Teaching Buddhism Inside Prison – Part III: Truthfulness

7.28.2016

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.”

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