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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 62 Prisons The more you become involved with the prison system, says Geof- frey Shugen Arnold, Sensei, the more you see how it permeates life in America. “We imprison more people than any other country in the world, and we imprison them for longer sentences,” he ex- plains. “But inmates are not other. They are our neighbors.” Shugen Sensei is director of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha (NBPS), an organization associated with Zen Moun- tain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. This pioneering program got its start in 1984 when a number of inmates at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York wrote to John Daido Loori, Roshi and asked him to teach them meditation. Now one of the most extensive programs of its kind, NBPS of- fers assistance to inmates throughout the United States and Eu- rope in prison settings ranging from maximum to minimum security, juvenile to military, and federal to local. The services it provides include an in-depth training program on medita- tion, ethics, and social interactions, as well as a correspondence program that pairs prisoners with Buddhists. NBPS volunteers report that life behind bars looks like a magnified version of their own lives. In prison, the vicious cycles of samsara—the suffering caused by attachment, aggres- sion, and ignorance—are just more concentrated. This is an eye-opener for the volunteers, but does developing mindful- ness help prisoners? “It can,” says Shugen Sensei, “just like it can help someone who lives on Park Avenue. It depends on the person. It depends on how sincere they are.” Lucia Meijer agrees. She is the president of the North Ameri- can Vipassana Prison Trust (VPT), an arm of S.N. Goenka’s or- ganization most famous for its work in India’s notorious Tihar jail in New Delhi. When, in the 1970s, VPT first introduced vipassana meditation to Tihar’s prisoners, it was considered one of the most dangerous penal institutions on Earth, with torture and murder standard fare for both inmates and staff. For twenty years, the prison authorities did not embrace vipas- sana. Then a new warden, Kiran Bedi, took over; she did em- brace it and conditions improved remarkably. The VPT now teaches vipassana to a thousand Tihar in- mates at a time, and it instructs extensively in other prisons across the globe—in Israel, New Zealand, Mongolia, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The ac- claimed documentary The Dhamma Brothers tells the story of inmates in a maximum-security prison in Alabama who were transformed by studying vipassana with VPT. The VPT offered meditation courses in a Washington State jail from 1997 to 2002, and a post-course follow-up conducted by the University of Washington showed “significant improve- ments in substance abuse and in certain psycho and social psy- chiatric measures, such as optimism and self-control,” Meijer says. Statistical and anecdotal evidence showing the efficacy of LEFT:BALCONYRELEASING,LTD,RIGHT:MOUNTAINSANDRIVERSORDERNATIONALBUDDHISTARCHIVES Clockwise from above: Prisoners doing Vipassana meditation in a scene from The Dhamma Brothers; Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei, director of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha; meditators at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Comstock, New York, with instructors from the Prison Sangha. SEPT 56-63.indd 62 SEPT 56-63.indd 62 7/3/08 1:32:06 PM 7/3/08 1:32:06 PM