By Venerable Thubten Gyatso
Venerable Thubten Gyatso is a newly ordained monastic and a new participant in Sravasti Abbey’s Prison Dharma program. In his first experience of entering a prison, he recently traveled with Ven. Thubten Jigme to Coyote Ridge Correctional City near Washington’s Tri-Cities to support their annual Vesak celebration—commemorating Buddha’s birth, enlightenement, and parinirvana.
The Abbey has been involved in prison work since its founding, providing spiritual guidance, books, and audio teachings to more than 1000 imprisoned people annually. In-person prison visits were also a regular part of the Abbey’s outreach until the pandemic closed everything down. We and the prison Dharma practitioners are equally overjoyed that prison visits can resume again!
As the mechanical hum and slam of the thick sliding door behind me reverberated, a certain heaviness of the moment began to weigh upon me like a blanket. Another thick door awaited, while fencing, layer upon layer of barbed wire, gray stone walls, and other shades of gray surrounded me.
At the invitation of the Buddhist inmates and chaplain, I was about to willingly enter, for the first time in my life, a medium-security prison in Eastern Washington for their annual Vesak celebration.
I tried to enter without any expectations or preconceived notions of what would come, because I had a sneaking suspicion that they would be crushed by the actual experience.
Several decades of mass media made it impossible to enter with a blank slate. I grew up with the “war on drugs”, “3 strikes and you’re out,” and other tough-on-crime measures, the indoctrinating effects of which I’d slowly been mentally peeling away.
For weeks I had been anticipating this day, wondering what it would actually feel like to stand in a prison and shake hands with people who had been unceremoniously cast aside by society.
Venerable Jigme stepped inside to meet the chaplain and another volunteer. The blanket and accompanying hesitation evaporated, their warm casual smiles disarmed me, and I relaxed into a smile that I knew would serve me well throughout the day.
We chatted like old friends, appreciative of all the hard work that had gone into making this day possible, hoping it would be of great benefit for everyone. The excitement built as we got closer to the building that would hold all of us for the ceremony.
As the hall filled to capacity—about 50 inmates and 5 volunteers—it had the energy and joy of a family reunion or neighborhood picnic. Men of all ages, races, ethnicities, sizes, and religions lined up to shake hands and give hugs and warm greetings to each other. They were all so different, but a commonality I found striking was the warm smiles all around the room.
This moment broke all the preconceived notions I’d accumulated throughout my life. It warmed my heart and reinforced the notion of the capacity for buddhahood residing in all sentient beings.
It dawned on me that I was in a prison with over 50 men convicted of unknown crimes, without an officer in sight, and I was totally relaxed and comfortable.
What a beautiful day of rejoicing, sharing the Dharma, and connecting. I might have gotten more out of it than anyone there, and I look forward to being able to return in the near future.