By Carole Melkonian
Reverend Kobutsu, Kevin Malone, is ordained in the Rinzai Zen tradition, and has been teaching meditation in prisons since 1992. The following excerpts are from a conversation with Kobutsu during Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last October.
How did you make the connection between your spiritual practice and prisons?
In 1992 the Vice Abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji, Edio Shimano Roshi’s monastery in upstate New York, asked me to take over a meditation group at Sing-Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. I readily agreed.
What is practice like in the prison?
We begin by cultivating a relationship between the individual prisoner and his community. For example, when a man comes to the prison “zendo,” the first thing we teach him is to bow to the other men in his community. This recognition and respect is the first gift they receive and is so valuable in prison culture. It is very much what Zen training in prison is about.
Before I started coming, the group sat for five minutes of meditation and then had unstructured time. Now, we chant the Heart Sutra and sit in meditation for four 30 minute periods. The “zen do” is open two evenings and one morning each week. We also hold retreats and a basic Buddhism class is taught monthly by a Buddhist nun. We have been recognized by the New York Department of Correctional Services as running a very well-structured program. More importantly, the men are tremendously grateful to have access to Zen practice, and to be able to practice refraining from violence. Those who sit regularly are able to begin to express compassion to their fellow inmates and to corrections officers.
You have been working with people on death row, and you accompanied Jusan Parker to his death in an Arkansas prison. Could you speak about your experiences with people on death row?
On August 8, 1996, Jusan Frankie Parker, my friend and Dharma brother, was executed despite letters from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many other renowned Dharma teachers. During the last six months of Jusan’s life, we worked to gain clemency for him. With the support of thousands of people, we did our best and are without regrets.
I spent the last day of Jusan’s life with him. We held hands and meditated together. I joined him for his last meal, helped him answer letters, and assisted him writing an after death statement which I read at a press conference immediately after his death. We chanted the Three Refuges together as we walked down “the last mile,” a hall lined with officers in riot gear, toward the execution chamber. Our chanting continued as we approached our shrine, a cardboard box covered with a piece of felt on which a Buddha figure sat. We bowed to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Before Jusan entered the death chamber, we did three deep bows to each other. We stopped chanting and I looked directly into his eyes. A single tear glistened as it rolled down his cheek. We embraced, and he whispered in my ear, “I love you, my brother. Thank you so much.” We bowed to each other one more time. This time our foreheads touched. It was the last contact we had. We began chanting the Three Refuges again. The guards ushered me out a side door as Frankie was moved into the death chamber. I saw the waiting hearse and felt totally empty inside. I was brought to the death chamber viewing room where the state witnesses were seated. I continued chanting and watched as he was injected with poison. He died within minutes. His last words were “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”
Since Jusan’s death, I have received many letters from people on death row-some are Buddhist, others are not. I will probably have to watch some of these people die at the hands of the State; that is, at the hands of all of us. I will stand by any person who asks me to, whether a Buddhist or not. All I can do is bear witness and treat those who are executed and the executioners themselves with honesty, dignity, and compassion.
Reverend Kobutsu corresponds with close to a thousand prisoners, including 16 people on death row. To support his work or to receive Gateway Journal, a publication dedicated to the emancipation of the hearts and minds of incarcerated people, please write to The Engaged Zen Foundation, P.O. Box 700, Ramsey, NJ, 07446-0700. All donations are tax deductible.
Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is a nurse in the intensive care unit of a Northern California hospital.
The following is an excerpt of a letter from Jusan
Frankie Parker to Kobutsu while on death row: “Being convicted of killing two people caused me to seek some way of trying to understand my actions. It led me to karma and the karmic winds that blow us through life, winds that we generate ourselves. I am the first person to become a Buddhist priest while incarcerated in the Arkansas prison system. Through contemplative practice I’ve learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I’ve learned the most important tbing a sentient being can learn-how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the State. I’ll die with a smile on my ugly old face . They will not understand, but you’ll know.”
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