HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
The seeds for Triple Gem Society prison dhamma work were first planted by Bhante Wimala in October 1998 with his involvement in the Prison Welfare Committee at the Walikada Women’s Prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This prison project focused on the construction and retro-fitting of an infant care center exclusively for female inmates and their children. In 1999 Bhante Wimala took a delegation from Triple Gem Society to visit the prison and meet with female inmates and prison officials in Sri Lanka. Over the next two years, with the help of friends and contributions from Triple Gem Society, Bhante completed this project and equipped the clinic with beds, medical equipment and supplies.
In late 1999, Bhante Wimala visited a U.S. state prison in Pennsylvania. He was the first Buddhist monk to ever step foot inside a Pennsylvania state prison. With the help of his student Sivali, he established a regular Buddhist sangha for inmates and thus began the prison sangha ministries associated with the Triple Gem Society.
The first sangha at Mahanoy State Prison became a model for Buddhist prison programs for the state Department of Corrections; as a result, a number of Buddhist inmates from other state prisons have asked Triple Gem Society for help in bringing Buddhist sangha to their prisons.
Since the outset of prison dhamma work initiated by Bhante Wimala and sponsored by Triple Gem Society, a regular sangha in now in place at Mahanoy State Prison and plans for sangha at Somerset, Greensburg and Cresson State prisons are in the process of formation. Triple Gem Society has provided Buddhist service to inmates at the Federal Prison, Philadelphia; and corresponds with a number of other Buddhist inmates in association with the Prison Dharma Network and Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
PURPOSE AND FORMATION OF PRISON SANGHA
The Buddha once said: “There are people among us who do not have the same capacity as we do. They do not have the capacity to act rightly or to speak rightly. But if we look deeply, we see in their hearts that there are good seeds, and therefore we have to treat those people in such a way that those good seeds will not be lost.”
A prison sangha is a community of inmates practicing the dhamma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love. Prisoners are uprooted from their families and their communities; they wander around, not quite treated like human beings. Many inmates feel rejected by family, friends and community; they live on the margins of prison life without home or anyone or anything to belong to. Loneliness, the feeling of being cut off, alienation, division, the disintegration of family and the disintegration of life itself – are their daily companions. Without sangha, without the support of a group of friends who are motivated by the same ideal and practice, no one in prison life can make much progress on the path to liberation and transformation. A community of practice – a prison sangha – can provide a second chance. A sangha can be a place for prisoners to practice transformation and healing of self – where they can be transported – like on a boat – across the ocean of sorrow.
The role that sangha plays in prison life is one of support, protection and nourishment. The good seeds that the Buddha refers to are in the elements of mindfulness, concentration and insight; those seeds are always there in everyone. If there is a sangha that can help prisoners touch those seeds and help them grow, then they will have the best kind of refuge for the support, protection and nourishment of those seeds..
FORMAT FOR BUDDHIST PRISON SANGHA
The services and programs of a prison sangha will focus on the central teachings and practices of Buddhism, with emphasis on meditation techniques and practices. The duration of sangha is two to three hours, usually on a weekly basis but no less than monthly. The prison facility will need to schedule the chapel or some other quiet place for use, and provide a portable cassette/CD player for chanting and teachings. A clearance request form must be filed with the prison prior to admission. Clearances are also required in order to bring educational materials, books, other material used for sangha such as mediation cushion, meditation bell, Buddha statue, candles, incense, matches or lighter. All materials carried into the prison must be approved by a prison administrator or program director. Prison facilities usually allow for guests and visitors such as monks, nuns and lay people to accompany the sangha leader for special events and ceremonies.
A prison sangha program may consist of the following:
- Opening prayers and chants – taking Refuge in Triple Gem and taking Five Precepts
- Relaxation, yoga or breathing exercises
- Introduction of Buddhist topic – some teachings of the Buddha or Dhamma talk
- Questions and answers on teachings or Dhamma talk
- Introduction to meditation practices and techniques
- Meditation period – at least thirty minutes in length
- Feed-back on meditation practices and problems
- Short period for socializing and personal questions
- Closing bow to Triple Gem
Information normally requested for clearance includes: name, address, previous names, telephone numbers, social security number, date of birth, place of birth, sex, race, height, weight, color eyes/ hair, drivers license number and state. Clearance is not given if anyone is on the visitor list or related to any inmate in that particular prison.
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Please contact Triple Gem Society
call Sivali at (717)359-5281