-in the high desert region-
I have never been inside a prison. In fact, since I am somewhat claustrophobic, the very idea of being locked up inside a cell is quite frightening to me. Maybe that's why I was so moved by a podcast I heard yesterday in which my favorite Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, spoke of a recent visit to the United States during which time he gave a series of talks to inmates and guards in a Virginia prison.
In his very gentle, yet profoundly wise way, Thich Nhat Hanh told the prisoners and their guards that a prison is always a place of suffering, but they all had the ability to break out of those bonds of suffering through the "practice" of mindfulness and compassion.
As he sat teaching among hardened criminals and jaded guards, that simple Buddhist monk observed that they all breathe the same air inside the prison as he does on the outside. They all walk upon the same planet earth inside the gates and outside the gates, and that the roses in the prison garden are just as beautiful as the roses in his own garden back home. So they could all practice "mindfulness" just as well (if not better) inside the prison walls as he does outside - aware of the air they all breathe, paying attention to every step they take, gazing at the beauty of a rose. Being locked inside the four walls of a prison cell does not have to prevent a person from "waking up."
Thich Nhat Hahn went on to tell those inmates and their guards that, when they "wake up," if they truly wanted to be freed from their bondage and their suffering, then every day they would need to practice compassion toward one another.
On the surface it all sounded so simple, perhaps even somewhat naive. I couldn't help but wonder how those prisoners responded to this message. I had this image of tattooed thugs and cold-hearted guards with guns laughing this monk to scorn as they heard him speak, or at the very least having no idea as to what he was really talking about.
And yet, as the story goes, that's not at all what happened.
Apparently that prison community was very touched by this simple man and his gentle, wise teaching. Not only did they listen respectively and attentively, but officials reported that, after Thich Nhat Hanh's visit, they saw a remarkable improvement in prisoners' (and guards) attitudes and a change in the way in which people treated one another with greater respect.
The prison library has been deluged with requests for Buddhist literature and a few of the inmates have even made inquires about how they might be able to become monks.
As I reflect on what went on inside those prison walls, I was reminded of a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, found in the Book of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the captive, to bind up the brokenhearted
and to set the prisoners free.
I imagine that there are plenty of people, like me, who have never been inside the walls of a prison, and yet I think the world is full of prisoners - all tightly locked within self-imposed limitations.
For some people, their cubicle at work is a prison or the four walls of their apartment is their cell. Many people lock themselves inside the walls of a self-important ego, isolated and lonely as they plot and plan their way up the ladder of success.
A prison is always a place of suffering.
As I listened to the story of Thich Nhat Hanh yesterday, I realized that there is always a way-out of any prison. Suffering is always a choice, and freedom from bondage is always a choice.
The "way" sounds so simple and yet it is so profound:
Mindfulness and compassion set the prisoners free.