Tricycle Film Club

Buddhist films and discussion for the
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The Dhamma Brothers

Bringing Vipassana to the Penitentiary

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Welcome to the Tricycle Film Club!

Each month Tricycle Supporting and Sustaining Members will be treated to a select feature-length film, presented in partnership with BuddhaFest Film Festival, June 14-17 in Washington, DC. The benefits of membership continue to grow, so if you're not already a Supporting or Sustaining Member, upgrade now and watch our April selection, The Dhamma Brothers, produced, written and directed by Jenny Phillips. The discussion will be led by Jenny. Join the Tricycle Community to be a part of the Tricycle Film Club.

The Dhamma Brothers (2008)

©Dhamma Brothers

Donaldson Correctional Facility is a maximum-security penitentiary which lies to the south of Birmingham, Alabama. In 2002, the psychologist at Donaldson, Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, decides to make a bold and groundbreaking move to introduce Vipassana practice into the deep South. Inspired by the effective treatment methods of meditation in the Indian prison system, Cavanaugh hires Jonathan Crowley and Bruce Steward, two Vipassana teachers, to conduct a ten-day Vipassana retreat for a group of inmates in the penitentiary's basketball gymnasium.

Separated by blue tarps and strung-up sheets, the inmates take vows of silence, sit with their thoughts, and witness their long forgotten feelings and emotions well up to the surface.The change in perspective of these inmates is touching and uplifting. Their sense of accomplishment and persistence in their newfound practice gives the audience hope that service-oriented programs involving meditation will be given more time and energy throughout the criminal justice system.

Join director Jenny Phillips and others in the discussion about this movie, other prison projects, and ways to help.

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Tui4's picture

Thanks you for this inspiring film. It was a joy to watch. A kind of sober joy, realising that some of these men will never live outside of prison. The most disturbing thing was the shutting down of the program - and then there they are, a few years later, able to go in again. The value of patience really struck me. And of course I was terrifically impressed by the attorney - "We are more than our worst actions." What a very wise and humane man.
Thanks or sharing your work. May it and you continue to flourish.

stillwaters's picture

Wonderful Film! Thanks so much to the inmates who were willing to share their experiences and life stories with us all. I hope this film is being viewed by other folks who work in corrections and that they too will be inspired to create meditation programs in their facilities.

grazulis's picture

Thank you for sharing this film, it is a really special insight into the power and hope of practice. I hope that the program is able to continue to grow and develop and that wider exposure will encourage greater acceptance of the ideas contained here. I think the film demonstrates that even as these men remain in prison there is still for really dealing with the truth of what they have done, that this is not some kind of soft option, and that they are not simply "warehoused."

Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, Vipassana in prison is not a soft option. It takes tremendous courage. I think that a prison is a perfect setting for inner work and mindfulness because one's life is so reduced in distractions and options and material possessions. But a safe setting and the teachers can make the journey even more possible.

ehoffserf's picture

Thank for this. Many years ago, I left public defense of adult criminals because of the oppressiveness, the lack of hope. This film brought me back to those days, but with new insight. I was especially moved when these men spoke about facing what lay deep within; about accepting their sentences, but with the sense that their lives were still redeemable, that they were "home" even at prison, and rather than anger, they are developing the tools of meditation and insight to indeed live their lives. In some respects, their struggles with what came up during the course overshadow those of us on the outside that struggle....and put things into perspective. I hope the Dhamma Brothers' journeys continue, and the program is shared more and more around the world.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I can understand the oppressiveness of working inside a prison when there is no hope. I have at times stumbled upon prisoners who can do the inner work which leads them forward even without an organized group or program. I have also found prisoners who learn meditation together, supporting one another in their work. That was actually the reason I originally visited Donaldson in Alabama in 1999. There are many inspiring writings out of prison. Yet, it really is so very helpful when deep reflective programs are actually offered, made available and encouraged by a prison. It feels like a drop of water falling on parched land, but can also begin the process of humanizing the prison.

lissalonergan's picture

Absolutely loving this film but frustrated that it keeps stopping less than half way through. Help...don't leave me hanging!

Jenny Phillips's picture

So sorry - I hope you got to watch the whole film!

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Hi Lissa, my apologies that you are having problems! If you send an email to our support team (, they should be able to help you out. You can also call them directly at 1-800-873-9871. I hope you will be able to watch the entirety of the movie soon!

micko's picture

thank you for making this film available. My heart is open and full of compassion for not only these men but for all humankind as we journey along the path of learning as we attend earth school. i hope to be attending a vipassana retreat in the near future. _/\_

Jenny Phillips's picture

I had always hoped that the Dhamma Brothers' journey inside would help us all find our way. Thank you.

hadwalmer's picture

And perhaps the most important lesson here is that we can learn, actually let go of past conditioning and learn to be aware of how we are now - to make choice of that.
Had Walmer, Gold Mind Meditation Project (GMMP)

Jenny Phillips's picture

The Dhamma Brothers were carrying so much baggage. And Vipassana allowed them to sit with and experience that baggage in a safe setting, and then to lighten their load.

mob.rule007's picture

thank you so much for your generosity I am glad I got to see this and have recommended it to several friends to view right now!!!! Two other groups incarcerated are women and adolescents - this is such important work, I have some hope today.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, this is a program for humanity. I would love to see at risk youth being introduced to Vipassana. I am happy that the film has given you hope. Whenever I am inside a prison, I sense the resilience and potential of the human spirit.

amuller's picture

I am deeply touched by what i have seen here, touched and very, very grateful. Not only have these lives seen here been affected by Vipasana, the lives of the viewers have been touched as well by the courage we have seen here. Thank you all for intention and commitment that made this film a reality.
My sincere hope is that, if it is at all possible, Darmma Brothers will reach and inspire other prisons to not only change, but also save, many lives.

Jenny Phillips's picture

It is my greatest hope as well that the Vipassana program can now spread to other prisons. There is a possibility at this moment of several other prisons in Alabama embracing Vipassana. But I know what a huge commitment this is for a prison to do something so unusual and in a way counter cultural. But the film does allow one to dream of other ways for prisoners to do their time. And the economy is also forcing legislators and policy makers to find new solutions.

Danzen's picture

Thank you Tricycle for bringing us another great film.And thanks to those who gave the gift of the vipassana to those that are so in need of a way to help with the way life can be.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you, thank you. Namaste.

1996treasurer's picture

I have just watched the Dhamma Brothers. How Ironic that I immediately found myself searching the internet for one of the participants (Grady Bankhead) who among many others moved me beyond words. This is a strong example that we all seek virtuous change and equanimity within ourselves. They, we are all Brothers and Sisters of Dhamma...this I am proud to state. I wish with every hope that they continue on this incredible path. I am truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to know them all if only through this film!.


Jenny Phillips's picture

I agree that Grady's story is very powerful. In many ways, he could consider himself a victim of a lifetime of unfortunate circumstances. And I know that he has struggled not to give in to that way of seeing his life. His compassion for himself and others - all the inner work that he has done - prepared him for the terrible news of his daughter's murder. I am sure he has times of terrible despair, and that he has to work very hard to stay on his pathway of forgiveness and compassion.

taxcat's picture

Thank you Tricycle and thank you Jenny Phillips and everyone else who made this film possible. Blessings to you all. A truly wonderful film.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, the blessings go out to many people. I am so thankful to all those who were able to step outside of their customary beliefs and try something so very unusual. That includes all those at Donaldson Correctional Facility - staff and officers and prisoners - who gracefully opened the prison to this program. And with many bumps and hesitations along the road, the prison is still open to Vipassana today with over 1/3 of the prisoners taking the 10-day program.

magdalene's picture

Have you ever thought of offering the ten day retreats to the prison employees? I would imagine that it must be stressful for them working in that kind of environment.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I think that is a wonderful idea. Have you seen the film, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana? In that film, the warden of a large prison in New Delhi hears about Vipassana from one of the corrections officers working at the prison. She decides to encourage the officers and staff to do a 10-day sitting, and later brings the program to the prisoners.
The Donaldson story is a little different because it has only been a program for the prisoners. But on a deeper level, the prison staff and officers have come to understand and accept the nature of the program. Several members of the staff and the officers have sat the 10-day program, and there is an interest among others to take a Vipassana course.

mkmarti's picture

The film was WONDERFUL. Thank you to all of you. I am scheduled to go to my first Vipassana class in May.. A little scared and a little excited!

Jenny Phillips's picture

Scared and excited is good. I would love to hear how your course goes!
In the words of Dhamma Brother Michael Carpenter speaking of his first 10-day course, "It's hard painful and emotionally devastating.But after we see the results, we can realize how wonderful it was to be able to experience ourselves at the raw-ist. I remember my first day of actual Vipassana meditation. I started crying about 25 minutes into it and had to stop and sit there crying until the sitting was over. As soon as it was, I jumped up and ran to my bed, pulling a blanket over me and crying. A few seconds later, Bruce (meditation teacher) tapped me. I looked at him and he asked "Had a hard one?" I replied "Yes" with a smile. Then he smiled and said "Good" and walked away. It made me so angry. I felt how could someone show so little compassion. I cried for 3 days. But afterward I realized what Bruce meant and the next time I saw him I had to thank him".
From - Letters From the Dhamma Brothers. page 112

poetess1966's picture

I thought I'd let everyone know that so far, over 430 inmates have gone through the program at Donaldson, that's about 1/3 of the population at Donaldson. I live in Clay, Alabama which is about 20 minutes from Donaldson. As of Jan. of this year the program was still going strong. They hold the ten day course 4 times a year now. I know a few of the men who have taken the course and who are now out on parole and they are doing great. None of them have gotten into trouble again and they all have jobs and are doing community service work. I got interested in the program when I met a young man who had done it while he was in prison. According to Dr. Cavanaugh, the prison is creating a 96 bed dorm where the Vipassana students can live and focus on personal growth through Vipassana. It's so great to see a program that helps these men and to see how much the Dharma has helped them.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you for all the news you provided. It is wonderful to hear that you know several of the men, and that they are doing well since their release. I would love to hear from you by email -

attilabarcellos's picture

Thanks for this movie. I just joined as supporting member and this was the first movie that I watched.

Watching those guys, I felt the equanimity rising in me and realized that I was imprisoned, just like them, even though I don't live behind metal bars.

In special, one of these days I was at office working, and an ocean of suffering, simply arose, so I remembered the Vipassana meditation, the focus on breathing, and I just tried like them in the movie, and the clouds just vanished.

Thank you again, for shedding some light into my being.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I also think that remembering to feel the breath is probably one of the most important skills there is. It is not easy to feel the breath when you are frightened or triggered to strong emotions, but that is exactly what is needed!

dbgnvan's picture

thank you so much for sharing this film. It brought tears to my eyes. May you have continue success in this effort. So inspiring!!

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you!

Judiek914's picture

Jenny~~Thank you for the enlightenment with your poignant movie. It was moving as well as thought provoking. I can clearly see through your work what the "self " is. Can't throw the baby away with the bath water. Just because they are incarcerated does not mean that they are not human beings. You have changed my way of thinking.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I was recently listening again to a taped interview I did in 2002 with Dhamma Brother Omar Rhaman. He describes the moment he experienced the Self, and was able to feel the distinction between Self and personality. It was during his first 10-day sitting, and he felt so relieved and helped by that realization which he carried with him until his death 2 years ago.

wormtowngirl's picture

Wonderful film! I've been wanting to see this for ages and I'm so grateful to have it available here. I've been wondering something, though, since I first heard of this movie and the program. Is it possible that there are no Jews or Muslims or Hindus in ALabama prisons? Why would it be the prison's job to monitor what faiths are allowed in correctional facilities? Is there really a "Christianity or nothing" policy, or is it just a matter of accepted practice that all religious practices are Christian in Alabama prisons?

Just wondering.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Donaldson Correctional Facility happens to be situated in the heart of the "Bible Belt", meaning that Christianity is heavily represented in that area. However, there are other religious groups at the prison. Dhamma Brother Omar Rahman, for example, was a leader of the Sunni Muslim community at Donaldson. I am not sure if there is outside support for the Muslim community, as there is for the Christian community, but Muslims are free to meet and follow their own beliefs and practices.

achathampally's picture

Wonderful film. It inspired me so much and helps my practice. The quote that "we are more than the worst thing we've ever done" stays with me and expands my compassion and empathy for myself and others. Thank you so much for this film.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I agree. That quote carries so much meaning. I myself am so happy that I am more than the worst thing I ever did!!

myers_lloyd's picture

I've been bringing Zen meditation into a local medium security prison for some years through Freeing The Human Spirit here in Canada. I bought and circulated the book Dhamma Brothers among our other FTHS meditation-yoga teams--our town has a concentration of prisons.
But the film was wonderful. Having been on a lot of seven day retreats myself, I felt a great kinship with the Donaldson students. What a great undertaking. Our guys have had some taste of instantaneous freedom to choose as a result of their yoga/Zen, but we are only an hour and a half once a week- and much less often this year because of weapons lockdowns, etc.
What a great undertaking, both the in-prison retreats and the documenting of them in film.

Thank you so much for allowing this through the Tricycle Community Film Club.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I agree that once a week meditation classes are really helpful. But the Vipassana course provides some really important components that allow the deep inner work. First, there is the opportunity to be in a safe and separate environment living with the meditation teachers. I am a psychotherapist myself, and do some work with trauma and PTSD. Without the safety and stabilization phases, and the opportunity to practice the meditation with continual guidance and support, I just don't think that the deep trauma can be addressed in prisons.
But I want to say again how important it is for all of us to continue offering and guiding the weekly meditation group classes! This is an invaluable service.

canisl01's picture

This inspired me to find a center that does the Vipassana 10 day intensive. I watched the film yesterday and submitted my application for acceptance into a group in July today. How can I buy a copy of this film? I think it is important to share with others. I am headed to a women spiritual retreat in the middle of May and would love to show it to them.

Thank you so much for the tear filled and inspiration filled film.

Jenny Phillips's picture

That is so amazing that you watched the film and then found a center to take a 10-day course.I first got started teaching classes in prison by reading an article in the local paper about opportunities to volunteer in the prison, putting the paper down with one hand and picking my phone up with the other to call the number for volunteers. I guess there is a readiness already there, and then something creates the opportunity and you spring on it.

canisl01's picture

Is there a website that I can purchase the film from? It turns out that my health history (specifically mental health) will prohibit me from attending the 10 day. I was heartbroken to say the least, but understand that they have to protect themselves from possible lawsuits. It wasnt where I was meant to do. Thank you again.

singnbob's picture

thank you for sharing this.. great to feel the essence of liberation being realized! in gratitude for all who struggle to awaken and those who open the door....

Jenny Phillips's picture

I like the message of gratitude toward others' working with their own suffering. I remember so well, during an interview with Dhamma Brother Omar Rahman, when he described the impact of discovering metta. Sending out love and compassion was such a strong experience for him. He would watch the TV news and read newspapers, and find people and places in which there was tremendous suffering, and then focus on that during metta. But he then felt a pouring in of metta from the outside world. It always amazed him how strongly he felt the inpouring of love, and how that was so helpful for him in his own life as a prisoner.

margees2002's picture

What a deeply moving film - Thank you so much for making this available!! As someone who works with victims of crimes, child victims in particular, it is so easy to see things from only one perspective. I was most moved by Grady's ability to love and forgive his daughter's murderer at the end of the film - we should all be so brave. This challenege will stick with me for a while and I'm sure I'll watch the film a few more times...


Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, I find the categories of victim and perpetrator to fall away under the weight of the truth that we are all made up of both, and also capable of great mistakes for which we must repay society. Grady is so interesting because there is such an intertwining of both in his remarkable story. And I think that he must strive to forgive every morning when he opens his eyes. Sending love and compassion to his daughter's murderer must be his daily path, and I am sure he slips into moments of great darkness. But that is exactly why his story is so powerful.

tayzo74's picture

Hi. I truly enjoyed this movie. It brought to me welts of joy that people in such dire circumstances evoke such beeming light into their lives. All through meditation and by observing oneself. Speaking of oneself, I'm going to be a bit 'self'-ish here...I'd like to comment on the feelings that I have had in my own life experience, with respect to Buddhism and meditation. (This is a declaration for whoever is reading this that I won't be speaking about the actual movie persay in this lengthy comment. Please don't read if you're only interested in comments about the movie. The following gets pretty in-depth and personal).

To begin, it inspires me that meditation has such a positive effect on many lives. For those who are in trouble, or for those who are stuck, it can be a way out (by looking within). To some there is an asterisk involved, including for myself.

I would like to bring my reflection back to the time of my childhood. I was delirious. Ok, not quite delirious (yet), but I had my issues (low self-esteem, conflicts, etc.). Maybe it was pressure to find true meaning in life and to be important to others? Or, not enough freedom to express my emotions (they tended to get bottled up inside of me without being released)? Tension, or a lack of stability and nurturing in the family? I can only speculate.

It seems like I've always had an interest in Buddhism. Like I was born with it programmed into my brain! Buddhism was the steel, I was the magnet. But I never started studying it until my mid-teens, when my friend introduced me to Zen. Shortly after, I went to pick up some literature at the book store so I could learn some more. I bought the book "Kensho: The Heart of Zen", which is translated by Thomas Cleary. It was tremendous.It was new. It was baffling. I've read it over many times in the years I've owned it.

As a new recruit to Buddhism, I generally kept my experiences under wraps and to myself. Most of the people around me weren't Buddhists, so I hardly divulged any of my insights. I was embarassed to talk about it. My mom and my good friend were the only two people that I occasionally felt comfortable sharing it with. They weren't Buddhists, and neither of us were very Zen-wise. Rarely would we ever make a connection when trying to access the meanings tucked away in the obscurity of my books. Even though I often felt like I had a grasp on what I was saying, I hardly ever did. My explanations were like a koan.

After some time of regular study/meditation/application/experimentation, and my total bewilderment and amazement with the philosophies of Zen, I started to evoke my own zany interpretations of it. I was ill. My view of enlightenment was totally out in left field. My thoughts were; "Enlightenment is the only way to escape this world; The suffering, these people, these illusions; attaining enlightenment meant experiencing tremendous suffering; everyone around me are just enemies; they want to keep me from attaining realization; keep me in samsara". Nothing seemed real. My life was a fantasy.

For a year or two, I suffered a great deal with these augmenting thoughts and emotions. My mind was like green Jell-O. I even went so far as (impossibly) trying to destroy my own mind. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these painful disturbances were a part of my (then-undiagnosed) illness of Schizophrenia. I eventually saw where the path I was taking went, and I knew I had to rethink it and get help.

I was in tremendous distress at the time and I couldn't absorb any more without imploding. I finally spilled my guts (not literally!) to my family and told them about what I was dealing with. At that point I could not decipher the illusory from the real. (I'm finally coming to the point that I'm trying to make, don't worry). After a long process, my healing seems to be complete. I am now extremely gracious to be leading a genuine, happy life, where there is much to enjoy.

So, about meditation. IF I force myself to meditate regularily against my disposition, simply because "that's what Buddhists are supposed to do", depression tends to surface after a while. Is this a result of my traumatic experience with Zen and Schizophrenia in the past? Or is this natural for most? I remember hearing in the Dhamma Brother's film that the inmates experienced depressive states when they started meditating. They seemed to have gotten over it within their ten day regime (a rigorous one at that). But for me, I've tried diligently to keep a regular meditation practice (one or two sessions per day) for more than a week, and the depressive states keep mounting. They just don't seem to go away. I become terribly sad. It also makes me feel very dull and disconnected. Should it eventually go away with more practice? If so, how long a meditation schedule will it take?

I DO come across optimal moments where meditation practice IS beneficial to me. In such times, it makes all the pieces of the Buddhist Puzzle fit. The Puzzle was always there, and I'm perfectly fine with an unassembled Puzzle, but the meditation brings me into action and helps to assemble it for me.This is when my practice blooms, and I am more than enthusiastic in acknowledging it. Why fix if it ain't broke? Like your car. It only needs an oil change every so often. I do selective meditation. 10,000 km warranty (haha). This is probably the odd case, I understand.

So meditation can sometimes outrun its true create a true feeling of calm, presence, sensitivity, love and compassion towards everyone and everything, by everyone and everything. If none of these are lacking in your practice, be grateful. You're happy. You are on the path. Don't feel like you have to meditate because you 'have to'. It's not limited to the cushion. It is the whole experience that you get from life. If it's bringing you and others down, then it is not fulfilling its purpose. Unless, you can come up from the other side.

For all those who are seeking and to all those who are returning. Namaste.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Namaste. Thank you, thank you.