Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Article Recommendation: Prison Dharma on the Edge

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the plight of a prisoner named William "Red" Graham and his teacher, Ven. Kobutsu Malone, who has recently written a guide for serious dharma students involving Buddhism and prisons. Red's plight was that (still) seemingly bogus reasons had been fabricated to deny him access to this book. Now, Kobutsu Malone has written an article on prison dharma for the Buddhist Channel - what is prison dharma all about and what and what is the point? What lessons can those working in prisons learn about their own nature and presumptions? This is a rare essay on Buddhism which is real, practical, and insightful to a striking degree. Some selected highlights:

Going into the prisons offers us an opportunity to critically examine our familiar free-world social structures in ways that we may never have before considered. It presents situations that call for us to look at psychology from a unique perspective not called for elsewhere. If we work with prisoners long enough, we begin to fathom the depth of the pain they endure; we see and acknowledge the suffering they manifest in response to their pain. We are not so different-in time, we see their situation as intimately intertwined with our own predicament...

The penetration of these everyday world perceptions might not even be noticed as Dharma activity. Do we relegate Dharma activity to just religious matters taking place in a temple, a monastery, a training center, or our personal sitting practice? Have we become disconsciously "exclusive" about practice? Is prison Dharma limited to providing Dharma instruction to prisoners? If prison Dharma is limited to creating sitting groups in prisons, all the while believing that our function is to provide something better to people than what they have-is this not power-over, downright arrogance? Doesn't "all beings" mean all beings, not just practicing Buddhist beings? What is our scope as Buddhists...?

Have we been coerced through social oppression to peddle prison Dharma as a practice of benevolence and compliance? Or can we entertain the possibility of a prison Dharma imparting empowerment to prisoners and actively addressing the coercive and oppressive prison environment? Even more to the point: Can we even access the empowerment of practice in our own lives? Ha! Might Zen training serve as a basis for prisoners organizing to bring about systemic change from within? Dare we even consider that all the Zen training we may have provided in a maximum-security prison has led to more highly skilled thieves, robbers, and murders? Could all this patience that the prisoner has developed through zazen be applied to running a prison contraband ring or a sexual slavery operation? If we are at all concerned with any notion of "results" through prison Dharma, we are in the midst of water, crying out in thirst...

If you have any interest in the plight of prisoners, the suffering of others, or Buddhism in general, I heartily recommend this article.

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