Prison Dharma

About this section:
Imagine trying to generate even the slightest bodhicitta -- the intention to become fully enlightened in order to benefit all sentient beings most effectively -- in a prison environment. It's similar to generating compassion in hell! Although we are all prisoners of our negative karma, negative emotions, and disturbing attitudes, we still have this precious human life. Nothing can ever take away our Buddha potential. Ven. Chodron and the prisoners with whom she corresponds offer practitioners insights into how they can benefit themselves and others in even the most difficult situations.




Karma allows us to say everything that is happening to us is our own responsibility—good or bad, we did it to ourselves. That’s hard for some people I’ve found out. The benefit of it is enormous, though, because it gives us the ability to say, “I don’t like what I’m going through; therefore I’ll change my actions so I get the result that I want.” That’s a lot of control over the one thing we can actually control, and it changes our whole life, environment, and world.



You asked for my ideas on how to use the Dharma to retrain the mind in correct views and beneficial emotions and what meditations help that. First—and this is the biggest one—for me the most beneficial practice is showing up—to sit there and know there are a million other things that I’d rather be doing, but instead I’m showing up.





by Ken Seyfert ©


Two or three years ago, I made a decision to help other people since I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. Basically my question was, “Since we’re born, produce waste, and die, what’s the point?” I decided that the point was to try to improve the world, to make it better than how I found it. I decided that helping others was the quickest means to achieve this. But then this month happened.

There is a study group that I meet with, and lately I had been getting harsher with them, but I hadn’t noticed. What I did notice was my aggravation about very little things after our meetings. As I grew more and more spiteful, I finally noticed it. Initially I brushed it off as frustration and moved on, but then I was still getting angry at really petty things. So I knew something was wrong.

I sat down to find out what was really going on since I was sure that these so-called “infuriating scenes” weren’t the cause of my anger, but the effect of it. Here’s what I found out. I tracked the anger back: I was angry because I was frustrated. Okay, no surprise there. I was frustrated because I was bitter. Little bit of surprise. I was bitter because I felt people were taking advantage of me. Surprise!!

The surprise was that I generally don’t let a situation of being taken advantage of to even arise, let alone continue. So I had to investigate more.

I felt I was being taken advantage of because here I was dedicating my life to helping others improve and they were not improving! How dare they! Well, once I knew that “they” had a problem, it all fell into place pretty quickly. They had to improve to catch up with me. Basically I thought I was better than everyone else and I was being compassionate to take time out of my busy schedule to help them improve themselves—to help them catch up with me. Wow.

What did I do to resolve the issue? I just sat there and admitted, based on the evidence, that I felt I was better than everyone else. I didn’t try to fight it, I didn’t justify it, all I did was admit it. And that state of acceptance was really relaxing and cleansing. It wasn’t right or wrong. I wasn’t good or bad. It was just true, a historical fact. There wasn’t anything to dispute or argue about, and that was very liberating.

So not only did I find the root of my anger in that situation, but also I had a very nice experience from doing so. Very rewarding.

Ven. Chodron’s comment: What you did is the real meaning of “practicing Dharma.” That’s what Dharma is all about. You counteracted destructive emotions in your mind—in this case anger and arrogance—and got your mind back to a clear, balanced state.


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