By Calvin Malone In 1994, hundreds of inmates were transferred to Airway Heights Correction Center, a new minimum security prison near Spokane, Washington. When one inmate jokingly said, ''I'm a Buddhist," the chaplain undertook to locate an outside group to sit with interested inmates. He found the Padma Ling Center with two lamas who now sit with us weekly. Rowan Comad of the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana also visits regularly to lead mindfulness retreats and support our practice. Despite the tremendous obstacles inherent in prison life, our Sangha has grown to nearly 70.
Here, we are allowed only one meal a year that is not prison food. In the past two years, our Sangha has enjoyed these meals by hosting Buddhist celebrations. Our first event was The Freedom Celebration in 1996. Thirty-one Buddhist inmates and 17 outside guests enjoyed food, community, and teachings. In September 1997, 53 Buddhist inmates and 21 guests attended our Friends of Peace Festival.
The cost of these events is a serious consideration. Seventy-five percent of our Sangha members have no income, 5% earn minimum wage, and 20% earn $1 or less per hour. Some Sangha members felt our money was better spent helping to ease suffering. Others felt that once a year we could spend a bit to ease our own suffering. After much debate, we have decided to use our annual event to raise funds for outside Buddhist groups.
On September 19, 1998, we held our third annual event. With the funds raised, we plan to sponsor the education of a child in Nepal, and contribute to three groups: The Free Tibet Project which supports the work of the Dalai Lama; the Engaged Zen Foundation which works with inmates; and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Community of Mindful Living's efforts to rebuild and support monasteries in Vietnam. From this practice of compassion, our name was born-The Gateless Sangha.
Through mindfulness, we are learning if one life is abused, we are all abused, and if one life is enriched, we are all enriched. Our efforts to support others have inspired and enriched our lives. We sincerely hope we inspire others as well.
Calvin Malone, 702364 MB28L, is an inmate at AHCC, P.O. Box 2049, Airway Heights, WA, 99001-2049