Monroe Inmate Sangha Celebrates Buddhafests

The program cover for the Twin Rivers Unit's Buddhafest 2009 was designed by two inmates as part of their interactive media study through Edmonds Community College.

Monroe Inmate Sangha Celebrates Buddhafests

The June 7 Buddhafest at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) brought together sangha–inmates and outside Buddhist practitioners — to share the dharma, fellowship...and ice cream.

About 30 prison sangha members of the Washington State Reformatory (WSRU) at the MCC sponsored the annual event, including paying for food and gifts for the visitors, after months of saving. (Other inmate sanghas at the MCC also paid for their events.)

For the prisoners, the half-day event was a chance to mix with Buddhist practitioners from the outside, to socialize, and to hear the dharma. For guests, it was a chance to learn about Buddhist practice inside prison walls, and to gain new perspectives to bring to their practice on the outside.

Early that day, guests and inmates gathered for impromptu discussions, often comparing their dharma practices and the conditions of their lives. A sense of mutual respect and appreciation pervaded these exchanges, with people from inside and outside the prison walls learning from one another. The dozen or so guests from the outside came primarily from Chagdud Gonpa Amrita of Seattle, with a few from other groups.

A highlight of the day was a talk on the connection between the first of the four noble truths — suffering — and people’s desire for things to be different than they are. The talk was given by Koro Kaisan Miles, abbot of Open Gate Zendo in Olympia.

Another highlight was the noon meal, offered by the inmates and shared by all. The menu included baked chicken and rice, beef, a vegetarian soy-based dish, and vegetables. It was capped off with ice cream and cheese cake, a rare treat for the inmates.

At the end of the celebration, the inmates distributed hand-made gifts to their visitors: hand-glazed ceramic hearts decorated with lotuses, cranes, peacocks, and flowers. Then Miles led the dedication of merit, and the gathering dispersed.

The Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the MCC celebrated their Buddhafest on June 14. Apart from some close family members and friends, guests included a representative from the Dzogchen Community, about half a dozen sangha members from Chagdud Gonpa Amrita, and a student of Ven. Thubten Chodron.

This event was organized by the Snow Lotus Sangha — the Buddhist group at TRU. Their chosen theme for the event was “gratitude”. After an informal mingling at the beginning, there was a blessed luncheon in the context of a “tsok” (or “a gathering”). Lama Padma Gyatso from Chagdud Gonpa Amrita officiated the blessing of the meal and briefly spoke on the inter-dependence that brought this event into being.

After the meal, three Snow Lotus men spoke on the theme of gratitude. One could wrongly assume that there is little to be grateful with the experience of incarceration, and yet these men spoke very eloquently on friendships forged and new insights gained. One young man shared how another inmate befriended him, and introduced him to Buddhism and the sangha. Through this process he could move away from being a deeply troubled man into a far more positive person. Lama Padma also shared his feelings on gratitude. After the formalities were over, goodbyes were exchanged, and the guests left feeling very touched by the experience.

Editor's Note:Under the sponsorship of Chagdud Gonpa Amrita, Buddhist sponsors at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), several guest teachers have attended the regular meetings of the inmate sanghas. Venerable Tarpa from Sravasti Abbey led a meditation session at the Twin Rivers (TRU) at the MCC. Ajahn Boonliang, Abbot of Wat Washington Buddhavanaram in Auburn also visited TRU and the Washington State Reformatory (WSRU), as well. A teacher from the Seattle Shambhala Center also visited the WSRU.

Contributors: Maryam Steffen and Steve Wilhelm