Teaching Buddhism Inside Prison – Part III: Truthfulness


Mr. B captured my attention from the first class. Rather than set ‘rules of conduct’ or ‘guidelines’ for the classroom, I utilized the Buddha’s recommended precepts for lay people, which include not harming another living being, not taking what is not rightfully given, not creating harm through sexuality, the practice of Right Speech, and not using intoxicants. The practice of Right Speech involves asking yourself before speaking, ‘is this kind? Is it true? It is necessary?’ Furthermore, it’s suggested to abstain from harsh speech, idle chatter, slander, and false speech.

Mr. B spoke up immediately after my introduction of the Precepts. “Really? Not tell any lies?! I’ve told so many lies, I don’t even know what is true any more!” The class laughed, and yet his fearless truthfulness became a quality that fellow students came to admire and appreciate about him.

“That’s correct,” I told him. “The thought is that dishonesty creates harm, and the first precept is to not harm other living beings. Have you found that to be so in your life?”

“I don’t know if I have ever been totally truthful in all my life,” Mr. B replied. We went back and forth a few more times; he not only could not believe that he could do this, but that anyone could be so honest. My heart broke that he had not witnessed exemplars of integrity, that society has so lost his trust that he had given up on truthfulness.

Throughout the class, he would ask questions that others wouldn’t ask for fear of judgment or appearing unintelligent. He was honest about his struggles with meditating, or what he was faced about himself. In a class themed on Mudita, or Sympathetic Joy, students wrote down one appreciation of each student in the class. About Mr. B, his ‘Dharma Brothers’ said, “Mr. B speaks very well, is articulate, unafraid to share personal success and setbacks. He is not hesitant to point out his own flaws and unafraid to express his feelings. He is outspoken and tries to improve his life.”

The class on the practice of truthfulness in the second semester was very difficult, for so plagued is our society with lies, that truthfulness threatens the (dishonest) fabric of our families, our government, the media, our histories. This is precisely the inspiration of this practice,that we can heal and reinvent our relationships and the stories that we tell and our own paths through truthfulness. Truth creates freedom and trust, involves both vulnerability and courage, and an openness to the fact that we carry different (and sometimes conflicting) truths.  Buddhist teacher angel Kyodo Williams has said, “The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” Our practice aspires to portray and behold the truth in all of its complexities.

A student asked about the truths that we reveal to children; in particular, when was it appropriate to tell his young children that he was in prison, and why he was there? Many of the men in the class had faced this question, for their families worried about them, and the daily realities of prison were so dangerous. The student asked, “So I tell my five year old that I’m not watching cartoons, I’m staring at a concrete wall?” Another student reflected, “I tell my children, this is an easy prison, it’s not dangerous in here. But it is. People get stabbed regularly, fights happen. I don’t want them to worry about me.” Out of their compassion for their loved ones, my students wanted to protect their family members from the pain and reality of incarceration in a maximum security prison. I told them, the world needs to know what it’s like in here, otherwise the danger, the harm, will be perpetuated and hidden from the rest of society.

Another man responded saying, “It’s not about when your child is ready. It’s about when you are ready. And that’s hard, that’s real.” Right Speech calls for kindness first, and then honesty-kindness to ourselves, and to the listener of our truths, and that Right Speech is a practice, not somewhere we ever arrive or a finished line that we can ever cross.

Another student exclaimed, “Forgive me for being devil’s advocate, but truthfulness would cause so much chaos, throw marriage into question, tear apart families!” He referred to the high incidence of unfaithfulness amongst businessmen, and amongst married couples more generally that he had written about in his papers, and the impact of the truth on his own family.

The next class I responded, describing the relationship between Right Action and truthfulness. If we engage in our lives in a way that is kind, harmless even, then there is nothing to hide. And if we truly understand the rule of karma, we understand that we never ‘get away with’ anything, for it leaves an imprint on our lives, and on our consciousness. Of course we will make mistakes, for that is part of the human condition. The least harmful way to interact with them is to expose our mistakes as quickly as possible, and ask for forgiveness from those we’ve harmed.

Several men in the class had killed someone. Throughout the Buddhist class, we talked about compassion, forgiveness, equanimity, and virtue. I taught that an aspiration of practicing virtue is to walk into any space, and be blameless, not that other people wouldn’t blame you, for that’s beyond our control, but to know for yourself that you are blameless, that there is nowhere that you feel afraid to enter. I asked the class, “is there a space that you cannot walk into and feel this way, and why?” A student raised his hand, sat up vertically, and reflected, “I’d be afraid to enter a room with the family of the man that I killed.”

He had written his midterm paper on forgiveness, trying to forgive himself for his actions, asking for forgiveness from this family, forgiving his own father and lack of role models, and forgiveness of poverty at large, for putting him in a challenging predicament, and asking for forgiveness from the family of the person he killed. When this student spoke, the entire class paid attention, all of us imagining being both in his shoes, and that of the family. The public practice of forgiveness is reconciliation, seen through mediation on the smaller scale, or through larger processes in South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia, and between the ancestors of former slave owners and the ancestors of former slaves in the U.S. The aspiration is for both my student and the family to heal enough that they could be in the room together and see each other’s humanity.

In his paper on truthfulness, the student worried about infidelity committed to be a faithful husband (from this point forward) to his wife of many years. The student afraid of telling his children about prison spoke to other fathers in the classroom about how they do it in a way that is both kind and honest. Through the practice of the Truthfulness, we unclutter our lives, clearing out unnecessary suffering with the understanding that suffering itself is unavoidable, or as Buddhist teacher Larry Yang says, “Out of an awareness of the preciousness of all of life, may we aspire to not add a single further drop of suffering to a world that already hurts so much.”

Teaching Buddhism Inside Prison – Part II: Wisdom


I shared three articles in the month of July about my work teaching Buddhism inside prisons in New York. You can read Part I here, and then go on to read Part II below…

The Wisdom of Buddhism

“If everyone followed the Dharma, our crime rates would decrease. Most crimes would become extinct; feelings of greed, hatred, anger, and envy would be recognized, embraced, and allowed to pass before acting on them. Our streets could become safe again, allowing our children to be safe while out playing or at school. Domestic violence would be unheard of, keeping families together and happy. Overall, compassion would grow and destroy the violence that plagues our society and threatens humankind’s tranquility.” Thus writes my Buddhist student at the prison, seeing the transformative potential of these practicing Buddhism.

I’m blown away by his understanding of the expansive and significant impact of these practices—so often understood in our society as self-improvement or self-care—but clearly applied to our society’s greatest problems. The themes in these articles, the teachings in Buddhism, arise throughout religions and spiritual traditions, so it is not following these teachings that leads to the liberation my student described, but perhaps simply following a compass greater than ourselves.

The Three Marks of Existence

Wisdom is to see things as they really are, and to act in a way that creates healing or harmony, and not in the ways that create harm or dukkha. To see a stick as a stick, and not as a snake is wisdom. Wisdom points to a horizon of possibility that few of us will aspire to or achieve, but which challenges us to be our greatest selves. Yet, wisdom also involves humility, for as my friend Teo Drake says, “It is an insult to god to be bigger than what you actually are. And it is an insult to god to be less than what you actually are.”

The components of wisdom discussed within Buddhism involve the “Three Marks of Existence”: impermanence, interdependence, and suffering. These help us understand that all things are subject to change, that we are all connected and not independent ‘selves’, and that suffering is a reality that we cannot avoid in our lives. Understanding these Marks of Existence allow us to act with wisdom in our lives.

These three marks of wisdom play out in the lives of the prison inmates I work with in powerful ways.

How Prison Inmates Use the Three Marks of Existence

Story One
One of my students, who aspires to be an EMT, responds to crisis by being grounded. He described his interaction with a fellow inmate the day before class who had been banging his head on the wall for hours in the health building, and no one was able to stop him without threatening their own safety. My student entered, saw on the man’s nametag that his name was the same as his own, and said so. That calmed the man down, somehow. He began to talk to the man, establishing a connection, and within five minutes, this previously angry man was crying on the floor and did not want my student to leave. My student had responded with the wisdom of connection and interdependence, that separation was part of the pain. Underneath the anger was grief, and through attending to the grief in our lives, we can transform the pain and use the experience to connect to others.

Story Two
Another student wrote, “When I feel the pain of repeating suffering in my life, by falling prey to lust or being overwhelmed by anger, I’m re-inspired in my determination to dismantle the obstacles that confusion brings that tend to trip my mind. Remembering that I know a way out each time I find my mind slipping creates the possibility for freedom from habits and suffering.” This student was separated from his mother during her years of addiction to heroin and his mother passed on HIV to him. His neighborhood in Brooklyn has non-fatal assaults twice the average in New York City and incarceration rates two times higher than the city average [1]. He could not control the circumstances of his life, but through the Dharma, he learned a more skillful way to interact with his own suffering, and that around him. He went on, “No one in this world experiences only gain and no loss, only pleasure and no pain. When we open to this truth, we discover that there is no need to hold onto or push away. Rather than trying to control what cannot be controlled, we come to a place of acceptance.”

Story Three
Another student came into class with a practice of yoga and a yearning for further wisdom. He had been inside for over two decades. By the time I met him, he had become determined to better his life, to work on himself spiritually, while he was inside. He was a gentle man, moved slowly, and laughed heartily. Early on in the class, he disclosed that his sister had turned him in, that her testimony led to his incarceration, and it was taking a long time to forgive her. He felt betrayed, angry, hurt, surprised by this older sister who had raised him and changed his diapers.

Several weeks later in class, he said that he realized, “I should have never put her in the position of having to turn me in,” taking responsibility for his actions, rescinding blame, and thereby allowing the possibility of forgiveness. At the end of the class, he reflected that he had made contact with his father, someone he had not had a relationship with since he was a young boy. He wrote, “In spite of serving a life sentence, I began to change, and in my change I sought to help others, to rid myself of the ‘illusion of separation’, and to see interdependence in the world. The first step I was required to take was to rid myself from the stored hate and pain by forgiving. Today the caged bird sings a song of freedom, liberation, and metta!”

In applying the Dharma to their own lives, not just learning about the Dharma, these men discovered the wisdom intrinsic to their own lives and communities. Learning the Dharma was not about regurgitating a teaching, but exploring the Three Marks of Existence in their lives, learning the skillfulness to water the seeds that are wholesome, that create healing and vibrance, and to not water the seeds that perpetuate suffering.

[1] Health Profiles 2015: Brooklyn Community District. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Read Part I

Teaching Buddhism Inside Prison – Part I: Compassion


Approaching the Classroom with Compassion

“I think that if I’m not right internally with my own suffering, then I can’t genuinely share compassionate and empathetic relationship with others, without furthering pain in their life,” my student at a maximum security prison wrote. The honesty, transparency, and vulnerability are an honor to behold, and not only kept me returning to class, but excited me to read their papers, to engage discussion on topics of compassion, forgiveness, virtue, and others.

I presume some of my students innocent, some scapegoated by the War on Drugs, some surviving trauma. I do not see these men as perpetrators, but as victims of capitalism, racism, the War on Drugs, and abuse—vast and complex problems that, rather than attending to deeply, our punitive society points the finger to blame individuals and specific communities. I see the conditions of their lives not as their fault, but as their responsibility; for what has most touched their life is precisely where they contain essential wisdom and can make the most impact on others.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow said, “If we’re going to evolve spiritually, morally, as human beings, we’re going to lean into caring for one another, loving more and honoring our connectedness and oneness and resist that impulse, that fear-driven impulse, to divide, label, and react with punitiveness, rather than care and concern.”[1]

The Decision to Teach Inside Prisons

I do not have a family history of incarceration. I was compelled to teach via location (being within 30 minutes of 4 prisons in upstate New York) and an inquiry from a colleague: “Who do I not have relationship with in society, and why?”

The suggestion is that achieving social justice and healing depends on relationships. Without relationship, it’s easy to alienate, separate, blame, fear, and even hate one another. I live in a place surrounded by prisons, but in fact had no relationships with anyone employed or incarcerated by these institutions. The opportunity arose to teach Buddhism in a college program in a nearby prison, and I seized the opportunity.

I begin these articles with the theme of compassion, for it is depicted as the wise response to pain, and pain is boundless in and around prisons. I write with compassion for the histories of my students and awe and respect for what they aspire to. I asked for their permission to write these articles, and to protect their identities, I change their names or small details of their stories.

Learning Compassion One Story At A Time

One student sold heroin because his work in a nursing home did not pay a living wage. He was arrested, and expecting to receive a 4 year sentence, the judge delivered a 12-year sentence. Addiction touches most families in the U.S., and the U.S. government has spent $1 trillion on the Drug War[2]. Rather than attending to the root causes of the sale or use of drugs with care and concern, as Michelle Alexander wisely suggests, the War on Drugs has locked up dealers or people in possession of drugs in an institution that is not only not healing, but inflicts further trauma. “Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population and more than half of the increase in the state prison population,” says Alexander in another article.[3] Now my student talks to his children facing the cold cement walls of a maximum-security prison, learning to discern what is his fault, and what is simply his responsibility to clean up.

In the class themed on compassion, each man writes a great struggle in their life anonymously on a piece of paper and passes that paper back to me. I mix the papers, pass them back out so that each student is anonymous. After they read their new paper privately, they then read it out loud, and we take a breath together.

My students read things like: “I am an innocent man in prison.”
“Separation from family.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever attain my physical freedom.”

My student discussed above reads aloud, “My addiction that created chaos in my life.”

This became an inquiry for him, for many of his classmates struggled with addiction, and he reflected that his own drug sale contributed to addiction and the deterioration of his community. He said, “It’s perfect that I read that one, because I made money off of addiction. I didn’t create this man’s suffering, but I did create suffering for many men.” By the end of the class, this man wanted to work with young men allured by the glamour and fast money of the drug market, and the families ripped apart by the War on Drugs.

Dharma Brothers in Prison

I asked, after the above activity, to reflect on what greater understanding, wisdom, or gift that they may have due to their particular suffering.

The man who wrote about possibly never receiving physical freedom responded. “I don’t see any good in that. What could come of that?” A classmate replied, “Man, you been here 21 years already. And look at you. You’re a good man. You’re in college, you are putting your time to use. The good that can come of your situation is that you show each one of us what is possible. You show people who are here for just a few years how to turn things around. You show anyone coming in, as you did, young and scared, that they can become a college student and get in control of they life.”

The students showed up for one another like this, again and again, shedding light upon each other’s shadows, growing bonds across the severe divisions of race, becoming ‘Dharma Brothers’.

Many students practice other religions, and in the first class, I tell them that the Buddha’s teachings can accentuate and deepen their religious practices and understanding, rather than being competing or conflicting.

One student, a pious Christian, wrote, “The teaching about compassion really opened my heart to the younger generations around me and has made me really want to help kids when I get home. I always felt that God had a plan for me to help youth in the world, but to be honest, it was the teaching about compassion that revealed God’s plan to me and has given me a purpose to push on through this current suffering that I am experiencing. I never felt more focused until I wrote my midterm on Compassion. Although I am a Christian, the Dharma has helped open my eyes to other concepts and ways to deal with suffering.”

Through his exploration of the Dharma, this student became committed to establishing an internship through the auto shop that he owned with his father back home, to provide jobs, guidance, and attention to youth that society has given up on. He explored compassion through both a Buddhist and Christian lens, which led him towards greater understanding of Compassion and purpose in his life.

The last day of class, after the exam, students reflected on the semester. This class felt magical, triumphant, full of laughter and honesty. Through the class, through their stories, through the teachings of Buddhism, they came to understand and care for one another.

On this day, I told the class that they are so much more than their “crime”. There is a stigma around incarceration, an idea that these men are “evil”—but I don’t believe any of that and never did. They must look at themselves with compassion. I ask them to love themselves, to not internalize that message, to believe in their precious hearts and that of everyone else, to see everyone, including themselves, as the Buddha.

Read Part II here.

[1] Tippett, Krista. “Who We Want to Become: Beyond the New Jim Crow, an Interview with Michelle Alexander.” On Being. April 21, 2016.

[2] “Wasted Tax Dollars.” The Drug Policy Institute. http://www.drugpolicy.org/wasted-tax-dollars.

[3] Alexander, Michelle. “The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow.” Reimagine: Movements Making Media. http://www.reimaginerpe.org/20years/alexander.

Home for the Holidays: Doing the Right Thing

Home for the Holidays: Doing the Right Thing

If a coconut falls to the ground the moment that the crow lands on the palm tree, did the crow cause the coconut to fall, or was the coconut going to fall anyway, and the crow just happened to land at that moment? This is the question the sage Vasistha poses to Lord Rama in the Yoga Vasistha, a text in yoga philosophy and mythology, which points to the practice of Right Action. This outlook is posed throughout yogic scriptures, such as in the Bhagavad Gita: we are entitled to our actions, but not to the fruits of our actions.  We show up with as much kindness or honesty in our actions as we can, and accept that our actions may be perceived in any number of ways. What matters is that we continue to apply our actions-thoughts, words, deeds- so that we can influence more coconuts to fall. This practice also evacuates the ego-that we act in a kind, patient, compassionate way because it is the right thing to do, not because it reaps any rewards or because anything specific will happen from it.

Right Action is a particularly useful contemplation as we approach the holidays with our families and the expectations that often surround the holidays, to act as if everything we do makes a world of difference, knowing all the while that anything we do may make no difference at all. Or as the Buddha says, to “practice as if your hair is on fire.” The practice of Right Action is to commit to love and prevent harm, our own and that of others, with the understanding that every action matters.

When entering into family situations where patterns may be ingrained, it might seem that Aunt Barbara always cooks the same green bean dish, or Cousin Anna always brings home another unfamiliar partner, or Tio Roberto always makes the same judgment on the spread of food ahead of him, even as he gobbles it down. Right Action can be an invigorating practice, that everything we do matters, that each action can change the trajectory of this holiday, all family holidays to come, or the dynamics of our families into the future.

A question that I ask myself currently over any nationally recognized holiday, is, is this a ritual, a recognition, a celebration that I choose? If so, what actions and traditions might I invoke to make it authentic to me? If not, how might I reorient the day or time of year to resonate with my own spiritual and political beliefs? I am not Christian, and never have been, though I have “celebrated” Christmas in my family every year with gifts, a decorated tree, an elaborate meal, time at home in Colorado with family. Now as a queer Buddhist in partnership creating new traditions, I have the opportunity to navigate which rituals my own family lives into, planting seeds now that my child will inherit, and either continue to cultivate, or abandon. It no longer seems like Right Action to engage with the holiday rituals of Christmas, for we do not believe in buying gifts just because it is a certain time of year or cutting down a tree to have in my house for three weeks, and we do not want the pressure or expectations of a big dinner with family that we haven’t seen and do not feel close to. My partner and I have decided to no longer exchange gifts, as we do so throughout the year when something calls reminds us of each other, we send homemade sweet treats to loved ones to enjoy this dark time of year, and reorient ourselves to this time of year being a time to rest and rejuvenate, to go on silent retreat and listen inwardly.

Four aspects of Right Action are good reminders for me:

  1. Reverence for Life – to revere all of life, without exceptions, every moment of every day.
  2. Generosity – it benefits the giver before, during, and after a gift is given, connects us to one another, and redistributes resources.
  3. Behave responsibly – to act as if your teacher, mentor, student, or your god is watching, to behave in a way in which you have nothing to hide, or to be able to be “blameless” in any space you are in-that you have done everything you could to create healing or reduce harm.
  4. Mindful eating, drinking and consuming – to eat, drink and purchase “five spoons from full,” as is the customary Buddhist practice. What would happen if the whole world spent money in a way that was “five spoons from full”? Or if the whole U.S. drove cars “five spoons from full,” or if we cut down forests “five spoons from full”?

Right Action points towards karma-that whatever we put out, we get back. Whatever seed we plant, grows. And, whatever is growing in our particular family at this moment had a seed that was planted long ago, these patterns we encounter arose from a particular place. Buddhist teacher Larry Yang often asks himself a series of questions: “can I be loving in this moment? If I can’t be loving, can I be kind in this moment? If I can’t be kind, can I not be judgmental? If I can’t not be judgmental, can I not cause harm? If I can’t not cause harm, can I cause the least harm possible?” These are questions that can be asked each moment of our lives, but it can also be specifically invoked to address harmful or difficult discussions or reactions that arise over political beliefs, a family member’s sexual orientation, or the kinds of foods one prefers to eat. In practicing Right Action, we aspire towards being loving, but accept ourselves when that is not available in the moment. Sometimes causing the least harm possible is the best we can bring.