Friday, January 30, 2009

Razor-Wire Dharma

What I like about Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life In Prison by Calvin Malone is that he has gritty applications of mindfulness and kindness. He provides a non-self pitying look at incarceration, but also a critical eye.

Here is a quote of analysis about the prison system:

"When I see this waste of human resources, when I hear people mortgaging their future to pipe dreams, when I see the lack of direction that prison perpetuates, I fee an indescribable loss and deep despair. The prison system encourages recidivism instead of education. I think most prisoners reenter society worse off than when they left. Moreover, the expectation placed on them is that they will succeed in a life for which they are ill prepared." (p. 72)

But the bulk of this book isn't these asides about the context of his kindness and triumph. More often then not his stories are of struggle and triumph, of success in getting things done.

My own short experience of working in a jail was that it took forever to do anything and that the system was so entrenched and set in it's ways that really the main thing was just keeping the people under control. To be sure, that's not an easy thing and there are some rather difficult people. But it seemed like the system that tells prisoners are bad, also reinforces the badness at times. They don't seem to look too hard to transcend the prisoner/guard dynamics. So I dreaded reading this book, I thought it would remind me of my negative work experiences in prison, but it turned out to be a quite heart warming book.

I have also attended a retreat in jail, amature chaplaincy. One of the rules was not to ask why someone is there. They can talk about it if they want, but to force the topic on someone isn't nice. But for me, I was burning in curiosity, why were you here. I want to get to the nitty gritty. Calvin Malone must not talk about what he did because he's embarrassed. You have to do something pretty bad to get 25 years. What I know it's hard to talk about such things, I sort of feel cheated without any soul searching about his crime. Perhaps I have no right to ask that, but this is a book about prison life, so why not address that?

I wonder what my Dharma brothers in prison think of this book. I'll update the blog if I can get any feedback. Basically this book inspired me to want to go on another retreat inside prison.

Finally, one of my pet themes of this blog, a bette noire of mine, is that it's important to be authentic and real, and that being a "good Buddhist" isn't the goal if it's a false self. On this Malone says after a trying disillusionment about himself, "I learned more about how much i don't know and how far I have yet to travel. It's okay with me that I am not the great practitioner I thought I was. I'm just happy that I am still on the Path." (p. 89)

What these short clean tales tell us are inspiring stories about practicing Dharma in prison. Well done Calvin Malone.

To end, I list some interesting links about this book and working in prisons.

This book has already been reviewed on FWBO & TBMSG News.

There's an interesting link by a prison chaplain here.

Here's another prison dharma post.

Here's an interesting review of the book.

Here's a link to an amazon review, where you can see the rest of them and buy the book.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thoughts and links


Today I was plagued with spiritual envy. Thinking about my friend who has had a rich experience of meeting famous Buddhists, going on awesome long retreats with top teachers, and even editing books of Dharma talks. With my family and my own trajectory, that's just not possible for me, and maybe I'm a spiritual materialist, but I wouldn't mind collecting some peak experiences like that. Now another friend is going off to India for a month, and I'm very jealous. I have not been asked to join the order, so even if I could somehow get off to go, I am envious of those who can go to order conventions. I suppose that should focus me on working harder to deepen my practice, but the small me wants things without having to try harder than I already am.

I need to shift my meditation to night time. I've always loved morning meditation, but it's just not doable and I'm struggling to shift my meditation to evening before bed.

Finally, January 19th is Hakuin's Birthday.


A new update from the Preceptor's College.

Lokabandhu reviews the Essential Sangharakshita. Here's an exerpt of the review: "Vidyadevi, or Karen Stout as Wisdom preferred to refer to her, is an Order Member of many years’ standing and the book’s editor. She’s been working on it for the past 5 years and has clearly lived and breathed it for much of that time – starting by re-reading all Sangharakshita’s books and marking passages for possible inclusion with little sticky notes. That produced a vast amount of material which, after first presentation to Wisdom, had to be reduced by almost half – and which still left the problem of how to organise it all! In her Preface she writes of how she tackled the problems of selection and organisation – and her masterstroke of using the Mandala of the Five Buddhas as the organising principle for the book."

Trycle has interesting daily Dharma posts.

An article on Dalits and Ambedkar on BNN.

A new to me TV channel has some Milarepa songs read, after some introduction.

I haven't seen it yet, but there's a new documentary on PBS about India that includes some Buddhist stuff.

A Buddhist father misses his daughter.

An author plugs his excellent book that I recommend.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Worldling, wayfarer

A worldling is someone who has worldly pursuits: family, work. The spiritual path is a path of transcendence. In Buddhism a worldling is called prthagjanas. Now while in the FWBO, we are considered neither monastic or lay, in part because of the Theravadin emphasis on monasticism. seems too exclusive. You might say that the Mahayana was a reaction to literalism and monasticism. Reginald Ray's book The Buddhist Saints of India, argues that non-monastic Buddhists were written out of the cannon by the monastic writers. We want to make the path available for more than just people who retreat from society. It's important to empower people on the path, not say "you can't do it."

The danger of being a worldling is that you don't have enough solitude and privacy to practice in the deeper states of concentration. Another danger is being swept up, and losing the values of going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Whether the historical Buddha actually left a family or not is in a way not important. The transcendental example is perhaps more important than the worldling facts.

As I write this my sons flank me, and Sid The Science Kid is on the TV. I meditated for 18 minutes of my hoped for 40 minute meditation, and the kids woke up.

I've recently been swamped, starting a new job. I work, go to school, and now I've added on the pressure of having to pass the licensing exam for clinical social workers. This weekend, and until I pass my test, I really need to pass up on most of the Buddhist activities I usually do. I've been swept up in the tide of worldly things. I have anxiety about that. My motivation is to settle my life down so that I can spend more time doing Buddhisty things.

I recently had a post about what inspires me.
In that post I discussed how retreat and deep meditation experience inspire me. Another inspiration for me is reading. I recently finished No Time To Lose by Pema Chodron, and now I'm working on Sangharakshita's A Survey of Buddhism. This is a hugely inspiring book. I noted recently that they came out with The Essential Sangharakshita from Wisdom Publishing. But I digress. My point is that snatching some reading of the Dharma is a way to keep in contact with my going for refuge, when sangha is not around and I don't have the space to meditation.

Another struggle I'm having is that I used to meditate in the morning. I worked 8-4 and so I left before the kids woke up. I could get up early and meditate (most days). But now I work at night, and I go to bed so late I can't get up before they do. So what do I do. I can walk the boys to school and then meditate, which I do some days. I am particularly struggling to meditate before I go to bed. I love doing it first thing in the day, but I'm somehow not successful in doing it last thing of the day. Anyone have any suggestions for meditating before bed?

Perhaps I need to emphasize what I can on the path. Walking to and from work, which I do when I can, has a meditative quality, and I can always work on my ethics, falling in line with the my ideals and the ten pillars. I think my job and family life is spiritualized, I challenge myself to be spiritual in these contexts. I think another practice is patience until things settle down. I'm not always going to be this busy.

My son says he's hungry. I'd better get breakfast going.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Practice Day

We had a lovely practice day today, and there was the question--what turned me on to the Dharma when I first got involved? What's my root of inspiration? I can use that to remind me in the difficult times.

I think a week long retreat on the Brahmaviharas, over the winter holidays of 2002 at Aryaloka. That much meditation really changed me in a way that I hope to changed the rest of my life. I'm not sure if I could write anything brief about why meditation is so revolutionary and important to me.

On the retreat, I read Bante's book on the puja, Ritual and Devotion, and for the first time entered into the devotional practices of Buddhism, which was a revolutionary thing for me. Hitherto I was an atheist (still am on that regard) who saw any organize spirituality as generally a way for ripping people off. To be chanting was a scary thing for me, to offer an offering and bow to the Buddha was very scary to me at first. Now it's quite natural and I love a good puja. I've collected alternate pujas as well.

I didn't really connect with anyone who is still a great friend, but I met some people who are spiritual friends and had an intense retreat friendship with someone who was a bit unstable and struggled. I think that's the weakness of that retreat, when I review it, that has deepened on subsequent retreats.

I remember being so tired one day, that I fell asleep on the couch in public. I remember the silence being challenging, so I went on a walk with the troubled teen and listened to her ventilate. I remember just feeling so very mindful and alive, the devotional and intellectual elements coming together. The food was really health and tasty. There were some people who were not so positive, and I myself wasn't always positive and harmonious.

There was also interviews with meditation teachers, and I remember that being supportive, and got me to talk with other order members, got very specific meditations support.

For New Year's Eve we chanted the Vajrasatva mantra (you can get it here), and like the puja I began to see the power of mantra. Driving home I could not help but chant the Padmasambhava mantra.

So on one level I really discovered the revolutionary power of meditation, but I also began to see the pieces come together (not quite all) and begin to see the whole program, including the devotional aspects to support practice.

From that retreat, I built on various GFR retreats, and feel like I have learned quite a lot over the years, and there's a lot more to learn. I think going on a week long solitary retreat was another deep meditative experience that is another root of inspiration. Feeling the power of deep meditation is one of my roots of inspiration in Dharma practice.

So what's the roots of your inspiration?