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