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Buddhism in the News


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Surviving Imprisonment as a Buddhist.

As the echoes of the "Saffron Revolution" in Burma continue to reverberate, I have often contemplated the humble monks living in a very real "Hell Realm" of unjust imprisonment. Along with other Buddhists living in prison. One doesn't have to look very far in this world to find the "Hell Realm."

Nor does one necessarily need to believe in a metaphysical "Hell Realm" to experience the concept rattling your fragile sense of identity. For these Buddhist in prison, however, their "Hell Realm" is an all too real cage of steel and razor wire that echoes with the sounds of pure suffering.

My nights have found me haunted by the imagery of such a place; and what it does to these innocent, peaceful monks and others. So, I decided to put my university degree to work and do some research into how monks (and others), who have been released or escaped imprisonment dealt with their "Hell Realm" without becoming bitter, angry, broken spirits. What I discovered in my sleuthing not only humbled and impressed me but gave me insight into dealing with my own demons and hellish suffering.

Prison does not seem like a place conducive to any kind of Buddhist practice. It's chaotic, violent, loud and uncaring. However, something interesting happened with these people who were thrown down into the pit of despair. They were not only able to practice in captivity but understand how to live with suffering without letting it consume them. This research has been a project that has sharply focused my view of trials in my life. And just how far the human spirit can endure despite overwhelming odds stacked against it.

I want to speak first about a Buddhist layperson serving time in incarceration. In prison, there are no distractions from suffering. It is all around you. You are forced to learn how to live with your suffering and stay rooted in the now without burning a hole through your view of humanity. Take for example the case of Buddhist inmate Jarvis Jay Masters. Susan Moon relayed the following wisdom in a Shambhala Sun article from Mr. Masters:

“It’s challenging to meditate in prison,” he says, “but it’s also the perfect place. People think they have to get a nice new cushion to be able to meditate. I would be that way, too, if I had the choice. But I’m fortunate not to have a new cushion. I feel the hard floor. This is where life is. Not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow has its way of making time more precious. When you’ve been sentenced to death, you know you don’t have much time. You’re forced to look at what is, right now.”

James: Masters realized that trapping himself inside his mind, fighting in vain to take back his crimes wasn't going to change anything except ensure a deepening of suffering for all involved. Desiring to escape the consequences of his actions wasn't going to help. After all, desire, he says are what got him in trouble in the first place. He had to absorb himself in the moment and find freedom in the Dharma. Again from the Moon piece: "You’re either going to go crazy, or kill yourself—just go dead inside, in your soul if not your body—or find something to sustain you in a spiritual realm. You’ve got to have a way to take care of yourself when things go wrong, when you don’t get any mail or visits, or you start messing with your own head..."

This brings us to the monks. Palden Gyatso spent 33 years in a Chinese prison for being a Tibetan Buddhist monk who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama. Murderers, were set free before prisoners like Gyatso. The suffering he faced makes what most of us endure sound like pleasure. The following quotes about Gyatso come from an article by George Bryson. "His worst experience of all was the time he was under interrogation and a prison guard shoved the electrical cattle prod straight into his mouth. The explosive shock that followed knocked him unconscious."

James: How do you carry on with life after being treated worse than animals for slaughter? Especially the self-torturing question of, "Why me?" Gyatso's Buddhist practice of not clinging to a sense of self (anatta) is what helped him keep from being consumed with a feeling of personal injustice.

"It's not just Tibet. It happened to Jewish people (during the Holocaust), and it's happening all over the world." In this regard, he was far from alone. He was linked to all wrongfully imprisoned people around the globe. This gave him a reason to live -- to help others suffering in prison through meditating on compassion. That is also what aided him to avoid being utterly consumed by rage for his captors. "His torturers simply struck him out of ignorance, he said. The ignorant need our compassion and our help. He holds no lingering animosity toward them. Said Gyatso: "I have no anger toward any human, any Communist Chinese."

In countries like China and Burma, it is common for police, military and prison guards to have taken that job out of fear of being the one oppressed. Plus, it's a job in a society where economic opportunity is rare. The karma from their actions will sting far longer than the whips lashed upon their innocent prisoners. So, for Gyatso to be able to see the fear and weakness in their minds brought about a change in focus that made all the difference in surviving prison not only intact, but spiritually stronger. For Burmese activist, Nay Tin Myint, the turning point to surviving wrongful imprisonment came through not attaching to the limitations of the body. "They put my body in prison, but I decided they could not have my mind" said Myint in an article for The Wall Street Journal.

In conclusion, I can not imagine the suffering that these prisoners face. Nor can I imagine the physical pain they endured, but I am convinced that the Dharma is a powerful tool if we remember to use it. This isn't just something that only well-trained monks are capable of; we're all capable of it as well. Take the example of lay Buddhist meditator, Wang Jianxin of China. The ditch digger survived being buried alive for two hours by controlling his breath through meditation; according to the article from The Daily Mail online by

~Peace to all beings~

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1 comment:

Wiseass Zen said...

Google the Liberation Prison Project and the Prison Dharma Network, they do a lot of work getting Buddhist resources and teachers to prisoners. The LPP site has back issues of their newsletter which I found interesting.

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