The National Buddhist Prison Sangha (NBPS) is a branch of the MRO dedicated to supporting incarcerated women and men dedicated to the study of Zen Buddhism through a daily practice of zazen, Dharma study, and the moral and ethical teachings of Zen Buddhism. These contributions reflect the lives and sincere practice of many current NBPS members serving time as well as some who have been released.
I stumbled across Buddhism in prison about five years ago. I decided, in the county jail while I was waiting for transfer, that I wasn’t going to waste my time away. I started reading Buddhist books hoping to polish myself a bit. After a few months, I began to experiment with zazen. I’d already been working with my mind, so zazen became my microscope. Over the years, something unexplainable has happened.
I was released from prison about eight months ago—a new beginning as a new man. I only knew that I want to be true, but was unsure I could be such a person out here. Very quickly, things began to fall in place. It seemed miraculous. Then the old habit of chasing certainty, and my lack of faith, started to creep in. That is when zazen began to show itself in my life. When I noticed fear taking control, I’d return. When I fell short, I’d return. Over and over, I’d return to the practice right here now.
Eight months later, everything is still brand new. I’m learning to trust myself and this practice. I have learned to return, to begin again, and to say “thank you.” One of the few things I know for sure today is that I don’t know much – and I’m so glad that I know that!
—Justin Russell, former NBPS
When I started doing my prison sentence, I was very bitter, violent, and always angry with others and myself. I didn’t care about any one but myself. When I sat for the first time to meditate, it was not easy for me to stay seated. I had the opportunity to see many of my evil actions and to see what I was doing to myself and to others who cared about me. For the first time, I was given this opportunity to know my inner-self. I cried so many times during my meditation asking my body to forgive me for what I had done to it. I kept meditating to continue the process of healing myself from the suffering and pain I was living. I feel I am not the same person and I acknowledge the fact that my suffering will continue. I feel that I am getting closer to this energy that keeps pulling me like a magnet every time I sit.
I feel this peace and love now, and the treasure that I found in prison I will take it out to share it with others. I have learned that no matter where we are, we are all incarcerated in our own body and mind. I owe everything I have learned to my teachers for guiding me to this beautiful peace, love and compassion I feel and live with now. I am honored to be a Zen student.
—Leo Larrea, NBPS
I was at a point in my life where I had a lot of questions—how did I get where I am? Why was I unhappy? I couldn’t remember the last time I was truly happy. I was yearning to find happiness in my life, but believed that it came from obtaining something materially or outside of myself. That’s why I never felt content. I didn’t know that happiness can come from within. That it is a state of mind, and that it requires being at peace with yourself.
I realized that I was on to something that was worthy of further investigation. It was perfect timing to see if what my friend was reading all those years was genuine. I began to study and practice and found my view of things changing for the better. I always had everything inside me I needed to be content, I just had to be shown my own nature.
Today I find that my zazen practice is opening up my experience toward life, and having mindfulness carries me through the day. Keeping an open mind lets me be receptive to the nature of things—by seeing things for what they are.
—Alexia Durling, former NBPS
Like most people, I had filled my days overloading my mind with stimuli. Even at night I would fall asleep listening to the radio, afraid of facing my thoughts in silence. Zen was the first teaching that required me to not just study something from a book, but to study my own mind. My first few meditations were filled with the inability to remain still. I would try to remain motionless, but an eyelid would keep twitching, then a leg muscle would spasm in its place. Needless to say, I was overflowing, far from an empty mind.
In time I learned to count my breaths and concentrate, and my body relaxed too. I had begun to observe all the judgements, preconceived notions, and absolutes that flooded my mind. Over the past few years I’ve even poured some of the these out. Now I see the more open I am, the more life can flow through me.
—Jon Romano, NBPS
I arrived at prison as a broken man, but I did not recognize that I had created most of my own suffering. I started attending Buddhist religious services and there, I heard people speaking about a path to end suffering. Following a suggestion from the prison sangha, I developed a daily meditation practice. As I focused on my breath, I began to notice brief gaps between my thoughts. I realized that the voice in my head robbed me of the gift of awareness. I was an arrogant know-it-all, living in the illusions of my conditioned mind. As a result, I suffered and caused others to suffer.
Releasing the obsessions of my thinking mind allows me to see beyond the labels I assign to myself and the world around me. I work each day to integrate the insights I gain through zazen practice. Living in the present, I become like a baby, experiencing each moment as exciting and new. In the absence of my mind’s incessant chatter, I discover who I truly am: a constantly changing being floating fluidly in a world of endless possibilities. Only when I admit my ignorance can I transform it and begin to grow. I can leave behind the pain of my past. I can let go of anxieties about a future unknown to me. Viewing the world with a beginner’s mind allows me to experience a freedom I did not know prior to incarceration. In prison, I have learned how to be free.
—Corbett Yost, NBPS
Ever since I was a small child I’ve put energy into asking questions. I wanted to know what made things work, and if you gave me a toy I wanted to know how it functioned. My inquisitive adult mind wondered about the workings of human beings interacting with each other and the environment.
The initial catalyst which compelled me to Zen practice and the Dharma was somewhat of an accident. While being held at Sing-Sing prison I was asked by a friend to come to a Zen Buddhist meditation service being held there. My initial response was tainted with apprehension. The only thing I knew about Buddhists was informed by Kung-fu films and I looked nothing like the people on the TV screen. I finally decided to see what it was about.
The first thing about the meditation environment that struck me was the power of the silence which seemed to blanket the room, and me, in a comforting way. I was surprised to actually hear subtle occurrences like practitioners’ swallowing, breathing, and making minor adjustments on their meditation cushions.
At that moment something unexplainable occurred to my consciousness. I became aware that my senses were missing out on parts of life that were right in front of my eyes. To me this also meant I was missing out no parts of me, and the environment around me.
It’s that state of becoming aware in each moment that I equate with the meaning of beginning mind—the point of not resting or accepting a limit on anyone’s capability to master the boundless Dharma.
—Damion Coppedge, NBPS
It took me half a century to figure out that I’ve always been a Buddhist. Growing up on the buckle of the Bible Belt, I was not aware of any Buddhists. Even so, I had these strange feelings I couldn’t explain, much different than the kids I hung out with, such as why it seemed important to have some quietness where I could become the center of everything; and, why that bug I encountered while fort-building in my backyard seemed to be as important as everything else.
It wasn’t until I found myself in prison and thoroughly fuddled about the religion in which I’d been raised that I began seeking a spirituality that made sense to me. In rather short order, the universe directed me to the NBPS. I stepped on the Buddhist path and began a journey that I knew in my heart was right for me because it encompassed all those feelings I’d had since I was a child—such as love, kindness and compassion—things that made me feel like an outsider with a group of rough-and- tumble schoolyard boys.
I sometimes wish that I’d found the path earlier in my life, but that wish almost immediately is followed by reminding myself that the universe is operating exactly as its supposed to, and I was not meant to find Buddhism any earlier than I did. Simply put: I just wouldn’t have been ready for the journey.
To me, the beauty along the Dharma path is that which is created by how I live my life. The rituals and requirements of Zen practice unfold in how I interact with my fellow beings—whether they have two, four or a hundred legs—and how my actions create positive instead of negative energy.
So, I sit, happy that I found the Buddha’s teachings; humbled by Zen Masters’ guidance; and, thankful for all those on the path with me.
—John Sanger, NBPS
I think back to the person I was when I came to prison. I was spiritually, emotionally and morally bankrupt. I had given up on life in my 30’s, expected to be dead by 40. Coming to prison, I had a cellie who got me to get physically active. I entered a therapy program and found emotional healing, better ethics, and a direction for my life. But something was still missing. I began seeking a spiritual path for the direction my life was taking. Eventually I found Zen Buddhism, and the readings seemed to reach deep into my mind, heart and soul. I found what I had been needing.
Keeping an open mind for me means knowing what I can and cannot control, accepting that fact and doing the best I can. Focus, meditation and reminding myself how much my control has hurt myself and others is the first step to getting into the right state of mind. When I am accepting and open to what is around me I have fewer conflicts, internal or external. When my old nature pops in, there are more conflicts, so I practice being humble enough to ask for and accept help from those who care about me.
–James T. Kohnke, NBPS
I came to practice accidentally, with- out any idea of what I was getting into. I have asked many people what drew them to Buddhism, and the answers nearly all involved some sort of trauma—illness, divorce, death—a soul-searching drive propelling them toward practice.
Then there was me. I was writing a story about a wizard hiding from the world for fear of hurting anyone with his magic. I wanted him to meet a wise monk on a mountain to guide him. For authenticity, I researched Eastern religions and the book I found, which was very basic, struck me deeply enough to make me keep reading. I read everything I could find on Buddhism, and everything I read felt true in a way that nothing ever had. So, I started my practice.
The first time I meditated, I hated it. I understood the method, but I did’t have a clue what I was meant to get out of it. Frustrated, I kept doing it. At some point, I stopped feeling like I was doing it wrong and just did it until it felt wrong not to.
Those first months of practice were absolutely profound. I didn’t know enough to make the mistakes of setting goals or seeking enlightenment, but I did find intense peace and unity that amazed me, and depths of regret and pain that terrified me. At times, I cried. Other times, I woke up laughing. The traumas of my life didn’t drive me to practice but I found myself facing those traumas anyway.
Over time, I also learned unfortunate habits of goal-setting, enlightenment-seeking, and judging. I’ve had to continually let those go and return to that beginning mind. It’s been the hardest, most painful, happiest and most rewarding experience of my life. I came to practice accidentally. Looking back, coming to practice without any idea of what I was getting into—what a wonderful way to begin.
—Mark Tousignant, NBPS
I have been studying Buddhism for about ten years. What I like about Zen is the discipline and how peaceful it is. In prison that comes in handy. It helped me get rid of the three poisons —attachment, aversion and delusion. There is a lot of it in here. Shoken-san told me prison is a good place to practice. But I believe that there are all kinds of prisons. Being depressed, homeless. These are all forms of prison.
In some prisons you are locked behind a fence or even a wall. But I learned that we don’t have to be in prison and so my mind is free. The mind and spirit are one. If they are free, we have found what we are looking for—true emptiness.
We become one with everything around us, like one big universal consciousness.
I like the Mahayana and Tibetan style too. Both traditions have taught me a lot. They taught me how to find my center. The Bodhisattva path is what I walk.
At times it can be hard, but we can’t give up on what we work for. Nothing is easy at the beginning. But if you don’t give up, you can make it anywhere. Keep practicing.
Master Shunryu Suzuki said, “When you understand one thing through and through you can understand everything.”
The way I come back to an empty and ready mind is to concentrate on emptiness, being one with everything around us, the ground, sky, whatever we see.
—James Kyugen Bettis, NBPS
By age twenty, I was so enmeshed in my various roles—people pleaser, thug, womanizer, nerd—that even when I happened across Bo Lozoff’s book, We’re All Doing Time, the internal noise was overwhelming and quickly squelched his sagely counsel.
Some thirty years later, having then become an affliction on rather than a member of society, I found myself locked in a box not much larger than a telephone booth, hung over, friendless, and facing life in prison.
With all of the props and distractions stripped away, I began to wonder when had I just completely gone off the rails. Didn’t I once aspire to be a police officer or a fire fighter? Other memories surfaced, too: Bo had emphasized the need to always put others first instead of using people as a doormat as I had done; could he have been right? And that small voice buried beneath the clamor all those many years asked, “What could it hurt to try?”
Dharma literature isn’t exactly a staple in small county jails in Texas, but I remembered Bo mentioning prayer and meditation throughout his book. Meditation sounded interesting and pretty easy—I mean, what do you do? Just sit there, right? So I gave it a try. And lasted all of two minutes.
While being bounced around the correctional system, opportunities to meditate presented themselves and dharma books could occasionally be borrowed. It was a slow process, but layers of conditioning were peeled away and small truths revealed, little epiphanies which gave encouragement to go deeper. And—most wonderful of all—bodhisattvas began appearing: wise, compassionate beings who could put up with my self-centered whining, never failing to inspire me with their words and by their example.
So the journey continues.
–James Gannaway, NBPS
Before being arrested, I defined myself in terms of my relationships and activities. I was a husband and father, a businessman, a church member, and an American. Then tragedy struck, some stupid mistakes of mine ripened, and I found myself locked in a nine by twelve foot box, sentenced to spend the rest of my days incarcerated.
And those relationships and activities? Gone, all of them.
So who was I, anyway? Could it be that self was something that could be taken from you? I went for years like that.
Then one day old Dogen spoke to me from a book: “To study the way is to study the self.” Okay, I thought, you’ve got my attention. “To study the self is to forget the self.” Boy, I’d like to forget the self, but how? “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand Dharmas.” Sounds intriguing, but what does that mean? Then later, “Think non-thinking.” Okay pal, that does it, you’re on!
That was sixteen years and thousands of hours of sitting ago, and I often feel that all I’ve learned is that I actually known less than I thought I did before practicing.
Zen teachers aim to keep us in beginner mode through their maddening refusal to just give us the answers. Which leads me to the next big question: Why couldn’t I have picked an easier religion?
—Scott Falater, NBPS
When I initially started my Zen studies/ practice, my biggest struggle was distraction. Sometimes, though not very often, it still is, and I must return to counting my breath. At first thoughts would inhibit me from reaching a stillness of mind, now thoughts are mostly like wisps of smoke while I sit. They are present but seldom are they substantial enough to interfere. Once I have become settled, my breathing evens out. I reach a sense of energized calm, like a coiled spring. I feel or sense many things at once. It is a feeling of elation or anticipation, but without direction. Time ceases to be a factor. I sit for a few minutes and it seems as though hours have passed. When I sit for longer periods, it seems as though only minutes have gone by.
I am currently in what many would find to be a stressful environment, yet I am calm. For me this is the beginning mind.
—James Radican, NBPS