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The Dhamma Brothers, by Damaris Williams

A guest post by Damaris Williams.
On February 6, IDP premiered its first Salon night, featuring a showing of the Dhamma Brothers film. I quickly asked Ethan if I could write something about it. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I knew I could easily relate to those men in prison. I had grown up in the South Bronx during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and had experienced as well as witnessed enough violence and confusion to understand the pressures and limitations these men have faced.

I also knew it would be tough to watch because people I love have been incarcerated and some still are. I have spent many nights wondering if they would take to meditation and the Buddha. If they would be willing to step out of their social and cultural boundaries to enter in a place that mainly consists of very different people.
So sitting there next to Stillman, David, and the other good sangha folk I found myself unprepared for what I would experience. What I felt was a continuous sadness and an unbounded sense of gratitude that has lasted through today.
The sadness comes from knowing how lost a soul can be, and the desperation that arises in an effort to relieve the suffering. From OB’s story to Rick’s, each of those men told a story that reverberated into my heart, my past, and my family.
I can’t tell you about the lives of people who have done great harm. That is something they must share with people who can understand. It’s their choice to tell. I also can’t tell you to forgive or understand. There have been many moments in my life when I simply could not forgive the ignorance, the stupidity, and simply put…. the crime. That is until one day I found myself lost, and by a miracle… yes you heard right… a miracle, I was spared. I had IDP to go to.
Seeing those beautiful faces brought me back to my own choices. The enormous gratitude for the moments and people who brought me to a place where I could walk through the sangha doors. Gratitude for this mind which somehow, without really knowing, remained faithful to this heart despite any indication it just might be a lost cause.
The effort to get here wasn’t easy, and it takes a lot of work to remain.
(Please see my first blog for a sample – But before you do; practice some Metta. I’ve been told it has impact.)
So I wonder, will those men hold out? Will they quietly work to find the dharma?
And my questions to you:
How do you feel about prisoners learning the dharma?
Do you think you can you can let them in your sangha, your space?
Can you see the wisdom in the words of that uneducated, possibly illiterate man or woman?
Because truthfully, I’ve been with many different people and have learned wisdom is sometimes in the most unlikely people.
What I learned in my life and after watching the Dhamma Bros is that I need them here with me. Just like I need you.
The Rising – Bruce Springsteen
Cant see nothin in front of me
Cant see nothin coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I cant feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far Ive gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my backs a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Comments read comments(6)
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Ethan Nichtern

posted February 28, 2009 at 11:09 am

Thanks for this Damaris!
We will be rescreening the film on Friday night, March 20 for anyone who missed it.

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Davee Evans

posted February 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

wonderful post! i’ve heard stories about some of the prison contemplative programs, and every story has been very positive. mostly at how grateful people are to have something offered – even if it’s just a class or opportunity to sit with folks for a short time – and how dedicated the practitioners are.
i’ve worried that the programs would come across as evangelical, that a sangha would take advantage of people in prison and try to convert them to Buddhism. but i guess anyone offering something to prisoners must consider their motivation.
but i haven’t volunteered yet to help one of those programs mostly because of fear. i think i’m afraid both of entering a prison – even as a visitor – but more so of being a privileged middle class person in the midst of poverty and foreignness. there’s some sense of guilt for being privileged that i don’t often look at. and the idea of offering meditation in prison seems to highlight that guilt for me.

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Brad LaMar

posted March 1, 2009 at 12:18 am

A few of us caught this film in Chicago. The co-producer of a documentary I’ve been working on showed me the link to the trailer about mid-year last year. I contacted them and graciously asked them to send us the film for us to screen it at the Peace On Earth Film Festival at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Fortunately after a few tries and a few weeks, Jenny Phillips contacted me and I asked her permission to screen her film to an open audience. Unfortunately the rest of the committee didn’t see eye to eye with my plans with the film so it got pushed out of the selection. Having the opportunity to screen it myself helped me gain a more sturdy perspective of the healing process this country needs to take with the prison and justice situation, one of the more damaging social issues in America.
For the last two years I’ve been working on a social justice documentary that suggests a understanding and cultivation of compassion. This ability to connect to other human beings’ suffering and mistakes brings about better progressing ideas about repair and healing. One of the topics of the films is the prison and justice system.
Between inmates in prison, jail, on parole or probation, the United States has 7.2 million people of about 360 million. The justice system in America is retributive. The healing process is essentially, “what did this person do, how can we punish them”. The healing process for the victim is essentially vengeance justice. An opposing justice and prison system that is quite different in its core is the Canadian system. Out of about 33 million people, 300,000 of them are in prison, jail, probation or paroled. America has about a 66% leading difference in prisoners. The justice idea in Canada is putting the blame on the act and not the person. Ruth Morris experimented with Transformative Justice which took committees and analyzed why a “criminal” would commit an act and then they would develop methods or laws that would abolish the desperation to commit these acts. It’s quite interesting and has transformed Ontario.
You know, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that what we’re doing isn’t working. The common misconception is that throwing our problems into a maximum security confinement resolves them. Ignoring the problem does not make it disappear. The second misconception is thinking that throwing money at the problem is the solution.
Anyway, good post and those of us who are aware that we make mistakes do not cast out others who also do.

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posted March 2, 2009 at 10:25 am

Thanks guys for responding.
@Davee Evans – I understand how you feel about entering a prison. I have and I can say that the feeling is very powerful.
I have one relative who has been in jail many times and I have found myself wanting to write him off for good, but I can’t.
Why? Because that man was once the boy who saved my mom from being killed. If it where not for him I would have lost my mother at 7 instead of 34. My mother was a crucial component in me being able to rise out of difficult circumstances and create the life I have now.
I have other relatives who did not have thier mothers and I seen how they have suffered.
So you see I don’t have the luxury of being judgemental in an “American socially accepted mores” kind of way. That’s not to say that I don’t exercise judgement in specific situations. I do, but it means that I have to have a larger view of what’s taking place.
In regards to feeling of “foreigness”, allow me to say that it isn’t easy being the person in the room pointing out something most folks would not rather deal with and on top of that being a person of a different race. But my life experience does not allow me to simply ignore what is happening in the world.
I know that many people would say that they are not prejudice. Good. What I’m saying is – that’s not the point. We still have to find ways in which to communicate and understand each other. If that means having moments when we are not necessarily comfortable with each other well that’s the exertion we have to use to cut the confusion.
To respond to your sense of guilt. –
No one can condemn nor absolve you of any guilt that you feel. Just like you can really save someone on the opposite end of your life spectrum.
As a peron of mixed raced I’ve grown accustomed to not really belonging anywhere, so it’s easier for me to be in a room where people don’t want me. It’s difficult but I’ve learned to go beyond their opinions in order to have what I felt was needed for my growth. If I hadn’t developed that skill I never would have been able to get out of poverty.
Also it’s good to know that I’ve had opposition on all sides including people of my own races. I still do. But I simply refuse to limit my life based on anyones opinion; good or bad.
Thank you Davee Evans for being kind and letting me know how you feel. I hope that what I wrote can help you in some way.
@Brad LaMar. – Thank you. I was counting on someone to fill in that aspect of the prison system.
Take care.

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posted March 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

To respond to the issue concerning the appearance of seeming evangelical.
I believe that sometimes you have to go beyond opinion. There are a lot of people (in and out of prison) who are in dire need of a little head space. That having a quick moment to calmly abide could make a positive difference in decisions making.
Some situations in prison and in poverty stricken environmens are highly charged. Being able to intuit whats most effective way to deal with that particlar situation is vital to remaining safe. As well as vital to moving foward.
So I would say that the benefit of teaching mediation far outweighs adverse opinions.

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Davee Evans

posted March 2, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Yes, thank you. It’s supportive to talk about it and to hear your encouragement. I may well volunteer in a prison situation at some point. It’s interesting for me to examine my feelings that come up about it, which are most likely quite different from what would arise if i even just stepped inside one.

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