Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1989

Serenity, an Open Heart; Chithurst Anniversary
The Four Brahma Viharas; Venerable Munindo
Hammer Wood Progress; Aj, Sucitto & Mike Holmes
Question Time; Venerable Kittisaro
Thrift; Ajahn Sucitto
A Guided Tour of Lay Practice
Inside Freedom

Inside Freedom
Monks from Harnham Vihara regularly visit four prisons in the North. Here are some reflections on prison visiting from Venerable Nyanaviro Bhikkhu.

On the last full moon day I had a dream. Shortly before retiring I read an article about the Durham "H" wing, and having visited this prison on several occasions was drawn to the description of the conditions there - a description which left a vivid impression on my mind.

In the dream I found myself in prison - it began in prison. I can remember the eating hall, my own room, the area around the prison. The whole feeling of being there was like there was something wrong, there was something terribly wrong with the whole situation. One of the main things that plagued me was not so much the actual conditios - I wasn't experiencing anything that was grossly uncomfortable on the physical level - but in the heart there was an anguished feeling. I was wanting to know why I was there and then trying to accept the situation I was in: being condemned, limited - really limited - having a certain essential part of mg freedom taken away from me. I was very Sad, and on waking up the sadness staged with me.

To Sit in such an environment is somehow a supreme way of affirming the goodness of the heart.

The first time I ever went alone to a prison I noticed some oppressive feelings arising. I could not quite understand it. I had prepared myself and was feeling quite calm and positive, but just Sitting in the room waiting for a prisoner to come and see me I could feel a heaviness descending - a pressure. When I left, this stayed for a few hours and I realized that it was a pressure that had not come from within but outside of me - the heaviness of the environment. I notice that now; it seems to be a hallmark of prisons, this flatness in the feeling of the place.

I think in my dream the prison was really my life situation. It Was not the walls of the cell, it was not the perimeter fence, but it was the prison of the mind which identifies with the human experience on the level of things, moments, birth and death; the inability of the stuff of the world to touch us deeply, and its fleetingness. This was the sadness which I wanted to shake off. When I'm with a prisoner I do not try to see him in the usual way as a man who has been locked up or put away for breaking the law, but rather as no different to me; like me someone who wants to free themselves from the prison of the ego-obsessed mind, mental habits - the prison world that we can create through our ignorance and through our lack of good heartedness.

Prison visiting is very rewarding: to simply cross one's legs and sit in the cacophony and seeming pandemonium of the cell block; men yelling, doors banging, kegs rattling, the strange light, the ugliness of the walls and the doors, the starkness and lack of colour, the lack of smiles, the rigid institutionalism. To Sit in such an environment is somehow a supreme way of affirming the goodness of the heart. It is like a great response or gesture that a human being can make: to just turn directly to the heart and be there, he with that, be fully human. In some ways it is very rich and vital, because so much is stripped away from are in that situation. One is - as it were - in isolation: a man is alone with the obviousness of his consciousness, he is pinned down with himself. In the midst of that if he can just stop still and be with himself, then there is meditation.

So often on leaving a prison I'm struck; left with a definite feeling of "How about that?", and it almost brings up a sense of guilt about my own wrongdoings. Seeing someone paying for their crimes physically and realizing that I am equally guilty. I can't just see a prisoner as impure, having committed something wrong, some misdeed. It brings up the shadow side of oneself where one knows that one has had moments of darkness, albeit not serious enough to be judged by the law of the land, but still in one's heart there is a twinge of shame or sadness. There is an honesty about prisoners - that's what it is because their crimes are out in the open. Everybody knows about them, everybody. That's what they are in for: it's been declared public and somehow in that making publicness of their crime, there is a potential for heating. Whereas for so many of us our crimes and darkness are held in, locked deep within, even hidden away from ourselves. Many prisoners will talk openly about what they have done and admit that they have regrets-and this honesty is appealing.

I think the image of a prisoner is a kind of negative archetype in the mind. It gives a chilling feeling. In different societies back through the ages there have always been prisoners, people locked up.

What strikes us perhaps, is that we realize that we too are prisoners: it seems to go deeper than just thinking freedom means that we can run around this planet going places as and when we please.

To know that that is not really freedom; just in the same way that locking up a man is not really taking away his freedom.

Plant Life
The plants in my room - all gathered together, on a chest of drawers. Protecting each other in a nest of still green.

The young fuchsia has greenfly which it keeps to itself like an embarassing acne that everyone can see but is too polite to mention.

Like a forgotten plateau at the top of an inaccessable mountain, photographs and emblems, saints and statues hide behind leafy mantles I view the fringes of fronds from the floor where I stretch out to sleep ...... what do they know of my dreams? Perhaps they mingle their potted plant language with my midnight meanderings.

Sprinkling diamonds of plant vapour into the atmosphere of the slumbering body beneath.

And If I'm in too much of a hurry on leaving the room how sad they all seem, my green friends, neglected in favour of swift passages of investigation into the drawers beneath.

So my five leaf-friends have found an abiding on my chest of drawers for the winter. I promise no more than a moistening of water and the warmth of an occasional heater. And by thriving silently they humbly accept a refuge from the bleakness of winter.

Once I did a one-day retreat in a local prison; the chaplain allowed us to use the chapel for walking meditation and a room for sitting. In the middle of the afternoon I was walking up and down when a very distinct thought arose: "I'll be glad to get out of here and back to the monastery". Reflecting on this it seems to have a humorous side to it (as some people see the monastery as a prison), but anyway, prison. but anyway, "Where am I going. Am I going somewhere that has more freedom than where I am now, just walking up and down?" And this seemed to display the conventional attitude of my mind towards the prison. It's a place where there is no freedom. So, to find freedom in a place where it's so easy to believe it is absent is a great challenge-and it is just this that we encourage prisoners to do. We encouragc them to meditate in the most raw and direct way, no strings attached. no holds barred. We just sit down and do it: it's very real. The men are very direct and don't hold back so much - perhaps because they have nothing else to lose. They ask very straight questions and give you a look, very wide-eyed and deep, as if they are drinking you in and saying: "Who are you? Where are you really at?" And it goes right down to your boots (or sandals) and if you are straight with them then they will pick that up.

Making prison visiting your offering means coming to terms with the frustration of feeling that on, is creating but a small impresion on an institution which acts primarily as a deterrent and punishment for men rather than a place of healing. But then how many human institutions are there which incline us towards true freedom, towards that clarity of vision which sees, and knows that the prison dream is just a dream?

We received the following letter from Pat Griffiths.

Dear Friends,

I'm enclosing a request from a Buddhist who is currently serving a prison sentence in Chelmsford, He's a very true and sincere Buddhist and is using this time to meditate and deepen his study of the Dhamma. He's also compiling a book and would like as many people as possible to write and tell him how Buddhism has changed their lives. So if you could help, he - and I - would be very grateful. Any letters should be sent fairly soon, as he is quite likely to be released on parole in July. His name and address: Stan Leggett, MM 3900 HM Prison, Chelmsford, Essex CM2 6LO

If you are interested in prison visiting or corresponding with prisoners, please contact Angulimala. c/o The Forest Hermitage, Lower Fulbrook, Warwick, CV35 8AS.