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Prison Practice

A month ago I wrote to you (Parallax Press) and requested a catalogue. Imagine my surprise and delight when a guard brought to my cell slightly damaged copies of The Heart of Understanding, Being Peace, Moon Bamboo, and The Sun My Heart. I was so touched by your act of kindness that I shed tears of joy. Thank you!

I will be leaving my "ashram" (parole) in six months, and my new life as a Buddhist will have more opportunity for engagement. I am striving to prepare myself in all possible ways.

I was especially grateful to receive a copy of the Mindfulness  Bell, as it helps fulfill my need for fellowship to strengthen my solitary practice. I am enclosing something for the "Daily Practice" feature. Perhaps my musings are worth sharing with other Buddhists who will never have the opportunity to practice in a riot-torn prison. In any event, the exercise of writing it had value for me.


Addiction to cocaine led me to steal, for which I was sentenced to the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. We had terrible rioting here in October that caused 123 people to be taken to hospitals and costs of over $60,000,000 to be incurred. This was not an everyday situation in which to practice Buddhism, but it is an opportunity for practice to bear fruit and to see a great deal.

My rudimentary meditation practice began with a smattering of various techniques in response to the existential problem of being totally out of control of my life and feeling a need for reconciliation. Impermanence, suffering, no-self, and impurity became the "WHAT?" of my meditation, and I embraced the Path and the Five Precepts. This altered my participation in the therapeutic community drug program, and I was given the institutional job as Inmate Grievance Coordinator. I served as a tutor to illiterate inmates, and I was slipping into smug self-satisfaction when the rioting swept over us.

The expressions of hatred and rage spawned by dysfunctional families, painful childhoods, and failed social policies presented a vivid face of suffering humankind. The angry retaliations of guards for weeks and months afterwards paints a clear picture of pain and fear in ignorance. But look with me at dedicated nurses who defied guards to bring their expertise  and much-needed supplies to our first-aid station. Lives were saved. See guards and state troopers refuse to condone brutality and halt another's violence. I saw some of the worst of human potential together with some of the best that we can be.

Like the ringing of a discordant but reverberating bell, the rioting and its aftermath impressed upon me the para mount importance of vigilant mindfulness and readiness to serve. As an uncomfortable but effective catalyst of transformation and deepening of my practice, it is invaluable experience about the hazard of complacency. We are always in the place of to act. Realization of right action in the immediacy of chaos and suffering is the fruit of penetrating our pain and fear. Rather than dwelling in despair, we can plunge into the mystery of our fate and practice. Our Way is no mere philosophy; it is a living religion, a response to life.

Share with me a moment that occurred after the rioting: Three of us stood there, having run a makeshift first-aid station together until the injured were taken away.  Handcuffed and shackled, we expected separation for transfer to unknown prisons, perhaps never to see each other again. Convicted felons of different skin colors and religions—Christian, Muslim and Buddhist—we gazed at one another speechlessly, then silently eschewed handshakes to exchange hugs. Joy was found in the midst of sorrow… Smile, those hugs were for you, too.

Dean Lloyd Barnes
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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