Prison Dharma

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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.




Paying Attention to Life

By James Tyndal ©


I started my twenty-first year (in prison) last week. Wow time flies.

I was reading a book called What Would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf when one of the questions struck me. What would Buddha do if he felts life was passing him by? The answer was: “Attention is living; inattention is dying. The attentive never stop; the inattentive are dead already.” (Dhammapada 21)

That got me. I spent a good many years being inattentive, not caring about the results my actions caused for myself or others. It reminded me of the old saying, “When life gives you lemons…” except I didn’t make lemonade. I threw the lemons at people and at situations.

Today I find it much easier to just let things go. I do not get mad as easily as I used to. I don’t allow myself to just give in to that oh-so-common feeling in prison of just giving up. I’ve been practicing for almost six years now, so this positive way of thinking did not take place over night. Now I ask myself, “Why? Why get angry? Why respond? Why give up?”

I try every day to apply Buddhist thought to my actions. I’m not perfect and have bad days. I don’t stay there though. Every day I take a step forward. I’m alive. Even in this messed up world I (we) live in I’m (you’re) alive.

Another WWBD (What Would Buddha Do): “WWBD to avoid burn out?” His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “Moderate effort over a long time is important, no matter what you are trying to do. One brings failure on oneself by working extremely hard at the beginning, attempting to do much, and giving it up after a short time.”

I’ve failed so many times. I wanted it so fast. Even when I first started to practice I wanted enlightenment now. I cannot remember the exact words that my root teacher said, but the gist was to just let it happen and to be patient because it may not happen in this life.

So now my personal practice remains the same. Today I live a better life for me and for the benefit of everyone around me. Buddhism has improved my life on almost every level. Compassion, caring, love are in the forefront of my thoughts today.

Read Buddhist literature. It doesn’t matter what sect, just read and study and meditate on what you read. Your mind will clear. Doors will open. I’m trying to go home early but even if I don’t, I will remain attentive. I will remain alive.



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