Freedom on the inside

Sparrow sitting on prison bars

People behind bars are often open to change, as Suvarnaprabha discovers when teaching prisoners to meditate.

There is a series of rituals you learn when you start going into prisons. Of course they aren’t meant to be rituals –- they’re for security, but they end up feeling like rituals, in the same way that some of us automatically bow when we enter a meditation room. You walk up to the door, push the button, turn your back to the door, the door buzzes, and you turn around, open the door and go inside. Every time you go through a door, even on the inside, you do the same thing: you push the button, turn to face the camera, open the door, go inside.

In 1998 I spent four months co-teaching a creative writing class at a medium security prison. Once a week I drove my little Honda into the hot Central Valley (where pretty much all California’s prisons are), my chest achy and nervous every time. Walking in the first day: I passed through a series of remotely-controlled gates, each buzzing as we approached it, someone watching us on a screen somewhere, pressing a button to let us through to the next gate. Even as a visitor, you feel you have no control over what’s going on. At almost the last gate, the Director of Arts in Corrections mentioned that he was required by law to tell me that the prison policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. “We’re supposed to tell people before they come in,” he says.

And then came the thought, It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.

That confused me. On the one hand, it was sort of exciting to think that someone was legally required to warn me that if I were seized by the neck and dragged away, nothing was going to be done about it. And then came the thought, “It’s too late to run now, all those locked gates behind me.” I felt I was entering another world of wall-mounted cameras, hostages and violence; a place behind a wall of electric razor wire, with its own customs and language, that is looked upon with fear and hatred by those outside, perhaps including me.

In the US about two million people are incarcerated and the unfortunate news is that the experience tends to make them more violent . The current Sheriff of San Francisco was a prisoner’s rights attorney at our county jail in the 1970s, when it was described as a ‘monster factory’. He resolved to try to change it into a place that prepares inmates to rejoin the community, helps victims to heal and helps communities to play a role in rehabilitation. Such a system is referred to as a regime of restorative justice. This is one of the most progressive jails in the US.

So for one evening every week or two, thanks to the Prison Meditation Network, I go to the jail with a yoga teacher, do some yoga in a circle of about 15 muscle-bound, orange-clad guys, meditate, then have a discussion about meditation or whatever comes up. The class is voluntary and participants come from one of two restorative programs: one is for drug-related offences, and the other is for those in a violence-prevention program in which men confront the causes of male-role violence and work to observe, understand and modify their behavior. The programs, especially the one for violent men, are meant to provide tools to understand their conditioning, and to work more effectively with their own minds and anger. About half of these guys are in for things like violence against their wives or partners, or going against a Restraining Order.

My sister said to me: “I can’t really see what the appeal is. I would never go into a jail – it would scare me.” It was pretty scary for a while (but only when I thought about it, not when I was actually there). Part of the reason I started this was for a change from the mostly middle- class white people that show up at our Buddhist centre, even though we’re in a non-white, non-middle-class neighborhood. The most annoying thing about privileged people, at least Americans, is that we haven’t the slightest idea that we are privileged – we just expect things to be easy and to be happy, while so much of the world grinds on, often smiling, in the face of real hardship. So I like to get out of that sometimes, get a different point of view, and meditate with people whose level of engagement with meditation seems more like a necessity than just a trendy way to relax. Plus, in many ways, one’s life and one’s body are themselves a cage. I occasionally feel that, as Bo Lozoff’s book says, “We’re all doing time.”

Inmates may have done horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them.

People who want to change, no matter where they are, are interesting. In a sense the degree to which they want to change is the degree to which they are interesting. People who realize they have made mistakes and are trying to learn are interesting. They may have done – probably did do – horrible things, but when they are with us they are receptive and kind, and I love them. It’s just that many of them are covered with tattoos and have unbelievably huge arms. And after a while I stopped noticing that.

Devi and I walk to the door of one of the dorms. The deputy yells out to the crowd: “Yoga and meditation!” A few guys shuffle up to the front. Most are clustered together watching a movie on a set high on the wall. Two African-American guys lean against the wall, missing teeth. I ask if they’re coming to yoga and meditation.

The big guy says, “What, is that like acupuncture?”

“Huh, is it like what?”

“Acupuncture. Is it like acupuncture?”

“No buddy, we ain’t going to use needles on you.”

“I know, like you know when we’re sitting around in a circle, all quiet, but without the needles.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s like that.”

The skinny one says he’ll come. I doubt it.

We reach the classroom, sit in a circle and check in. One guy says he has toothache. Now they’re doing yoga and I decide to opt out and meditate for an hour. Will I do it or won’t I? There aren’t as many old-timers as usual …

I remember when I started to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind…

When they’re done, I look around and say, “We’re going to do an experiment today, and you don’t have to do it if you don’t want. First we’re going to do something like singing, then we’ll do a meditation on kindness. This kind of singing or chanting comes from a particular tradition, but I want to point out that I’m not trying to force anything on anyone, or convert anyone. I know some of you are Christians, and if you like you can think of this mantra as a prayer to God. So we’re going to chant this phrase om mahnee padmay hung, which means, simply, a jewel inside a flower. It is a symbol of compassion – a symbol of human development that sees people as flowers blooming.”

So here goes: om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung, om-mahnee-padmay-hung. The white guy to my right starts laughing in an odd stop-start kind of way. I cringe inside. What if he doesn’t stop? What if no-one will join in and I am a failure? Can’t turn back now. Another guy joins the laughing guy, who now sounds slightly hysterical. I am not looking but something is definitely going on to my right, seems very bad.

I continue: om mani padme hum, the magic mantra, deep. God help me, as it were. Five minutes, that’s all we’ll do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It feels very Buddhist to me, too much for this secular place. The sound fills the cold hallways. What if the deputies protest? Many people here are Christians.

Waiting, chanting. After about three minutes, everything goes still. There is only the mantra, deep and clear. My own mental noise has stopped, the laughing guy has stopped, no keys jangling, no doors slamming. Everything has stopped but this group of people, this rippling, low-voiced beauty. Everything changed.

After five minutes I ring the bell and the chanting fades. We cultivate an attitude of kindness towards ourselves, and then towards all beings, including our enemies. The nervousness creeps back in. Is the meditation too long? I am worried about introducing the cultivation of love, awareness of emotion, here after they’ve known only the Zen-inspired approach of ‘letting go of thoughts’. There was some shifting around during the meditation but, during the last stage, in which we focus on all beings, everyone settled down. When people seem restless in the meditation, I have learnt to take it less seriously. I figure it’s better just to carry on. I ring the bell three times … the reverberations last a long, long time.

Some people take to loving-kindness meditation like fish to water. I understand these people. They look beautiful after they meditate, like they just got back from a retreat. The skinny new guy’s eyes when they open look like he is in love, sparkling. I wonder if that was like acupuncture. I am careful not to stare at him. The white guy next to me says, “I’m sorry I was laughing, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m sorry. I don’t know what was going on, I couldn’t stop, I didn’t mean any disrespect. I couldn’t stop.”

The guy on the other side of him says to him, “I’m sorry I got mad.”

“That’s OK, I didn’t like it myself, I was trying to stop but I couldn’t.”

I tell him he can be kind to himself about having had that experience. It’s fine with all of us. “Yeah, it’s fine,” they all say. Everyone looks so kind.

Devi explains the physiological benefits of chanting, according to the yoga tradition. I’m glad she can do that. It sounds sensible.

Someone said he found the meditation very difficult, which I took to mean that he couldn’t engage with it. He said that during the difficult person stage, so many people flooded into his mind that he would get really angry about it, then he would get angry that he was angry, and so on. In a later class he said that his interactions with people had changed after he’d done the practice only once. He had never actually seen people as people outside of what he wanted them to be, and that he had started doing that. The change seemed tremendously painful — suddenly to have that kind of awareness, to realize how it’s been before, and to see how much painful work one has to do.

I remember when I started, against my will it seemed, to become acquainted with the violence of my own mind. I was on my first week-long retreat, and in one of the meditation sessions, my whole experience, my whole being and sense of myself, sort of filled up with awareness of hatred, and I saw with an indescribable immediacy what was underneath so much of my experience. I saw how at some level I hated myself and other people. Of course I also loved people, but I didn’t love them how I love them now. That retreat was excruciating, as were many subsequent retreats. The path to happiness can sometimes be sad.

“I really want to change,” an African-American guy says, another one who looked blissed out after the meditation. “Thank you for coming here, thank you,” he says. People are very beautiful: I have to stop myself from looking at them. Some people end up getting out of jail and losing it – stalking their ex-wives, taking drugs again, both. Some of the yoga and meditation teachers get upset when this happens. Yet, I figure, doing some productive time isn’t going to be enough for some people, perhaps most people, to transform a lifetime of addiction and violence. But while we’re in the class, there is something else going on, about peace and acceptance, something that seems to be rare – anywhere in this world.

The new guy is still sparkling. Is he in love with me? Well, the anxiety seems misplaced in the face of this beauty. The other guy I had problems with doesn’t come anymore. This guy is different. He is a flower.

Shin, the monk from the Pure Land tradition with the big Sanskrit ah tattooed on the back of his head – whose master told him he couldn’t give Dhamma talks in jail -– tells me I was chanting it too slowly. He says the resonance is right when there’s no pause. He looks extremely happy.

The guy with toothache says his pain’s gone. Another guy says his headache has gone. Another guy throws his crutches across the room, stands up and walks. Just kidding – about that last thing.

The laughing guy says, “You know, when he got mad at me, I just thought, ‘This is how people are, he can get mad, it’s OK.’ ” There but for the grace of God go I … I’ve never thought anything like that before. He looked happy, and also shocked.

Everyone looks so kind. There is love in the room. Transracial, transpenal, trans-sectarian love – the kind you can’t actually define. Devi and I are leaving now, both very happy, walking to the door, towards the big outside. And I say, “Well, that mantra was great, but I won’t do it again, or I’ll wait a year or so. There’s something not right about it here.”

I press the button and a man looking at me on a screen in a booth presses a button. The door buzzes and we are outside again. When I get home I am so happy I can’t sleep.

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Awakening the Inner Warrior

Buddha handThe archetype of warriorhood, if taken literally, can antithetical to the Buddhist path of peace. Taken as a metaphor for inner change, however, it can represent the inner struggle required in spiritual practice. Guest blogger and philosopher Justin Whitaker explores three types of warrior: outer, inner, and perfected.

I find it difficult to write about warriorhood from a Buddhist perspective. The term for me is heavily laden with negative connotations and often misunderstood by those around me. We may do well to distinguish at the beginning between three kinds of warrior: the outer, the inner, and the perfected. It is the outer warrior that we most often think of when hearing the term and see glorified in the movies and praised by politicians. This is not the warrior ideal of the Buddhist path.

And I, like many of you, have encountered people who, fleeing great pain in their hearts and past, have wrapped themselves in the cloak of a certain type of warrior, the outer warrior. That is to say that these warriors, haunted by demons of their own minds and hearts, wear a mask of strength or stoic detachment. Yet this mask, at its worst, perpetuates the cycle of suffering by painting the world as a very dark and unwelcoming place, externalizing the pain within. At its best it protects the wearer from the wounds still felt from an almost unknown place deep within.

So it is with that background that I say that we must be careful when we speak of warriorhood. Our vision of awakening cannot be accomplished in battling the world around us. In order to take up the path of the Buddha, of warrior-like discipline and striving, we must turn inward. Carl Jung stated it well: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart…. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” This turning within is the inner warrior-ideal. Whether weak or strong, old or young, this is the work of the Buddhist warrior.

 In order to take up the path of the Buddha, of warrior-like discipline and striving, we must turn inward.  

The more we practice, the more we see that all of us carry pain from the past. The deeper your wounds are buried, the more difficult your work will be and yet all the more necessary it is to begin now. This is not to speak lightly of the arts of the outer warrior: developing one-pointed concentration, mastering wise teachings, building strength and vitality in the body, and so on. But if we have these abilities and yet still hold a core of anger and pain, then it is like putting a great army in the charge of a madman. One can be a one-pointed assassin or bully, or an immoral and unhappy academic of Buddhism or similar spiritual path. In fact one must be careful with the arts of the outer warrior if one’s heart is still dominated by the three poisons (greed, aversion, and ignorance). Possessing these skills may actually strengthen the ego and feed the poisons.

Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin who tried to kill the Buddha and seize control of the Sangha is one such afflicted outer warrior. He possessed great skills, great knowledge, and meditative prowess. But his heart was still filled with jealousy and desire for power. Had he let go of his outward ambitions and turned his brilliant mind inward to uncover the pain at his heart, he surely would have won enlightenment in that very lifetime, as countless others did in the presence of the Buddha.

This turning within, with whatever degree of mindfulness you have at the moment, is the work and skill of the inner warrior.

 The warrior’s skills may actually strengthen the ego and feed the poisons  

The third type of warrior is the perfected. This is the stage of one’s practice in which the grip of the past is finally loosened. Bernadette Devlin, a woman who was active in the long struggles of N. Ireland, once said, “Yesterday I dared to struggle. Today I dare to win.” Living in troubled times or with a turbulent heart, it can be difficult to recognize this juxtaposition, this transition from struggle to victory. This is the transition from the inner warrior to that of the perfected.

In the stories of the Buddha’s life is the character Mara, the personification of all doubts, cravings, and misunderstandings. Even after his awakening, Mara would visit the Buddha. That is to say that in his mind some doubt, desire, or misunderstanding still occasionally would arise. But the Buddha had attained the level of perfected warrior. He thus did not see Mara as having any external, independent reality outside himself. Nor did he shy away from Mara or get pulled into the drama or confrontation that Mara sought. Instead he simply said, “I see you, Mara. I know you.” And seeing Mara destroyed ‘him’ every time.

So it is that correctly seeing our own hurt without fleeing or being drawn into the story or drama likewise destroys it. This is no easy task, as many seasoned meditators know. It can take years to see through the layers of grief, abuse, and neglect that may be encountered in one’s life, to see through the stories and justifications and even indignation we have wrapped ourselves in for protection.

Our path to the perfected warrior within us may take many years of struggle: struggling to be present with our pain as it arises, struggling to simply stay with the practice when more pleasant activities beckon. And it may help us greatly along the inner journey to our heart to have practiced and grown in the arts of the outer warrior. But the path is, always, of a whole. And there is no time to begin, but this very moment.

Justin WhitakerJustin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions including the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, Montana and Bristol, England. He currently lives in Missoula, where he works for the Center for Ethics, leads the University sangha, and meditates regularly on Missoula’s mountains and rivers. His personal blog is

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Learning hatred


Hatred is not innate. It is learned. We are not born with hatred in our hearts, but we are born into a culture of hatred. We can see the evidence around us. It’s in our newspapers, on television, in our communities. Some of us enjoy watching war being acted out on television. Violence has become entertainment. When I explore conflict with young children, some of them say that if it’s tough at home they’ll take it out on somebody at school. For many of them, fighting in the playground is entertainment. One child said it’s like going to a movie. With the advent of mobile phones with video cameras, children will boast about videoing fights and charge their friends to watch.

We know children learn by imitating adults, and if they grow up with violence around them they learn how to confuse hatred and anger with love. When their parents or carers fight each other, the children witness violent behavior. Some children see their mother being physically abused in one breath, and in the next hear their father tell their mother he loves her. The mother might also tell the child that daddy hit her because he loves her, in order to make things all right for the child. Similarly, if we were hit as a child and told by the adult it’s because they love us, we begin to think love is violent, so it is OK to be violent. People who remain in violent relationships have often learned as children that violence is part and parcel of all types of love relationships. Another way a child learns hatred is when he or she is physically, sexually, or mentally abused; then the feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, and invasion can be so difficult to contain that the strong emotion of hatred can help temporarily quash the fear and pain.

Some theories state that children are more able to cope with their lives if they hear the gruesome tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Some writers, like Bruno Bettelheim, claim that fairytales are important for a child’s development. He believes they help children become powerful in relation to adults, especially in stories in which a little boy has overcome a giant. Although this is true, I would also argue that fairytales are often about humiliation or annihilation. The classic children’s fairytales are often based on good and evil. The good person can never do wrong; their behavior is justified, even if it is hateful. It is almost as though they have a right to behave in a way that annihilates another being. While I believe some fairytales can have a positive effect on a child’s development, I’m not convinced that we are completely aware of the effect of some of the more violent and humiliating stories. Are they the best stories to tell children just before they are tucked up in bed? What effect do they have? I know for myself that when I fall asleep after hearing violent or disturbing news, it affects my thoughts, and even how I feel when I wake the next morning.

Some people are born into communities where hatred and violence are prevalent. In the film City of God (2002), we see how children as young as five and six pick up guns and kill people in the ghettoes of Brazil. In some war zones, the soldiers are little more than children fighting as guerrillas. I have worked in London with boys as young as eight and nine who carry knives, sell drugs, and where it is not uncommon to have a parent or sibling shot dead or killed in a fight.

Then there is the hatred we just take for granted. Throughout modern British history, police have been called pigs. This language will have an effect on how we interact with the police. Stories passed down from African families about slavery, and from Jewish families about genocide, have meant some people have grown up with hatred towards the colonizer or towards the Germans. In fact, we grow up with so much of how our families may have been wronged, or had to struggle in past generations. it is inevitable that our hearts will be affected.

Practice: reflecting on the past

Take a moment to pause, then become aware how you might have been affected while growing up. Recall some of the stories that affected your heart. Try to recognize which of your prejudices come from your parents, teachers, or the media.

By recognizing our conditioning we can begin to let go of hatred in our heart

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Buddhist monks attacked in Cambodia

Human Rights Watch has called on the Cambodian government to ensure the safety of Buddhist monks whom police attacked during a peaceful protest.

Last week, riot police assaulted a group of 47 Khmer Krom Buddhist monks — indigenous ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam — when they attempted to deliver a petition protesting the imprisonment of monks in Vietnam to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Touch Naroth accused the monks of being “fake.”

“These Khmer Krom monks have suffered police abuse in Cambodia and face imprisonment and torture if they’re sent to Vietnam,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Cambodian government shouldn’t emulate Burma’s generals by brutally cracking down on monks who peacefully protest. They are Cambodian citizens who deserve protection, not more mistreatment, from the Cambodian government.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned that Cambodian authorities will now arrest, defrock, and forcibly send the monks who protested to Vietnam, where they could face severe reprisals. Vietnam has a policy of imprisoning peaceful critics of the government, including Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, human rights lawyers, and trade union activists.

The Cambodian government has previously deported Khmer Krom to Vietnam, even though international law prohibits the expulsion without due process of persons from a country where they legally reside.

In June 2007, Khmer Krom monk Tim Sakhorn, a longtime abbot in Cambodia, was defrocked by Cambodian authorities and sent to Vietnam, where he was sentenced to prison on charges of violating Vietnam’s national unity policy because he had allegedly distributed bulletins about Khmer Krom history and politics and sheltered monks fleeing from Vietnam.

In February 2007, Vietnamese authorities arrested, defrocked, and imprisoned Khmer Krom monks in Soc Trang province, Vietnam, for peacefully protesting in support of religious freedom. Five monks were sentenced to prison in Vietnam on charges of disrupting social order. Afterwards, dozens of Khmer Krom monks fled from Vietnam to Cambodia, where they conducted protests in February and April to call for the release of the five monks.

The recent violence took place on December 17, when a group of 47 Khmer Krom monks gathered at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition calling for the Vietnamese government to release six Khmer Krom monks from prison.

Five monks were allowed by police to approach the embassy gate to deliver the petition, but when no one from the embassy came out to receive the petition, the remaining monks began to approach the embassy entrance. The police used their shields to push the monks back, and one monk was hit on the head. Some scuffling ensued. As the monks tried to make their way through police lines a deputy police chief repeatedly ordered his officers to open fire, although they refused to do so.

When it became apparent that some monks would continue in their efforts to approach the embassy, anti-riot police then used their shields and wooden batons to kick and punch the monks, and shocked them with electric batons.

When monks turned and fled, the police chased them for four blocks, kicking and beating the monks along the way.

Six monks were severely injured, and some of the police officers suffered minor scratches and bruises.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to promptly and impartially investigate the police’s use of force against the monks and prosecute all those responsible for using unnecessary or excessive violence.

“The police continued to beat the monks even after they had moved away from the embassy, well after the protest was dispersed,” said Richardson. “They were not chasing the monks to carry out lawful arrests, but to beat them.”

In June, the Cambodian Ministry of Cults and Religion issued an order banning Buddhist monks from participating in demonstrations.

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Burmese Forces Fire on Protesters

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Aung San Suu Kyi

The peaceful pro-democracy uprising led by Buddhist monks in Burma (Myanmar) came to a head as the military dictatorship’s troops attacked monks and lay supporters.

Government security forces cracked down for a second day on nationwide protests, firing shots and tear gas, and raiding at least two Buddhist monasteries, where they beat and arrested dozens of monks, according to reports from the city of Yangon.

At least three monks were killed in clashes with Burma’s security forces who cracked down on anti-government protests in Rangoon according to anonymous government officials. One monk was reportedly killed when a gun went off as he tried to wrestle the weapon away from a soldier, while two others were beaten to death, the official said.

The government of Myanmar began a violent crackdown on Wednesday after tolerating more than a month of growing protests in cities around the country. Security forces clubbed and tear-gassed protesters, fired shots into the air and arrested hundreds of the monks, who are at the heart of the demonstrations.

Despite threats and warnings by the authorities, and despite the beginnings of a violent response, tens of thousands of chanting, cheering protesters flooded the streets, witnesses reported. Monks were in the lead, like religious storm troopers, as one foreign diplomat described the scene.

In response to the violence, the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the crisis, but China blocked a Council resolution, backed by the United States and European nations, to condemn the government crackdown.

An earlier peaceful uprising in 1988 was crushed by the military, which shot into crowds, killing an estimated 3,000 people.

At the United Nations, President Bush on Tuesday announced a largely symbolic tightening of American sanctions against Myanmar’s government. The European Union threatened to tighten its own sanctions if violence was used. On Wednesday, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said the first step after any meeting of the Security Council should be to send a United Nations envoy to Myanmar.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and antiapartheid campaigner, have spoken out in support of their fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

Myanmar Forces Fire on Protesters – New York Times

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Monks seize troops in Burma town

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The BBC reports (Monks seize troops in Burma town) that Buddhist monks have taken about 20 members of the security forces hostage in central Burma, a day after clashes at a protest rally.

In Burma (officially Myanmar) democracy and military dictatorship have been playing seesaw for decades. After liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of Word War II, was first under civilian leadership, but then in an ominous move, army Chief of Staff General Ne Win formed a caretaker government in 1958.

1960 saw elections and a win by U Nu, but then the military took over again in 1962. In 1974 power was transferred to a nominally civilian People’s Assembly — formed and run by the former military leaders. in 1990 the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election, but the military did not recognize the result. If this is a game of seesaw, then the military dictatorship is playing Moe to democracy’s Calvin.

The governing military dictatorship has persecuted minorities, hounded pro-Democracy activists, kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest on and off for 11 years, and has generally mismanaged the economy to the point where people are rioting.

The monks had been involved on Wednesday in an anti-government rally where security forces had fired rounds into the air. The officials who are being held captive had come round to the monastery the next day to apologize, only to be seized and to have their vehicles set alight.

This isn’t very monastic behavior, but given the situation we can’t help applauding them. According to the BBC the monastery is surrounded by hundreds of people who have gathered to support the monks, and the security forces are afraid to approach.

In June of this year US diplomats held talks with Burmese government ministers in Beijing to press for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and to discuss the regime’s behavior, but reported that the military dictatorship showed no signs of softening its stance.

The regional grouping Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) is also losing its patience with Burma, frustrated by the government’s continued refusal to progress towards democracy, the poverty it has causes, its tolerance of corruption, its human rights abuses and high levels of black market trading, which includes the smuggling of gems, drugs, and sex-workers into neighboring countries.

Burma is friendless in the region, but in January of this year China and Russia vetoed a draft US resolution at the UN Security Council urging Burma to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups.

Internal dissatisfaction with the ruling junta has been simmering for years and there’s no guarantee that the military dictatorship will relinquish power, but we can keep our fingers crossed that the actions of these feisty bhikkhus will inspire the Burmese people to restore democracy.

In the meantime you can read more about Burma, and opposition to the junta, in the US Campaign for Burma‘s website. (The website of the British equivalent is currently down).

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Doing quiet time (Alameda Times-Star, California)

Kristin Bender, Alameda Times-Star, California: Inmates practice yoga and meditation.

MARCEL McRae is not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley. He weighs 270 pounds and can nearly bench press his own weight.
He has arms the size of some people’s legs and a linebacker’s torso. He grew up on some of the Bay Area’s meanest streets and is still roiled with pain from a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting as a teen.

Through the years, the 32-year-old has been arrested for weapons possession, burglary, robbery. He’s currently doing time in San Francisco County Jail. It’s certainly not his first stay. A third striker, he says he’s been in and out of jails and prisons nine times in the past 13 years.

But on Tuesday nights, McRae forgets his past.

He forgets the pain he’s caused his family, himself and his community, he says. He tries to concentrate on the positive. He attempts to look forward, not back. He sets his sights on internal peace.

Once a week, McRae and about a dozen other inmates practice meditation and yoga on the jail’s cold, hard cement floors. The physical and mental results, inmates and teachers say, have been truly amazing.

“I’ve lifted a lot of weights in my life,” says McRae, shaking out his arms after a recent class. “My first time doing yoga, I was more sore than a rigorous workout. I was mad at myself. I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to get sore doing yoga.’”

The classes are part of the “Resolve to Stop the Violence Program,” an effort to reintegrate violent offenders into society and decrease the likelihood that they’ll wind up back behind bars. Inmates say they are calmer and fight less. They take time out before reacting.

“It helps me a lot with clarity and being aware of myself and my mind. Awareness is a big part of it. Sometimes I even forget I’m in jail for two hours,” says Derek Holcomb, a 32-year-old inmate arrested several times on drug charges.

Holcomb says yoga class is the one peaceful place in the joint.

“It’s quiet in here. … It’s exactly the opposite of the regular population where there are 60 guys in one room, and it’s loud and chaotic.”

A similar program in Alameda County Juvenile Hall called the Mind Body Awareness Project teaches the ancient practices of yoga and meditation to give young people ways to handle anger, think clearly and avoid violence.

The San Francisco program, known as RSVP, requires inmates, people serving a sentence, to participate in violence “reeducation,” job training, life skills training, theater and parenting skills classes. But they also have electives such as meditation and yoga.

While there is no hard evidence that doing yoga and meditation is reducing the recidivism rate or making the jail a calmer, nicer place, there are statistics on the RSVP program. In the first year of operation, 1997, there was one in-custody fight among participants, compared to 297 violent incidents among the general jail population.

But participants are the ones who really sing the praises of deep thinking and the downward dog pose.

“The meditation has definitely helped because I am depressed. I am incarcerated, and I haven’t found nothing happy about being incarcerated,” says McRae.

McRae said the meditation allows him to escape, if only temporarily.

“After the first time I tried it, I immediately felt the results mentally and physically,” he says.

San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey was a prison rights attorney who became a sheriff. “So his perspective is on rehabilitation,” says Eileen Hirst, his chief of staff.

“All of these people are coming out to the community. How do you want them to come out to the community? Having learned something to deal with their anger or not having learned something?” she says. ”(The sheriff) sees this as a golden opportunity.”

Inmates say one reason the meditation and yoga have been successful is the quality of the teachers. Donnelle Malnik, a 34- year-old San Francisco hairdresser and part-time yoga instructor, has been coming to the jail for about a year. She is also a survivor of physical and sexual abuse and finds working with the men cathartic.

“It’s pretty intense when you start hearing the (jail) doors close behind you, and you realize you are the only woman in there. It can be a little overwhelming,” she says

“But I’ve really enjoyed working with the men. A lot of them are victims themselves and have never figured out how to deal with victimization and the cycle of violence.”

Malnik and meditation instructor Bill Scheinman arrive in the room where they will hold class a few minutes before the inmates. The room is a unused dormitory, and there are signs of jail life—stainless steel tables, a row of silver sinks and multiple shower heads jutting out of one wall.

The inmates quickly arrange themselves in a circle, which becomes a sea of jail-issue orange. The dark blue, purple and green yoga mats stand out among the orange jumpsuits and socks. The men introduce themselves, and there are no newcomers. Everyone is returning for a third or fourth or even 12th time.

Malnik, covered in tattoos and with red streaked hair, sits at the head of the circle and cautions the class to avoid thinking about what happened before they arrived or what will happen later.

“Just the present moment,” she says. They roll their necks and shoulders and check for injuries. As they stretch, the faint sound of cracking backs and necks breaks the silence.

Malnik demonstrates a balancing pose. “I like to do these when I have something on my mind,” she says. The men stretch just a little deeper, a bit longer.

Once everyone has warmed up, Scheinman, 47, takes them through a meditation practice called “The Loving Kindness Practice.”
It asks each participant to bring to mind first themselves, then a good friend, then a person who is seen in daily life but remains a stranger, then a difficult person. The fifth stage is to bring all four people together and wish them good will and happiness.
Scheinman, who has been teaching meditation inside the jail for more than three years, has noticed immense changes in his students.

“You notice changes in their insight, the way their minds work, the way their emotions work,” he says. The men who come in angry and ready to pick a fight leave a lot calmer. “They are in a volatile environment, and in our class they have two hours of peace.”

After the meditation, they debrief.

“The discussions are usually so interesting. They talk about things you wouldn’t believe because they’ve been silent for two hours,” Malnik says.

But the real payoff comes when the guys mix back in the day-to- day interactions in the jail.

Inmate Peter Flores, 40, says the yoga and meditation helps him deal with the everyday situations that crop up in jail.

Recently, he returned from playing cards with some guys to find an inmate sitting on his bed. “Initially I felt angry. This person didn’t ask me if he could sit on my bed,” he says. “Instead of reacting, I went over and drank some water and then he said, ‘Hey man, can I sit here?’ I took the time to do something else. I have a lot of anxiety … and I don’t want to take it out on anyone else.”

Original article no longer available…

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Meditation distanced from Buddhist roots (Toronto Star)

PUNNADHAMMO BHIKKHU, Toronto Star: Not so long ago, the practice of meditation was considered something exotic or eccentric. Not anymore. In recent years, it has definitely moved into the mainstream of Western culture. Everyone from neuro-scientists to sociologists, educators and medical researchers is seriously investigating its effects and benefits.

There is mounting evidence, for instance, that a state of calm, focused awareness can assist the healing process.

In several places, different forms of meditation training are incorporated into the health-care system, with very good results.

Perhaps the best known of these projects is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Interest is also growing in using meditative techniques for treating psychiatric problems such as ADD and bi-polar disorder. If these modalities of treatment become established they could revolutionize the mental health field. Not the least of the benefits would be the reduction in use of costly psycho-active drugs, with all their harmful side-effects.

Another area where meditation practice is making inroads is in prison reform. In several places there are on-going projects to teach meditation to prisoners.

One of the oldest and most established of these is that of S.N. Goenka’s Vipassana organization which runs programs in India and the United States.

There are other prison meditation projects based in various Buddhist traditions — Zen, Theravada and Tibetan — being run in several countries.

Wherever it’s been tried, teaching meditation to prisoners has had great effect in reducing stress, violence and even recidivism. Often the biggest hurdle to overcome is opposition from conservative authorities to “frills,” but when they see that it is a cheap, effective and safe way to ease prison management they can become staunch supporters of the idea.

There are many different schools and techniques of meditation, but most of the methods currently practised in such settings as hospitals, hospices, stress clinics, schools and prisons have their origins in various Buddhist traditions, most often Zen or the Vipassana techniques of Burmese Theravada. Buddhism is more than meditation, but meditation is a crucial part of the Buddhist path. In Buddhism, meditation falls under the heading of Bhavana, or development, meaning mental development. It is considered as essential for the well-being of the mind as exercise is for the body.

The methods of meditation used in all these varied social contexts, although Buddhist in origin , are often highly secularized. Sometimes even the use of the word “meditation” is avoided in favour of “relaxation technique” or “focusing.” This is similar to the way Western culture has abstracted other eastern disciplines like yoga and the martial arts from their original spiritual context. Teachers like Kabat-Zinn make this separation as a deliberate policy, to avoid trappings of exoticism that are off-putting to a mainstream clientele.

There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but traditional Buddhists are quick to point out that meditation in the traditional understanding is about much more than stress relief or even healing, valid as these are. In the Buddhist teachings the end of practice is awakening or liberation, which is above the plane of all such limited goals.

It is worthwhile to remember that any meditation technique abstracted from the original context is only part of the whole, and the results can only be partial. Freud said of psychoanalysis that at best it could bring the patient to a state of “ordinary misery.” That might be a blessing for someone mired in extraordinary misery, but why stop there?

[Original article no longer available]
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Monks march in Encinitas park (Buddhist News Network)

CANDICE REED, The North County Times: More than 1,000 people gathered at San Dieguito County Park on Saturday morning to do – nothing.

It may be hard to believe that that many people turned off their cell phones, walked away from their TV sets and sat on the damp lawn at the park to literally do nothing. But they did it for one man, Thich Nhat Hanh.

The event was held to call attention to the profound interdependence between the monastic and lay communities. People from all walks of life and religions gathered to relax and share the art of mindful living with each other.

The celebration began with a procession of 300 Buddhist monks and nuns walking slowly and silently through the park in an Alms Round procession, a sort of re-enactment of ancient times when monks walked silently through villages to receive offerings of food while they gave teachings.

“This is a way to bring the practice of Buddhism to the west,” said volunteer Mary Kathryn Allman of La Jolla. “The Buddhists want to remind people that there are people all over the world who have nothing to eat. This is their quiet way.”

As the monks and nuns, dressed in the brown robes of their faith, walked past the observers, they stared ahead, while other people bowed their heads in respectful observance.

“This is very special, you don’t get this many people together like this for just any event,” said Kerry Thomlin of Encinitas. “Imagine this many people all meditating the day before the Super Bowl. This is what the world needs more of, peace and quiet.”

The main person the crowd came to see was an unassuming man who sat in the middle of his devotees. As a gong rang through the hillsides, Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally known Vietnamese Buddhist monk, bit into an orange.

The crowd followed his lead and quietly began eating their own lunches.

Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick-naught-han) was only 16 when he entered the monastic life and began his activism during the Vietnam War in Saigon. He was exiled from Vietnam in 1966 but his efforts for nonviolence continued, moving Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Now he is 77 and one of the most popular Buddhist leaders in the world.

He’s also a poet, a teacher and a master in Zen Buddhism, blending the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of an Eastern religion that dates back 2,500 years and emphasizes human transcendence over the traditional Western concept of God. He has built a worldwide reputation for his devotion to the pursuit of peace and his adherence to the spiritual practice of mindfulness.

While he spends most of his time at his main monastery, called Plum Village, in southern France, he has spent much of this winter at his Deer Park Monastery in the hills above Escondido.

On Saturday, when Nhat Hanh spoke, everyone listened.

“With mindfulness we are able to be fully present, fully alive,” he told the crowd. “When you breathe in, and you know you are breathing in, and when you breathe out, you know you are breathing out —- that is mindful breathing. Mindfulness is knowing what is going on.”

Moving from personal practice to political, Nhat Hanh said, “Violence cannot solve the problem of violence. Violence cannot reduce the number of enemies or terrorists. It creates more hatred, more violence and more terrorists.” The crowd was moved by the small, unassuming man’s words.

“I learned a lot today,” said Krystal Hunt of Del Mar. “Peace needs to start with the regular people. Then maybe the politicians will get a clue. We don’t need war or violence. We need compassion.”

Original article no longer available…

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“Twin Peaks” director urges mass meditation

Reuters, UK: As the director of such dark films as Blue Velvet, Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, and the television series Twin Peaks, David Lynch seems an unlikely leader for a world peace campaign based on mass meditation.

He has, however, joined a Washington real estate developer, Jeffrey Abramson, and a publisher to raise $1 billion to bankroll a foundation supplying instructors in transcendental meditation to ease the planet’s stress. “There’s a ton of sceptics out there,” Lynch admitted, acknowledging a certain giggle factor attendant to his project.

“On the surface there’s the giggle. I would just encourage people to look more deeply into this, and the giggles go away, unless it’s just a giggle of pure happiness at the beauty of this – because this plan has been tested.

“Every time it’s been tested it’s reduced crime and violence. It’s a real thing and it could be in place this year and bring peace to Earth.”

Lynch, whose creations have featured twisted visions of small-town American life, said he has been meditating for 34 years, and that it has not dulled his artistic edge. “When I started meditating, I had an anger in me and some people might say, well, that would give you an edge, you’d have a cutting edge.

“But really, in truth, anger is a poison . . . Two weeks after I started meditating, that anger disappeared and it doesn’t mean you can’t get angry, it just means you can’t hold on to it, it doesn’t poison you.”

Lynch is promoting the establishment of a University of World Peace in the US. He and his partners have raised $88 million, but more will be needed to endow 8000 scholarships to teach the transcendental meditation techniques of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

[Original article no longer available.]
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