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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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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crazyblues's picture

LOVED this documentary, it brought tears to my eyes many times.
yes - I find myself wondering, what is the cost of this program anyway???? it can't be extraordinary. Why can't we have it in LOTS of prisons??? Is the resistance mostly from the religious institutions? From people who think that buddhism is "witchcraft"?
thankyou thankyou for putting this together (where was I years ago when this came out?)
What can we do to promote your ideas, and get the movie to a larger audience??

Jenny Phillips's picture

You are correct. The cost is very low because Vipassana is offered to students free of charge. This is true in Vipassana centers around the world. I am referring to the S.N. Goenka lineage of Vipassana. Donations are always appreciated, but in prisons there is really no opportunity for prisoners to donate anyway.
There is, however, an institutional cost as the prison must offer space and security for the duration of the course, and allow the special vegetarian diet that is part of the program. In the early courses at Donaldson, we actually prepared the food outside of the prison, and then wheeled it in on trolleys for each meal. Now, however, the prison kitchen is able to accommodate the special diet.
And, of course, there are always the fears and difficulties in bringing such an intense and unusual program into a prison.We included the woman speaking of witchcraft in the film because it really sums up the alien feelings someone can struggle with as they try to comprehend Vipassana. Christianity is easy for them to understand. I always hope the film helps people understand the deep and effective impact ofd the program.

markkemark's picture

When that lady refered to Buddhism as "witchcraft",
it reminded me why these programs have such a hard time getting started...Narrow minded Christians.

Thank you very much for showing this documentary! I loved every second.

TW77's picture

That was awesome! I’ve been waiting for something like this because I’ve heard of similar situations in the San Quentin prison (prisoners finding Zazan). To me it’s a perfect match, since you’re trapped anyway…what could be better than to mediate and see the truth? It was interesting to see my thoughts conflict with themselves…as I felt happy and inspired by the prisoners I would then snap back to the family of the victims. I wonder how they would feel about this (seeing them happy and striving in jail). I had to remind myself that they are murderers (and the film also smartly kept reminding us). But, regardless…I think this shows that through this method the prisoner sees the true impact of their actions. True remorse by dealing with what they’ve done and repressed rather than locking them up and tossing the key. I don’t think that 10 days can fix anyone, but it’s a good start. A big challenge will be when the euphoria wears off and reality comes back. The key is to be able to continue on when things settle back into the same old, same old. They need to stick it out with daily meditation, day in and day out without attaching to any result – like all of us :) I love how the warden was so honest…and open minded, even about the aspects of himself that are not so open minded! Same for the guards...

Let’s get a frigging program like this in all's a no brainer! Use this film to explain and show why they should. The next logical step is getting this to troubled youth before they commit the crime.

Very well done!!

Jenny Phillips's picture

Hi Travis,
Yes, you expressed very well the conflicting emotions and thoughts you experienced while watching the film.Nothing in prison is black and white. There is darkness and light, purity and evil, simplicity and complexity. The main reason I made the film - and of course I had no idea it would have such an impact - was to get below the stereotypes and assumptions we all have about prisons and prisoners. And the potential for deep inner work is always so possible in prisons just because living there is such an incredible struggle.Through the process of the 10-day Vipassana course, the usual and expected prison gladiator role can become one of a peaceful warrior with a sense of awareness and inner peace.


sandysyoga's picture

What an amazing film, done with incredible sensitivity. After training as a yoga teacher I volunteered at a women's shelter for three years which also included people from drug rehab and placements after half way housing. It was a gift to teach not only breath, pranayama, meditation as well as asana. It felt like I was the one who was learning from these women who were in distress. Often their children bravely tried yoga and of course were naturals in a mostly calm environment which included laughter many times. I couldn't imagine what they had been through nor the inmates that you portrayed in your film. The individual interviews were one of my favorite parts and inspiring how deeply these men felt about their past and stepping up to the plate for the reasons that they were there and the deep regret that they came to realize.
Other friends who do non violent communication, yoga and meditation in the prison system are like a band of angels. Thank you Jenny so much for this important insight.

Jenny Phillips's picture

You are so welcome, Sandy. Thanks for your thoughts.
I too always feel in my many years of work inside prisons that I am there to learn. I love this anonymous saying (and if anyone knows whom this quote is from, please let me know) - "If you have come to help me
Then you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your
Liberation is bound up with mine,
Then let us work together."

janelane1980's picture

Truly wonderful and inspirational. I hope to see this spread to even more facilities, and that the public isn't so quick to judge or stand in the way of something so beautiful.

Jenny Phillips's picture

The film has definitely inspired audiences around the world. The Vipassana program has not yet spread to other U.S. prisons, but there are early signs that that might be happening in the next year. Bringing an unusual program like this into a prison can be a very long process.But also of great significance is the fact that the Vipassana program has become so deeply rooted at Donaldson Correctional Facility, the prison where the program takes place. It seems to have slowly but surely had a huge impact on the prisoners themselves and also on the prison culture.

Jenny Phillips

janelane1980's picture

Watching this now - thank you for presenting this!

Jenny Phillips's picture

Hi Jane,

I hope you enjoyed The Dhamma Brothers.I would love to hear your thoughts.

Jenny Phillips

lizzrd's picture

I just watched Dhamma Brothers and was incredibly moved! What a beautiful thing these men have created in their lives.....there is a way that this helps my resolve to continue my practice through all the resistance that comes up. Thank you!

Caron Miller's picture

The film was just amazing. I cried several times listening to the stories of these men. How wonderful that Vipassana is now being embraced in another institution. This is a very important offering to all of us. Thank you.

Clile.patra's picture

Amazing...wish I could visit people in prison and help them too. Wish it spread more rapidly...

Jenny Phillips's picture

Have you looked into volunteering in your local prison or jail? That is how I first got involved. It is such gratifying work. You can email me if you want to talk about this. My email address is on the website -