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The letter below is one of many included in the book Letters from the Dhamma Brothers. In these letters, the prisoners who took part in the Vipassana program at a maximum security prison in Alabama reflect on their prison experience following their meditation course. The letters are all at once moving, insightful, and profound. These prisoners' introduction to the program was captured by director Jenny Phillips in the film The Dhamma Brothers, which Tricycle screened online in March.
In 1989, John Johnson was convicted as a habitual offender for burglary offenses and sentenced to life without parole. Now in his fifties, John has been incarcerated at Donaldson since 1992. Throughout his life John has struggled to accept a large purple birthmark spread across the left side of his face. He also has a swollen, disfigured upper lip caused by nerve damage from a childhood injury. As a child he spoke with a speech impediment. “I never felt comfortable because I saw that other children looked different than I did," he explained. "As I matured in life these bits of baggage that I carried around got larger and larger and larger. I believe that what brought me to prison was an inability to accept myself. I needed to realize that these physical features are not who I really am. Who I really am is inside. But it took me a long time to come to that realization.”
If you are interested in purchasing Letters from the Dhamma Brothers in paperback or e-book format, click here.
The hot dog days of southern summer are here upon us again. Over the years of doing time in the South I have dreaded summer. But even that seems to have changed. Is it because in my elder years I am more tolerant? Or is this another sign of freeing the attachments from even environmental discomforts that the Vipassana technique has helped me with?
Doing time is never comfortable. There are always feelings of inadequacy that arise and can be very discouraging, even after a one-hour deep Vipassana meditation. I remember recently walking onto the exercise yard to watch a sunset—this was a very aesthetic pleasure moment too—I was listening to my radio, “Echos” on National Public station—my kind of music—subtle sensations flowing all around—feeling free in moments of watching sky flowing too—you know what I mean—being one with Nature. Then here came another person who looked up at the sky with me. I said, “Hello . . . isn’t this sunset powerful?” He said, “Yeah”—but I sensed that he felt distressed—I said the usual ice-breaker, “What’s up?” He said, “I think I’m going to kill myself.” I thought, “Man, you just blew my communing with the sky—how can you not feel this energy?” I did not like the discourse I was facing.
Although I did know the history of this person: he had messed his life up years ago killing another convict. I could not take lightly that he could maybe be serious about taking his own life. I would now listen with a compassionate ear and send metta to him. After a few moments of talking, up came another convict—still an awe inspiring sunset in the sky—this guy says, “I’m really pissed off at so-n-so, I am tired of his shit, I think I am going to stab his ass and let him know who I am!” I think, “why is this happening to me?—I just want to be happy and watch this sunset...” But I too know the history of this guy. He has been in prison for over 20 years and has committed murder too. I must share metta with him and listen with a compassionate ear with him also.
After a few moments, the guy who wanted to kill himself said, [to the other convict] “I can’t believe that after all the time you have done, you would let someone get you going like that. Just let it go!” How about that!! Now the person who wanted to end his own life is helping to save the life of two other people. An unexpected twist. Very powerful experience, Jenny. Dhamma phenomena that I never would have dreamed I would have experienced going to watch the sunset on Donaldson’s prison yard.
Now with a few months of time passed these guys are reacting to a better outlook of doing time. Did my metta make any difference? Who knows? I do know that the metta helped me through that experience of all of us, suffering and seeing misery. Years ago I would not have had this metta experience as a tool in facing the reality of doing time.
In retrospect, I see how my quality of doing time with a non-pardonable sentence started changing. I started seeing another way of seeing the world while taking the Houses of Healing course. Like an awakening process unfolding. It was there where I had the realization that the endless stream of thoughts and feelings that ran through my mind were only a flux of the damaged inner child. This helped me to see why my self-centered desires, needs, expectations, were the fears that I projected falsely in my view of the world or life according to my damaged inner child that was satisfied and happy when things went my way and upset if they did not.
Now when these negative traits with underlying feelings of the damaged inner child come up, I see the whole picture show. Robin’s teachings also showed me that I had the inner power to “stop the show here.” Where I am—still doing time—still with life without parole—still not always getting my way—even while caught in between powerful dhammas like at the prison yard sunset experience. Everything since the Houses of Healing course has seemed to open a kindred relationship to life.
When Vipassana came to Donaldson, it was as if it was just natural that I was learning such a lineage of meditation. This was just what was supposed to happen. All the free-world Vipassana people seemed kindred. The Four Noble Truths were a natural truth. Dhamma recognition became known. The teachers were serious teachers of Dhamma that is still beyond my words to express. In my whole life experience suta-maya-pañña [wisdom gained by listening to others] along with cinta-maya-pañña [intellectual, analytical understanding] has been a part of the aggregates that I have dealt with not realizing what was beyond it all. Until bhavana-maya-pañña [wisdom based on direct personal experience] came to Donaldson.
In that direct personal experience, I found five friends [faith, effort, awareness, concentration and wisdom] that would be strengths to withstand the storms of life. The five hindrances [craving, aversion, agitation, sloth, doubt] still come flowing at me. Each one of them attack me. As I know attack you and everyone else. Watch the news on TV; look at the faces of people in the world. I will continue with strong determination to practice Vipassana with the insight of the noble path that these compassionate Dhamma brothers and sisters brought from ages ago and distant lands to the prison in Alabama.
Who would have thought that AL-A-BA-MA prisoners would be the first prison in the United States to hold a Vipassana course? I never would have thought it was possible. This shows how powerful kamma is. Vipassana in prisons is of great importance. Recognize this reality that is happening right now at this maximum prison in Alabama. With your reading of this report you are a part of this kamma. Thank you for your efforts and generosity to bring these precious teachings into Donaldson. Thank you for your metta. May we all become stronger in cultivation of the four qualities of a pure mind. May we always practice sila [moral actions]...samadhi [concentration]...pañña [wisdom]...
To all y’all Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam [May all beings be happy!]
Image 1: John Johnson.
Image 2: John Johnson meditating in The Dhamma Brothers.