By Calvin Malone
When I first began my prison sentence in Washington State in 1992, I had no idea how much and in what ways I would change. During my first few months of incarceration I thought that I needed to be prepared for anything, including taking another's life if necessary. I bought into all the hype and stories about prison--life depicted in popular TV shows. No one told me then, that embedded within the confines of walls and fences were countless opportunities for transformation and the profound effect Buddhism would eventually have on my life and the lives of others. I didn't know at the time that the final lines of Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken" would eventually become my mantra:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference"
Now, as I reach the end of my prison sentence, I have a better understanding of what this journey was all about.
I've never been able to figure out exactly why some prisoners flourish and grow while others crash and burn. Some people suggest that it is our conditioning which molds our future. Some say that fate dictates much of our lives. I concur to a degree with both views and would like to add to that the word -- resolve. Despite the cost, we all have the choice to have the resolve to do what is right and what is best for ourselves and for others.
From the vantage point of two decades past, I've had the chance to witness men who ran roughshod over weaker prisoners and who at one time were considered being the "shot--callers" of the prison hierarchy, weaken with age and who are now victims themselves. Others have died violently or naturally, while most have joined the sad ranks of older cons sitting around card tables complaining about their aches and pains or the injustices perpetuated against them by "The System". Having invested in nothing, they get nothing in return. No longer "Kings of the Hill", they have settled on being social paupers in prison.
Time and again I've seen vulnerable youth walk into the prison gates for the first time in fear, only to have that fear realized at the hands of convicts who extort money and sex in exchange for protection from the hapless victim. Given time, these young men often become perpetrators themselves and look for victims to cover their own shame. Sadly, this is a continuing cycle fed by greed, anger lust, and depravity.
Then there is the vast majority who come into prison and live within the shadows hoping to pass through the experience unnoticed and unscathed. Much like many people in society today, this group is concerned first and foremost with self--preservation. These folks are not attentive to the suffering around them, and add to the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty by their lack of involvement and by their silence. In many ways understandable but not exceedingly noble
Then there are the few who decide to change their lives despite the obstacle by following a spiritual practice, or by pursuing an education, or by volunteering for self--help programs. Most likely, it is a combination of all these factors. They willingly help others with little regard for their own well--being nor do they seek reward. These individuals face a gauntlet of ridicule and pressure from peers who see these people's progress as a threat to the status quo. It is that very progress that trumpets their own failings and clearly exposes the fact that they are hegded nowhere, fast. They want to try and sabotage those who, "take the road less traveled" and that is where resolve comes in. The cause and effect of my own resolve became glaringly evident to me at the last annual Buddhist event that I would get to attend as a prisoner. To better understand this revelation, I should explain how I got there.
On December 19, 1995 and after three years at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, I was transferred to the Airway Heights Correction Center located near Spokane, Washington. .Soon after joining the Buddhist group there, I was selected -- by default -- as the Buddhist spokesperson. In that capacity I was asked to try and persuade the prison administration to allow our group more equitable treatment and convince them to change policy to extend "Freedom of Religion" to Buddhists. A lofty goal that would consume much of my time and take years of effort and resolve to accomplish.
That first year at AHCC a lot of concentrated effort went into persuading prison officials to allow Buddhists to conduct annual events similar to those enjoyed by mainstream religions. In 1996 the Gateless Sangha was granted permission to hold its first annual event. About 55 inmates and guests attended the event which consisted of a banquet, flute music, and a play.
The highlights of the event were teachings offered by Ven. Rowan Conrad of Open
Gate Sangha in Missoula, Montana, Abbot Kyogen Carlson and Jinko Sallie Tisdale of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, and by our sponsor Lama Inge Sandvoss of the Padma Ling, in Spokane. Despite numerous obstacles, the event was a smashing success.
Over the next 12 years, each annual Buddhist event highlighted a theme with special guests and teachers agumenting a program already rich in substance and fellowship. Every year other teachers from far and wide attended our events traveling from places such as Nepal, Thailand, Tibet, Japan, Scotland, the Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Vermont, Michigan, New Hampshire, Montana, and all around Washington State. For each event we created and produced a commemorative brochure with a focus on the current theme. These were exceptionally memorable times and inspired all the participants in numerous ways. So much so that as some of our members were transferred to other institutions, Buddhist groups began popping up in all the other prisons within Washington State. It was especially gratifying to hear thatthegroups were not only conducting regularly scheduled practices, but all of them were also able to put on annual events. Some dubbed the events as; "Buddha Fest" to commemorate Buddha's birth, his enlightenment, and his death. I envisioned these events to be similar to ours with their own variations. It appeared to me that Buddhism was beginning to emerge from obscurity.
I should point out here that "Freedom of Religion" is a Constitutional right, even for prisoners. But the reality is that minority religions, and particularly Buddhists in most prisons constantly struggle to get the same rights that mainstream religions take for granted. This is not to say that we have not made huge strides toward equality. We have achieved what many thought was impossible. Yet there remains an atmosphere of state sponsored discrimination and bias that erodes the confidence people have in our system by extending privileges to some while denying those same privileges to others. One of the stories that best capsulate my experience with religious discrimination with this system occurred in late 1997.
Early that year, the Buddhist group asked me to formally submit a request to have the Religious Property Matrix policy changed for Buddhists statewide. The list of "approved" items at the time were; "1--Sutra, 1--Prayer Beads, and 1--Prayer wheel"! In addition to expanding the altar items list, we asked that use of cushions for meditation also be granted.
There is a protracted process in place in order to change any policy, so we anticipated a long drawn--out struggle. With the help of outside teachers and after mailing out dozens of letters, and sitting through hours of meetings, over the course of several months, altar items were approved. But the chaplain denied our request to purchase cushions or use some sort of pad for meditation. At that point I was compelled to file my first grievance claiming in it that meditation was an essential part of Buddhist practice and explained how cushions
and mats helped facilitate that experience. The chaplain responded to my grievance by agreeing to meet with me. He wanted to know exactly what zafus and zabutons were and what they looked like. I showed him pictures of meditation cushions advertised in various Buddhist publications. I described how they were used and why. In addition, teachers like Lama Inge Sandvoss, Sensei Sunyana Graef and Zen Priest Vanja Palmers wrote letters of support and offered to help supply these items for our group. Inexplicably, the chaplain rejected my 57" complaint and our request to be allowed the use of cushions during meditation practice. He also turned down the kind offers made by several outside supporters. He stated that he was not authorized to make a decision and could not make a recommendation to his supervisor based on a picture in a catalog or magazine.
Seeking a resolution to this stalemate, I wrote a letter to Carol Mudd of the Zen Home Stitchery explaining our situation and asked if she could send a sample. To my pleasant surprise, a large box arrived within a couple of weeks addressed to the "AHCC Buddhist Group" The box contained a zafu and a zabuton. She also included three sample bags of material used to stuff cushions and a cut section of a cushion to better demonstrate how cushions are constructed. I gave this box to the chaplain to try and help persuade him to change his mind.
Over the course of nine months I often had the occasion to meet with the chaplain in his office. On the top of his tall bookself sat the huge box of cushions and samples collecting dust. At each meeting I would ask if he had the opportunity to examine the contents of the box, and each time the chaplain managed to avoid the question. In frustration I advanced my grievance to the next level. Almost immediately I was told that the Religious Program Manager for the state had come by the prison on a tour and taken the box of cushions and samples with him to make a final determination regarding use of these items for meditation practice.
Months went by without a word. By way of attrition, my initial grievance had lapsed. I had to file another grievance. This time I brought up the fact that the box and its contents had disappeared and mentioned the obstacles I had run into while trying to resolve the issue. Soon thereafter I received a letter directly from the Religious Program Manager who claimed that he did not know anything about the subject of cushions and that he was never in possession of the box in question. Again I had to advance my grievance to the state level providing proof that the material existed at one time. I also was able to prove through a meticulous paper-trial that the box was last seen in the hands of the Religious Program Manager. An investigation ensued which determined that he actually had the donated samples at one time but now claimed to have lost them. My grievance though prompted him to send me a letter on state letterhead claiming that my actions in this matter "impedes progress". He added that my overall behavior was "deplorable". He went on to say that our request for use of cushions during meditation was denied, for the following reasons:
Cushions take up too much space.
Cusions could conceal contraband.
Cushions were not an essential part of the Buddhist religion.
Upon receipt of this extraordinary letter, I responded with one of my own. In addition, I sent a copy to his supervisor, the Director of Prisons. In that letter I asked that based on the criteria set forth by the Religious Program Manager, I request that all the padded chairs and pews be removed from prison chapels statewide based on the following reasons.
Chairs & pews take up too much space.
Chairs & pews could conceal contraband.
Chairs & pew were not an essential part of any religion.
Right away a state official contacted me say that Buddhists would be allowed to use prayer rugs. The same type of rugs Muslims use for daily prayer. Whomever made that decision did not know the difference between the religions when it came to prayer rugs and meditation cushions. We respectfully declined the offer and again asked that cushions be approved.
Two months after I mailed that letter, it was announced that the Religious Program Manager had "retired" and the replacement was eager to work with all minority religions. To prove that claim, a new policy was immediately installed allowing Buddhists throughout the prison system to use folded blankets-supplied by the state-in the cells and during Buddhist practices as a group.
his story best exemplifies the difficulties we encountered at almost every turn. There is a parallel tale relating to the process involved to allow incarcerated Buddhists access to Buddhist literature, films, CDs and taped teachings, as well as consistent practice time, retreats and of course annual events. The fact that these accomplishments spanned over the course of nearly two decades really does not matter. The effort was all practice on multiple
levels. Throughout this experience, I often had to look deeply within and try to recognize the times when obscurations of non-virtue driven by anger, ego, and pride influenced my perspective. I caught myself constantly monitoring my motivation. Sensei Sunyana Graef summed it up best for me in a letter written in the late 1990s; "Just remember, that projects should not become our practice". Sunyana taught me to distinguish between projects being practice or becoming a practice. Advice that I try to live by to this day.
My experience in this struggle for equality was not without cost. While I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about people, politics, and diplomacy, the reality is that I have been a target of abuse by inmates and prison officials alike due to my involvement in implementing change. People feel threatened when someone does not agree with their tradition or their religion and may go to drastic measures to "vanquish" the non-believer. This fundamental theism makes it extremely difficult when introducing Buddhism to an entrenched system. It is a human trait to resist change or accept or even tolerate "other". But change is inevitable. Like drops of water on a stone, given the time, will leave an impression. So too has our resolve made Buddhism a more accepted religion in this prison system.
Today, Buddhist literature, films, and CDs, and yes, sitting cushions, are readily available in Washington prisons. Ordained teachers can visit any prison hindered only by the same bureaucracy and paperwork that all religious guests suffer through. Like the mainstream religions, Buddhists are now allowed one annual event where food is served, guests and family are invited, and where a joyous atmosphere seems to dispel, momentarily, the notion of prison. Accomplishing all this was a labor of love by literally hundreds of people from within our sangha and around the world.
All these things were running through my mind on the day e: the event
I was feeling skeptical and somewhat negatively predisposed to the whole program schedule as I entered the visiting room where the annual Buddhist event was being held. I noticed right away the effort that sangha members put into decorating and setup. Prisoners without guests or family members were placed at tables on one side of the room and inmates with their family members and guests on the other side. Like a horseshoe, both sides of the room came together closing at the altar. At the opposite end, panels were set up to hide the dancers and performers. By the time I was processed through, 250 people packed the room. I found a seat and looked over the program brochure not really reading it but thinking back five months earlier at my first Buddhist practice since my transfer to this prison.
My initial impression was that this group was by far the largest prison sangha I've ever seen or heard of. The meeting room was packed from front to back with the sponsors sitting on either side of the altar. It did not take me long to discover the reason for this impressive turnout. The Asian/Island Pacific Cultural Club, (API), had taken over the Buddhist group.
It was not a hostile takeover, rather a calculated maneuver to have two special events. You see, cultural groups are allowed a single event each year where family and guests are invited to share meals and cultural programs. Each religious group is allowed one annual event as well. The requirements for participation in these events are very simple. One must attend 75% of the cultural or religious meetings 90 days prior to the event. Early this year, more and more Asian and Island Pacific inmates begin to attend the Buddhist meetings. Three months before the event, well over 60 people were showing up during the first hour of practice. Much of that hour is usually taken up by announcements, socializing, and roll call which is done by our outside sponsors. We would then meditate for about 10 to 15 minutes and close with a short incense ceremony. After that first hour, with attendance confirmed, most of the API participants would troop out leaving about a dozen Buddhists members for the second hour of practice.
This is a special time in that it is so tranquil after the noisy press and hustle of humanity of the previous hour. The quiet and calm lent well to a meaningful period of meditation and teachings facilitated by our visiting Zen teachers. Though the actual Buddhist membership hovers around 15 there is a feeling of sangha and the practice that second hour is both solid and meaningful. When business is being discussed during the first hour and a vote is called relating to annual event planning, the Buddhist practitioners are overwhelmingly outvoted by the API majority. By controlling both groups the API can have two annual events. One as the Asian/Island Pacific Culture Club and the other under the auspices of Buddhism. Unless sponsors are willing to firmly restrict this kind of outside influence, prisoners will take over groups to better their own interests. This type of maneuvering is common throughout the US prison system but this was the first time I'd had the chance to see it firsthand. It should be noted here that sponsors volunteer their time for the benefit of the incarcerated. They are not interested in prison politics nor is it their job to police groups or individuals. If their involvement becomes too complicated or stressful --they stop volunteering. That is why the Buddhist membership quietly allowed the API to take over the annual Buddhist events.
Since I was new to the group I had little to no influence as to how the event was to unfold. It felt odd to not have some input or involvement into what is otherwise considered the biggest Buddhist happening of the year. For the very first time in my entire prison experience, I was taking a backseat as an observer. But this was not the root of my discomfort. In fact, I rather enjoyed being free of the pressures associated with the planning process. My concern was the impact this takeover would have on Buddhism in the future within the prison system.
There I was, at my last Buddhist event as a Washington prisoner looking around and waiting for the program to begin. The festive air was bolstered by flowers and decorations. As the room filled up I could not help but notice how the colorful clothing of the visitors while contrasting sharply with the drab khaki apparel of inmates seemed to blend naturally in the sea of humanity. The altar was nicely arranged with Buddhist teachers seated on either side. When the program began our sponsor opened with a Buddhist prayer and a meditation period, followed by an introduction and a teaching. The portion of the program devoted entirely to Buddhism took 21 minutes including the prayer at the end of the five hour program.
Immediately after this opening, an API member jumped into the center of the room attired in full Polynesian dress announcing that the real show was about to begin, and what a show it was! There were numerous Polynesian dances, a couple of Vietnamese dances, and a few Chinese dragon dances. All together a very impressive production, remarkably well choreographed with costumes and dragons made by the API. Despite all the glitz, I was sitting there brooding over the fact that it appeared as though this was more of an API get--together than an event for Buddhists.
Between dances people were encouraged to come up and give a short talk, a poem, or offer a testimonial. One of the outside guests came forward to tell us that we all needed to follow Jesus and the word of God! He then gave a short sermon before relinquishing the microphone to a thunderous applause. This speech convinced me that individuals with personal agendas had successfully subverted nearly two decades of effort to install Buddhism in the prison system. I looked back at all the hard work involved in just getting Buddhist events approved, only to have them commandeered by people who had little to no investment in Buddhism. It was more than I could take. I got up to see if I could leave and go back to my unit, but as I looked around I saw a sea of happy faces. It seemed that everyone was having a good time but me! Older inmates had taught younger men intricate dances instilling pride in their culture while providing a sense of purpose. They had not wasted their time on card games, TV shows, or just hanging out. They spent countless hours rehearsing in preparation of these events. The participants were filling the room with joy and happiness as dancers and audience swirled together in laughter, song, and dance. Then, at just the right moment, the tone was lowered, a prayer said and the meal was served. The food was exceptional adding to an otherwise near perfect day.
I'm not sure what to call it, a moment of grace, realization, awareness, I don't know. I do know that a huge weight lifted from my mind. As I looked out across the room at all the smiling faces, I realized that what I was seeing was the cause and effect of all the work of the past twenty years. This was not about me, or how I feel, or what I thought. If anything this was the ripple effect of all of our efforts. When we began to advocate for the right to practice Buddhism, no one knew or could forecast exactly what each prison sangha would look like or how they would develop. No one could have predicted this outcome or how and what each sangha would morph into. If the worst thing that could come out of all this is that 250 people have a memorable time in the midst of razor-wire and fences - then I'm OK with it. I think Jesus and Buddha would have been happy to be there that day and probably would have told me to chill.
When I finally had this realization and let go of my discontent and bias it became clearly evident to me that Buddhism was not going to cease to exist based on this single event or how celebrations of this kind occur. If anything, the influence Buddhism has had on prisons and prisoners alike is best exemplified by the fact that it has created an atmosphere whereby remarkable things can happen on a daily bases. We could not have celebrated as we did at the Buddha Fest had we long ago not so diligently, "taken the road less traveled by."
It's time that I let go and allow others to have the privilege and the honor to serve and learn. I am grateful to have had this opportunity to help introduce Buddhism into this prison system. I am grateful to all the friends, teachers, and supporters who were always there at the right times. I am grateful to all the hundreds of people in our prison sanghas who took the road less traveled by and found out as I did that many came before us with many more on the way, and that has made all the difference.