It's hard to imagine a more unlikely pair discussing politics at New York's swanky Mark Hotel last week: Moses Weah, a 21-year-old African-American from the South Bronx, currently residing in a Times Square shelter, with corn-rowed hair and a rap sheet longer than his untucked T shirt and, not 10 feet away, dressed in his saffron-and-maroon monk's robes, 68-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader in exile.
Surrounded in the hotel's small conference room by 17 former prison inmates, meditation teachers, State Department security agents, a film crew and actor Richard Gere, who helped facilitate the gathering, Moses held forth so passionately he half rose from his seat. "It's about making money, man. Uzis aren't made in the ghetto. Nobody in the hood's making money off the Dolce & Gabbana we're wearing. Prisons are about making money for the dudes building the prisons. They want us to fail. They want us to go back." His Holiness listened and nodded and replied without using his translator, "I too could be in this prison. That potential is inside all humans. But so is potential for transformation. You must keep on path for what is good inside you."
From the Dalai Lama's perspective, that path is intimately connected to meditation--the mindfulness and natural compassion that Buddhists believe arise when one is fully, selflessly, connected to the present moment. (Kundun, the Dalai Lama's name in Tibetan, means "presence.") Though it seems a no-brainer to offer people in prisons a healthy, inexpensive way to deal with anger and stress (if for no other reason than most will one day be out of prison), thus far there's been considerable resistance to it by most government agencies. For the past four years I've been teaching meditation classes in New York City youth prisons with a nonprofit organization called the Lineage Project. It's often a struggle to get inside, and though our group received the Mayor's Voluntary Action Award we get no funding from the city or from the Department of Juvenile Justice. Recognizing this and myriad other issues surrounding the American prison system, Soren Gordhamer, the founder of the Lineage Project, organized (through Gere's Initiatives Foundation) a three-day conference in Manhattan called "Healing Through Great Difficulty."
"We're trying to address a system that's not working," Gordhamer says. "Too often prisoners come out angrier than when they went in. Prison guards have a shorter life expectancy than most other vocations and often die shortly after retirement. Prison groups worry more about their paychecks bouncing than teaching. Our goal is not to make people Buddhists. It's about helping to calm the minds of prisoners and staff, and to support the human values of empathy and respect."
The New York conference, the first of its kind, which by design coincided with the Dalai Lama's 20-day American tour, began with panel discussions led by Western meditation teachers, including Jack Kornfield, a former Buddhist monk and author of the best-selling "A Path With Heart"; George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation coach with the Los Angeles Lakers; a feisty Buddhist nun from Australia named Robina Courtin, who labors to keep afloat her California-based Liberation Prison Project, which has donated more than 20,000 books to prison libraries worldwide; Fleet Maull, an ordained Zen priest who founded the National Prison Hospice Association while serving 14 years in federal prison, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, an author and scientist who has helped bring mindfulness practices into the mainstream of American medicine. Two questions the teachers wanted to address: What works? What more can we do?
The 18 former inmates--nominated by prison groups and halfway houses from around the country to attend the conference and offer answers--proved to be inspiring examples of the possibility of transformation through spiritual practice. Among many of the former inmates were two common denominators: tough, often abusive childhoods in broken families, and a fervent desire to give something positive back to their "brothers and sisters" still inside. "Meditation saved my life," said Ananda Baltrunas, who, released just weeks ago after two decades in prison, lives in a Zen monastery in Indiana and plans to counsel local inmates. Dylcia Pagan, a former Puerto Rican political prisoner who served 20 years for sedition, told the group, "Meditation enabled me to find that sacred space within me in the madness of prison life. It allowed me to learn forgiveness for myself and for my jailors." Luz Santana, who works with emotionally disturbed women in the same New York state facility where she was locked up for 11 years, tearfully explained, "It was acts of kindness that helped me survive in prison, and I'm now trying to pass that on, to give a little bit of love to those who never experienced it."
Perhaps the most powerful testament to the value of meditation and spiritual practice came when two Tibetan nuns shared with the American prisoners the grim details of their incarceration by the communist Chinese government. Though guilty of nothing more than attending a peaceful demonstration in Lhasa advocating religious freedom, both teenage nuns were arrested, tortured and for five years kept in an unheated cell with 12 other prisoners with whom they were not allowed to speak. The Tibetan translator's eyes welled with tears as she explained how throughout their ordeal the two nuns continually, silently, meditated on the only Buddhist image they had ever seen: a smuggled photo of the Dalai Lama as a little boy. When asked by the American prisoners how they survived, one of the nuns replied, "We remembered those who were suffering more than us."
During the conference it became clear that society's bias against former inmates is multifaceted. For instance, only two of the 18 participants had regained their voting rights. Were it not for a special waiver to attend the conference, because of parole restrictions, most could not have traveled to New York or even associated with each other as former prisoners. When I escorted a participant from Massachusetts to the 20th Precinct police headquarters so he could register as a "parolee from out of state," the cop who gave him the form sneeringly refused to sign it or log it into the computer, and when he got his pen back he threw it in the trash.
For most of us, the conference highlight was the intimate, 90-minute conversation with the Dalai Lama. "It didn't turn out like I had planned," says Gordhamer. "I thought he would be answering lots of questions. Instead, the prisoners wanted to educate him about so many of the problems people in poverty face growing up in our culture. His Holiness was visibly moved when he learned that several states spend more money on jails than colleges. He's already expressed interest in returning next year to talk with wardens, judges and politicians about changes to our prison system that would lead to a safer society for everyone."
After the unprecedented discussion, the Dalai Lama bowed and blessed the teachers' and prisoners' mala beads. As the group gathered around him for a photograph, one of the participants asked if she could give His Holiness a kiss. He laughed and patted his cheek. Watching, keeping in mind the lessons embodied in the suffering and wisdom of both the Dalai Lama and the likes of young Moses Weah, I recalled the last meditation class Soren and I taught at a youth prison in the South Bronx. The final steel door yawning shut behind us with an emphatic deadbolt thunk. The tiny chapel filled with 16 young men, convicted or accused of offenses including armed robbery, rape and murder, slumped throughout the pews in their sweaty brown jumpsuits, somehow looking both anxious and theatrically bored. Ten minutes later an always amazing sight: the inmates were sitting up straight, most with closed eyes, silently counting the echoing dongs from the brass bowl balanced on Soren's fingertips. One kid chewed on a toothpick and sat so fully erect his posture seemed a parody of itself, yet when the meditation concluded he was the first to shout out the correct number of chimes. Another rubbed his eyes and said to no one in particular, "Yo, where was I?"
Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, even Jesus--many of the world's great leaders, Soren reminded the young men, spent time in jail.
As the female inmates lined up in single file at the conclusion of that night's second class, a woman whose hair was styled into a dozen tiny Afro tufts gently knocked knuckles with us. "Yesterday I meditated before I met my judge," she whispered. "My stomach was all fluttery, so I went into the bathroom at the courthouse, put paper towels on the floor, closed my eyes, and counted my breaths.
Soren smiled. "Did it help?"
"Yeah, a lot," she answered as she was marched off to her cell. "It made me feel so much better, I thought I was doing something illegal."