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“Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons,” by Kobai Scott Whitney

Kobai Scott Whitney is a Zen Buddhist practitioner who is employed as Buddhist Chaplain for the state of Washington and who has also done time himself. He is therefore ideally placed to write a book on Buddhist practice in America’s prisons. The subtitle is potentially misleading, however. Rather than being a survey of Buddhist practice in American penal institutions, Sitting Inside is a practice handbook for inmates and prison volunteers alike.

For inmates, Kobai offers an overview of key Buddhist teachings such as the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, introduces the practice of ethics (with specific reference to situations that inmates are likely to encounter in prison) and teaches 14 meditations that range from simple calming exercises to more existential reflections on, for example, “Who Is Sitting?” These teachings are likely to be helpful for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation.

For prison volunteers, Sitting Inside offers insights into the unique pressures facing those in prison, as well as the difficulties that may arise in conducting meetings in the face of resistance by Christian chaplains, and potential pitfalls in relations with inmates. As a prison volunteer myself I am grateful to Kobai for hastening my learning.

Additionally, Kobai does an excellent job of highlighting the cruelties and shortsightedness of America’s dysfunctional penal system, which has been accurately descibed as the “Prison-Industrial Complex” because of the way it has eveolved as a collaboration between politicians and business in order on the one hand to win votes by boosting incarceration rates and on the other to provide a cheap source of labor.

One oversight in the book is the lack of any guidance from prisoners and volunteers on the complex and difficult area of making the transition between prison life and the outside world. What can spiritual communities do to provide support for inmates after release? What are the difficulties that inmates typically face in trying to gain acceptance in a practice community? How does a spiritual group deal, for example, with accommodating a convicted sex offender, providing spiritual support for the parolee while protecting the group? Kobai’s insights on these matters would have been most welcome.

Despite this reservation I would highly recommend Sitting Inside to all who are interested in meditation. Our own problems tend to shrink in significance when we encounter those less fortunate than ourselves, and our self-confidence can be increased by seeing others making positive changes in their lives in circumstances that are considerable less advantageous than our own.

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