current newsletter
back issues

forest sangha newsletter

 October 2005            2548            Number74
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

74newsletter       Subjection to Change, and peace      Starting the Path Where We Find It

Dhamma in Prisons

Extract from a talk given by Ajahn Khemadhammo at Wat Pah Nanachat in December 2003.

I was given the OBE for ‘Services to Prisoners’– as the citation put it. Prison work has occupied me for many years now and is very dear to my heart. Frankly, it is amongst the times when I am happiest, in prison talking to prisoners.

In 1977 I returned from Thailand to England with Luang Por Chah. One weekend I took him to visit my parents. The weather was miserable; it rained almost incessantly. It happened to be the Queen’s Jubilee but the celebrations were somewhat washed out. Not able to do very much, one day we went for a drive. We called at some distant relatives of mine. It was Sunday afternoon and these being middle-class English people, there was Sunday afternoon tea. That went on at one end of the room while Luang Por and I sat at the other. After a while Luang Por nudged me in the ribs and asked me to ask these people whether they suffered. My heart sank at the thought of having to broach this topic during Sunday afternoon tea. I was about to try and get out of it, when the room went silent. For some reason his question had caught their attention. They were agog, wanting to hear what the great man had said. So I had no alternative but to ask. “He wants to know if you suffer.” Well, you can imagine the reaction. There were some polite giggles and one or two people said, “Well, sort of.” After a while I turned to Luang Por and said, “They just don’t understand,” and managed to close the subject.

For people who are reasonably comfortably off, that is often how it is. Even though they obviously suffer, they don’t acknowledge the fact. When talking to people in England about Buddhism I have come across this many times. When I talk about suffering they deny that they suffer. But in prison I don’t have this problem. As soon as I broach the topic of suffering they understand. They are all too willing to admit to it. So it is easier to talk Dhamma in prison than it is outside because the purpose of practising Dhamma is to overcome suffering, and if people can’t acknowledge that they suffer, trying to talk to them about it is a non-starter.

Imprisonment is a very uncomfortable experience for most people even though in some prisons the conditions are quite good. I mean, they have a roof over their head, they have three meals a day — sometimes not very good, but at least they eat — and they’re warm. But in other respects they are very uncomfortable. The great suffering that people in prison experience is that they don’t have the freedom to go where they want, and especially to go home. When you don’t have the freedom to be with the people you love, it is obviously very painful.

In prison it is therefore relatively easy to discuss the topic of craving and desire and how these bring about suffering. Outside, people are usually encouraged to practise craving. The whole economy is built around it. I remember when I was young, being encouraged to be ambitious – and I was ambitious; it was considered a virtue. So again, it makes it difficult to talk on Dhamma outside, where craving and desire are considered laudable. However, in prison, where people can’t have most of the things they want, they easily see the connection between craving and suffering. They want to go home, they want to see their families, particularly their children, and they can’t. They want various kinds of food, and they can’t have them. These desires bring suffering.

When I first started going into prisons I had to ask myself what I could offer. I knew nothing about prisons. But I soon realised that prison life and monastic life have a lot in common. Most of us monks spend or have spent much time alone in a small room or hut, not unlike a small cell. Although you are not locked in, when you are in the forest here, there is hardly anywhere else to go. And although we might say that we are here of our choice, I myself felt a compulsion to come into monastic life. I couldn’t see anything else to do. So in a sense, you might say it was ‘against my will’. Similarly, people in prison are taken there against their will.

Food is a delicate topic both in monastic and prison life. I remember particularly the early days at Wat Pah Pong where people could be quite touchy at the time when food was distributed. Here at Wat Pah Nanachat you have it rather easier than we did. For a start the food is much better. Secondly, you have a choice; you pick what you want. You don’t sit in line, as we used to, and accept dollups of food being dumped in your bowls. In prison, the time of giving out food is the time when there is the most violence. It is a delicate time because the prisoners can’t have to eat exactly what they would like. So again, it is desire, wanting something, that brings suffering and tension.

I have always got on well with prisoners. I think it is because they see me as another kind of drop out. I’ve dropped out in a certain direction and they have dropped out in another. We are not quite acceptable to the establishment — or at least not until recently. Now I’m an OBE my mother is almost happy with me (for the first time in 32 years. She used to expect that I would sooner or later grow out of monasticism but I think she is now beginning to accept the idea that that might not happen.)

When I discovered that there were so many jails in this country and was spending a lot of my time travelling from one jail to another, I decided, together with someone helping me at the time, to set up an organisation and do the job properly. That was how Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy, was founded in 1985. Now, we have a team of about 50 people visiting around 120 establishments. So, for twenty-six years I’ve been wandering around British prisons. Sometimes they say I’ve done a longer sentence than most of the people inside…

I was pleased when I saw the citation for my OBE, ‘Services to Prisoners’. It wasn’t ‘Services to the Prison Service’, which it could easily have been. I was pleased, because prisoners are human beings like all of us, and they matter. They are as capable as most of us are of doing good things as well as bad, skilful things as well as unskilful things. They are no different in most respects. The only difference is that they got caught. Although crime is very common, and many people, even respectable people, fiddle their income tax and other sorts of things, most people get away with it.

There have been one or two Thai and Indian prisoners I’ve known who have allegedly been innocent of what they have been convicted of. Their reaction to it has been quite commendable. They have told me, “It’s kamma. I must have done something in the past to have deserved this.” They’ve said,“I am not guilty of what they have got me here for”, but they have accepted their situation and got on with their sentences, rather than fighting them.

I don’t often nowadays accept invitations to give talks to Buddhist societies and the like because at those events I feel I am being asked to be a kind of entertainer and I object to that, whereas in the prisons we’re doing some work. In fact, that is what attracts me most to Buddhism. It is something that can be applied and worked on. It’s not about becoming someone or something. It’s something to do, enabling you to develop your understanding.

I’ve been very fortunate in life because I’ve met and worked with a great many outstanding people. When I was an actor I worked with almost all the great names of the day. For three years my boss at the National Theatre was Sir Laurence Olivier. Then when I first came to Thailand, although he was not yet famous, I found Ajahn Chah.

Arriving in Bangkok, I didn’t know where to go or what to do, and ended up at Wat Mahataht. I didn’t like it much, but I became a samanera there. Then I bumped into an old friend who had already ordained. He said, “There is only one place to go if you want to be a real monk: Wat Pah Pong.” So that is where I went.

My first impression of Wat Pah Pong was that it was a bit of a concentration camp. I got over that and stayed on; I wasn’t always quite sure why, because it wasn’t comfortable; but I gradually realised that I could gain a lot by practising with Luang Por Chah. In my fourth and fifth years I was able to spend a lot of time with him, especially when we went to England together, which was a great privilege and opportunity.

When living with people, certain things rub off on you without your being aware of it. This is what happened to me with Luang Por Chah. From a tendency to a narrowness of view that I had, living with him encouraged in me the ability to embrace a broader view and to be kinder and more open. And now with prisoners, I have great sympathy with them, with their suffering. That’s one of the reasons that I feel so committed to working with them.

Occasionally people ask me if I feel afraid in prisons. I do not. Although I wouldn’t say that I am particularly brave, certain things don’t bother me. Walking the forest at night doesn’t bother me; neither does going into prisons and dealing with difficult situations. In fact, it has become a tremendous practice. I want to emphasise that because occasionally people have suggested that what I am attempting to do is social action, but I reject that suggestion completely.

Again, people sometimes think that what I do in prisons is separate from my life as a monk. I reject that suggestion too. My idea is simple: prisoners can’t come to the temple so we have to take the temple to them.

I’ve had to learn many things in this work, like how to negotiate and be diplomatic. You have to be very much on your toes in prison. You have to be mindful. You have to be doing your best to live and express Dhamma. It’s been a tremendous field of practice for me.


Ajahn Khemadhammo became a bhikkhu in 1972. He was appointed an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2003 and made a Chao Khun with the name Phra Bhavanavitayt on the King of Thailand's birthday, December 2004. He is the abbot of The Forest Hermitage, Lower Fulbrook, nr Sherbourne, Warwickshire CV35 8AS, England.
Websites: and



back to top                                                              




©The Forest Sangha Newsletter |  site map contact & contributions  |