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Lions Roar : January 2018
To that end, von Bujdoss, as a Buddhist, offered one par- ticularly distinctive skill: meditation instruction. He usually includes three short meditations, as well as some discussion, in his hour-long sessions with the officers. In one meditation, he talks them through focusing on sounds within the room, within the building, and then outside the building. In others, Of course, Rikers isn’t just any facility. It is among the nation’s most infamous jails, with an average daily population of about 10,000 inmates—the vast majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial or being held on bail. Rikers is legendary for frequent violence between inmates and officers and was named one of the ten worst correctional facilities in the country by Mother Jones in 2013. In 2014, nearly 10,000 assaults were reported on the grounds and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded that the facility promoted a “culture of abuse.” In June 2015, former inmate Kalief Browder committed suicide after spending three years in the facility refusing to plead guilty to charges that he stole a backpack at age sixteen. These incidents and others led to a public outcry that persuaded New York Mayor Bill de Bla- sio to announce plans this year to close Rikers within ten years. Von Bujdoss went into the job knowing the facility’s dire rep- utation. But he takes a typically grounded Buddhist approach to the situation. “I see myself as someone who facilitates change by alleviating suffering,” he says. “What’s going on here is way beyond my control, so it’s about me helping people to touch the experience they’re having right now, which can help to cause a shift.” Smith says von Bujdoss’s effect on the officers is undeniable. The meditation class regulars have told her they love the ser- vice. “They don’t want him to stop,” she says. “They always want to know when he’s coming back again.” She also praises his efforts to continue improving officers’ lives, such as his recent attendance at a Princeton seminar on “moral injury,” a psychological term for trauma associated with job requirements that go against workers’ moral values. “Being a jail guard goes against your moral values if you have any humanity,” she says. “Who wants to lock someone up in a cage?” Von Bujdoss also brings in guest meditation instructors, such as Kripalu Center teachers who shared some hatha yoga-based techniques. “He’s always collaborating with someone some- where to help us,” Smith says. Von Bujdoss views his job as part of his Buddhist practice, by constantly returning to the idea of awakening in the moment. “If I can bring myself back to expansiveness, something where I feel connected to my tradition and whole and present, then that experience can be had by other people,” he says. “I’ve come to love the Department of Corrections because of the intensity. Intensity allows for powerful experience. You can turn yourself off to it or step into it.” In fact, he challenges himself to embrace his own anxieties in the job: “I’m a very private person, but I’m the only chaplain for 13,000 people. That forces me to step into this place of vulnera- bility and just let go. It’s like when you’re learning how to swim and someone pushes you into the pool.” As for his personal Buddhist practice, he prefers the comfort of home with his own shrine. The dharma center he founded Von Bujdoss with his teacher, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He views his job as part of his Buddhist practice because he must constantly return to the idea of awakening in the moment. he instructs them to focus on their breath, or to do a body scan. Sometimes he employs compassion or loving-kindness medita- tions. “That helps in this situation, especially visualizing people they have difficulties with,” he says. “It’s empathy building.” When he began teaching meditation, the sessions were manda- tory at first. Predictably, not all of the officers were enthusiastic about it. “The first day I asked everyone to share something they were grateful for, and something that was difficult,” he says. “Almost every response was ‘pass.’ On my way home that day, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know.’” But when the classes became optional, he ended up with a core group of officers who embraced them. The group members helped each other through life challenges, like the loss of a loved one or the birth of twins, a joyful event complicated by the job’s demands. One of the biggest challenges and joys for von Bujdoss is teaching meditation to non-Buddhists. The task requires that he stay away from what he calls “the Tibetan nitty-gritty. If the goal is to convey experience, you need to find your own words instead of speaking in Buddhist jargon. Part of my dharma practice is trying to unpack the tradition to bring it to this facility.” PHOTOBYA.ZICHELEETHONG LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 38