By Acharya Samaneti
For those who do not know me, I am a Buddhist prison chaplain at the highest security level penitentiary up here in Canada.
The men that I see are considered to be the most dangerous, the most broken, the most written off, the most suffering, and the most forgotten; we could say that I spend my days in the many hell realms that is samsara and its materialization within the correctional system.
My name, Samaneti which means: Sama—calmness, tranquillity, mental quiet , Neti—leads; guides; carries away.
I am honoured to have been invited as a regular contributor for the Tattooed Buddha.
I hope that what I share will bring wisdom and compassion to the lives of the folks that will read my posts. I thought that I would introduce myself and what I hope to bring to the already diverse voices on this site, what can I bring that will honour my path and practice?
As a prison chaplain, in likely the most violent prison in the country, I see this given name as an inspiration to bring peace (however temporary) to the men that I serve. Our teachers chose names that are to inspire us; I am to grow into it, to live up to it, this name helps me grow in my practice and my path.
My name serves as a reminder and a contemplation; how can I live up to this life of conveying peace to the marginalized and forgotten? Can I become a refuge for them? When someone is free in their heart and mind, no one will ever be able to imprison them. How can I help create the causes and conditions where they will be able to taste that peace?
Our work often happens away from the limelight.
We bring a value that is not easily measured. As Chaplains, we can be a safe haven and someone to confide in, and someone to help the incarcerated through difficult times. The benefits that we bring to the offenders’ lives is not measured through statistics and percentages.
There are no indicators to determine how effective chaplaincy is in the process of rehabilitation. And yet ask anyone who has been around for years, and they discover that you are an essential part of the process of healing the broken lives of the inmates.
So how do I bring healing to these broken lives? Most of my time is dedicated to listening. Listening to what is said with as much freedom from judgement as possible, with an intention of compassion and kindness—to create a space that is safe.
I offer the opportunity for someone to empty their heart—creating a container for deep listening can help dissolve fear, anger, sadness, etc. We listen to the words, to the emotions present in our hearts, to the silence, and we then heal—ourselves and by proximity, those around us.
I have witnessed a shift within their hearts when someone feels heard and seen. We keep our hearts full of compassion to protect our hearts and remain open to whatever is present: it is this openness that allows us to heal.
Chaplains are a special kind of breed. We run toward suffering and danger because we know that what we do is bigger than religion. There are many obstacles in prison chaplaincy to simply be able to see our folks, and with COVID-19 and all the new restrictions that we are living with right now, our job becomes more complicated and tricky.
Right now my job is to let them know that they are always in my heart no matter the frequency of our meetings or my availability to be physically present in their lives. To remind them that I think of them and their well-being. They are not alone, even if there is a pandemic or fences and barbwire separating us and that I am there always. The bond that unites chaplains, including chaplains who work with the marginalized, is profound; it is often unspoken and simply felt.
When we face suffering on the level that we do, we are thrust into the darkest regions of human existence.
There is a deep understanding of human suffering and the possibility of change and freedom that bonds us together unlike other relationships. The support that we receive from fellow chaplains shows us that third jewel of the sangha, and sometimes it is the most important jewel for me when I need to be able to share unfiltered feelings with someone who can offer me what I offer inmates on the daily—deep listening.
Here is an old post that I had shared on social media on one of those hard days; my chaplain siblings will understand these feelings and the need for our shared support.
There are days where I am left wondering if I am allowed to feel joy or happiness; I spend my days witnessing humanity at its darkest, its most fragile, its most vulnerable, its most scared, its most suffering.
I leave those empty concrete hallways where my footsteps echo, I feel a kind of sadness and solitude that I believe very few understand… Why do I deserve to be happy when I know that there are so many left suffering, forgotten by most, in empty concrete rooms grasping at whatever straws of hope they can muster to ensure their heads float above the waters of despair and sadness…
I see you Mara, I see you when I walk in this hell realm every day, I see you when I close my eyes, you seem to grow bigger and bigger these days; I know that you want me to question if I deserve happiness, love, and joy… I see you!
We like to use positive beautiful words when we describe being of service; cultivating images that give us just the good days, the victories, etc.
Some days are like this: white knuckles, holding on, riding it out to be able to start over again the next day. I take comfort in my friend Sisyphus and how he is able to find happiness in the futility of it all; may the dhamma crack my heart-mind so the light can come in…
We all deserve happiness, love, and joy; even the ones that have been tossed aside and forgotten. Some days are just harder than others…
At any point in history, chaplaincy has been an underrated resource and people don’t fully grasp what that kind of relationship means to the successful reintegration of offenders.
I hope that the public will learn more about what chaplains do so that they understand that we’re actually part of public safety. This is what is motivating me to write this and what will be a series of posts about the ups and downs, the breakthroughs, the obstacles, and everything in between.
Thank you for reading and hopefully you will continue to read as I share the life of a Buddhist chaplain in the hell realm that is prison.
Bhavaggupādāya avīci heṭṭhato
Etthantare sattā kāyūpapannā
Rūpī arūpī ca
From the highest existence down to the lowest
whatever groups of beings there exist,
whether with or without a physical form,
conscious or non-conscious,
may they all be free from dukkha,
and enjoy the happiness of Nibbāna.
Acharya Samaneti is a prison chaplain, philosopher, a lover of the written word, and truth seeker. The contemplative life called him early in his life; an only child, Samanetti found comfort in silence, reflexion, and personal inquiry. Samaneti is interested in bearing witness to the oneness of suffering and the loving actions that awaken hearts; this mission draws him to work with the incarcerated and other marginalized populations.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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