The Buddha inside the Prison: Part 2

Exclusive Interview with Ven. Kobutsu Malone, The Buddhist Channel, March 24, 2005

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia / Sedgwick, Maine (USA) -- In the second part of the exclusive interview with the Buddhist Channel, Ven. Kobutsu Malone talks about death row chaplaincy, the big picture on handling delinquent behavior and new ways in Dharma teachings to reach out to more Americans.

Read also: Part 1 of  "The Buddha inside the Prison"

You have been a strong advocate on death row chaplaincy. Please relate how Buddhist teachings / values have helped you in this regard.

Death row chaplaincy involves being of assistance to a prisoner who has been condemned to death by the state and it also entails an intimate examination of our own mortality.  It truly brings home the issue, which in Zen is referred to as, ?The great matter of life and death.?  Death row chaplaincy, for this monk, involves being willing to stand with any human being about to be murdered against their will.  It also involves being willing to refuse to stand with a human being who has given up their legal appeals and has opted to undergo execution by choice.  There is a point where one?s fascination with the examination of the great matter must not intrude on the vow to be mindful and respectful of all life and consciously choose not to kill.  There is also the issue of a human being?s right to self-determination, which must be considered in light of psychological, environmental and social conditions. For me, the most significant Buddhistic teaching is active inquiry. There are the teachings of The Buddha, the precepts; there are also wisdom, skillful means and broad band awakening. Our approach to serving can only be to examine every facet possible and engage or disengage, as is appropriate.  Sometimes Engaged Buddhism involves disengagement.

<< Ven. Kobutsu Malone

"Death row chaplaincy, for this monk, involves being willing to stand with any human being about to be murdered against their will.  It also involves being willing to refuse to stand with a human being who has given up their legal appeals and has opted to undergo execution by choice. " - Ven Kobutsu Malone

There is an implied complicity in the execution process if we are present as it is taking place.  Do we chant or say prayers? Or do we stand up in protest and dynamically point out how all present are actively taking part in murder?  The execution procedures are highly choreographed events designed to assuage responsibility from any one individual.  If a clergy person is present at an execution for the support of a prisoner and does not do everything in their power to prevent the execution from taking place are they not active participants?  Here, the wishes of the person being murdered dictate my actions.  In my case, if I remain silent without protest, I accept responsibility for the execution.  By taking part in it... and remaining silent, I am as responsible for the homicide of a human being as the Governor who signs the Death Warrant and the ?executioner? who pumps the poison into the vein.

Your view of the big picture about societal values and capital punishment. How could basic units of society, such as the family, or spiritual values, such as Buddhism, help to establish preventive mechanism to handle delinquent behavior?

The big picture you ask about is bigger than we perceive, simply recognizing the concept of a ?Big Picture,? in and of itself, forces us to expand our perspective to entertain a more panoramic view, this activity is repeated, it becomes second nature. 

As we mature in our practice of looking for the big picture, we gain deeper insight into its true bigness.  This is a never-ending process because societal values are in constant flux; they manifest anicca, change and impermanence, as much as every other aspect of reality.  Flux allows for evolution and, conversely, devolution.  Looking with ?Big Picture? awareness is the hallmark of broadband awakening.

Awakening to the forces and currents that influence and drive social values involves the study of the history of the people as well as the history of governments and institutions.  Thorough examination of social values requires investigation of religious morality constructs, a grasp of the development of disconscious cosmologies and ideologies.  Religious establishments over generations create mythological constructs that become dogma.  In time, dogma, through belief, influences collective social values.

In America, capital punishment still garners significant support from people who perceive that religious traditions are static structures held in scripture and enshrined in ideological dogma.  Scriptural justification by many fundamentalistic Abrahamic traditions is accepted without question.  This approach creates deeply entrenched power-over, patriarchal and authoritarian thinking.  It is also an active force that promotes the belief mechanism as enshrined in religious trappings.  American law developed out of many elements of the various sub-cultures within the United States where many religious traditions historically supported and even used capital punishment for violation of perceived social and even ecclesiastical transgressions.

From this perspective, in much of America, there appears to be a complete refusal to examine the nature of the ?belief? mechanism and how it functions in the mind.  When we relentlessly examine what ?belief? entails and what we are communicating when we say ?I believe...? or ?We believe...? in time we begin to recognize that there are alternative perspectives for relating to the real world. 

Buddha Dharma is not a ?belief system? it is a living experiential tradition that requires no belief, only willingness to question and experience directly the living awakened state of mind.  From a broad band perspective ?belief? is perceived as a psychological process, a pattern of thinking, a state of mind that involves placing faith in the unknown irrespective of direct experience.  In our broadband awakening approach, our practices of conscious examination inevitably brings us to the point where we become conscious of the reality that we can not, and do not, know everything.  This experience over time leads us to experience becoming comfortable with ?not knowing.?  When we can comfortably answer any question with ?I don?t know.? and feel confident, we no longer need to hold onto constructed beliefs.  Placing faith in the unknown in order to shore up our sense of self is no longer a viable option.

You have been known to experiment with new ways to reach out to people to spread the word of the Buddha-Dharma. What has worked, and what hasn?t?

I have more of the sense that what I do is spread fertilizer, manure if you will, the Dharma is in reality all pervasive and requires no effort on my part to ?spread it.?  Belief systems require ?spreading? - Dharma is alive and flourishes freely as it may.  As soon as we raise question as to what ?works? we commodify Dharma, we turn it into a consumable commodity.  Dharma is not something to be consumed, it is that which consumes us!  What I experiment with is supporting the development of questioning mind, pre-Dharma if you will.  I have nothing to teach; all I can do is make effort in creating an environment that supports practice, an open and fertile ground if you will. 

Venerable shit spreader...

In the prisons I encountered many people who had difficulty with literacy, the social environment did not support directly inquiring about a person?s ability to read.  I knew there were people I worked with in the traditional zendo training who could not read and write or were functionally illiterate.  At the monastery, one would never think twice about handing a book to a student and having them read from it out loud.  In prison, placing someone in that position without knowing their ability to read could create loss of face in the community and be uncomfortable for some people.

In 1994 I began collaboration with Duncan Eagleson, an exceptionally skilled graphic artist and friend, who had done a series of comic books for the commercial market.  Initially we discussed the concept of presenting Buddha Dharma instruction by creating a comic book version of the ?Platform Sutra? also known as ?The Sutra of Hui Neng.?  Hui Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch of zen was chosen as an example of an illiterate person who had a profound grasp of the flesh, bones and marrow of Dharma. 

We discussed producing a full length comic book but concluded that we would not be able to underwrite the production costs with our available funding.Duncan and I finally decided to create a black and white comic called Zen Karmics® an episodic instruction tool designed to convey very basic sitting instruction on an installment basis.

I hesitate to respond to the notion that it has ?worked? or ?not worked?, as that tends to commodify the offering.  From this perspective, all I can do is offer instruction in a manner that allows those who choose to receive or not receive it complete freedom to do what they will with it.  Buddha Dharma is not a material object or tool that can be manipulated to produce ?results.?  Seeing Dharma in this light is tantamount to spiritual materialism and is dangerously close to proselytization.  There are many subtle pitfalls in doing prison Dharma work, some of which I have written about at:

Please tell us more about your initiatives (specifically) to use Buddhist music and comics as alternative mediums. What has been the impact of these mediums so far?

Again, if we are looking to quantify ?impact? we are viewing Dharma as a ?material? object or tool used for some specific task.  My approach is to simply present instruction in manner and form that is culturally relevant and accessible.  What people do with it is entirely up to them...

Our world is being permeated by materialism and greed, we are inundated with commercialism and being programmed to be willing consumers of material goods to bring profit to merchants and corporations.  It is becoming clearer as time progresses that this approach to life is unworkable and unsustainable.  There are few voices that can speak through this veil of corpocratic dominion to provide alternative perspectives. 

We do find that young people are often far more adroit at seeing into the poison of consumerism that is propagating in the world and their anger and frustration with what they see often comes out in contemporary music and youth culture.  From this perspective I have sought to provide access to Buddhist teachings in language and style that resonates with the times. 

In America, Buddha Dharma largely appeared beginning in the 1960?s as a method for personal transformation rather than a devotional tradition.  For most people ?personal transformation? is a selfish notion at first, we approach Dharma as a means to an end that we have predetermined. American Buddhism developed largely in the upper and upper middle classes as people in those positions had the free time and money required to take part in time-consuming practice, provide funds to finance the establishment of places of practice and support teachers.  Initially, Buddhist texts and teachings were presented in language that was addressed to these classes, well-educated and well-off people.  My work in prisons revealed the need to put Buddhist teachings in a more common and down to earth context.

Duncan Eagleson and I met in 1994 and we developed a method of working together that produced Zen Karmics.  The process we developed was simple, I would outline what I wanted to convey in a given strip and Duncan would layout the strip art and proposed dialog.  We would discuss the dialog and I would adjust it for technical (Dharma) accuracy and Duncan would produce the finished art.

My collaboration with Duncan Eagleson on Zen Karmics and our initial concept of a comic book version of the biography of Hui Neng served as the basis for an ongoing effort that developed into the idea of producing a full-length graphic novel.  After we produced five episodes of Zen Karmics and the funding evaporated we were approached by an American Buddhist publisher who asked us to produce a full-length graphic novel about the life of The Buddha.  We talked with the publisher and immediately presented our original concept of a graphic novel about the life of Hui Neng set in a post-modern world.  We named this effort ?Dust? from Hui Neng?s poetic encounter with Shen Hsiu. 

In discussing the work we laid the foundation for an imaginary post-apocalyptic world populated with multiracial characters speaking in street slang.  It was through this approach that the concept of Dharma Rap arose.  Duncan developed a ?Dust? theme rap that we worked on and later I worked on some independent raps and collaborated with Rev. Koun Selden on a rap version of The Heart Sutra.  This is how the idea of presenting sutras in rap form developed.

We have been unable to find funding for the production of our ?Dust? graphic novel at this time, but we do have some sample art and design pages at:


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

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