Do you think that the heart
of the teachings that you're talking about here is universal,
or is it specific only to Buddhism?
Only the particular meditation techniques are unique to
Buddhism, though even they are probably shared by various
aspects of Christian and Jewish mysticism. There is a
prescribed methodology for opening and awakening that
the Buddha taught, and I draw upon that. But ultimately
it's the same stuff that Father Keating, a Trappist monk,
teaches across the country in his "Centering Prayer."
It's really a matter of quieting the mind, bringing awareness
to your mind/body experience, letting the revelations
and insights arise in that non-discursive, non-rational
mind-space that forms in meditation, and then bringing
as much heart and compassion to yourself as possible.
Then you can begin to see who you are and what obstacles
prevent you from opening and connecting with people and
with your own life.
After all this time teaching,
what do you get out of this?
It's like a litmus test for me. On one level, I really
need to test the Buddha's teachings in one of the most
severe contexts. The Dalai Lama once said that he cherishes
his enemies, the Chinese in particular, because they teach
him compassion. I need to see if that really works across
the board, if prisoners can cherish their enemies and
the people who threaten them, or if this is just an abstract
principle when it is applied to all the people in the
world. On another level, I just love going in there and
talking with the guys, exploring my own pain and my own
truths, and being with them-they're so close to the edge.
They don't have enough time or interest to look at meditation
practice as an intellectual process or as a philosophy.
It's a matter of utmost importance that they get some
peace of mind, or someone's going to get hurt-themselves
or someone else. I really thrive on their sense of urgency.
And I learn a great deal, too, when someone doesn't understand
what I'm doing and starts laughing. I get to see my control
issues arise and how I deal with them, to understand the
pain they bring to me and then to see other ways of working
What do you envision for the
Upaya Prison Project's Future?
Oh, we have a lot of plans, and we're trying to get funding
to implement them. We want to expand the meditation classes
to all nine prison facilities in New Mexico. That means
training more teachers as well. Just a side point: some
prisoners in Florence, Arizona, have been begging for
teachers to help them with a meditation practice they're
doing on their own. So a couple of us are going to try
to go to Arizona.
Prisoner recidivism averages about 75 percent in the U.S.,
but studies have shown that meditation programs in prison
have significantly reduced it. For example, a King County,
Washington, study showed recidivism fell by 25 percent.
We'd like to slow down the "revolving door" even further
with a comprehensive, post-release program that would
include individual mentoring for every released prisoner
and continuing meditation classes in Albuquerque. We've
already asked one of our teachers, a former inmate, to
teach classes in Albuquerque. Right now, two of us counsel
former inmates we've gotten to know through classes inside.
They need a lot of help to get and keep jobs, find a place
to live, stay off drugs, relate to their families, and
keep up their meditation practices.
We'd also like to see a prison hospice formed, with the
prisoners as the main caregivers. Terminally ill people
get shipped out away from their friends and are often
left without support. As I said earlier, the men at Grants
are learning to be caregivers.
Is there anything you would
like to add?
I think the program has been remarkably consistent. The
Buddha taught that meditation is a means to relieve suffering,
and so far he's right-no matter where you take your practice.
I think that when we teach with an attitude of acceptance
and understanding, openness and forgiveness, whether we're
teaching Buddhism or Christianity, healing will take place.
This is just one method of doing it.