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A Trio of Marvelous Engaged Buddhist Talks

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Jimmy Santiago Baca

We’re in a rich stretch of time here at Upaya Zen Center, where I direct the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program. On Sunday, we graduated 13 chaplains, and we’re currently training 43 students in our second and third cohorts. I’ll write more about all that soon.

For now, I thought you might enjoy three powerful dharma talks given here at Upaya over this past month. Upaya provides these as a service to the community; any donation you feel inspired to give to support these offerings is greatly appreciated.

Ouyporn Khuankaew on Feminism and Buddhism for Transformation
Ouyporn is the founder of the International Woman’s Partnership for Peace and Justice in Thailand. She begins by speaking about her motivation for becoming a peace activist and feminist. Ouyporn also discusses the meaning and importance of engaged Buddhism in Thailand.

Jimmy Santiago Baca on “Seeing it to the End (And All the Stops In Between)
Jimmy Santiago Baca begins with a variety of compelling stories related to his life in prison and the way in which writing and reading became an important part of his life at that time. He moves on to discuss his book “A Place to Stand”, and his present work teaching literacy in prisons.

Eve Ensler on “The Future is Girl”
Eve Ensler begins by speaking about the process of writing her new book, I’m an Emotional Creature. She also explores a variety of topics including the pressures on girls to conform, the importance of social change, and her work in the Congo.

Quote of the Week: Jarvis Jay Masters

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I don’t have much typing speed today because my fingers are recovering from some dog bites, the result of an instinctive (and not so smart) move to try to break up two fighting dogs. As one friend said, peacemaking can be risky!

No one knows this better than Jarvis Masters, the Buddhist practitioner and San Quentin inmate from whom this week’s quote comes.

Jarvis has spent the past 29 years (since he was 19 years old) in San Quentin, one of California’s highest security prisons. For many of those years, he has been on Death Row, though he did not murder anyone. (You can read more about his story here.)

Jarvis began studying Buddhism while incarcerated and in 1989 took vows from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He also practiced writing during his time inside as well, and is the author of two books: Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row, and That Bird Has My Wings.

Jarvis is one of the best writers I know. I had the honor of corresponding with him when I edited The Mindfulness Bell and Turning Wheel and appreciated the kindness in his letters to me. His life has not been easy, but he’s put himself wholeheartedly into it, whether he is being a peacemaker with other inmates, joking with his guards, or sitting in his cell. He brings his Buddhist practice and mindfulness to every situation, surely one of the most challenging settings in which to be an ‘engaged Buddhist.’

This comes from Jarvis’ first book, Finding Freedom:

When I first entered the gates of San Quentin in the winter of 1981, I walked across the upper yard holding a box called a “fish-kit” filled with my prison-issued belongings. I saw the faces of hundreds who had already made the prison their home. I watched them stare at me with piercing eyes, their faces rugged and their beards of different shades-all dressed in prison blue jeans and worn, torn coats-some leaning against the chain fences, cigarettes hanging from their lips, others with dark glasses covering their eyes.

I will never forget when the steel cell door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the darkness trying to fix my eyes and readjust the thoughts that were telling me that this was not home-that this tiny space would not, could not be where I would spend more than a decade of my life. My mind kept saying, “No! Hell no!” I thought again of the many prisoners I had seen moments ago standing on the yard, so old and accustomed to their fates….

After the first days had passed, I decided to decorate my walls with photographs from the National Geographic magazines. The landscapes of Malaysia and other parts of the world had enormous beauty, and I gladly pasted photos of them everywhere. These small representations of life helped me to imagine the world beyond prison walls.

Over the years, I collected books and even acquired a television and radio-windows to the outside world. And I pasted many thousands of photographs on the wall. The one that has made my prison home most like a sanctuary to me is a small photograph of a Buddhist saint that a very dear friend sent to me. It has been in the center of my wall for a number of years.

I now begin every day with the practice of meditation, seated on the cold morning floor, cushioned only by my neatly folded blanket. Welcoming the morning light, I realize, like seeing through clouds, that home is wherever the heart can be found.


If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

Prison Dharma

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A good collection of articles on bringing Buddhist teachings and mindfulness inside jails and prisons has been posted on Shambhala Sun’s Facebook Fan page.

Some of them include:

  • Forced to Sit — Prisoner Scott Darnell shares his story of finding compassion on the inside.
  • A Roshi on the Row — Kobutsu Malone takes Shodo Harada Roshi on an unprecedented visit to Arkansas’ death row, where two condemned men now practice Zen. One of them, Damien Echols — subject of the HBO documentary “Paradise Lost”— is believed by many to be innocent.
  • A Taste of Freedom — “After more than thirteen years behind bars,” writes Fleet Maull, “a prisoner’s short, bittersweet experience of freedom is a reminder of his guru and the free, cheerful state of mind that is available at every moment.”
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