Imprisoned by false views

by Kooi Fong Lim, The Buddhist Channel, June 29, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- On June 19, 2006, the Gowanda Correctional Facility in New York released the book "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" authored by Venerable Kobutsu Malone to William "Red" Graham, who was earlier denied access  to it due to a non-existent regulation which it lists as "Depicts/describes procedures to be implemented solely by Administration".

The about turn brought to a judicial end hounding an earlier decision taken by the facility authorities, which led to a peaceful "sitting with Red" initiative mounted by the respected author.

While it has been a relief to know that the authorities have given in to "sane reasoning" for their decision, it is also a sad reflection on the manner and resolution of certain parties which led to the initial ban.

For one, it made no sense to ban a book without having read through its content. From what is gathered, the authorities seemed to have made the decision purely on the basis of having looked at the book's title.

The officer's perception that such "exotic" content would not fit into conventional understanding of "correctional behavior" as defined in their multitude of regulations and rules is errorneous in many ways. While such misconception is further compounded by the exoticism of eastern spirituality - especially since Zen and the practice of Zendo is not mainstream American lifestyle - nevertheless it is useful for the authorities to at least observe the transformation undergone by prisoners when exposed to such practices.

Take William "Red" Graham's case. By practicing zazen with Ven Kobutsu for 15 years,
he has taken upon himself to cultivate a sense of self worth and to embrace each moment as it comes. By doing so, he has taken the initiative to walk on the path of the awakened state of mind, an actualization of the Zen path.

By cultivating his zazen practice and Dharma studies, William is doing far more than conventional correctional procedures can allow, a move which should be most welcomed by correctional facility authorities if they are really concerned with "constructive individual development."

To this day, Red is seen as a firm and mentally strong character, someone who has accepted the way things are. He is someone who knows how to embrace every moment as it arises. It is an attitude cultivated through dedicated sittings at full lotus position for a solid 45 to 60 minutes a day.

The late Thai venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu once famously said that we need not go to jail to feel what its like to be imprisoned. He said that by having been born, by being a mortal, our body becomes our own jailor. If we are aware of this "predicament", then we can take steps to live as fully and as awakened as we can. The problem arises when we get enamoured by our body and senses, and further entrapped ourselves with meaningless dogma, views and beliefs, that we become imprisoned in a life long sentence of ignorance.

"The first prison which you must look for and see is life itself. If you look on life as a prison, and see the prison that it is, then we must say that you know the truth of nature quite well," said Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

It is ironic that while Red is incarcerated in his cell, his mind roams free, unfettered, which no walls can obstruct. Every breath is a statement of freedom, a flight into unbounded openess, an epitome of clarity that is unchained and unbarred.

Contrast that to those who sees the threat of a 74 page book, which manifests nothing else but an illustration on Zen and some general guidelines about Buddhist practice in prison. While their decisions are made outside prison walls, in the free wide world, they were imprisoned by paranoia, dogma and misperceptions. And in such circumstances, who needs correctional behavior?

And the lesson to all this? Never judge a book by its cover. You can never tie a man down whose mind is already free and unfettered. And never, never assume that we are free, as long as our minds are stuck in the mud of ignorance, prejudice and fundamentalist dogmatism.

Ask Red, he should know, for while he is in prison, he is no longer imprisoned by false views and negative mind. If ever there is a lotus blooming in a cell, go find it in Gowanda Correctional Facility, New York. Ask for Mr. William Graham,  # 84 A 6009.