January 7th: My second visit to the Buddhist Sangha Meeting on Sunday from 3 to 5 PM.
We arrive about ½ hour ahead of schedule to process: which includes handing over driver’s licenses to the “brown card” carrier, a senior Buddhist from the Sangha who has applied and been granted “official guest status” by the prison. They facilitate the paperwork and process to have the gatekeeper confirm our eligibility and approve our petition to enter the prison.
Once through the outer gate and signing in individually, we proceed as a group to the main gate where we present ID and are stamped with ink which responds to black light, to ID us for our eventual departure. We are then allowed to enter the cage which has a locked gate fore and aft: only one of which can be opened at a time. With the first gate locked behind us, and holding up our ID for the gatekeeper, we are buzzed through the inner gate and proceed to the courtyard, which is spacious, with manicured greens and shrubbery. I’m assuming the prisoners maintain these grounds, which are inviting, save for two large water fountains which are broken.
We proceed to the meeting room in the chapen complex. The room is large institutional feel with lino tile floor, grim paint job and a number of storage cupboards in an overheated space. We open all doors and windows to reduce the overheating, and begin to set up the room with chairs , sitting mats and cushions.
Within 10 minutes or so, the residents, in blue sweat shirts and pants begin to arrive from various areas adjoining the courtyard. Mostly black, various hairstyles, some with hats, some bald, some dreads. Already several known faces and we quite easily begin to visit. A fair amount of kidding and relaxed banter. This period seems to last close to 20 minutes while a quorum assembles. Last week there were about 16 prisoners and a half dozen Buddhists from “outside” who, with some regularity, join the Sunday discussion, or later on, from 5: 30 to 8:00 gather for sitting, lecture and some questions or discussions around Buddhist practice.
Printed copies of “What the Buddha Taught” passed out, and people took turns reading and discussing the text. One passage referred to the contrast of practice style between the hermit or yogi who leaves society and sits alone far from the demands of people and commerce. The text suggested that even though some practice within the many demands of city life, work and family, endeavoring to study the Way with a pure heart under those conditions (Lay Practice), that this may well be a more fruitful and pure hearted approach.
There followed a discussion of practicing with “noise” understanding the term to refer to both internal and exterior chatter and distraction. One of the senior prisoners, responding to one who asking how to respond to the insults or idiocy of others, responded by saying how in his earlier life he was “the noise” and so was more able to let the excess of other pass him by.
The level of consideration and friendliness surprised me. The inmates seem to know each other well and spend some of the opening minutes checking in and catching up with the outsiders and each other. There was no evidence of people making excuses or complaining. All of them seemed to be taking the opportunity to sit and consider practice together quite seriously.
An altar was set up and the bells to signal the sequence were put in place.
We chanted to open the meeting and several of the members from inside were wearing prison Rakusus, which is an abbreviated “robe” to indicate that they had formally studied the precepts and taken on the responsibility to practice the way with others and seek to understand the teachings, live by them and encourage and consider the well being of others.
One of the Buddhist visitors who has been introducing me to the conventions and process of these meetings referred me to link which has a collection of stories called Ear Hustle.
These stories say far more about life on the inside that anything I could report. So I recommend that you check in and hear for yourselves……. https://www.earhustlesq.com/
Since I met one of the folks featured in the collection, I can particularly recommend Looking Out by Rauch.