Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity
to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”

—Stephen Jay Gould

To shatter the chains of samsara

“Life is suffering”: This is among the prime tenets of Buddhism. What we seem to be experiencing is illusory, but until we achieve sufficient enlightenment to penetrate with the eyes of our spirits this web of phantasms, we are doomed to wander through eternal cycles of pain and confusion. This is samsara, and it is a kind of earthly hell.

Freedom from chains

Freedom through discipline: Prisoners learn to break the cycle of poverty, despair and crime.
[ Image Source ]

A maximum-security prison deep in Alabama’s Bible Belt is among the last places one would think to look for serenity and enlightenment, but it is surely among the first in which to find samsara exemplified, for here are hordes of hardened malefactors: rapists, murderers, robbers and incorrigible violent offenders of every stripe: the brutish products of a brutal history, and their crimes are lurid. These are the “hard cases” on whom every technique of rehabilitation and regeneration seems wasted. All their lives have been pain, and they have brought pain to countless others, some of whom will in turn pass on that pain to still others; no better living definition of samsara exists, or could exist.

Even so, and despite the caustic denunciations of Christians who saw in it the wiles of a satanic cult seeking to turn souls from Jesus, a new idea was tried here: to give the inmates the gift of meditation, the Buddhist practice of Dhamma. With meditation has come insight, a newfound will to break the cycle of misery, and with it a growing capacity to repent, to accept responsibility for their misdeeds and mature as better people.


But even as we hope that these inmates may find peace at last, and walk a straight path that leads to final freedom from samsara, we who do not share their fate must consider what we can do to see that no other tormented spirits stray into this earthly hell.

We must consider how children — whom we presume innocent — so often grow up in this society to become feared as monsters and despised as less than human. What forces have so eroded their spirits, so propelled them into evil actions, and so expelled them from the nation of the free?

Ah, but we know, don’t we? and know too well.

There are two Americas: One is the paradise of the affluent, the other the purgatory and too often the hell of the impoverished. In no aspect of existence are they comparable. It is the fashion today to preach of “personal responsibility,” the seemingly logical doctrine that each person makes choices that shape his future. But it doesn’t take long to see the pattern: “Personal responsibility” is a pious platitude meant for the poor and the powerless; the rich and politically influential, although their crimes often harm far more people than the street crime of the poor, escape their consequences with near-impunity, and they are exalted as superior beings while the poor are damned as worthless. And so continues another cycle of suffering, the one that begets the others.

Poverty is the most lethal of poisons: It destroys all that it touches. But, like arsenic, carbon monoxide and the mythical undetectable poison so beloved of mystery novelists, it destroys so slowly, so subtly, so stealthily, that none may behold. It does its work by malnutrition, by crippling lack of education, by unavailing anger that corrodes mind and soul, by hopelessness, by neglect, by violent ill-treatment. Progressively damaged from birth, how many of us never have a chance — never develop the critical resources that permit us to survive and keep us from straying into a path of crime and punishment and a samsara of unending miseries?

By what right does a society look on, in scorn or indifference, while some of its members are forced to swallow this deadly draught for the greater exaltation of its magnates?

This, too, is a crime: a crime perpetrated by all who have and do not wish to share, all who are comfortable and care nothing for the torments of those whom they deem inferior. It is the crime of a profoundly pathological culture. For together we have imposed agonies and early death upon millions with the twin toxins of poverty and contempt; and from our unmerited hauteur must spring countless cycles of samsara for us all ... until the day when we can penetrate the web of deceits and place people and property in the proper order of priority.

Originally published as a review of a post on a film about
Dhamma in prisons.
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