|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1989|
Unlocking Human Potential
Ajahn Sucitto: Is there a general feeling of how prisoners have become interested and what attracts a person to Buddhism?
Ajahn Pabhakaro: There are those who have become interested from a series of talks that we have done. Then our presence becomes known to the whole prison through inmates talking to inmates.
AS: The prison authorities have actually invited you in to give talks?
AP: The main encouragement initially has been from the appointed Chaplain at the respective prisons we have been going to, as well as the Governor of inmate activities and general senior staff. I have also been in touch quite regularly with Ajahn Khemadhammo, who is the founder and spiritual director of Angulimala, the Buddhist prison chaplaincy organization. He has a wealth of experience from visiting prisons in this country over the last ten years and has always been willing to offer sound advice.
AS: So the authorities were always fairly positive and supportive?
AP: Yes, very much so. When I first went with the main C of E Chaplain of Durham to meet the Governor of inmate activities, he asked about us coming to start a meditation class at the women's prison. Her response was to welcome with both hands anything that we could do to help the inmates use their time more constructively, calm them down and help them to settle in during their time there, and we had her full support; so you really cannot ask for anything better. She went on to say that it would be good if we could offer meditation to the officers as well, because they often tend to be scapegoats - whereas in reality they have a very difficult and stressful job. In the women's prison we have had a very positive response from the officers. To date two of them have actually participated, one on a very regular basis. Several have visited Harnham. Our relationship with the male officers has also grown and interest has been expressed, so all in all there is very little negativity, and a supportive and friendly feeling is the norm.
To present that quite radical image of peace and kindness in a place where there is an extraordinary lack of it.
AS: How do inmates relate to a monk? Do you think they might say to you what they would not say to a lay person?
AP: Definitely so, because our robes and our shaven head is a very bold statement of something. So, either we are religious freaks or fanatics, or someone who is quite sincere and dedicated to what we are doing. Once they actually meet us the response is quite positive, there is a lot we have in common. Often people have never thought of how monasteries and prison are similar. The single cells and a cloistered affect give the feeling of a retreat situation. The whole day is structured, and there are times when you are locked up; in a high security prison, you are on your own in your cell for 12 hours at a time and that's a lot more time than we give our retreatants.
AS: Do you find they ever "test you out" - where they check out whether they can rely on you?
Venerable Nyanaviro: Yes. You have to search into yourself to present your life-style in the most immediate way - it's all about being peaceful and moral. So I found myself being very aware of my role as a monk.
AS: There is a strong tendency in society to see their crime which may be something of a fairly brief duration - is actually their self. A very common view of someone who has not been in prison would be that these are people who have done harm, hurt people, and so they should be punished, "Why should you be kind to them, they haven't been kind to anyone else" Would you like to comment on that?
AP: Obviously there is some crime involved to get them into prison, whether they are "ultimately" guilty or not: but I have been very clear from the beginning that it's not my business. What is my business is to make myself available and open, and to make myself trustworthy through being honest. What they did - for me - is not important; what is important is what their potential is. What I want to appeal to is that potential to transcend what they have done, and to encourage and support their highest qualities - of love and understanding. What they need is not to forget about their crime but, in their own time and space, to see clearly what they have done - especially if what they have done has been harmful to others That's the only way it can be rehabilitating. Unless; you give those supportive conditions, all you are doing is reinforcing the crime and the criminal mind - and then it is just a perpetual going back.
AS: Can you give us a couple of examples of how you notice a situation developing at prison with the teaching?
AP: We'll talk about the women first. It started with an invitation from the Chaplain to go and show "Alms bowls to Newcastle" [a television documentary] about Harnham and myself, as a subject of interest, something different. They were interested and asked very good questions, and I offered to, come and start a meditation class. Within a fortnight we had started our first meditation class. None of them are Buddhists, none of them had ever been exposed to any Buddhism, only one had ever done meditation, and so we were starting from scratch. What that has grown into is a continuing Weekly Class. At first we tried to play the Buddhism down and just encourage the meditation, but the growth has been such that Buddhism has come into it more and more. I mean, how do two Buddhist monks teach meditation without saying something about Buddhism? We got permission to make meditation stools for their personal use and now all of them make an effort, at least once in the twelve hours that they are locked up, to sit for a period of time. Lately they have taken the initiative to meet on their own on weekends that we couldn't come in, and that went quite well. Now they are talking about trying to do that once during the week - as a group - in the little chapel that they have on the wing.
VN: I think the situation in Frankland with the men parallels that a lot. What really got it going was a series Of six lectures on "An Introduction to Buddhism", which brought in about 10-15 men, and out of that evolved a regular weekly group, which is like a Buddhist service. Now we are sitting, we chant, and we have a lot of talk because the prisoners like to talk a lot. It is very new to them, they may have had a little bit of experience with Yoga or TM or read a book, but nothing much really - so again it was starting from scratch. Now, after a period of months, we are getting to know the men more and some of them have opened up to us more about what they are going through. We are talking of some people who experience mind states of an intensity that a lot of us are not, used to.
They go through so many ups and, downs; some guy may not come to the group for a while, and it could be that he is going through absolute hell - its, not, that he's losing interest, but very extreme stuff may be coming up. One chap told me that every morning when he wakes up, he notices that his mind just moves straight towards depression; not just because of where he is, but because of the strong tendencies that his mind has. That's what he is up against - just to get up and try to meditate when everything is loaded against him. So in some ways, it's not quite the same as your average Buddhist meditator.
AS: How long do they stay with it? You both mentioned that in some ways it is a situation in which there almost isn't any choice. When they get out, are they going to stay with it, or just forget it all?
AP: Only time will tell, one really doesn't know. In Buddhist groups outside prison, there's a lot of ups and downs and comings and going's - how much do people stick with it in those situations and take it away? As a teacher, you're always sowing and nurturing seeds and so why should it be any different in prisons, and how far in the future do you want to see this? How much they get out of it is very much on an individual basis.
Dear Ajahn Pabhakaro
Yes brother, 'tis I Jimmy. I'm not usually one for writing but - I just felt I had to write and say "thanks" for the last six weeks, and especially for last Tuesday which was fantastic. Please pass on my thanks to the other monks and to the lay brothers and sisters who treated us so kindly and for a brief time made me feel human again.
This letter is to indicate our appreciation for the instruction in meditation we've received from Brothers Pabhakaro and Nyanaviro. We're continuing to follow their guidance in this matter, finding their visits to the prison very encouraging. Meditating with them in a group has helped us not to "throw in the towel". It appears that all those attending these "sessions" pursue the practice in their calls alone. We recognize the potential in meditation to help us to live more calm, aware and progressive lives. We are still only at the initial stages and can't sag definitely what overall impact it will have. However, we have all concluded that it promises additional calm and contact with the less familiar aspects of ourselves.
Angulimala is the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy organization, which coordinates
prison visiting and correspondence with inmates. Help and -support is
always needed; to find out how you might help, please write to: