By Acharya Samaneti
My work as a prison chaplain helps me remain immersed in my practice (all aspects, studying of the teachings, ethics, and meditation).
I realize the importance of bringing my practice off the cushion and that this path is just that—a path that moves us forward in life. I am lucky to be able to have my spiritual practice be front and center everyday; I lean on my spirituality for strength, wisdom, and this bottomless compassion that I must hold for the men that I serve and my colleagues.
Often people translate prison chaplaincy as prison ministry; the model for Buddhist prison ministry is Bodhisattva.
If we look at the concept of bodhisattva, we see that at its base, it is the practice of chaplaincy. When we talk about bodhisattva, most people will focus on the vow instead of wisdom and compassion—it is really the virtue that is most emphasized (I am generalizing here, but I must admit that I am also guilty of that because I admire this vow and the folks that take it so much).
The vow of a bodhisattva is to attain the ultimate truth, or the bodhi. The enlightenment known as anuttarā-samyak-sambodhi is one of absolute equality, without discrimination, this means that a bodhisattva’s enlightenment can be complete only when all other sentient beings have attained enlightenment. The very essence of the bodhisattva’s virtues is a completely altruistic compassion.
So what qualities does a prison chaplain (or bodhisattva) have to engage with in society?
We need to cultivate compassion that resonates with other people’s suffering. This provides the inner power for the chaplain to better help the incarcerated (this connection is crucial in trust building which then opens the door to the work of healing and cultivating peace in the heart-mind). We need to cultivate the skills of putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice in our daily life.
I have found that the incarcerated have a pretty good bullshit detector and are able to see the integrity of our practice and how it applies to our lives on the day to day. We need the qualities of a teacher, one that teaches not just the alleviation of suffering but also its cessation. Most of the men that I work with come to me at first wanting emotional management skills, and as time progresses they become more interested in wanting the liberatory and ethical practices more.
I rely heavily on past bodhisattvas for strength, inspiration, wisdom, compassion and self-care. The work of the prison chaplain is difficult and challenging: we have to be able to care for people that are in the depths of the hell realms, that is samsara, at its darkest and most difficult.
I like to carry with me in my heart as I walk through the dark, cold and empty halls of my prison, a bodhisattva whose story gives me strength and allows my heart to remain open and full of compassion for the men that I serve and the staff that I interact with during those moments. The bodhisattva that I carry and identify with most is Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, a lot of you may know him as Jizō Bosatsu.
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva vowed to wait to achieve Buddhahood until all trapped in hell are freed.
He is known as the bodhisattva of all who are trapped in hell (also the guardian of the souls of children who have died, aborted fetuses, travelers, and children); I see prison as a kind of hell realm on earth—which is why I identify so much with this bodhisattva.
He is honoured as a monk that descends to hell to give teaching and comfort the suffering hell-beings there. It is then that he learns how hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells. As a prison chaplain, this echoes deeply within me—I see myself traveling to the darkest corners of samsara (earthly hellish states) to teach and comfort the men suffering within the prison walls.
My friend Ksitigarbha is always with me when I am within the prison walls, I have many opportunities to be reminded of the bodhisattva vow that I have taken and how it can be applied in my day-to-day obstacles. Here is an example of the practice of the bodhisattva that I shared on social media a while back. I feel that it real captures what we go through as prison chaplains and the outlook that we must hold day in and day out:
“Even if someone humiliates you and denounces you
In front of a crowd of people,
think of this person as your teacher
And humbly honour him—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.”
Today I stood at the gate to the ranges in the highest security prison in the country.
This is a daily scene where all social program officers (SPO), parole officers (PO), psychologists and chaplains huddle around this gate and tell security officers who they want to see. Now with the COVID sanitary measures we form an orderly line two meters apart.
Today I was first in line, but the security officers kept asking my colleagues behind me who they wanted to see; they said that they would take care of the “real appointments first” (some people think that chaplains are not an integral or important part of the inmates’ rehabilitation process and that we are simply “pro-inmate” employees that give them unearned privileges).
I stood calmly as they went through the line behind me, a couple of times they named inmates that I have been trying to see for a long time, but I was not their priority. I stood in front of my teacher, a security officer that was trying to humiliate me by invalidating my right to be there and meet with the men of the prison.
I simply stood there and breathed and reflected on the practice of a bodhisattva, and when it was finally my turn I thanked the guard for his work in guiding all the inmates to their appointments and how today seemed like a difficult and busy day. I complemented the team on their efficiency and I thanked them for bringing me the inmates that I want to see to the chapel.
I recognize that an open mind always starts with humility, I tried to be more attentive to the security team’s needs. Some work is taken for granted, escorting inmates in handcuffs from their cell to interview cubicles etc. is not valourizing or glamorous. A bodhisattva is someone who listens and is more attentive to another’s needs; everyone wants to be validated.
Being open minded is also being willing to learn from others, and the behaviour I witnessed taught me how I wanted and didn’t want to treat others. I recognized my teacher, and he helped to deflate my sense of self (I often find myself clinging to my sense of self when I feel disrespected or disregarded). He reminded me that his behaviour was not personal and not a reflection of who I was or of my worth. He reminded me that what was most important was seeing an inmate, and that by waiting at the front of the line, all the other inmates got to see my presence as they were escorted to their appointments and this let them know that I hadn’t forgotten them.
That is the practice of the bodhisattva, recognizing our teachers in life—even in the depths of samsara that is the SHU. We continue to learn throughout our lives, so keep an eye out for the teachers around you. They may have a great lesson for you! A bodhisattva is someone who lives and breathes compassion.
We usually choose our teachers, but there are also the teachers that choose us. Sometimes they are the ones that teach us the most because we experience them with the lest expectations and with the most openness.
As I prepare for my next day in the prison, I remind myself that my next teacher may be in the prison cell, in the prison hallways, and everywhere in between. I leave you with this mantra that I recite to myself as I move within those different hell realms that we call the correctional system.
I just live and do…
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