized by the insights of interbeing. In the 21st century, humans can live together in true harmony with each other and with nature, as bees live together in their bee hive or as cells live together in the same body, all in a real spirit of democracy and equality. Freedom will no longer be just a kind of liberty for self-destruction, or destruction of the environment, but the kind of freedom that protects us from being over­whelmed and carried away by craving, hatred, and pain.

The art of mindful living expressed in concrete terms, as found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be the way for all of us. The Trainings point us in the right direction for the 21st century. Returning to one’s root spiritual tradition, we can find and restore the equivalent values and insights. This is a most urgent task for us all.

I respectfully propose to all Venerable Monks, Nuns, and Lay people within our Tu Hieu lineage, in Vietnam and outside of Vietnam, to carefully reflect upon the following recommendations, and to contrib­ute some part in helping to create the direction for mankind in the New Century:

1. We should continue to set up monasteries and practice centers. These centers can organize retreats—one day, three days, seven days, twenty-one days, ninety days, etc.—for monastics and for lay people, aimed at developing our capacity for transfor­mation and healing. Activities at these centers should cultivate understanding and compassion and teach the art of Sangha building. Temples and practice centers should embody a true spiritual life, and should be places where young people can get in touch with their spiritual roots. They should be centers where the practice of non-attachment to views according to the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing can be experienced. To cultivate tolerance according to these trainings will prevent our country and mankind from getting caught in future cycles of religious and ideological wars.

2. We should study and practice the Five Mind­fulness Trainings in the context of a family, and establish our family as the basic unit for a larger Sangha. Practicing deep listening and mindful speech, we will create harmony and happiness, and feel rooted in our own family. Each family should set up a home altar for spiritual and blood ancestors. On important days, the entire family should gather to cultivate the awareness and appreciation of their roots and origins, thus deepening their consciousness of these spiritual and blood ancestors. Accepting the stream of ancestors in our own beings, we draw on their strengths and recognize their weakness, in order to transform generations of suffering. Each family should recognize the importance of having one member of their family devote his or her life to the learning and practice of the Dharma, as a monastic or a lay person. The family should invest in, support, and encourage this family member.

3. We should give up our lives of feverish consumption, and transfer all merits of action created by thoughts, speech, and work to the Sangha. Our happiness should arise from understanding, compassion, and harmony, and not from consumption. We should see the happiness of the Sangha as our own happiness.

4. We should invest the time and energy of our daily life in the noble task of Sangha building. We should share material things that can be used collec­tively by the Sangha, such as houses, cars, television, computers, etc. We should give up alcohol, drugs, and smoking. We should learn to live simply, so that we may have more time to live our daily life deeply and with freedom. Living simply, we become capable of touching the wonders of life, of transformation and healing, and of realizing our ideal of compassion in the educational, cultural, spiritual, and social domains of our lives.

The 21st century is a green, beautiful hill with an immense space, having stars, moons, and all wonders of life. Let us climb the hill of the next century, not as separate individuals but as a Sangha.

Let us go together, hand in hand, with our spiritual and blood ancestors, and our children. Let us enjoy the climb together with our songs and our smiles, and allow each step to create freedom and joy and peace.

Wishing you and your Sangha a wonderful century full of faith and happiness,

mb25-dharma1Thich Nhat Hanh
Elder of the Tu Hieu Lineage

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Cultivating Family Practice in the Sangha

By Michele Tedesco

Two years ago, I presented the community at Plum Village a very special vase of flowers.
It took me about fifteen minutes to arrange in front of the community. The whole community was breathing and smiling while I arranged these flowers. But that pot of flowers was quite different from any other pot of flowers I have arranged, because that evening, the flowers that I arranged were children…. Each child is a flower. Adults should remember that children are flowers to be taken care of in order for joy and happiness to last.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

Every time adults practice together, we have an opportunity to present the Sangha with just such a pot of flowers. We may not be as skillful at flower arranging, because the practice is new to us. We may be afraid to handle the blossoms for fear they are too delicate or the bright colors may offend some community members. We are afraid the vase may tip and fall loudly, causing some to lose their mindfulness momentarily. We are afraid of discord in the Sangha. As with any new skill, we must overcome fear of failure to make the first attempts. Be mindful, be diligent, and we will learn to be skillful flower arrangers.

My husband and I are fortunate that our Sangha supports our learning to arrange our beautiful flowers—Christopher (15), Giovanni (7), and Gabriela (5)—in front of them on a regular basis. Indeed, over the past two years, the Sangha has encouraged us. Many have seized the opportunity to practice with our children. Because of this, our family, our practice, and our Sangha have reaped many rewards. As a family we are able to practice together and feel the support and love of our community. Our Sangha benefits by having the vibrancy of youth to inspire us, and provide other ways to practice.

Even within my beautiful Sangha, however, some parents do not include their children in our community practice. There is nothing unique that makes our children more accessible to the practice. My children are valued immensely, but they are the only children who attend functions regularly. I know this must be true of other Sanghas as well. I have spent much time and energy trying to figure out why, so that I would be able to help people understand that children and Sangha practice can go together—even if it is a little messy sometimes. So this past spring, I decided that instead of bringing the children to the Sangha, I would bring the Sangha to the children! In May, we had our first Kid’s Mini Day of Mindfulness.

The day was a great success. Not because everything happened perfectly—of course, it didn’t—but because it simply happened). Ten children, from one to fifteen-years-old, attended with at least one parent. Most wonderful of all, five members of our Sangha who do not have children participated, by taking on activities through the day or by simply leading around a restless one-year-old—a beautiful contribution of support for the mother. Here is our schedule:

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During orientation I explained the symbolism of the Buddha statue on our small altar. Some parents and children knew very little about Buddhism; some practice another religion as their spiritual foundation. To alleviate any discomfort they might feel, we made it very clear that the statue was not the Buddha, but a symbol of his wisdom and enlightenment. I explained that we show respect to these qualities, and to this potential within ourselves when we bow. Also, we oriented the children to the bell and used it as a gathering sound.

The mindful games, led by one of our “less young” Sangha members, consisted of carrying beans in a small spoon from one pot to another. If they spilled, you had to start over. In another game, the children held the edges of a parachute and tried to keep balls rolling on it. In both games, the children discovered that the slower they went and the more they concentrated, the more successful they were. In the Dharma Talk, we talked about their experiences in the games, as applied to the idea of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness was our theme for the day and the games gave the children direct experience of its benefits. We also discussed how to be mindful with parents, siblings, and friends. Even the youngest children understood these experiences of mindfulness.

During story time, another less young Sangha member read some of the Jataka tales. Then, one of the mothers taught the song, “Breathing In, Breathing Out.” The children also drew pictures of some of the concepts in the song: mountains, flowers, water, space. While the children were doing this, I threw in a parent discussion group, almost as an afterthought. The parents’ discussion turned out to be a wonderful, nurturing experience. We asked questions and shared experiences. We opened by reading and discussing a longer version of the quote at the beginning of this article. Most importantly, I wanted to give the parents some simple, useful, practice tools. First, I encouraged the parents and children to use the bell when emotions are high, to bring the family back to its breath. Another tool I find very effective is using the word “mindful” with children, for example, “Susie, was it mindful to yell at your brother?” Finally, I gave the parents copies of The Five Contemplations, a sort of Buddhist meal prayer. Reciting the contemplations, announced by a bell, before a meal can add meaning and closeness to this daily family activity.

During lunch, we introduced the practice of the contemplations. The bell was invited. The contemplations were recited. Then, there was another bell and we took a few breaths before we ate. To deepen the practice of mindful eating, I asked the children to take one bite of their food and chew it ten times, counting their chews. During the meal we invited the bell a few more times to remind them to count their chews.

Meditation was presented to the parents and children as simply quieting your body and mind. We practiced bell meditation. Everyone closed their eyes and listened to the beautiful sound of the bell. When they couldn’t hear the sound any longer, they raised their hands. All the children enjoyed a turn at inviting the bell, especially the one-year-old who invited it several times. At first, I thought it was a mistake to put meditation after free play when energies are at their peak. It did take a few minutes to settle down, but this was good training for the children. After all, mindfulness is most useful when things get crazy.

The last activity was art. Toni Carlucci, an art teacher whom we are fortunate to have as a Sangha member, is discovering wonderful ways to cultivate mindfulness through art. First, she showed the children some seeds and seedlings. Then they went around the property where we were, and looked at all the plants and flowers. Toni spoke to the children about how, through looking deeply and mindfully, they could see that the earth, rain, and sun are in the plants. Then, they made a three-paneled drawing with the seeds in the ground, a seedling, and a plant in full flower with the earth, sun and rain in each panel.

In the closing circle, we came together one last time. We looked at the art projects, and the children sang their new song. Each child was encouraged to say something. The point was to hear everyone’s voice even if the only thing they had to say was, “I don’t have anything to say.”

We had a full day. Yet everyone—parents, children, and other Sangha members—came away with a deepened sense of mindfulness for themselves and their families. In other words, children’s and family practice works!

I encourage every Sangha with families and children to plan some special time like this, even if you only have one or two children. Don’t worry. If you start this practice, they will come. It is easier than you think. You may be surprised by the talents and energy your Sangha members bring to this project. Don’t expect the kids to practice like adults. This is a different kind of day. Instead of Noble Silence, encourage the practice of Noble Not-So-Loud. Be prepared to abandon a plan if it is not working with your group. Be flexible. If four hours are more than you can handle, try two hours. Have parents and children practice together as much as possible through the day, especially during the Dharma Talk, the meal, and meditation. It is important that parents and children are on the same page in the practice, so it continues at home.

Deepening family practice in your Sangha will add a new and vital energy to the Sangha as a whole. As your spiritual community broadens itself in this way, its strength will grow, making a deeper well from which all members can drink.

Michele Tedesco and her family practice with The Breathing Heart Sangha, in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. She is interested in creating materials and rough guidelines for developing family practice. If you would like to help, please write Michele at 207 St. Martins Lane, Mableton, GA 30126, USA; e-mail: wholeideas@mindspring.com

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