Letter from the prison sangha

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Many of our members correspond with people living inside prisons in Texas, as well as in other states. Maite’s new correspondent from Texas has told her his story of coming to practice and we thought we would share it with the wider sangha here.

After describing his realization that his “militant atheism” was not serving him with all that he faced in prison, Matt started attending a Buddhist service and began reading, learning about the benefits of meditation but not able to bring himself to sit down and try it. When he had the opportunity, he took refuge in the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but, “within a couple of days, back to the same old samsaric grindstone: expectation and disappointment, excitement and boredom, attack and defense, seeking and fleeing.” It was only after a difficult conversation with his mother on the phone when she confessed her great fears of death and suffering from breast cancer that he came to meditation.

“I returned to my bunk afterward and tried my usual stress-avoidance strategy: sleep. No go. Just rolled restlessly with an agitated mind. Tried to read, couldn’t do that either. Didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. Finally, a thought popped up: Isn’t this exactly what Buddhist practice is supposed to be for? Isn’t this what refuge is for?”

He sat on the concrete floor of his cell and chanted the Heart Sutra and the refuges, sitting in meditation for twenty minutes. He calmed down a little, then got back on his bunk and felt agitated again. Back to the floor he went. He says, “That night I fell to my practice purely as an escape, a way to slow and calm my agitated mind and self-created suffering. But it was a start, a real one this time. The next morning, I sat again, and the day after that, and after that. Slowly the calmed mind turned to a more insightful one. I started to see how much of my suffering over my mom’s cancer had nothing to do with my mom or her suffering. I was struggling with a lot of guilt. Guilt over being locked up and not being able to be there for her.”

With time, he found himself able to be there for her “a little more fully, a little more presently” and was grateful “for what was and a little more accepting of what could be. Nothing was different, but it all was.”

His mother is now in remission and he says, “I’ve always come back. I finally had the truth of refuge in direct experience, and always knew how to go back when I inevitably needed it again.” He tells of a time later when he came back to Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book he had been unable to comprehend in his earlier studies. He found a passage in which Suzuki Roshi gives the hypothetical situation of one’s children suffering. The parent can’t do anything to relieve the anxiety. Sitting meditation is, as he says, “the best way to relieve your suffering even in such a confused state of mind.”

Our friend says, as he read these words, “every word resonated direct and true to my experience. I knew this was something true, something I wanted to be part of and study and follow and live like nothing else I’d ever known. I’ve considered myself a student of Zen ever since.” He confesses that he still has a tendency to intellectualize practice, but “with no regrets and much gratitude to all my spiritual ancestors who guided me and all the karma that placed me here at this time and place in my life. I’m definitely a better, more beneficial person now than I’ve ever been before.”