Zen and the art of social justice

William Wolfe-Wylie, Rabble.ca: In the late 1970s, Horacio Morales founded The National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The organization’s primary goal was to overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. A few years later, Morales was arrested and taken to a jungle prison near a military rifle range. He was confined to a small concrete cell and, over the din of gunfire, subjected to electro-shock torture.

But each Friday, a kind-hearted Canadian woman ventured to the prison, alone, to visit Morales and the other prisoners, and she taught him the art of Zen meditation.

“They’d been tortured electrically and their bodies would jump,” said Sister Elaine MacInnes, a practicing Catholic nun who discovered Zen meditation while in Japan in 1958. She spent the next couple of decades learning Zen from the monks she had encountered, until she was certified as a teacher. Soon after that, she found herself in the Philippines where she began to visit prisoners, including Morales.

It took time, Sister Elaine recalls over a pot of tea in her Toronto home, but over the four years of his imprisonment, she taught Morales how to turn his prison cell into a monk’s cell. She helped him to deal with his anger and to channel his feelings through Zen meditation.

It was then, she said, working with Morales and his fellow prisoners, that she began to see the importance of teaching Zen to prisoners all over the world.

Earlier this month, twenty-five years after her first meeting with Morales, Sister Elaine held a fundraiser in Toronto to support that ongoing project, through her charitable organization called Freeing the Human Spirit. At 83, Sister Elaine doesn’t meet with prisoners as often as she used to. Instead, she is looking to train as many Zen teachers as she can before she’s no longer able.

Her mission has never been an easy task.

“To bring hope and healing to prisoners is not a popular cause,” she says.

For Sister Elaine, teaching meditation is more than teaching prisoners to deal with their incarceration. It’s about helping them to better reintegrate into society after their time has been served.

Zazen, the act of meditation and clearing the consciousness, does away with “the dust of the mind,” she explains. Inner freedom, coping with stress and understanding of the self leads to acting more appropriately and naturally in the wider world.

Sister Elaine first began to understand the power of Zen shortly after she took her final vows to become a nun in 1961. That fall she moved to Japan and was quickly intrigued by the monks who prayed up high up on a nearby mountain.

“How do you pray?” she was asked by one of the men. What followed was a conversation that lasted for hours that exposed more links between her native Catholicism and Zen meditation than she had thought possible.

The body is used to help empty the mind, she briefly elaborates. Through control of breath, the breath of god and the breath of man become one. The breath of life, she said, transcended religion and became prayer itself.

“The infinite cannot be experienced intellectually,” she notes. “The world we see is just half the story. When you have seen the inner world, it becomes more and more important to you.”

Despite the pain and suffering she has seen in her travels, Sister Elaine’s face betrays none of the sorrow. As a 2005 documentary about her work plays in her living room, she has a soft smile on her face and sips her tea quietly.

Sister Elaine left the Philippines in 1993 and, after ten years in England, bringing group lessons in meditation to the prisoners there, she returned to Canada. Since then, she has established her program in more than twenty prisons across the country.

Nobody is forced to take part in the program when a prison signs on. “They can only teach volunteers,” she said. But it has become so popular in some prisons that separate programs have been set up to help staff and guards at the institutions.

The rewards of her work come in the form of the letters that she receives from prisoners. She can see the impact that meditation is having on their self-esteem and interaction with others.

“Before I practiced meditation I felt a lot of anger,” wrote Scott Kennedy, a prisoner in the UK. “I used all sorts of drugs and alcohol for years, from the age of fifteen til thirty-four, and now I’ve stopped using drugs. I’ve been practicing meditation just over a year and I’ve never felt better for years. I feel calmer, relaxed, happy in myself and towards other human beings. I have been really determined to turn my life around and practicing meditation made me see who I truly am: a kind, loving happy person.”

Her first student is still working with the people of the Philippines, too, though in a slightly different role. Morales was named Agrarian Reform Secretary in the Philippines’ new government in 1998. He is now the country’s Customs Commissioner, a slight deviation from the communist-party affiliated revolutionary group he used to lead.

At the same time as Sister Elaine was speaking on the value of teaching Zen to prisoners in Toronto, Morales was preparing an international crackdown on produce smugglers operating between China and the Philippines. The operation was hailed by farmers throughout the Philippines; their product remained safe from illegal food imports which threatened their markets.

Indeed, as Sister Elaine wrote in 2001, “In my prison experience…the sangha gradually changed their swords into ploughshares.”

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