By NED BELLAMY
Perhaps you would be interested in volunteering to help the FCM Prison Dharma Program, but how could you know? Perhaps listening to the voices of a few of our prison sangha brothers and then some FCM volunteers will give you a better idea of the experience of working in the program.
“This week, our two least favorite guards totally tossed my cell again. I don’t even get mad any more. Things are just as they should be: the guards’ causes and conditions lead them to toss my cell. My causes and conditions lead me to put it back together again. At least until their next shift on Tuesday.”
“Because my job is inside cleaning our dorm, I can arrange to sit in formal meditation for a couple of hours every day and read a lot about the Dharma. I live like a monk since I joined the sangha.”
On Easter Sunday after a heavy rain, the sun was shining over a flock of sandhill cranes, the prison gardens, and the lush green courtyard. A long-time practitioner walking beside us said, “Yeah, it is beautiful. And you know what? For the last 20 years, every single morning here has been beautiful.”
A prisoner with a violent past quietly shared his new aspiration. “I want to continue to reduce my anger, bit by bit, so that when I die in here, one person in this whole prison might come to my service to say I was a good man.”
“I have 69 roommates, many with mental health problems, so coming together in our small sangha is literally a refuge. Supported by friends, the sound of the bell brings us all home to the present. I’m encouraged by the teachings that remind me of what is possible for us, even during our stay.”
“Before I was incarcerated, I tried to meditate once, but was so wired, I couldn’t sit still. My levels of stress and vigilance dramatically increased in the chaos of this prison, until I came to Buddhism and meditation. Now, when my surroundings feel the most overwhelming, I’m learning to go inside.”
“I’ve been in foster homes, jails and prisons for 45 years. I was hopeless when two Buddhist teachers began to visit us regularly. They were the very first people who had ever noticed, much less believed in me. Inspired by their practice and teachings, I turned my life around and have been a committed practitioner ever since.”
“Sixty days of solitary is really tough because in this prison, writing and reading material is forbidden. Then, the Chaplain agreed to bring me two Buddhist books. I re-read them many times, and began meditating. I think they saved my life.”
“I’m new in here and facing a 40-year sentence. I have only three tasks: attend to my AA meetings, to my court appeals, and to my Buddhist practice. Period.”
Chris: What could possibly be better than sitting in a small circle sharing the Dharma?
Susan: No way to tell any difference between us. Who’s teaching? Who’s learning? I always leave with some treasure.
Alex: It’s satisfying to help them learn that their last freedom is the attitude with which they meet their day.
Kevin: The ‘guys’ inspire me to practice, and their gratitude for having FCM members share the Dharma with them is palpable.
Kerri and Dan: To share our experience of the teachings requires diligence and focus in our own practice.
Ned: These walled compounds are constant reminders that my old habits and beliefs imprison me in barbed wire of my own making.
Brian: Their deep and rich practice in very difficult circumstances is moving and inspiring.
Thanks to Ned Bellamy, head of the Prison Dharma Program, for this article.