http://www.UrbanDharma.org ...Buddhism for Urban America


The Urban Dharma Newsletter... January 14, 2003


In This Issue:

1. Deathrow Inmate Finds Transformation Through Buddhism ...By KEVIN SACK
2. Inside Story
...by Sarvananda

3. Book Review: We're All Doing Time
...by Bo Lozoff
4. Temple/Center/Website- of the Week: ANGULIMALA
...the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation


1. Deathrow Inmate Finds Transformation Through Buddhism ...By KEVIN SACK

* http://home.uchicago.edu/~wito/deathrow-buddhist.html

UCKER, Ark. -- William Frank Parker, a double murderer with a nasty habit of slugging corrections officers, was doing time in solitary confinement one day when he asked a prison guard, somewhat impolitely, for a Bible to read.

The guard, his sense of humor stimulated by Parker's insolence, opened the cell door, tossed in a copy of a Buddhist tract known as the Dhammapada, and slammed the door shut. Parker, with little else to do, began to read.

Seven years later, Parker is the only practicing Buddhist in the Arkansas prison system. And as his appointment with a lethal injection approaches, he has become a cause celebre among Buddhists worldwide. Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama himself joined the hundreds of clemency-seeking correspondents who have written Gov. Jim Guy Tucker on Parker's behalf.

Death row conversions are common, but Parker's seems to be different. His Buddhism, he says, concerns neither salvation nor repentance. It is less a religion than "a transformational psychology" that guides practitioners toward inner peace, a rather scarce commodity on death row.

"The Buddha said the greatest of all footprints is that of the elephant, and the greatest meditation is that on death," Parker said in an interview at the Maximum Security Unit here, the site of Arkansas's death row. "I needed to come to grips with death. I was having trouble with it. Buddhism teaches that it's the big lie, the big delusion.

"Now I know," he said, pointing to his chest, "that this vehicle will die. But what's in it moves on."

Indeed, the 41-year-old Parker has forbidden his lawyer, Jeffrey M. Rosenzweig of Little Rock, to file additional appeals of his convictions for killing his former wife's parents and wounding his former wife and a police officer in 1984. While he would not object to a commutation of his sentence to life without parole, he says he has no interest in delays of an inevitable execution.

"He has psychologically steeled himself to be executed and has reached a peace of some sort about it and is not sure he wants to disturb that," Rosenzweig said.

Until a last-minute unrequested reprieve bought him some time, Parker's execution had been scheduled for Wednesday. On Friday, Tucker delayed the execution until July 11 so the U.S. Supreme Court would have time to judge the constitutionality of a new federal law that limits appeals by condemned prisoners.

Many of the clemency pleas written to Tucker, whether from Buddhist priests in Sri Lanka or Zen masters in Honolulu, cite Parker's rededication of his life to Buddhism. His conversion has been so convincing that many inmates and guards call him by the Buddhist name he assumed several years ago, Si-Fu, which means "master" or "teacher." When he approaches, some bow, their hands clasped in front of their faces.

Each night, he waits for the rantings of the condemned to fade and then rises at 3 a.m. to meditate in silence for 40 minutes. His cell has become a temple, complete with a brass statuette of the Buddha and, when the warden allows, burning candles and incense. During crackdowns on such possessions, he makes do. "I can make candles," Parker said. "I can make incense."

He has read dozens of books on Buddhist wisdom and laces his conversations with references to Zen masters, the Bible and Carl Jung. He has learned to fashion intricate origami flowers and birdcages from paper supplied by his mother. He has shaved his head in devotion and wears a ritualistic black apron, called a rakusu, over his prison whites. During a recent interview, he wrapped brown prayer beads around his hands while silver cuffs shackled his ankles.

"He has the most impressive understanding of Buddhism of any inmate I've ever met," said Kobutsu Shindo (also known as Kevin C. Malone), a Buddhist priest who ministers to inmates at the Sing Sing Correctional Institute in New York and who is leading the campaign to spare Parker. "And he has as deep an understanding as many Western Buddhist teachers. The man belongs in a monastery, not on death row."

Even Parker's mother, Janie N. Parker of Bastrop, Texas, who has had reasons for skepticism about her son over the years, said she was convinced of the depth of his conversion. "I thought it might be a fake at first because so many of them get jailhouse religion," Mrs. Parker said. "But the longer I talked to him, the more I realized he was into it."

Parker said the religion seized him when he read Buddha's teachings that impure thoughts led to trouble. "I said, This is me here," he recalled. "I knew that in my own crimes, my own history, I had acted with an impure heart."

His education has not always been easy. When a prison chaplain refused his orders of Buddhist books, Parker threatened to throw him over a second-floor railing. "I know it was anti-Buddhist to say that," Parker said, adding, "Now I don't have any problems."

On Nov. 5, 1984, Parker, high on liquor and cocaine and desperately unhappy about his recent divorce, killed his former in-laws at their house in Rogers, Ark., and later abducted his former wife. For reasons he says he cannot now fathom, he took her to a police station where he shot her and wounded a policeman three times before being disarmed. His lawyer's efforts to appeal the convictions, mostly on the ground of double jeopardy, have been unsuccessful.

At a state clemency board hearing earlier this month, a prosecutor said that Parker once joked that he had turned the Warrens into "worm food." His former wife, Pamela Warren Bratcher, told board members, "Frankie Parker has been given 111/2 more years than he gave my parents." The board voted 5 to 0 to advise the governor not to commute Parker's sentence.

Parker said that he was remorseful, but that he had not written Ms. Bratcher because any apology would be inadequate. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "Say, 'Sorry I killed your Mom and Dad?' "

But he also mocks Ms. Bratcher's devotion to his demise. "My death is her life," he said, "and when I die, she's going to be lost."

On Saturday, Kobutsu Shindo visited Parker and performed a jukai ceremony, a high-level initiation into Buddhism during which Parker received a new name, Ju San, or "mountain of everlasting life." An abbot's inscription on a certificate encouraged him to "depart with dignity like a mountain, trusting that his life is everlasting."

Parker said he would do so.

"My friends on death row used to say, 'If you think those Buddhists are going to get you off death row, forget it. Those Buddhists love death,' " he said. "I don't want to die. But I'm ready. In fact, I'm sort of looking forward to the journey. I've studied it for so long."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

2. Inside Story ...by Sarvananda

* http://www.dharmalife.com/article15.asp?idArticle=63

What makes a prisoner? Sarvananda, a prison Buddhist chaplain, has an inside view of life in jail; and he reflects that we are all prisoners of our mental states

Twice a week for the past seven years I have visited Norwich Prison in eastern England, in my capacity as a Buddhist chaplain. Recently I have been wondering why I am drawn to this work. Apart from the desire to spread the Dharma and the fact that my teacher Sangharakshita has encouraged his disciples to undertake such work, a certain fascination has drawn me to prison visiting – a fascination with prison life itself and with the people I meet.

I was brought up in an affluent, suburban district of Glasgow, Scotland. Criminal acts seemed rare. Graffiti was hardly seen and, if it did briefly blossom, it was gone by the next morning. No, the forces of darkness lived over the river. Just across the muddy waters of the River Cart lay the Castlemilk housing estate. In the summer, when the river was low, our suburban stronghold was often invaded by the Castlemilk youth. They stole from shops, and chased people with ‘blades’. On my way back from a shopping expedition I was once mugged by some of these dreaded ‘Cassies’. I still remember the grinning, handsome face and bright eyes of their ringleader. I staggered home in tears without my mother’s groceries and with fear and anger in my heart. Yet ‘the Cassies’ also fascinated me.

I have always had the middle-class boy’s curiosity about those who live on the other side of the tracks. It has determined my tastes in literature, and even my choice of friends. This fascination has extended to my prison visiting and ties in with my other incarnation as someone who attempts to write plays.

When I visit the prison, I have to rein in my curiosity. I am there to communicate the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, and to be, to the best of my ability, a spiritual friend to the men I meet. Although I have access to the prisoners’ files I never read them. Nor do I ask them why they are in prison. I let them offer that information – or not. There is a danger that my own curiosity can be a distraction from my primary purpose. Still, I am curious ...

I usually feel tense as I ring the little bell and wait by the enormous double doors of the prison. This is not because I feel apprehensive about visiting the prisoners who have asked to see me. In seven years visiting the prison, I have never been threatened or felt intimidated by a prisoner (which was certainly a fear when I started). The men I meet have asked to see me and always treat me with friendliness and respect. The tension has more to do with the difficulties I have experienced in getting to see prisoners, or finding a room in which to meditate, or establishing my credentials.

‘What are you doing?’ barked an officer one day, as I wandered aimlessly down a corridor searching for a prisoner who had no doubt been transferred to another prison.

‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘You don’t look like the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘I am,’ I assured him. ‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

And I showed him my card with the little photograph of me that makes me look like the prison’s longest-term resident. But the card did undeniably say ‘Buddhist chaplain’.

‘Sorry, sir.’ His voice changed. ‘Probably best not to wear a maroon sweatshirt [regulation prison gear] when you come here. Gave me a nasty shock seeing a prisoner with keys.’

‘Who are you?’ is a question I often get asked as I enter the prison, a question often accompanied by the unselfconscious stare of an inmate. It’s the kind of stare you don’t usually get on ‘the out’.

Being a member of the Western Buddhist Order, I don’t wear robes, so I’m not immediately recognisable as a chaplain, and I sometimes envy the Christian chaplain his immediately recognisable dog collar, his chapel, and the weight of his western tradition. I am a curiosity for officers and prisoners. And I’ve had some interesting conversations about Buddhism with landing officers while waiting to see a prisoner.

The first thing that hits me when I enter a prison wing is the noise – shouting, slamming doors and blaring radios. The atmosphere at first seems casual. After all, these are just men getting on with their daily routine. But I always detect an underlying frustration. These men have been locked up against their will, deprived of their freedom and their ability to make choices is hugely limited.

There is often, too, an atmosphere of jokey comradeship, something even mildly homoerotic. As I walked up a stairwell recently I noticed one inmate kissing another through a wire mesh.‘ What are you two up to?’ demanded a scandalised third party.

‘We love each other, man.’

‘You’ve been in here too long, mate.’

I meet the men I have come to see in various locations. It is sometimes difficult to find an appropriate room and I have been sequestered in a small treatment room with a bewildered inmate and two angry budgies, irritated by the invasion of their personal space. Sometimes I meet with a prisoner in one of the Christian chapels. It seems strange meditating under the Stations of the Cross, but these rooms have a spaciousness and tranquillity that I like. I often use one of the multi-faith rooms, which have few artefacts or images and are sterile and drab because they have been designed to give no offence to any religion. Here I set up my Buddha figure, light some incense, perhaps put on a tape of Tibetan chanting, and try to create a pleasant atmosphere. The men I meet, suffering under the routines and rituals of prison life, respond positively to the ritual and artefacts of Buddhism. Incense is particularly popular. Perhaps burning incense marks them off as being Buddhists – as well as disguising the pervasive smells of cooking, detergent or toilets.

Sometimes I see the prisoners in their cells, which vary in size and quality. ‘M’ wing houses prisoners of an enhanced category. They have pleasant, spacious cells with a shower. Other cells are small, shared spaces with a bunk bed. There are also small, single cells with a toilet. These are particularly smelly, cramped and unpleasant. Whatever their size or quality, prisoners spend a substantial amount of their prison lives banged up in these cells.

The prisoners choose to decorate their cells in different ways. Some are neat with a little shrine on a table and Buddhist images displayed on the walls. In others naked women are plastered everywhere and it is a relief to shut one’s eyes to meditate.

‘It’s about the only curves you see in prison,’ one of the more philosophically minded inmates reminded me, by way of apology.

Lines. No curves. From their striped blue shirts, to the wire mesh, to the bars on the windows ... The masculine, ordered geometry of prison life wearies the eye. Prison is an ugly, ugly environment.

And the ugliest part of this ugly environment is ‘A’ wing, the old Victorian part of the prison. There seems a particularly tense atmosphere on this wing. Generations of men have tramped these landings, called to one another from these balconies, have spent years of their lives locked in these cells ... The geography of the wing makes the whole place a well of sound. Noise is what I would find most difficult to endure in here. It is what the more sensitive inmates complain about. It’s difficult to meditate with blaring radios, yelling and slamming doors being amplified, flung up and around the four landings on the wing ...

 I often wonder how I would cope in prison. The men I meet (usually one-to-one, but sometimes in groups) range from lifers convicted of violent crimes to young men convicted of selling drugs. Many of those I meet are there for drug-related crimes. Occasionally I meet someone from a similar background to myself but usually the environment from which they have emerged has been difficult, harsh and often violent. A lot of them have been in institutions of one kind or another all their lives.

Normally I have a general chat, talk about basic Buddhism and we meditate together. Some have found in Buddhism an alternative to conventional religion, a spiritual path without God. Some have a good, consistent meditation practice. Others find meditation difficult and prefer just to talk. Many are struggling with addiction and it is no coincidence that, at the moment, the majority of guys I see are on a special wing that helps them to deal with their addictive behaviour. These men understand immediately the Buddhist attitude to craving and that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.

When I talk with the prisoners I always try to follow Khemadhammo’s advice – to stay with the Dharma. Ven. Ajahn Khemadhammo, an English Theravadin monk, started Angulimala, the UK’s Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation to which I belong, in 1985. Its 45 or so chaplains attend regular meetings, which provide mutual support and encouragement.


I try to follow Khemadammo’s advice: not to psychologise, nor sort out the prisoners’ problems for them, nor take sides, nor get into the cloudy areas of the rights and wrongs of their specific case. I try to come back again and again to the basics of Buddhism – the importance of creating the right conditions in establishing an effective practice; the need to take responsibility for one’s mental states; the law of karma as expressed by the Buddha in the Dhammapada:

‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.’

‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his shadow.’

In returning to these truths I also remind myself of the basics of the Dharma that I so easily forget. And those prisoners who have some genuine grasp of these basics move on most effectively. It is easy to underestimate the struggle many of them have. I visited one man who seemed to be getting on well. He was usually calm and bright and had a seemingly effective meditation practice. After he was released I happened to spot him in the city. His face was haggard and bruised and he was having a fierce argument with some of the drunks and drug addicts who frequent that part of town.

Occasionally, just occasionally, particularly if I am busy, I find myself envying aspects of their lives. In many ways their lives seem simpler than mine. They do, of course, have a lot of free time. They seem less subject to the tyranny of choice. ‘The amount I could get written, the amount I could study, the amount I could meditate if I lived in here!’ I occasionally reflect.

Some of the men I meet say that being in prison has been beneficial, in that previously they never had the time or the space to consider their lives. And I often suggest that they try and see their time in prison as a semi-retreat. I stress that they may never again have the spare time seriously to meditate and reflect.

But my attraction to their life is superficial. There are 500 other good reasons why I would not want to be a prisoner. These men have been deprived of their freedom and, in the process, I sense that they have lost something else. This is difficult to put into words, but it is something to do with the blue striped shirts and the maroon sweat shirts, the fact that their letters are opened before they read them, that they’re called by their second name, and are subject to a sometimes baffling bureaucracy. If I’m late for a prisoner or can’t manage to see him, it doesn’t seem so important to me as it would if I was inconveniencing someone on the outside. It’s a subtle, semi-conscious feeling, which I fight against, that these men are second-class citizens, that broken promises affect them less, that they live on the other side of the river. Prison life can deprive them of dignity.

I am writing this article on a solitary retreat. On the face of it I have the freedom to go where I want, do what I want and think what I want. But I have been aware, while meditating here, how much my ability to think or act freely is limited by deep-rooted negative habits. I am imprisoned by these habits, and here is another fascination in my work: the prison provides me with a metaphor. It reminds me that my world is similar in many respects, that the dividing river is not really a divide and that, like the men I meet in Norwich prison, I am subject to the imprisoning mental states of greed, hatred and delusion. The difference between a free person and one without freedom is not bars or doors, but the extent to which they can take responsibility for their mental states.

In the end, however, my world is not one of bars and wire and slamming doors. Every time I walk out of the prison I experience a sense of relief. Choice can be a tyrant, but prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices, to make the most of my physical freedom. Hopefully, in communicating the Dharma to those men I meet, I can help them, too, to choose wisely.

3. We're All Doing Time ...by Bo Lozoff

* http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0961444401/wwwkusalaorg-20/

Reviewer: David Reid from Taipei, Taiwan... This book is incredibly inspiring. Bo Lozoff goes into one of the toughest environments there is--prison--and by teaching about meditation and yoga and spiritual truths completely transforms the lives of many people.

More importantly he doesn't preach or pretend to know all the answers. He draws from the teachings of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism to teach spirituality that is relevant to everybody. In the section of letters to and from prisoners he shows a lot of wisdom in his answers.

You don't have to be in prison to benefit from the teachings in this book. It is straight forward and practical spirituality for everyone.

Amazon Reviewer: monica from Blairstown, New Jersey United States... This is it! This is the book that started my conscious spiritual journey some 11 years ago. This is the book I learned to meditate from. I have read literaly hundreds of books on spirituality and this is one of the best. Bo and his wife Sita are exceptional human beings. You can't go wrong with this book. Namaste

Amazon Reviewer: Jobson from U ess uvA .... and I mean that. This is no cheesy, ego-fondling "self-help" book. Whether you have been incarcerated or not, you're sure to benefit somewhat from this book. After an illuminating introduction, Bo begins with a chapter called 'The Big View', which in itself is one of the most direct, honest yet simple introductions to starting a more spiritual & disciplined life I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. Then, we have a chapter (Getting free) which outlines loads of spiritual practices, each one quite good. There's stuff from Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic contemplative traditions. Each instruction is easy to understand, and makes you want to do it. Along with that there's stuff on Hatha yoga, prayer, Karma yoga (helping people as a spiritual practice), and even how to eat spiritually. Just those 2 chapters as a book would have been awesome, but to top it all off, the following half of the book is letters from convicts to Bo himself. This may not seem so spectacular, but it is. It's very inspiring. As an added bonus, the whole book is peppered with funny cartoons, pictures, quotes and Bo's funny comments. Everything he writes just sings honesty & compassion. Plus, it's only 8 bucks! Think of all the crap books you buy for 20 or so.

Amazon Reviewer: Susannah Indigo from Colorado... Reading the correspondence from prisoners working to pursue meditation and yoga in their search for peace just knocked me out. We think in our ordinary (free) lives that we struggle with our spiritual paths, and in theory it might be the same work, but the inspiration from these stories puts a whole new perspective on the seeking. An excellent, touching, sincere and fascinating book.

4. ANGULIMALA ...the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation

* http://www.angulimala.org.uk/


• Right Honourable, the Lord Avebury


• Venerable Ajahn Khemadhammo


• To make available facilities for the teaching and practice of Buddhism in Her Majesty's Prisons.


• To recruit and advise a team of Buddhist visiting chaplains to be available as soon as there is a call for their services;

• To act in an advisory capacity, and to liaise with the Home Office chaplaincy officials and with individual chaplains within Her Majesty's Prisons;

• To provide an aftercare and advisory service for prisoners after release.

AN INTRODUCTION ...by  Venerable Khemadhammo Maha Thera

The Buddhist scriptures relate that one day, after his meal, the Buddha went out from the monastery where he was staying and walked towards a great forest, seeing him going in that direction various people working in their fields called out to him to warn him that in that forest dwelt the dreaded Angulimala.  Little is known for certain about Angulimala but the usual account of his life has him the son of a well-to-do family and at one time a brilliant student at the university of Taxila, then the Oxbridge of India.  At Taxila, other students were jealous of him and succeeded in poisoning their teacher’s mind against him with the result that the teacher asked of him what he must have believed would be an impossible honorarium, a thousand, right hand, human, little fingers.  Unbelievably, instead of giving up and slinking off home without graduating, the young man set out to collect the fingers and pay the honorarium.  Presumably, he quickly discovered that people were reluctant to willingly give up their little fingers and so he was forced to resort to violence and killing in order to obtain them.  Then he found he had nowhere to store these fingers.  He tried hanging them on a tree but the birds stole them so his solution was to string them about his neck.  From this gruesome and growing garland of bloody fingers came his name.  Angulimala means ‘finger garland’.  This was the man then who peering out from his lair spotted the Buddha coming towards him and who that day had about his neck nine hundred and ninety-nine human, right hand, little fingers.  This powerful and athletic serial killer who had already successfully resisted several attempts to apprehend him grabbed his weapons and dashed out to murder the Buddha and complete his score.  He expected quickly to overtake him and finish the job but then a very strange thing happened for Angulimala, despite his formidable strength and speed couldn’t catch up with the Buddha even though the Buddha calmly carried on walking, serene and unhurried.  Eventually, exhausted, angry, frustrated and soaked with sweat, Angulimala screamed at the Buddha to stop.  Then the Buddha turned and speaking quietly and directly told Angulimala that he, the Buddha, had already stopped.  He had stopped killing and harming and now it was time for him, Angulimala, to do likewise.  Angulimala was so struck by these words that there and then he stopped, he threw away his weapons and followed the Buddha back to the monastery where he became a monk.  Later, the King, ignorant of what had happened, came by leading his troops out to arrest Angulimala.  Being a very pious monarch, he called in to pay his respects to the Buddha and to inform him of what he was up to.  The Buddha asked the King what his reaction would be were he to discover that amongst this assemblage of monks sat Angulimala.  To the King it was utterly unbelievable that such a foul and evil person could now be a Buddhist monk and seated amongst such exalted company but were it the case, he answered, he would certainly pay his respects and make offerings.  At that moment the Buddha stretched forth his right hand and pointing him out announced that there sat Angulimala.  When he’d recovered from the shock, the King did pay his respects and then declared how incredible it was that, “Where we with force and weapons have failed, you with neither force nor weapons have prevailed!”  After a period of some trial to himself, Angulimala did eventually succeed in purging his mind of all greed, hatred and delusion and realised for himself the Buddhist goal of Enlightenment.

In pursuit of that same ideal, in 1971 I abandoned my career as an actor and went out to Thailand to further a consuming interest in Buddhism and deepen my practice of meditation.  I was then twenty-seven years old.  I had the good fortune to be accepted by the Venerable Ajahn Chah, one of the greatest Buddhist masters that Thailand has produced and I spent my years in Thailand up in the north-east, close to the Lao and Cambodian borders, at forest hermitages and monasteries under Ajahn Chah’s guidance.  In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to London and I accompanied him.  It was supposed to be a stay of just two months to see what possibilities there might be but within a week or two Ajahn Chah had decided that while he would have to return to Thailand as planned, I would be staying on.  This was at the old Hampstead Buddhist Vihara on Haverstock Hill and this was the address that the Prison Service then had as its Buddhist contact.  It wasn’t long before letters came from Pentonville and Parkhurst prisons asking for someone to visit as a Buddhist Visiting Minister and coincidentally the chaplain at Holloway also rang up for someone to visit a newly arrived Buddhist prisoner there.  On the weekend when the Queen was celebrating her Silver Jubilee, Ajahn Chah and I were seated together on a train and I asked him what he thought about my responding to those requests.  He answered with one word, “Go!”  And I’ve been going to prisons ever since.

Inevitably, the people I began to see at the first prisons I visited were moved on to other establishments and I dutifully followed.  Fairly rapidly I began to collect appointments as the Visiting Buddhist Minister to an increasing number of gaols and more and more of my time came to be spent sitting or standing on trains and walking and hitching from prison to prison.  From 1979, I was based on the Isle of Wight but in 1984, I accepted an invitation to move up to Warwickshire.  That move enabled me to team up with Yann Lovelock in Birmingham who had by this time been drawn into the prison work and with the aim of making Buddhism available in the prisons we were able to push forward the idea of providing a properly organised Buddhist prison chaplaincy.

The story of Angulimala teaches us that the possibility of Enlightenment may be awakened in the most extreme of circumstances, that people can and do change and that people are best influenced by persuasion and above all, example.  ANGULIMALA, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation was founded on Magha Puja Day in February 1985.  The festival of Magha Puja celebrates an occasion when the Buddha explained his teaching in its simplest and most universal form as, “Give up what is unwholesome and wrong, cultivate what is skilful and good and purify your mind - this is the Teaching of all the Buddhas.”  It reminds us that behind the exoticism and intellectualisation, the need for practical application lies at the core of everything the Buddha said.

Following consultation with the Prison Service Chaplaincy, ANGULIMALA was recognised in March l985 as the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning the Prison Service in England and Wales.  ANGULIMALA has since been referred to as the Buddhist Nominating Authority and is now officially the Religious Consultative Service to the Prison Service for the Buddhist faith and the Prison Service contributes to its costs.  I am a member of the Prison Service Advisory Group on Religion in Prisons.  Since June of 1999, when I led a workshop in Edinburgh we have been active in Scotland.  There are also thoughts of a branch in the West Indies, we have contacts in America, Russia and Nepal and I have visited prisons in Thailand.

ANGULIMALA does not favour any form or school of Buddhism over another and has the backing of most major Buddhist organisations in the UK.  Membership is open to anyone in sympathy with its aims, whether they wish to play an active part or not.  In early 2000 we had some forty chaplains working in ninety-three of the penal establishments in England and Wales.  A committee that meets quarterly and which helps with the wider organisation oversees our several activities.  Currently Lord Avebury is the Patron, Rev. Saido Kennaway of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey co-ordinates the appointment of Buddhist Visiting Ministers, Sue Wood is the Secretary, Rob Yellowhammer is the Treasurer, Rev. Lewyn Blake co-ordinates ANGULIMALA SCOTLAND and I am the Spiritual Director.

We organise quarterly workshops and all appointed chaplains - we prefer to call them chaplains - are expected to attend at least one workshop a year.  At these, following devotions and meditation at 10 a.m., the day is broken up into three sections that follow in whatever order is convenient.  The Buddhist section focuses on some aspect of the Buddha’s Teaching and Practice with a particular regard to how it might be applied or taught in a gaol.  In the specifically prison section, with the aid of a guest speaker, someone working in the Prison Service or in some way connected with it, the aim is to broaden our team’s knowledge of how the prisons are run.  Guest speakers have included a prison officer, a member of a Board of Visitors, a trainer from Newbold Revel, the Governor of Whitemoor, the Head of Prisoner Administration Group at Prison Service Headquarters, Graham Clark, former Governor of Wandsworth and Stephen Shaw, the Prisons Ombudsman.  During the Report-In section, all the chaplains present have a chance to summarise their recent prison activities and of course, this is also an opportunity to ask questions or discuss anything arising from these reports.

There is present in Britain a wide diversity of Buddhist schools and practices, and were it necessary to provide ministers representing all of these it would be a nightmare for us and for the Prison Service.  Fortunately, this diversity is represented within ANGULIMALA’S membership and amongst its chaplains and there is broad agreement that what should be offered is a basic Buddhism with provision when necessary for whatever school or form of practice that might be required.

When I decided to respond to those original requests back in 1977, I had to consider what I had to offer people locked up in prison.  I, after all, had never been incarcerated, I had never been in a prison, I didn’t know where they were and I wasn’t even sure I had ever seen one.  When I sat down to think about it I realised that I had also spent quite a lot of my time shut away in small spaces and I too had had to face myself in that solitude.  There were differences of course.  I had made that forest monastic seclusion my choice and as I sat and faced myself I had had at my disposal an armoury of meditation techniques as well as the guidance, the example, the wisdom and the support of those who taught me.  I had also been purposefully seeking to understand my life.  There were differences but there were similarities.  I too had been uncomfortable and it was my sense of unease that had led me to look beyond the then narrow confines that restricted me for answers.  Yes, I realised, I did understand something about imprisonment.  And after all, aren’t we all imprisoned by our greed and aversion, by our ignorance, and our prejudices and attachments.  And it was my belief then, as it is now, that while I have yet to pass through the gate that is Liberation, Buddhist techniques equip me with the means to do so.  Thinking along these lines, I decided that I did have something to offer those in prison.

I have always disliked the way that some individuals try to thrust their ideas and beliefs on other people and therefore I am only comfortable speaking about Buddhism and what I do when I’m asked about it.  This is the Buddhist attitude.  We feel a responsibility to make Buddhist Teachings and Practice available and to respond when required but no more.  Should any over-zealous Buddhists start trying to convert and bend people to their way of thinking then the more orthodox followers of the Buddha become uncomfortable and critical.  To people who accuse me of embracing Buddhist social action, I explain that what I do in the prisons is more or less what I do in the monastery.  The difference is that while normally people can come to the temple, for prisoners we have to take the temple to them.

I don’t approve of prisons.  Buddhists believe that all determined actions have their results and it hardly requires anyone to sit in judgement on another and impose penalties.  But the reality is that prisons do exist, society does demand something from those who offend against its interests and many thousands of human beings now and in the future will spend chunks of their lives in them.  To me it is shameful that that time should be wasted.  So, in prison, as anywhere else, in order to alleviate suffering and offer people the hope of a better and happier future, we seek to make the Teachings and Practice of Buddhism available.


• By joining ANGULIMALA.

• By donating time, money or Buddhist literature - any or all of these.

• By acting as a pen-friend.

• By helping produce educational literature.

• By being a prison visitor.

• By becoming a visiting Buddhist chaplain.

• By offering help with aftercare.

• By discussing our work and ways you can help us in your respective Buddhist groups and centres (we will provide speakers or a tape if these are required).


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