Increasing numbers of incarcerated men and women across America are turning to the practice of meditation and the Buddha’s teachings to understand their suffering and liberate themselves while they are still behind bars. Many have been introduced to basic principles of breath meditation and yoga through Bo Lozoff’s now-classic book, We’re All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free. (First published by the Prison Ashram Project in 1985 and now in its eleventh printing, We’re All Doing Time is sent free to any inmate who requests it.) The just-published Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons also offers practical instruction and advice on following the Buddha’s path for inmates and for the volunteers who practice with them, in person or by post.
Sitting Inside’s author, Kobai Scott Whitney, speaks from experience in both roles. A decade ago, he spent ten months in jail on drug charges. Whitney describes his Buddhist practice before his incarceration as his “leisure Zen period.” In prison he augmented his formal sitting with adherence to the precepts and simple acts of service. Since his release, he’s continued serving by corresponding with prisoners and the volunteers who work with them.
Whitney focuses on the challenges “both personal and institutional” in implementing Buddhist principles and practices behind bars. He offers simple, straightforward meditation exercises and advice for sitting with the general and specific hindrances inmates encounter. Although many inmates are content simply to use meditation to calm themselves and relieve stress, Whitney gently insists that the Buddha’s path requires more: namely, a commitment to ethical behavior and to compassionate action. Intimately familiar with the obstacles inherent in the authoritarian institutional culture and the criminal subcultures operating in many correctional facilities, Whitney is able to offer practical accommodations for staying on the Middle Way.
For instance, Whitney acknowledges the particular difficulties inmates might encounter in keeping Buddhism’s traditional five lay precepts. Many people are incarcerated as a result of impulsive and addictive behaviors, and the underground economies of sex and drugs that flourish in most prisons can undermine resolve and recovery. When Whitney discusses the precept about misusing sexuality, he is both frank and generous, noting that the sale of sex is almost always exploitive rather than genuinely consensual, and suggesting that masturbation could also be looked at as sexual behavior taking place in the context of a loving relationship with self “if indeed the practitioner has gained some basic sense of self-esteem.”
Practitioners in prison may also be in an extraordinary position to make their own institutions safer, more humane environments by practicing “enemy yoga” and seeing the sameness of suffering in themselves, the guards and other inmates. Simple acts of kindness and generosity—“even just staying calm and present”—contribute to the welfare of all.
The chapters aimed at Buddhist volunteers from the outside also address personal and institutional pitfalls. What is a volunteer’s motivation? What is the commitment of a sangha that sponsors volunteers? In order to appreciate the institutional skepticism Buddhist volunteers might encounter, Whitney provides a brief but instructive history of the struggle to have Buddhism accepted in U.S. prisons. He suggests guidelines for assuring the corrections staff that the volunteer (and the program) do not constitute a security risk: “Become an expert in the rules that govern the institution you are going to work with. . . . Don’t expect people to trust you or be helpful until you have achieved a nonthreatening profile.” Whitney also provides sound advice regarding staff chaplains: “Try to meet and befriend the existing institutional chaplains. They are the gatekeepers who are capable of great assistance if they are on your side or of unrelenting sabotage if they view you as the enemy.” For volunteers who are corresponding with prisoners, Whitney suggests that they be clear about the sort of support they are providing. What if an inmate asks for money? Will the volunteer accept a collect call? Whitney also raises the tough issues of gender and class and underscores the vulnerability of all individuals involved in these spiritual friendships.
Sobering, insightful and inspiring, this book is sure to become a handbook for Buddhists interested in prison practice. One of the men in the maximum-security sangha I sit with said that Whitney’s book made him realize how lucky he was to be practicing where he is. Sitting Inside reveals to us all—inside and out—the amazing dharma fields behind the razor wire.