The Buddha inside the Prison

Exclusive Interview with Ven. Kobutsu Malone, The Buddhist Channel, March 23, 2005

Ven. Kobutsu Malone shares with the Buddhist Channel his unique insight into death row chaplaincy, his strong advocacy against the death penalty and his views on monastic alternative sentencing in Part 1 of 2 of an exclusive interview

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) / Sedgwick, Maine (USA) -- Our mind creates all Dharma and accommodates all matters just like the earth womb. Mind is the fore-runner of everything, the Buddha teaches, as recorded in the very first verse of the Dhammapada. It is the foundation on which everything grows, including the immeasurable treasures - the Buddha Way.

<< Ven. Kobutsu Malone

?The Buddha taught one thing ? awakening, if ?peace? is a side effect of awakening then fine, but it is vital that we recognize the nature of His teaching of the awakened state of mind. We must not confuse the teaching of The Buddha with passivism, escapism or some sort of state of utter absorption?, so says Ven. Kobutsu Malone, co-founder of the Engaged Zen Foundation. It is this basis for social engagement that the venerable - famed for this direct spot-on, no nonsense teaching ? uses to reach out to prisoners whom he perceives are short changed by the state application of punitive action.

Too much emphasis on punitive incarceration, says the venerable, and not enough holistic understanding of the nature of social order, government activities, religious influences, western psychology and universal, fundamental human behavior. Like the legendary Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, (Fudo JP) who vowed to forego Buddhahood until "all the Hells are empty", Ven. Kobutsu has set himself on a challenge of immense proportion, and that is to apply Buddhist wisdom to American prisons, the bottom line intersection of all social and psychological ills.

The following is an exclusive interview conducted by Lim Kooi Fong, Editor of the Buddhist Channel with Ven. Kobutsu via email.

Please tell us more about your anti-death penalty work on state and national levels, in particular about your ?Gateway Journal and Zen Karmics? as instructional media for incarcerated people.

I have been active in working toward the abolition of the death penalty since 1996 when I witnessed the execution of Jusan Frankie Parker three days after I ordained him as a Zen Buddhist monk on death row in Arkansas.  Frankie killed two human beings in 1982, his former mother-in-law and father-in-law.  Subsequent to the commission of these crimes, he kidnapped his ex wife, shot and wounded a police officer.  Jusan transformed through contemplative introspective practice through over twelve years on death row.  When I became involved with Jusan, I had been working with my partner at the time in Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, New York State for some five years.

It was taking part in Jusan?s execution that galvanized me to become active in speaking out and writing about the barbaric practice of capital punishment.  That event, combined with my own personal life experiences and teaching in maximum security prisons, brought me to profoundly question the nature of the punishment process in any form.  I continued to teach in Sing Sing Prison in the following three years while noting a serious decline in my health from arthritis and coronary artery disease.

Realizations around the nature of punitive action, seen all too clearly in the prisons, brought about the examination of the nature of social order, government activities, religious influences, western psychology and universal, fundamental human behavior.  The realization of the nature of punitive behavior in the action of punishment leads to the recognition of the deeply implanted habitual pattern of power-over dynamic principles that are disconsciously attached to human behavior and psychology.  Merely recognizing these patterns is not sufficient since initially we see the patterns as external and separate from our individual psychology and sociological functional constructs.  Recognition carries with it the responsibility to fully root out these patterns of materialistic and commodifying tendencies from our own psychological space, our personal social lives and ultimately from the ?Big Picture? of the entire realm of human social fabric. 

These are some of the factors that have brought me to delve into the examination of how we communicate and relate on personal and societal levels in this techno-materialistic world.  Seeing and comprehending the mechanisms that drive materialism in the physical world has direct bearing on our ability to recognize the more subtle and insidious nature of ?spiritual materialism? that pervades the so-called spiritual aspect of our lives.

Working in the prisons and being involved with young people taught me that it is necessary to approach skillfully the adoption of non-traditional means of communication to effectively make contact with people on a grass roots level.  Gateway Journal and Zen Karmics were efforts in that direction.  We were unable to sustain these efforts without adequate funding on a long-term basis and discontinued publication in 2000.  Gateway Journal and Zen Karmics® are on line at:

To understand this situation, we need to examine the threatening nature of what I have been espousing concerning materialism, approaching criminals, reaching across racial barriers, devolving sexual stereotypes and willingness to listen to young people.  These activities are threatening to people with money.  Much of Buddhist history reveals Buddhist teachers, monastic communities and authoritative hierarchical religious organizations catering to rich and powerful people as a method of institutional propagation.  The support of exclusive, wealthy, elite people always comes with strings attached - always.

In the Kalama Sutra, The Buddha offers revolutionary, anarchistic instruction... ?Think for yourself and question authority,? with his dying words he urges us to ?be a lamp unto ourselves.? All too often in our zeal for ?gaining? personal ?enlightenment? we fail to adequately question ?authoritative? sources and examine subtle motivations involving institutionalized social control mechanisms masquerading as Buddha Dharma.

Could you elaborate on ?Dharma Song Zendo in Sing Sing Prison? and ?Flowering Dogwood Zendo?? How has this initiative helped to develop monastic alternative sentencing and deal with the complete circle of human rights imperatives?

Dharma Song Zendo ran for eight years in Sing Sing Prison as an intense and comprehensive Zen prison program.  The zendo convened three days a week, and held extended retreats a dozen times a year.  Hundreds of prisoners came through the program and many endured to become senior members of the Dharma Song Sangha.  I carried on in Sing Sing until my health declined precipitously and we were subjected to extraordinary harassment from a new prison administration.  The Flowering Dogwood Zendo was a smaller effort undertaken as I was beginning to feel very ill and exhausted. 

We were able to garner some support from volunteers but by and large it seemed that most Buddhists were uncomfortable dealing with prisoners.  There were times I detected racist and classist attitudes in practitioners who related to Zen practice more as a hobby or serious entertainment that a matter of vital importance.  This illustrates the manifestation of spiritual materialism within the larger Buddhist community and is a call to action for self-examination.  It is not enough just to be devoted to the Buddha, or study Buddhist scripture on an intellectual level, or even to practice ?meditation? in a casual manner.  The real practice of the way of The Buddha involves awakening, in the beginning this may be just a willingness to set foot on the path of the awakened state of mind.  As practice matures we are faced with experiencing the actual awakening of The Buddha Himself, not some second rate ?level? but full awakening.  This of course is a painful, frustrating and humbling experience; it is not about serenity and bliss or love ?n light.  It is a stressful path of continual questioning and confrontation.  James Baldwin once said, ?Confrontation doesn't always bring a solution to the problem, but until you confront the problem, there will be no solution.?

The monastic alternative sentencing concept is a viable alternative for a limited number of people.  However, it is no panacea for the majority of people entwined in the so-called ?criminal justice? system.  For many years I have maintained that even if a prison is full of awakened beings, it is still a prison.  I perceive that we need to focus on understanding the nature of what prisons are and what happens to people inside them before we can really comprehend alternatives.  Prisons in America are not places for ?rehabilitation? or ?correction,? they are places where people are punished relentlessly on a daily basis.  The photographs of the abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are not at all shocking to those who have had any long-term experience in American prisons.  It is interesting to note how a ?corrections officer? still in the employment of the Pennsylvania prison system was a leader in the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. 

Prisons are hostile and mentally unhealthy places, not just for the prisoners but also for those who make a living from punitive incarceration.  Prisoners contribute to the hostile environment, as do those who hold them imprisoned.  Staff and prisoners have to endure living and working in mentally unhealthy environments.  The social structure of the prison and the lack of understanding of the short and long term effect of punishment perpetuate the system.  Privatized prisons owned by public companies, their stocks traded daily in monetary exchanges, are increasingly becoming involved with the incarceration of human beings for profit.  It is not in the interest of a corporation to discourage ?clients? from using the corporations? services, which generate profit from ?repeat business? hence there is no incentive to ?correct? from the corporate perspective. 

Our attention needs to be focused on the driving paradigm of the Prison Industrial Complex, the punitive incarceration of human beings for profit and social control.  Until we begin to grasp the truth behind the smoke screens and lies fed to us by government ?authorities,? corporate controlled media, authoritarian religious institutions and ideologies we can not grasp the truth.

I teach an approach to Dharma that encompasses what I have come to call ?Broadband Awakening.?  This approach focuses on the traditional introspective practice as a method for personal awakening; it also goes further - with dynamic analysis and interaction as practice in the psychological, social, political, economic and ecological realms.

We find ourselves in a world facing rising population, dwindling resources and environmental collapse.  Buddha Dharma is the manifestation of the awakened state of mind, not the serene, passive and reclusive mind.  The awakened state of mind is not bound by ideologies, concern over the perception of others, it does not operate under the tyranny of preconceived notions, it flourishes in the fertile ground of dynamic interaction.

In Part 2 of the Interview: Ven. Kobutsu talks about death row chaplaincy, the big picture on handling delinquent behavior and new ways in Dharma teachings to reach out to more Americans.

To know more about Ven. Kobutsu and his work, please visit:

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