Category: Cultivating Peace Under Lock and Key
By Archarya Samaneti
I am on vacation, visiting a dear friend who is also a Buddhist chaplain in a maximum security penitentiary.
This friendship is of great value to me as a chaplain, a Buddhist, and as a human being.
So what does a chaplain do while on vacation? They go visit other penitentiaries, a privilege, and an opportunity to witness and understand yet another hell-realm. The greatest gift, however, was that I was able to witness one of the biggest and greatest hearts I know be of service to the forgotten, the marginalized---the residents of their penitentiary.
We have had many conversations; either on our drives home when we need to unpack difficult days, or during walks these past few days, which I have found impactful and nourishing. We have wrestled with our ideas of who a chaplain is and more importantly, what a chaplain does.
We notice our differences in presence, style, and service; and we recognize the specific perceptions of realities in our own being, the buildings that we walk on the daily and how they impact and create the chaplains that we have become. I don’t have many friends with whom I can honestly say I have shared such deep and personal experiences and feelings; and yet have never felt discarded, minimized, or ignored in any shape or form.
This friendship is special, it is one of the few true Kalyanamitas that I have in my life, and I am grateful for their support and friendship.
I don’t know who else could carry the weight of witnessing of my pain, and conflicting emotions after some days which can make us truly question humanity. This support and solidarity is crucial in the spiritual health of chaplains---a person who can witness our pain and suffering. Their ability to understand and simply hold a solid container for witnessing in the truest sense of the word.
The more time I spend teaching and sharing the Dhamma in prison, the more I feel that my Dhamma is no longer palatable for most people. This is not to say that it is better by any stretch, but there is a sense that most people would be unsettled and uncomfortable with it.
I feel at a point where I can’t teach folks who aren’t able to know dukkha---and I mean truly witness dukkha in a way that may be raw, and uncomfortable to the brink of overwhelm, leading you to question everything you feel you may know. -If your practice cannot hold space for suffering on a scale that may seem crushing; maybe I can no longer be of service to you.
This is why we need friends that can understand our reality, our view of spiritual practice; because spiritual practice is different for everyone. During the meditation group I participated in today there was discussion about enlightenment and how a teacher may see that their student has awakened (a guy was asking if there were signs etc). The discussion then shifted toward explaining that there is not necessarily one type of enlightenment and awakening is different for everyone.
Enlightenment will come and will look different for us all; it is beneficial to take a few moments and truly reflect on what that looks like for us.
I want my enlightenment to reflect that I am able to be peace in chaos, to have a heart mind that is so connected and unshakeable that I am only able to act with the two being unified. I want to completely let go of all obstacles which slow me down or simply stop me from living and loving deeply in all moments, no matter the place or time.
An image that I saw today really made me realize what it means for me to be a chaplain from my enlightened state: my friend bent over, talking to a resident of the penitentiary through their meal slot, fully present (even with loud music playing nearby), focused, caring and completely immersed in their service to the person in front of them. They were unfazed and holding a strong container in a chaotic space, witnessing with compassion, tenderness, and presence.
I have struggled lately with writing, feeling that I don’t have much to say, or that what I have to share is not important or relevant to others. This may still be true, but today was a day where my heart felt tender, and my mind seemed clear. I felt connection as my kalyanmitta showed me the halls that they walk everyday.
I felt a sense of community, even if this is a very small community---it is my community.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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