I visited Tehachapi Correctional Institute last week as a guest chaplain for some inmates who requested a Buddhist priest to conduct services for them. As the director of the Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield, I was contacted through the Prison Dharma Network, a group that coordinates visits to prisoners throughout the U.S. It took several months, but at last I was entering the first of many gates.
When the airport-like metal detector goes off in spite of my having taken off my shoes and emptied my pockets, the friendly guard asks me what that is around my neck, indicating the bib-like garment given to me by my Zen master when I was ordained. I never wear my rakusu outside the dojo where we practice, but I did today. "It's a religious thing," I say. "Oh," says the guard, passing his wand under my arms and between my legs. "I thought maybe it was some kind of bag with something in it. You're good to go."
Much research has confirmed the value of various kinds of meditation in prisons, even for the most hardened criminals. Although many wardens and chaplains have shown some resistance, resistance has softened with the hard data that shows a decrease in recidivism for prisoners with an established meditation practice, and with the substantial anecdotal evidence that those who meditate become model prisoners while still incarcerated.
A program in Alabama is the subject of a documentary, "Dhamma Brothers" (www.dhammabrothers.com). Testimony of the prisoners is extraordinary and moving. "For the first time, I could observe my pain and grief," states Omar Rahman. "I felt a tear fall. Then something broke, and I couldn't stop sobbing. I found myself in a terrain where I had always wanted to be, but never had a map. I found myself in the inner landscape, and now I had some direction." Another inmate tells how his practice helps him navigate prison life: "When someone cuts in front of you in the chow line, the first reaction is to push him. The Vipassana technique gives you a mental tool to observe the situation. If you give yourself time to think, you are gonna come up with a better solution."
The idea is simple: meditation opens a window on the self and its relation to the rest of the world that causes each person to take responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions.
With my guide, a decade-long veteran of prison ministry, we drive past D Block, a relatively peaceful place, where she says they keep the former gang members, sex offenders, and homosexuals for their own safety. Occasionally they add a lifer to the mix. Lifers tend to have a calming effect, she says, because they don't like others disturbing the peace of what they consider their home.
Our destination is C Block, where the general population of convicts resides. The15-foot fences are topped with gleaming spirals of razor wire like great, ominous Slinky toys. As we approach each inner gate, it opens ahead of us and shuts behind us, seemingly on its own.
The chapel is a nondescript room with a linoleum floor on a hallway with classrooms on either side. Eight inmates file into the room. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. They range in age from 20s to 50s, black, Hispanic, white. One has a ponytail, another has a shaved head. A couple of them already have an established personal practice. Some are curious. All want to improve their lives.
We push aside the orange plastic chairs and spread the grey woolen blankets that serve as cushions. They show me the meditation postures they use on their bunks in their cells. I turn down the hard fluorescent lights and the room immediately feels more congenial, more human. In the semi-darkness we let our minds quiet in the silence, pay attention to our breath, and let our hopes and regrets drop off. This is zazen, just sitting, being here and now.
I compare this process to a muddied stream. You can't clarify the water by continuing to stir it up. As Kodo Sawaki said, "Zazen is good for nothing." You have to do nothing; then clarity can arise, even here in the belly of a concrete and steel cage.
Afterwards we discuss a 13th-century text that says, "Nothing is separate, nothing is missing. Everything is present. Why go elsewhere when you can practice the Way here and now?"
The inmates are hungry for more, more books, more DVDs, more help with their practice, more teachers. My associate does what she can for them; she is not Buddhist but highly committed to interfaith efforts. The IBS (International Buddhist Sangha) has visited Tehachapi a few times, but it's a long trek from San Diego. Buddhist scholar Lewis Lancaster has discussed his years of work with IBS in California prisons (www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6_IFFXbM14). He mentions collecting about 10,000 books, perhaps a thousand of which were given to Tehachapi. Now approved by the censors, they have yet to be put on the shelves.
I look forward to going back. In the meantime, the inmates can sit on their own, like monks in a do-it-yourself monastery, knowing that they are not forgotten or alone.
Richard Collins is a Zen monk, teacher, and director of the Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield. Read more at www.zenbakersfield.blogspot.com