“We think people who are outside prison are not prisoners, but we are.” — Lama Zopa Rinpoche
“Superficial observation of the sense world might lead you to believe that people’s problems are different, but if you check more deeply, you will see that fundamentally, they are the same. What makes people’s problems appear unique is their different interpretation of their experiences.”
— Lama Zopa Rinpoche
From the The Liberation Prison Project web site — http://www.liberationprisonproject.org/index2.html — ” The LPP offers spiritual advice and teachings, as well as books and materials, to people in prison interested in exploring, studying and practicing Buddhism. A Tibetan Buddhist organization and social services project affiliated with the FPMT [www.fpmt.org], since 1996 the project has supported the Buddhist practice of over twelve thousand prisoners. Active mainly in the U.S. and Australia, where we are established as nonprofit organizations in San Francisco and the Australian Blue Mountains, we also have branches in Spain, Mexico and Mongolia. ”
About a year ago, a friend, who started taking the Discovering Buddhism program back in early 2005, about the same time as I did, told me that she had starting working with the LPP (see above) and was corresponding with inmates. I was stunned. That sounded so far beyond what I thought I was capable of. I could not possibly do anything like that. Could I?
Well, I thought, what could be hard about being a “penpal”? Back then, I was beginning to think that I had some decent understanding of the Dharma. Well, there is a saying that goes something like “If you really want to learn something, teach it to someone else.” I wrote to the LPP and inquired about becoming a “penpal”. Carina Rumrill of the LPP wrote me back, thanking me for becoming a “teacher” and included the names and addresses of 5 inmates. She also included a bunch of helpful suggestions and instructions for corresponding with the inmates. My first thought was “Oh, my. What have I got myself into?”
Soon, letters from 4 of the 5 inmates arrived in my mail box. If you ever want to do a “reality check” on your practice, talk to someone who is practicing the Dharma in prison. One of my guys, in for manufacturing methamphetamines, told how he made a small mandala out of aspirin. Another guy told me about sitting up with another inmate on “suicide watch” to help ensure that his fellow inmate lived through the night. Another inmate just got out of prison two days after Christmas. I have a very hard time imagining what it must be like to start a new life from scratch with a prison record.
Writing to these Dharma-friends has not been as scary as I thought it would be. The guys I am writing to seem like normal folk who have made a series of bad decisions that have landed them in prison. They generally are very appreciative of anyone who will discuss the Dharma with them. Some seem to have an even better sense of the results of their actions than most people who have studied the topic of Karma out here. They often write with much compassion about how their fellow inmates, those who are making no attempt to get past the delusions of their inflated egos, are just making their lives worse with every action. They can see the karma in action. It often occurs to me while I am reading these letters that any thought that my life is any better than the lives of these guys is just an illusion, too. I may be the “liason” between the LPP and these guys, but they are definitely teaching me quite a bit more than I could ever teach them.
I don’t want to downplay the role of the LPP teacher. In most cases, these guys have no other source of help, much less access to the Dharma. The LPP sends a huge number of books to the inmates. The teachers generally handle the recommendations of which books to send, if the prisoner is not sure what book or books would most help him or her.
I am just beginning to realize what sort of commitment these folk need from those who are corresponding with them. I also am beginning to see what sort of commitment we are getting from our own Dharma teachers. I begin to understand what it means to be, or even aspire to be, a Bodhisattva.
If you would help the LPP in any way, check out their web site above. Any and all help is always appreciated. In the Diamond Cutter sutra, the Buddha says that any person that teaches 4 lines of that sutra to any other sentient being receives more merit than a universe full of gold and jewels offered to the Buddhas.
BTW, here’s a little exercise for meditating on Death and Dying that I do every weekday. (Meditating on Death and Dying can help one realize that tomorrow may never arrive. Therefore, practice the Dharma today, rather than putting it off to a more convenient time.) It helps me remember the idea that each day of this Precious Human Life is indeed special. It goes like this: As I am 55 years old, it’s quite possible that today is my last day of life. Worse yet, I commute! Every day, an hour each way! I am burning karma
continuously! 🙂 My aches and pains have aches and pains! And no more
than any other schmuck in this samsara-mind-game we play. As one Zen
monk said, “No one wakes up thinking this is my last day of life.”
Then again, this might be the last day of samsara! Pure Land, come on! If you send me an email and do not get a reply back within a week, try one more time. If you still don’t get a reply, I might be dead. (‘Course it’s also possible that I forgot to set my “away” message for the email. One of these years, perhaps after I retire in or around the year 2015 or so, I would like to do a retreat or two.)
Happy New Year, Paul Stevenson
ps. This is my first blog entry, ever. All mistakes are mine. I hope to be able to make creative mistakes someday. I reserver the right to die at any time during this process. pfs.