The incarcerated men embodied Buddhist teachings in a way which personified the profound power of the Dharma. Their words in stories and shared experiences had the effects of truly transforming their lives. I felt their nonreactivity and listened in awe to Dharma-influenced patience with their life difficulties inside and outside of prison life. Their voices sang nuggets of wisdom. Humor often imbued their radical acceptance.
— Barbara Woodard (Her fuller story continues below.)
In the winter of 2003, I received a phone call from Reverend Dana Hoyt, the prison chaplain at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Institute for Men in Berlin (NNHCI). He was contacting me on behalf of a small, ongoing Buddhist practice group which the inmates had started and had been running on their own (a practice that is no longer permitted at the prison) using books to guide them. These men had seen my name listed as a New Hampshire Buddhist teacher in The Inquiring Mind. They requested that Rev. Hoyt ask me if I might be able to help them with their sangha. I had a number of peers across the country who I knew were involved with prison teaching, and I was very interested. Also, I was a bit scared and turned to sangha for support. I remembered that our sangha member Jane Ross had done some teaching in a prison in Maine, so I asked if she would go with me. She was delighted to do so, and on a Saturday in early April 2003, we arrived at the prison doors. Valley Insight has been going monthly ever since. From mid-fall of that year, others from our sangha have been involved for short or long periods of time. All of us — inmates and volunteers alike — have been transformed. Here are a few perspectives. If, after reading them, you feel you might like to volunteer to join our team, please contact me.
From Joanne Bernard, a longtime, committed volunteer. I volunteer as a prison sangha member because it gives me an opportunity to spend time with a group of men coping with the outcome of their enormously poor choices in a profound way. They are keenly aware of why they are incarcerated, and they often share about the shame they feel and what they’ve lost, and how the teachings of the Buddha help them find peace. Every visit with them feels significant and moving, and they are my beloved teachers.
From Karen Summer, the newest member of our volunteer team. After thinking about it for many years, I finally took the plunge and joined the group going to the prison. What a good decision! The hours with the men are very special. The inherent restrictions of prison give a wholesome urgency to their quest to experience inner freedom. I am inspired by the depth of practice and commitment of the core group. We volunteers and the men teach each other in a spirit of shared gratitude and appreciation. And … the Berlin car trips nourish spiritual friendships.
Joel Lazar began volunteering shortly before our 18-months’ hiatus caused by the pandemic. He tells of a recent development. What a wonderful surprise it was when the men at Berlin prison suggested to us, early last fall, that we incorporate a “Tea Practice” (so named by them) into our shared three-hour meeting each month! The shape of this new practice gradually unfolded through regular monthly discussions and patient planning, which also entailed several careful, ongoing conversations with the prison staff and administration. The men decided early on that this would be a silent mindfulness practice.
The first official “tea practice” came into fruition in April. As usual, our conversation and shared practice on that Saturday were rich with insights and experiences from the participants themselves; and our mindful engagement in this first Tea Practice only expanded our sense of collective sangha. When the tea actually appeared, we sensed its warmth and tasted its flavors with both mindfulness and ease. We experienced a newer and deeper silence within and among ourselves. We sat together without words, quietly waiting for the very hot tea to become drinkable––savoring the empty moments, just as we eventually savored the tea. Afterwards, the participants expressed how thrilled they felt not only for the tea itself, but also for the recognition that what they themselves had envisioned and worked on together had in fact come into being. Thus, this became a moment not only to celebrate mindful sensory experience, but also to realize the empowerment of the Dharma teaching on specific conditionality — “what we do in this world has an effect in this world” — and to recognize the shared personal respect, the growing friendships, which constitute sangha. Really a remarkable afternoon!
From Barbara Woodard, who was a prison volunteer for 19 years before stepping back this year. The incarcerated men embodied Buddhist teachings in a way which personified the profound power of the Dharma. Their words in stories and shared experiences had the effects of truly transforming their lives. I felt their nonreactivity, listened in awe to Dharma-influenced patience with their life difficulties inside and outside of prison life. Their voices sang nuggets of wisdom. Humor often imbued their radical acceptance.
I was fairly new then (2004) to the Valley Insight sangha, though the charisma of Eastern thought, philosophy, and its art were already a part of me.
The zinger was the surprise of the palpable communion shared even in the sometimes-silent Buddhist seated circle. Together we transformed the camera-monitored and confined, cement- walled-and-floored prison chapel. All became holy because of causes and conditions and with a lack of expectations — each session was imbued with mutual respect and human kindness, all of this occurring in an uncommon setting. In retrospect, I knew the Buddhist teachings were special and made SO much sense — yet I had held the teachings at sort of an arm’s length until those early visits––after which I became thoroughly hooked on the dharma.
“The guys” — as we came to say — had time to meditate and to study in their cell blocks, and with respect to the Dharma, they were highly motivated and would often share even the most nuanced insights. It was especially meaningful when we read the refuges and precepts together. One individual would memorize and recite a Dhammapada verse each month, wow! He shared his process and the meaning it held for him all that month long while doing so. One gentleman who was soon to be released shared: “I used to have this hole I filled with booze or drugs. Now I have goodness and the Buddhist teachings I have learned to fill in that once-empty space.” Over time, of course, gentlemen would come and go––yet each month a small core group of committed practitioners would appear. We learned perhaps someone had a visitor, preferred time in the yard outdoors; or we heard they had been moved to a different facility — or were released! We offered annual daylong retreats which gave us a longer practice time and more insight into their prison schedules. We ate in the mess hall and sampled the institutional food. We were always thanked for coming; they appreciated that we drove north a couple hours to be with them, and wished us a safe trip home. This gratitude was mutual.
Over the years, friendships grew through the conversation and our shared four hours traveling in the car together. Kalyana-mitta. Who cared about the weather?
Nineteen years of memories from and visits to the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility added something deeply special, that je ne sais quoi (something different) to my life. There is deep and continuing gratitude for my ability to share in this experience.
There is a kind of connectedness, an intentional connectedness that comes through our actions. These are Karma connections…. When you interact with another person, a connection is made. Now, it can be a positive connection or negative connection, depending on intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth….
— Thanissaro Bhikkhu