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Lions Roar : January 2018
The bearded, bespectacled man leading the discussion is chaplain Justin von Bujdoss. He takes it all in with accepting nods, then issues some instructions: Focus on your breath, he tells them. Inhale something that makes you feel good and exhale something you’re having a hard time with. The room settles and calms. Noises continue to drift in from the fraught environment surrounding them at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Planes from nearby LaGuardia Airport jet overhead. Gates in the nearby hallway open and slam. The sounds of jangling keys, voices, and radios continue to drift through. But inside the chapel, there are discernable moments that feel like peace. So peaceful that a few COs in the back row have nodded off to sleep. But at Rikers, any peace feels like a hard-won victory. “If you’re irritated and pissed off,” von Bujdoss tells them, “you can come back to this feeling of centeredness and it can help your decision making.” This message is exactly why von Bujdoss, a Vajrayana Bud- dhist teacher, became the troubled facility’s first chaplain last year. Chosen over candidates from more mainstream religions like Judaism and Christianity, von Bujdoss does more than teach weekly meditation classes for officers. He also tends to their spiritual and emotional needs in illness and death, and helps them deal with the everyday stressors that come with working at a jail so notorious for its brutality that it has been targeted for eventual shut-down by the city. Von Bujdoss sees his job as working to “disrupt suffering.” “It’s a tough place, right?” he says. “I try to give them space to cut through things that are hard. Even in these short sessions, we can come back to an experience that’s lighter, with a greater awareness of body and mind.” His presence alone helps, says Warden Helena Smith, who is in charge of the facility’s mental health center. “He’s like this gentle giant,” Smith says. “He has an ability to put people at ease. He’s very kind and nurturing. Love is what you get from him.” Now forty-two, von Bujdoss found Buddhism as a teenager growing up in the artsy SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Because his father was a painter, he was constantly exposed to new forms of art; when he found a book on Tibetan art at age sixteen, it inspired him not to follow in his dad’s footsteps, but to become a monk. He was so serious about it that his high school girlfriend rejected him, worried she would stand in the way of his dreams and his spiritual path. During his college years, in 1995, he made his first pilgrim- age to Bodh Gaya in India, the site of Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Before going, he worried the trip would be diffi- cult. “But when I got off the plane, I was completely captivated, even by the smell of the air, which was like burning rubber,” he recalls. “I was magnetized.” There he studied Theravada Buddhism, then traveled to Sikkim, where he met a Tibetan nun, Ani Zangmo. She would become his first teacher. After graduating from Antioch College with a degree in Religious Studies in 1997, he sold most of his possessions and went to India for a year to continue his Bud- dhist training with Ani Zangmo. She died while he was there, so he became a student of her teacher, Bokar Tulku Rinpoche. Then Bokar Rinpoche died in 2004. Death became a major theme in von Bujdoss’s practice. “When you have a teacher who dies, it’s terrible. But there’s this whole other side to it—developing intimacy with a teacher who’s passed,” he says. “It’s a bit like Star Wars. They never really die. The instructions are still alive. I feel closer to Ani Zangmo now than I ever did. I feel like what I do with the Department of Corrections is very much aligned with the kind of person she was. She was very engaged.” For several years, von Bujdoss worked renovating homes in the United States and making frequent trips to India to study Buddhism for months at a time. But when he got married and had children—he has three sons who are now seventeen, four, and two—he realized he had to stop separating America from India, life from practice. That realization, plus his interest in practicing with death, led him to train as a chaplain at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care as part of its first graduating class in 2009. During his training at Beth Israel and New York Presbyterian medical centers, he served mostly in intensive care units and on psych floors. He then worked in a home hospice program while founding and running Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center in Brooklyn under his teacher, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and starting a volunteer program to teach meditation to inmates at Rikers. New York City’s Rikers Island is a 400-acre complex of ten separate jails. It houses some 10,000 prisoners at a time, more than 80% awaiting trial. PHOTO©REUTERS/MIKESEGAR LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 36