What could be a better place to practice meditation than prison? Many have discovered the transformative potential of doing time and exploited that opportunity to do important work on themselves. The documentary film, Doing Vipassana, Doing Time depicts the remarkable work of S. N. Goenka in a New Delhi prison. In this city of a prison, he offers traditional Burmese-style 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats. The rules for a Vipassana course are actually more stringent than those for regular prison life. The schedule goes from early in the morning to late at night with hour after hour of sitting meditation. It’s an encounter with your mind where there is “no escape.” Having the escape exits blocked, participants can see clearly into the conditioned nature of experience and the constructed nature of self. This is, perhaps, the only form of truly meaningful prison rehabilitation. The psychologist G. Alan Marlatt has also taken Vipassana to prisons in the U.S. to help substance addicted individuals. In prison, we find discipline leads to freedom.
Another form of prison dharma is found in the poignant and powerful memoire, Razor Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison by Calvin Malone (Wisdom Publications). Here is an excerpt where he describes the mundane experience of eating an apple, an apple that stood out from the usual horrible prison food he was subjected to.
“Breathing in I smelled apple, breathing out the universe. Everything there is or ever was was contained in this apple. I could see it with the wild exactness of shattered glass. The answer and the question were there in the apple. i was feeling an inexplicable joy, keenly aware. I never fore felt better in my life. I realized this moment was as good as it gets”
The Buddha’s teaching offer this form of radical freedom. That the happiest moment of your life could occur during a prion sentence. That true happiness could arise from the simple beauty of an apple, a living thing connected to everything else in the entire universe. Our usual days miss this miracle, as we move around lost in our stories and taking the apples and other miraculous occurrences that we encounter for granted. Buddhist practice and the time afforded by prison can be a potent combination for change, as Calvin Malone’s book demonstrates.