More than a few readers of Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison will be like the typical prison “New Guys” author Calvin Malone describes—naïve, apprehensive, and in for a lot of surprises.
Malone’s collection of anecdotes, portraits, and real-life admonitory tales confirms many of our worst images of life “inside,” a realm he calls at one point “ a microcosm of society… without societal restraints.” But his book also reveals the opportunities and contradictions that arise in such a setting.
Currently an inmate at Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex, Malone is close to the end of a twenty-year sentence served in various prisons around the state. Very early in his sentence a fellow inmate introduced him to Buddhism. As soon as he read his first Dharma book (Mindfulness in Plain English) he “was hooked.” Immediately he began corresponding with teachers and Dharma centers in North America and Europe, requesting books and teaching materials. In the process he established relationships that have lasted nearly two decades.
Malone’s practice in prison has much in common with Dharma practice outside, at least superficially. He does sitting and walking meditation, chants and offers incense, practices mindfulness, cultivates generosity and compassion, generates metta, relies for support on a sangha of fellow Buddhists, communicates with teachers. Yet the experiences he describes in Razor-Wire Dharma remind us how challenging a prison practice must be.
Meditation instructions often suggest sitting in “a quiet place, free from distractions.” While prisons may indeed lack the distractions of a freeway or a shopping mall, of career planning or daily childcare, they are grossly over-crowded places characterized by the constant racket of “harsh sounds”--voices, loudspeakers, TV’s and radios, clanging doors, clattering footsteps, shouts and screams. Privacy as outsiders know it is non-existent.
Moreover, life in prison is dangerous. In addition to violent individuals and prison gangs, unpredictable and often untreated mentally ill inmates are part of the population. A prison is no easy place to cultivate the abiding calm that preconditions mindfulness, especially for newcomers, though the alertness that does develop through mindfulness practice serves an inmate well. At the other end of the spectrum is the threat of what Malone calls “the mind-numbing routine.”
The inmate’s ethic typically values toughness, dominance, quid pro quo, manipulation. To cultivate and display compassion, lovingkindness, and generosity in an environment where racial and ethnic boundaries are rigidly enforced, where making eye contact is understood as a threat or a challenge and people are automatically “suspicious of kind deeds,” is to risk ridicule at least, if not outright physical harm.
When Dharma practitioners do succeed in forming a prison sangha they are burdened by regulations and not infrequently confronted with suspicion, hostility, or proselytizing on the part of other religious adherents—inmates, chaplains, and others—who have been known to accuse Buddhists of “practicing idolatry.” Relatively few have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with Dharma teachers and fellow Buddhists from outside.
As Razor-Wire Dharma shows, individuals like Calvin Malone who encounter the Dharma and develop a strong practice while incarcerated do so in spite of major obstacles. Prison Dharma practice requires great perseverance, ingenuity, and adaptability. On the other hand, as he says, “…there are countless teachers in prison and endless opportunities to practice.”
Does it take a special person to live “a Buddhist life” in prison? Though Malone may be “special” in the depth of the personal transformation he’s achieved after two decades of practice, stories in Razor-Wire Dharma reveal that even the most jaded or damaged individuals--the rage-filled and the greedy and even the delusional--can benefit from the Dharma, through the teachings per se or through exposure to those who have been altered by them.
Malone is perhaps exceptional in the diligence with which he pursued resources and enlisted support. He recognized from the outset the importance of sangha and was lucky to have a Buddhist companion at the very beginning in the person of the young inmate who introduced him to the Dharma. Razor-Wire Dharma makes clear how crucial strong mentors and Dharma friends are to practitioners inside and how much the “insiders” have to offer others in this regard.
Those engaged in prison Dharma work—volunteering in prisons, writing letters, supporting former inmates, etc.—already know this. Razor-Wire Dharma will carry that message to many others. The need is vast and so are the opportunities to serve.
As Calvin Malone reminds us, “the kindness we extend to others ripples out into the universe endlessly.”
To learn more about prison Dharma in general and see links to a variety of sources, visit www.prisondharmanetwork.org.
For information about the November 14-16 "Mindfulness & Release: Prison Dharma Conference," sponsored by Plum Mountain Refuge and the Northwest Dharma Association, please visit www.northwestdharma.org.
Contributor: Julie Welch.
Cover image: Courtesy of Wisdom Publications.