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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rineke's picture

These men are an inspiration to me. They teach me that even in the most terrible places there is a way to struggle back to dignaty and peace if you are courageous. Thank you for bringing their message to me.

Jenny Phillips's picture

It always pleases me when people say that the Dhamma Brothers become such strong and unforgettable figures in the film. That more than anything else was my hope when I decided to make the film - that the prisoners themselves would be the central characters.

BrianB's picture

Excellent film! I hope this program can spread to other other states. The the way, great soundtrack!

Jenny Phillips's picture

The wonderful sound track, which so skillfully folds itself into the scenes throughout the film, is the creation of the film editor and co-director, Andy Kukura, from Northern Light Productions.

Marcyalane's picture

Very inspiring. Thank you for sharing!!!

jayne's picture

what an inspiring film! I was surprised when the sittings were cancelled - I would have thought that freedom to practise is a basic human right. It showed me how much I take for granted and how insignificant some of my excuses can be. Thanks so much for sharing this.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, prisons are by the nature of their existence closed systems. Under stress, they shut things down. Under the right conditions, they open and expand.

sallyotter's picture

Thank you so much for this wonderful film. It is a connection, shows me our human connection. And it allowed me to experience totally what I have expressed intellectually; that we are all "Dhamma Brothers".

Jenny Phillips's picture

I think that is true. The Dhamma Brothers help us to expand our at times narrow boundaries of the human community.

zenja's picture

thank you so much ,we were amazed at the courage and the dedication displayed by the Dhamma Brothers,long may they practice and inspire others to do so. Gassho

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you so much. What a great honor it is for me to have been able to capture those stories for so many others to appreciate and feel inspired by.

cbergland's picture

There is such hope in this film, and hope on so many levels. I was struck, as the woman expressed what looked like anger about inmates being taught "witchcraft," and the man in the denim vest reflected his belief that prisoners don't deserve anything because of the crime they committed that the common thread shared by those who commit crimes, those who allow themselves to see prisoners as less than human, and those who describe things they don't understand as "witchcraft" is anger. Anger always arises from fear. As a country we are very angry, underneath that anger lies fear of so many things - and a desire, though perhaps not a conscious desire - to see others remain fearful and angry as long as I remain fearful and angry. And so prisoners don't deserve anything perhaps because on some level I don't believe I deserve anything. The Dhamma Brothers offers much hope - perhaps by their example, others outside the prison in need of that hope may find it.

Thank you so much for this important film!

Craig Bergland

Jenny Phillips's picture

It always does seem as if violence and anger cover an underlying sense of fear and vulnerability. And Vipassana meditation - perhaps all meditation - offers the solution of just sitting with that vulnerability, experiencing it and not trying to escape from it or change it. Inner freedom lies on the other side of that experience. Below is a quote from Omar Rahman describing the experience of finally having the safe place and the skills to stay with the difficult experiences.
“I was sitting wrestling with the pain in my body, and trying to figure out a way to be at peace with it. All of a sudden I started shaking all over. I was sitting on a volcano trying to ride it, and I refused to get off because I was going somewhere”.
Omar Rahman, Dhamma Brothers

mralexander99's picture

Brilliant Film. It affected me just as when I first saw "Doing Time Doing Vipassana" --- Internally I shuddered --- an overwhelming bubble of joy swelled up in me -- like a tsunami. Seeing the inmates meditating and watching their faces become soft and gentle -- reminded me of how much humanity there is in even the very people that are a threat to society. When I see the world with my dhamma eye -- I don't see "bad people" I see unskillful actions -- I also don't see enlightened beings -- I just see enlightened activities. I am amazed but not surprised by the so called Christians feeling that teaching Vipassana is a form of witchcraft -- how utterly close minded, uninformed and inexperienced they are. May they be free and May they know true equanimity!!!

Jenny Phillips's picture

So wonderful to first see others in a judgmental way, and then go below our black and white, good and bad stereotypes of others. My greatest struggle is my judgmental mind, and I always like my stereotypes to be challenged by seeing things as they really are.Thank you for your observations.

James Mullaney's picture

Please make it known to the Dhamma Brothers that the world is now witnessing what they have achieved, and we are united with them in solidarity.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you. I will pass this along. I think that, in so many ways, the Dhamma Brothers realize that their stories have touched and helped many others. When you are removed from the outside world, there is always a fear that you will be forgotten, left behind. And knowing that you are remembered and appreciated by others is so important.I always send metta.

1BiblioTech's picture

Thanks for the wonderful film and the opportunity to meet all of these courageous men. It is great that there are those who are out there who believe in the power of the program. Hopefully the narrow minded people will allow it to continue. I wanted to cheer when I heard that the men had found ways to continue their practice despite the hardships of doing so, and am now humbled when I make an excuse about not hitting the cushion daily! A Metta will go out to them and those who support them from me daily from now on.

Jenny Phillips's picture

The Dhamma Brothers received something during the 10-day course, and once they had it - if they continued to practice - it could not be taken from them. That is one thing that can not be taken away!

Lioness's picture

Wow. This is a remarkable film. I'll be showing it to my father when he visits me. I must admit that my first thought when I heard that these prisoners would be sitting for 10 days with (what seemed like) little or no meditation experience was, "is this humane?" As one who attended a 5 day retreat while suffering with active bipolar disorder, I have some appreciation for the pits of hell that the mind can take you to. I can't imagine the pain that these prisoners faced while sitting with themselves. From what I understand, many in the prison system have suffered serious traumas. More power to them for facing their suffering like that.

My second thought was "how will they survive in prison/adjust coming back from a 10 day silent retreat?" All of their defense mechanisms would surely have been stripped away. And just the footage from the regular prison showed it to be loud and violent. I'm still wondering about that, Jenny, how did the transition work for people? And how did they practice nonviolence in prison, where from what the film says, violence seems to be the main language spoken. Were they ever in danger when they withdrew from gangs and such, and how did they deal with that?


Jenny Phillips's picture

That is a wonderful and very important question, and one that everyone asked at the end of the very first 10-day course in 2002. And yet one realizes that violence and fear do not keep us safe. The gladiator posture that prisoners typically maintain actually leads to more conflict and danger. And the Dhamma Brothers knew that they could react quickly if they were walking into a dangerous situation.What they found was that, as one of the Dhamma Brothers expressed it, "we handled situations differently". They carried themselves differently, and did not seem to bring troubles upon themselves. It seems to me that their posture of mindfulness and calm allowed them to live the peace that they had found within their Selves.

sharon_maeder's picture

Thank you for the courage of the makers to produce the film and thank you for courage of the inmates to participate in the program. So inspiring.

Jenny Phillips's picture

The Dhamma Brothers had the courage to look inside themselves, into largely unexplored and fearful places, with the hope that they might find something of value. Their stories of persistence in the face of their storms are remarkable.

gregg.martinson's picture

Thanks for this excellent documentary and moving experience. It is very easy to grow angry and judgmental of the government and community reactions to this program and their reactive shut down o the program, but the framing oft the "shut down" of the program as a short-term problem that as solved through patience had me examining my own preset prejudices. I was deeply moved and inspired by this movie. Thanks.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I really liked doing what we called our "man or woman on the street" interviews to get snapshots of the attitudes and beliefs of those outside the prison. And some of the statements are truly elevating and powerful. Others show fear and lack of understanding. And yet through patience and an excellent sense of timing by Ron Cavanaugh, the Director of Treatment, the program came back. That, for me, was the highpoint when we walked back in 3 1/2 years later and the men were standing there waiting.

mpuenteduany's picture

Powerful film. It inspired my own practice.

Jenny Phillips's picture

When a film and the stories of the film's characters can take you more deeply into your own practice, that is wonderful! I have found that myself.

ddmatta's picture

Great movie! It touches on so many points; human dignity, self-esteem, hope, self-discovery and many more positive qualities- A pure lotus springing out of the mud of tragedy. We are in the wide prison of ignorance and Vipassana helps.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I always find it so surprising that prisoners themselves can teach us about the prison of our minds. But maybe that is not surprising at all!

oohmikecampbell's picture

I've seen this movie - it's really amazing. Great idea to have a film club.

Jenny Phillips's picture

It is such an honor to have The Dhamma Brothers as the film of the month!

nanaMont's picture

Incredibly powerful film and well done. I appreciated hearing the inmates speak about their experience. Glad to know that vipassana is continuing in the prison system despite the opposition of those that do not understand and also to hear that the program is expanding. It seems like common sense to have this sort of program in all prison settings in the U.S.

Jenny Phillips's picture

When I think about a 10-day Vipassana program and a maximum-security program, in some ways they are vastly different systems or cultures, and yet there is such a potential synchronicity. Once the space for the course was found at Donaldson, it was really a matter of building trust and understanding between the administration and the Vipassana teachers. Now, having films like Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, Changing On the Inside and The Dhamma Brothers, the task is a bit easier.

Dot Luce's picture

Thanks for reawakening memories of my doing therapy/meditation groups at Soledad Prison, Ca, from 1970-71. It was a time of great political upheaval, and constant "lockdowns", but for me extremely rewarding, and exhausting.
The men's faces, esp meditating, were so beautiful, so human, I was deeply touched. We had a problem continutng our program because the administration were afraid the prisoners were getting "rewarded", by a special privilege. They ought to have figured out that the meditaition 'cooled groups in emotional turmoil after lockdowns.
I know of several buddhist sanghas, in Ca., visiting prisons, so there is hope.
Thank you for the beautiful film.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you, Dot. When I first decided to make a film which would show men meditating, I was worried that that might not be interesting to see. And yet I feel that the camera on the faces of the Dhamma Brothers, especially the close-ups of their faces, tells so much about their experiences. A glimpse of their stories seem to be written there. Like the film Into Great Silence, the quiet allows the viewer to see deeper things. If I were to make this film again, I would include even more silence.

lashamrock's picture

What a wonderful film!!!

Thank you, Jenny, and to all who participated in the making of it, to the teachers, and to the prisoners who went on the retreat and then shared with us.

I write to a Buddhist prisoner in a maximum security prison in FL, and he's told me what a difference daily meditation has made in his life.

May it spread through the prison system!!!

Peace is possible! Dina

Jenny Phillips's picture

Setting up a 10 day Vipassana retreat is of course so much more complicated than a meditation group, and necessitates such a huge commitment from both the Vipassana organization and the prison system. I wish 10 day courses could be offered widely through our prisons. But brief mindfulness meditation in and of itself is so helpful. I have observed its impact over many years of working in prisons.

wilcuneo's picture

I completed a 10 day vispassana course in 2004, it changed my life, in how I experienced the world at a very deep level, watching dhamma brothers has reminded me that I should attend another one before the year is out.

This is a very good movie my thanks to everyone who made it and to the prisoners who shared their life with us. I did a search on the net and found a site where it's possible to read some of their letters. I was impressed at how articulate they were and they are packed with dharma.

There is one thing I have learnt from this is that we are much greater than what we have done....all of those men came across as good people, good human beings caught up in something beyond their control. I read somewhere that there are no bad people just bad acts.

These gentlemen have changed my mind about a lot of things .

I wish them well.

Thanks for the movie

Jenny Phillips's picture

Thank you for posting the link to some of the letters written by the Dhamma Brothers. If you want to read more, Letters From the Dhamma Brothers published by Pariyatti Press is a terrific resource. I still receive some letters, and received one several weeks ago from Johnny Mack Young which is so beautiful that I am sure we will find a way to publish it. The great challenge for Johnny of keeping on the path is so poignant in this letter.

tonya4444's picture

I found the movie inspiring for my own practice for so many reasons. I agree with raymondjcoughlin that the line "We are more than our worst actions." If these men can practice and come through this so changed, all my 'issues' seem so trival and my ego has no reason to continue with its continual charade. I was especially impressed with Grady whose daughter was murdered and how he handled it. Thank you for sharing this perspective, thanks to the prisoners for sharing their story, to the Vipassana practitioners that are participating and to Dr. Cavanaugh for perservering to get this adopted. As a tax payer, as a human, as a part of samsara, I support the work without question. Truly moving.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I don't think you need to consider your issues trivial nor your ego as putting on a charade. We are all in this together and all have our struggles. But it is true that the Dhamma Brothers in many ways have gracefully paved the way for those of us in the distracted and busy world outside prison.

raymondjcoughlin's picture

I loved the statement," We are more that our worst actions.

Jenny Phillips's picture

I love that statement by Attorney Bryan Stevenson as well. We originally included Bryan in the film because he was Dhamma Brother Grady Bankhead's lawyer.But the power of his words was so compelling and universally true that we have his voice at several points in the film. One of the things that I decided early in the making of the film was that there would be no experts speaking about prisoners, but rather the men themselves. But Bryan Stevenson clearly made the cut!

calicci.gardachi's picture

"However, those people will never be happy anyway" ?
Jane, please allow these individuals the opportunity to learn and grow as the inmates in the film were shown to have done. After watching this you should be more convinced than ever that it is possible even in light of your skepticism. As for recommending that someone attend such an awakening, I believe it would be more effective simply to offer them the opportunity. I do not deny the potential benefit for those in question.
This film is a great testament to the courageous work of the individuals both who instituted the program as well as those who attended it. I have seen a film about the program in India which apparently inspired this American incarnation. I don't remember when exactly or where I saw it but I'm thinking it was on the Discovery channel. If anyone knows where to find it online, I would be interested in revisiting it as a counter-point to this film.
Having grown up in South Mississippi I understand the Southerner intimately but it still shocks me to hear comments like the equating of Buddhist practices with witchcraft. I'm sure that woman is otherwise a reasonable and sweet lady but the dogma made so apparent by her statement is a facet of the conservative mindset so common in that part of the country. It reminds me how far we have to go as a culture. Her particular point of view sheds light on the general mistrust and fear that exists merely as a result of cultural ignorance.
Let me not get bogged down in such thoughts and let us all continue on the path of bodhichitta until we all are free.

Jenny Phillips's picture

The film you are talking about is Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. It is the story of the warden at Tihar Jail in New Delhi, Kiran Bedi, who hears about Vipassana, and brings it first to the staff at the jail, and later to the prisoners as well. This film did in fact start me thinking about bringing the same program into an American prison. I see the two prisons - Donaldson Correctional Facility and Tihar Jail - as closely linked. Both films give an inspiring sense of what can happen when a program like Vipassana slowly makes itself felt inside a prison. The cultural contrasts between the two are enormous, and yet it fits somehow.

janelane1980's picture

I appreciate your input. However, I still firmly feel that as long as the victims and families are focused on illwishing and negativity, they will not find happiness. It isn't possible to hold on to anger and pain, and find peace and happiness.

janelane1980's picture

There are many people who would not be happy to see prisoners having a chance to find peace inside themselves. However, those people will never be happy anyway, spending so much energy on negative thoughts and feelings for so long. If anyone things that this is an easy thing for the prisoners to go through, they would be wrong - coming to terms with your life, whom you have impacted and hurt, and all the pain you've gone through and dealt to others... You can physically see a change in these men from before and after their 10 day.

Maybe it should be recommended for the families of the victims to take a 10 day course as well.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Anyone who has taken a 10-day Vipassana course knows that it is not relaxing. There is really no way to spend those long hours on the mat without becoming engaged with your self and your life. For prisoners, who have frequently not had the opportunity to look within themselves, and to sit with their memories and emotions, entering the program takes such courage. Their lives are often so filled with noise and chaos and distraction. And there is a fear of what they might find out or uncover. And yet they discover that that is exactly what they need to do to find peace.

jasondcrane's picture

That was incredible. Such a powerful story. I thought it also sent a strong message about how our prisons are merely places to throw away our citizens rather than places of rehabilitation. Thank you for making this film available.

Jenny Phillips's picture

Yes, we have taken a wasteful and inhumane direction with our emphasis on warehousing and punishment rather than rehabilitation. I have always found such a level of seriousness and commitment when working with prisoners. There is a feeling that they must figure out how to live better lives, and that this may be their last chance to get ready for a successful return to society. And for those who are not going to be leaving prison, they are searching for a more satisfying way to live their lives inside.