Teaching Buddhism Inside Prison – Part II: Wisdom

7.14.2016

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

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