Inmates and Outmates

By Bob Repoley For the past few years, practitioners from several North Carolina Sanghas have practiced mindfulness and meditation with inmates in the state prisons. North Carolina is a conservative state and Buddhists are often viewed as strange. For example, one prison officer called us "Voodists" and was convinced Jesus would want her to stay away from us. Still, we have established four prison Sanghas in three facilities, reaching more than 50 inmates each month-from teenagers to older adults. Meetings typically include sitting meditation and discussion about teachings and practice. One chaplain we work with featured the Five Mindfulness Trainings in his monthly newsletter. Another allows the Sangha in his prison to meet weekly. We hope to establish a women's prison group soon.

Three factors contribute to our success: local Sanghas, volunteers, and prison Sanghas. Local Sanghas are generous with time and resources. While not all members visit, many help with loving encouragement or donations for literature and supplies. Sangha discussions help shape the programs and discussions within the prisons.

In our state, most inmates can meet only when volunteers come. The prisons are spread across the state, some in remote areas. Volunteers travel thousands of miles to be with the inmates, to attend annual training required by the state, and to meet for planning and support. Their compassion and dedication is critical.

Prison Sanghas are the third factor in the success. While volunteers may have more meditation experience than most inmates, practicing together emiches us all. When things go wrong, the prison Sangha's strength often pulls us through. Recently, in a prison hostile to our presence, the Sangha was bumped from the comfortable chapel, where we had met for a long time, to a hot, noisy room. We volunteers saw the move developing before our visit and were angry over being harassed yet again by the administration. With the inmates, we looked at the seeds of our anger, then chose to water seeds of lovingkindness towards everyone involved. We realized that wherever we met, the group was sacred to us.

Nine months after our encounter with the officer who called us "Voodists," I ran into her again at the front gate. As I signed in, she called the control room to say I had arrived. "Here comes another one," she said with a straight face. I smiled and said to her, "Yes, here comes another one." We both laughed. A few minutes later, she stopped me on my way in and looked me right in the eyes. "Teach them something good today," she said seriously. "I'll do my best," I replied. We both smiled and I entered the prison.

Bob Repoley, Compassion of the Source, practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina.

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Reverence for Life

By Bill Menza Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful meditation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war. - The Twelfth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing 

Violence begets violence. When we practice the Twelfth Mindfulness Training, or the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we undertake to cultivate reverence for life and to seek ways to end violence. But we often overlook official violence against criminal offenders. After studying the death penalty for over 18 years, I have reached some very sad conclusions about our treatment of prisoners, particularly those on death row.

Many prisons are violent places not so much because of the prisoners, but because of politicians, judges, and prison officials. In the name of being tough on crime and exacting vengeance, politicians and judges punish and kill offenders without mercy, and often without regard for the damage their actions inflict on individuals and society. Prison officials' duty to care for plisoners has been replaced by a falsely-perceived duty to punish. That a prison sentence itself was the punishment directed by the court is not considered sufficient. In many prisons, inmates are routinely threatened, beaten, shot, chained, hog-tied, electrically shocked, and denied food, mail, and medical treatment. Many are fed foul-smelling nutraloafs, a baked mixture of various foods. Instead of receiving psychiatric care, agitated prisoners are held for hours or days in the "devil's chair" that prevents all movement. A bucket under the chair collects their excrement.

Supermaxs and control unit prisons are now common. Supermaxs are usually reserved for violent offenders or troublemakers. In them, prisoners may endure solitary confinement for years or a lifetime. Control units are like supermaxs, but worse. They are sensory deprivation prisons constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, based on studies of the Nazi prison system and North Korea POW brainwashing techniques. In these units there is strict solitary confinement, and all out-of-cell contact is restricted. Prisoners are monitored by video cameras 24 hours a day. These prisons are designed to punish prisoners and make them compliant. They are reserved for violent or unrepentant criminal-political prisoners. Complete mental breakdown from being in a supermax or control unit prison is not unusual.

In these units, offenders are also denied contact with the sky, the trees, and Mother Earth- all in the name of "prison security." In Virginia, when prison officials for a supermax under construction realized prisoners would be able to see the forest and birds through their windows, they had the windows frosted. When Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch, asked Virginia Director of Prisons Ron Angelone about rehabilitation services at the Virginia Red Onion Supermax, he replied: "What are they going to be rehabilitated for? To die gracefully in prison? Let's face it; they're here to die."

The public, too, has constructed a wall of silent disinterest against criminals. Some people support the brutality and cruelty of prison in their delusion of vengeful self-protection. Because we are afraid of the violence in our society, we fail to see that the damage we do to these people damages all of society for generations to come. Our own neighbors accused and convicted of crimes have become our common enemy. We seem to think prisoners must be punished as severely as possible, or disposed of. Too often, they are treated as vermin to be exterminated or buried alive in concrete boxes.

In the end, we all suffer from this abuse. Violence and killing teach violence and killing, and the pain and suffering of this violence has no boundaries in space or time. A criminal offense affects crime victims and perpetrators, their families, and our communities; so does this official violence and killing. Aware of the nature of interbeing, we may see clearly the costs to all of us of this official violence. To maintain a prisoner killing program and to keep offenders who are no threat to others in prison for long periods has financial, emotional, moral, and spiritual costs. The current tough-on-crime mentality creates communities devoid of mercy and compassion, where we practice mindlessness and heartlessness.

We must look deeply with our Sanghas to discover ways to protect life and cultivate compassion. To help practice not killing, you might want to learn more about the death penalty and prisons, or write to political leaders and newspaper editors with the kind of letters that help them wake up from the delusion of violence, from the delusion that "might makes right." You might want to write plisoners who are waiting to be killed about the teachings on no-birth, no-death. Or consider working with groups that are trying to prevent and curb official violence. As written in The Dhammapada, "Animosity does not eradicate animosity. Only by lovingkindness is animosity dissolved. This law is ancient and eternal."

Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community, Amnesty International, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Virginia CURE, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He writes to prisoners,  particularly those about to be executed by Virginia officials.

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You Can Use a Knife to Kill or You Can Use a Knife to Chop Vegetables

An Israeli Soldier Asks About the Use of Force

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Question: I am from the Israeli-Palestinian group. I want to ask about force. I am in the Israeli army. At times we need to use force to prevent an act that will cause suffering, and yet that force causes suffering to another person. My question is, can force be used? And if I don't understand, I want permission to ask again.

Thich Nhat Hanh: If you have understanding and compassion in yourself, then what we call force, what we call military force, may help to prevent something, to achieve something. But that shouldn't prevent us from seeing that there are other kinds of force that may be even more powerful. We don't know how to recognize and make use of them so we have the tendency to resort to military force. There is also the spiritual force and the force of education. These forces are much safer to use. Because we have not been trained to use these forces, we only think of using military force.

Suppose there are two people, both of them full of anger, misunderstanding and hatred. How can these two people talk to each other, even if they are negotiating for peace? That is the main problem - you cannot bring people together to sit around a table and discuss peace if there is no peace inside of them. You have to first help them to calm down and begin to see clearly that we ourselves, as well as the other people, suffer. We should have compassion for ourselves as well as for them and their children. This is possible. As human beings we have suffered. And we have the capacity to understand the suffering of other people.

The Force of Education

The spiritual and educational dimensions can be very powerful, and we should use them as instruments, as tools for peace. Suppose you live in a quarter where dozens of Palestinians live peacefully with Israelis. You don't have any problems. You share the same environment, you can go shopping in the same place, you can ride on the same bus. You don't see your differences as obstacles but in fact, as enriching. You are an Israeli and she is a Palestinian and you meet each other in the marketplace and you smile to each other. How beautiful, how wonderful that is. You help her and she helps you. Other Palestinians and Israelis should see that image. If you are a writer you can bring that image to many people outside of your group. If you are a filmmaker, why don't you offer the image of peaceful co-existence to the world? You can televise it to demonstrate that it is possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live peacefully and happily together. That is the work of education. There are a lot of people in the mass media who are ready to help you to bring that image, that message to the world. That is very powerful, more powerful than a bomb, a rocket or a gun, and that makes people believe that peace is possible.

If you have enough energy of understanding and peace inside of you, then this kind of educational work can be very powerful, and you won't have to think of only using the army and guns anymore. If the army knows how to practice, it will know how to act in such a way so as not to cause harm. The army can rescue people; the army can guarantee peace and order. It is like a knife. You can use a knife to kill or you can use a knife to chop vegetables. It is possible for soldiers to practice non-violence and understanding. We don't exclude them from our practice, from our Sangha. We don't say, "You are a soldier, you cannot come into our meditation hall." In fact, you need to come into the meditation hall in order to know how to better use the army. So, please don't limit your question. Make your question broad - embrace the whole situation, because everything is linked to everything else.

 The Spiritual Force

There are many things we can do today to extend our understanding, compassion and peace; because every bit of it is useful, is gold. When you take a step, if you can enjoy that step, if your step can bring you more stability and freedom, then you are serving the world. It is with that kind of peace and stability that you can serve. If you don't have the qualities of stability, peace and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about doing something, it's about being peace, being hope, and being solid. Every action will come from that foundation, because peace, stability and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action.

That is the spiritual dimension of our reality. We need that spiritual dimension to rescue us so that we don't only think in terms of military force as a means to solve the problem and uproot terrorism. How can you uproot terrorism with military force? The military doesn't know where terrorism is. They cannot locate terrorism - it is in the heart. The more military force you use, the more terrorists you create, in your own country and in other countries as well.

The basic issue is our practice of peace, our practice of looking deeply. First of all, we need to allow ourselves to calm down. Without tranquility and serenity, our emotions, our anger and our despair will not go away. And we will not be able to look and see the nature of reality. Calming down, becoming serene is the first step of meditation. The second step is to look deeply, to understand. Out of understanding comes compassion. And from this foundation of understanding and compassion you will be able to see what you can do and what you should refrain from doing. That is spoken in terms of meditation. In that respect, everyone has to practice meditation - the politicians, the military, and the businesspeople. All of us have to practice calming down and looking deeply. You have our support.

Follow up question: We have to pray and work for a whole lifetime to clear ourselves and purify ourselves of anger and to develop compassion for those who fly and succeed in hurting us and causing suffering. There is not a lifetime in Plum Village; there are two weeks. There is a whole lifetime in Israel to meditate. But during that time there are situations in which I see someone who is committing an act of force, and the only way I can stop him is not through education or meditation, because those are processes that take a long, long time, but through force.

At times the act of force that will stop somebody. from killing, hurting or wounding so manypeople is done through anger or hatred and without compassion. We do not always have time to have compassion for that person. But I feel that even though I am still not pure, it is an act that I have to do because I have to protect my people. If a terrorist walks into arestaurant with a bomb on him and I can stop him, the military can stop him, but it is only by killing him; I don't have time to have compassion. It could be an act of hate and angerto shoot him, but it will stop him from blowing up that restaurant with women and children and people who are my people. This is my question.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Of course it is very difficult to not get angry when they are killing your wife, your husband or your children. It is very difficult to not get angry. That person is acting out of anger, and we are retaliating also out of anger. So there is not much difference between the two of us. That is the first element.

The second element is - why do we have to wait until the situation presents itself to us as an emergency before we act, dealing only with the immediate circumstance? Our tendency is to not do anything until the worst happens. While we have the time, we do not know how to use that time to practice peace and prevent war. We just allow ourselves to be lost in forgetfulness, indulging in sense pleasures. We do not do the things that have the power to prevent such emergency situation from happening.

The third element is that when things like this happen, it is because there is a deep-seated cause, not only in the present moment but also in the past. This is, because that is. Nothing happens like that without a cause. You kill me, I kill you. But the fact that you are killing me and I am killing you back has its roots in the past and will have an effect on the future. In the past our fathers and our grandfathers may not have been very mindful and may have said things, may have done things that have sown seeds of war. And their grandfathers also said things and did things, planting seeds of war. And now our generation has a choice. Do we want to do better than our grandfathers or do we want to repeat exactly what they did? That is the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Of course in a situation of great emergency you have to do everything you can to prevent killing. And yet, there are ways to do it that will cause less harm. If you have some compassion and understanding, the way you do it can be very different. Bring the dimension of the human heart into it; help the military strategists to have a human heart. It's the least we can do. Do we teach the military to conduct a military operation with a human heart? Is that a reality in the army, in military schools? They teach us how to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible, but do they teach us how to kill someone with compassion?

Making progress on the path of Compassion

In one of his past lives it seems that the Buddha was a passenger on a boat that was overtaken by pirates, and he killed one of them while trying to protect the people on the boat. But that is an earlier life of the Buddha. If the true Buddha were there he may have had other means; he may have had enough wisdom to find a better way so that the life of the pirate could have been spared. Because life after life, the Buddha made progress. You are the afterlife of your grandfather; you must have learned something over the past three generations. If you don't have more compassion and understanding than he did, then you are not a proper continuation of your grandfather. With compassion and understanding we can do better, we can cause less harm and create more peace.

We cannot expect to achieve 100% peace right away - our degree of understanding and love is not yet deep enough. But in every situation, urgent or not, the elements of understanding and compassion can play a role. When a gangster is trying to beat and kill, of course you have to lock him up so he will not cause more harm. But you can lock him up angrily, with a lot of hate, or you can lock him up with compassion and with the idea that we should do something to help him. In that case, prison becomes a place to love and to help. You have to teach the prison guards how to look at the prisoners with compassionate eyes. Teach them how to treat the prisoners with tenderness so they will suffer less in prison, so we can better help them. I don 't know whether we train our prison guards that way. Do we train them to look at prisoners with eyes of compassion? A prisoner has killed; a prisoner has destroyed. Maybe he was raised in such a way that killing and destruction were natural for him, and so he is a victim of society, of his education. If you look and see in that way, then you have compassion, understanding, and you will treat your prisoner with more gentleness. That helps him and that helps you. You can help him to become another person, and help yourself to be happy because you are capable of helping people in difficulty. That is the principle.

Cultivating a broad perspective

We should not talk only in terms of short-term action. Again, we have to look with the eyes of the Buddha. Our Dharma discussions are for that, for having a broad look and not just concentrating on the immediacy of the problem. Our lives are for that, and the lives of our children will be for that, because we are a continuation of each other. We build synagogues and mosques in order to have a place to sit down and do that - to look deeply, so that our actions will not only be motivated by desire, greed or anger. We have a chance to sit in the mosque or synagogue for a long time, and we can witness the growth of our compassion and understanding. And out there we will know how to act in a better way, for the cause of peace.

As a soldier you can be compassionate. You can be loving and your gun can be helpful. At times you may not have to use your gun. It is li ke a knife that is used to cut vegetables. You can be a Bodhisattva as a soldier or as a commander-in-chief of the army. The question is whether you have understanding and compassion in your heart. That is the question.

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A Day of Mindfulness at San Quentin

By Caleb Cushing mb52-ADay2

A decade ago, on the infamous exercise yard of San Quentin State Prison, an inmate sat upright by himself along the fence. A few close friends approached and asked what he was doing. He said he was practicing Zen meditation, and they sat down with him. All of them were older inmates, “lifers” who were serving long sentences, all veterans of the war in Vietnam. Eventually, under the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), they established a congregation fully recognized by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Now, for two hours every Sunday evening, as many as thirty inmates gather in a well-heated classroom to practice as the Buddhadharma Sangha. In the prison industries workshops, they’ve expertly crafted an altar, cushions, pads, and benches, and on the chalk-tray of the blackboard, they set a framed calligraphy by Thay — The kingdom is now or never.


The SFZC facilitators regularly ask the men to prepare talks that focus on their practice and then to respond to follow-up questions from the Sangha. Many of the men are mature, insightful practitioners. When the SFZC officials are unable to attend, they sometimes ask members of the Community of Mindful Living [Editor’s note: Sanghas in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh] to facilitate. They appreciate our being there; their practice brings us joy and inspiration as well. The men like our practices of listening to the big bell, mindful eating, and especially Dharma discussion. For the Dharma talks, we ask the men to suggest topics in advance, and we invite an inmate to give the talk alongside us.

They have a library with several books by Thay. After we had showed up with some regularity, the inmates said they were interested in learning some of our practices, so we arranged an extended period of practice — a Day of Mindfulness at San Quentin. We provided homemade picnic lunches for everyone, and some said it was the first time in years that they had fresh raw vegetables.

Two guests and two inmates gave a joint Dharma talk about using mindfulness to deal with anger, and then took questions from the Sangha. One of the inmates who spoke on that panel, Michael Gallardo, wrote an article for the San Quentin News about the Day of Mindfulness:

On Monday, February 16, 2009, amidst heavy rain and strong wind, the fifth annual Day of Mindfulness was held in the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Inside the fifty-by-twenty-foot room located at the Garden Chapel area on the prison grounds, fourteen inmates and fourteen visitors from the Community of Mindful Living of Northern California celebrated the day with sitting meditation, walking meditation, and Dharma talks....

The group shared a mindful lunch together, eating in silence, while sitting on chairs, zafu (sitting cushions) and zabuton (meditation mats). Inmate Lindsey, from the prison Sangha, solemnly walked to the altar, offered the Buddha a portion of his lunch and later said to the group, “I am completely overwhelmed. Today is a very beautiful day.”

Mindful living, the practice of complete awareness, is based on the teaching of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who has founded several Mindful Living communities located around the world.

“Mindfulness gives us the tools to live our lives in peace in the midst of prison chaos,” inmate Russo said about the practice. “Although this event was a Buddhist Religious program, the cornerstone of our practice has always been ‘we are here for anyone, of any belief’,” Russo added.

Most of the visitors are involved in mindfulness and meditation programs in various jails, prisons, or community centers in Northern California. They are proactive in their practice, which radiates into the community.

The Buddhadharma Sangha was established almost ten years ago. Five inmates spent a year, rain or shine, sitting in meditation on the lower-yard. On September 5, 1999, in the midst of a partial lockdown in the prison, the Sangha held its first service with Zen priest Roshi Seido Lee de Barros, from Green Gulch Farm in Marin County.

The prison Sangha, with volunteers from San Francisco Zen Center, Berkeley Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm, and about thirty inmates, meet on Sunday evenings, practicing and studying the Buddha’s teachings in the Soto Zen tradition. It also offers, from its library, a wide selection of books on all Buddhist  traditions....

At the end of the day, as the rain and gusty wind momentarily subsided, the group gathered in a circle and shared a song together amid tears and the feeling of gratitude experienced throughout the day. “I fully understand now why you all come here,” said inmate Thao, on his second day with the Sangha, as he walked back to the housing units.

It was wonderful day for all of us, because we all have so much to learn.

Caleb Cushing, True Original Commitment, practices with the Pot Luck Sangha and the Open Door Sangha in the East Bay Area of  Northern California.


According to the Lionheart Foundation, the U.S. criminalizes and imprisons more people than any other country in the world. It has over 2 million people in prisons, six to ten times as many as any other nation. Three-quarters of these prisoners have a history of drug or alcohol abuse and one-sixth have a history of mental illness. One out of every three black men between the ages of 20 to 29 are in prison or on probation. In the last twenty years more than 1,000 new prisons have been built.

Abbott Kinloch Walpole of the Gateless Gate Zen Center in Gainesville, Florida says the prison-industrial complex is a “confluence of interests,” which depends on a steady supply of prisoners from which money and property can be harvested. Politicians and judges to be “electorally viable” must help supply prisoners. Not only their jobs but the jobs of many judicial, police, and prison officials depend on having lots of prisoners. In Florida there is nothing for prisoners to do in prison but to take psychotropic pills to deal with their brutal situation. He says if you want to know what prison does to prisoners read holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Many Sangha sisters and brothers are writing to prisoners. Others are facilitating prison meditation and Dharma courses. Other practitioners are working to prevent the executions of prisoners and the daily abuses inflicted on them, or to change draconian penal policies and practices through human rights organizations. “Restorative justice” programs are being established where criminals, crime victims, and communities work together to heal the damage caused by an offender. Others are working on “re-entry” policies and programs to help prisoners when they are released. While others are helping the families of prisoners, particularly their children; or working to prevent young people from going to prison. There are also efforts to educate and inform the public and community leaders about hellish prison conditions, a need to end the criminalization of the poor and minorities for behaviors that are not crimes, and the destructive results of the prisonindustrial complex.

Many Sanghas do excellent work with prisoners in their communities and only a few are listed here. At the forefront of Buddhist efforts, two organizations stand out: the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Prison Program and the Prison Dharma Network (PDN).

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