Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in Prison: Beginning Again

Buddhadharma: “Inviting each breath as a chance to stay connected, and if not, begin again.”
– Sharon Salzberg, from a guided meditation

Nineteen years ago, on a gray, slightly overcast Saturday morning in early April 2003, two of us from the Valley Insight Sangha pulled into the parking lot of the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Men (NNHCF) in Berlin, New Hampshire for the first time. There, on an uprise directly in front of us, was the huge, long, brick prison surrounded by methodically rolled, layered, and stacked stainless-steel razor wire — which was just catching the small amount of available sunlight and shining with an ominous beauty. The sight took our breath away.

We were there that morning because of a request from a small group of inmates who had an interest in Buddhism. They had seen my name listed as a New Hampshire-based Dharma teacher in Inquiring Mind, a national Buddhist publication, and they had asked the chaplain to reach out to me. Now, I had arrived to meet with them. This initial connection grew into seventeen years of uninterrupted monthly Dharma gatherings in the NNHCF, until this steady, deeply committed, ever-evolving practice group ended abruptly in mid-March of 2020. Like most of the world during the Covid pandemic, the prison was shut down to outsiders — volunteers and family alike — for eighteen months. A long pause. Though the prison chaplain and I emailed back and forth discussing possibilities for our connecting with the men, we only managed to get through to them one communication, a poster with a picture of the Buddha and a message: We are thinking of you — wishing you well always.

When the prison reopened its doors to outsiders in October of 2021 we began again, and we did learn that our message had been posted and received with joy and gratitude. Now, in the prison chapel, we are gradually reconnecting with one another, with the Dharma, and with the strength and clarity of our formal and informal practice and commitment. We’ve heard some about prison life during the pandemic shutdown: stories of personal and collective trauma and hardship; inspiring tales of friendship and goodwill; updates on men who have been released or transferred. The meetings are familiar and different — both. Our gatherings pre-Covid were three hours long and open to all cell blocks at one time. Now, for security reasons, only half of the prison population can be together at once. This means we have two small groups, each meeting for one and a half hours each. By chance, one group has our pre-Covid attenders and the other has new-to-us people. The threads of our connections are strong and fragile — both.

I am still moved by a story Jack Kornfield told, long ago. It is not from the suttas but from the Jataka tales, a folk collection recounting the Buddha’s lives before he became a buddha. In this particular life, he was a very wealthy, very generous merchant. One day, while feasting in his garden, he learned that an awakened being, an earlier buddha, was approaching and would soon be passing by his property. The merchant promptly filled a platter with delicious food to present as an alms offering. As he heard the buddha’s approaching footsteps, he stood and began to walk towards the gate. Just at that moment, a huge hole opened in the yard and the merchant stumbled into it. As he fell deeper and deeper, all kinds of horrible and wonderful events took place, lifetimes rose and fell. All the while, the merchant kept walking towards the gate, holding the offering in outstretched arms.

This story speaks to me of Valley Insight’s return to the prison in Berlin. In each of us involved, there is a strong resolve: an intention supported by the courage of faith and aspiration, and lived out through a daily practice as steady as the merchant’s steps — even as he stumbled. Isn’t this true for all of us? We fall off a bicycle and break bones and we keep walking towards the gate. A spouse dies; a beloved child stumbles with a mental health problem; a friend faces bullying and prejudice at their workplace; a worldwide pandemic arises; our nation resists its own truth yet again; a senseless war breaks open the lives of millions. We keep walking towards the gate with our gift — miraculously, feeding others along the way. This is the path of Dharma; we find it and lose it and begin again. And again. Bhikkhu Bodhi says it this way:

The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision. It is the insight into final freedom — the peace and purity of a liberated mind — that uplifts us and impels us to overcome our limits. But it is by repetition — the methodical cultivation of wholesome practices — that we cover the distance separating us from the goal and draw ever closer to awakening.

In the Jataka tale, the merchant in the end arrives at the gate, just at the right moment. He bows deeply to the buddha and offers his bounty. How often we have heard one another say: I am grateful for my practice, for these teachings, and for the warmth of Sangha.

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