Cheri Maples gives new meaning to the words “peace officer.”
Maples loved her first retreat—the silence, the atmosphere of tolerance. “Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh’s nickname] kept changing pronouns from masculine to feminine, and when someone in a Q. & A. session asked him about same-sex relationships, he said the gender of the participants didn’t matter; what made a difference was the quality of the loving. I thought, ‘Man, I’m home!’”
Initially, Maples had no plans to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Order of Interbeing’s rendering of the five precepts. She confided to Sister Chan Khong, one of the monastics at the retreat, that she was a cop and couldn’t reconcile carrying a gun with the precept on nonviolence. The nun’s response was simple: “Who else would we want to have carry a gun but somebody who would do it mindfully?”
Over the next decade, her practice deepened. She joined the SnowFlower Sangha in Madison and, as her supervisory and training responsibilities on the force increased, looked for ways to apply mindfulness on the job. “The biggest stressor in any workplace isn’t the work itself but the internal politics,” Maples says. Right speech—“ethical communication,” she calls it—became a major focus. “I started to think what it would be like to work in a workplace where people agreed not to gossip and to bring any criticism or complaint directly to the individual concerned or to the team.” As an adjunct to the mandatory health and wellness program for police officers, Maples began offering meditation training. “I taught them sitting, eating, and walking meditation and how to incorporate mindfulness into their work and life—all presented in a totally nonsectarian fashion.”
In 2002, Maples made her first trip to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France, to take the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings— vows marking a deeper commitment to the Order of Interbeing. While there, she wrote Thay about her struggles as a police officer: feeling like a victim because of the constant exposure to violence, and like an oppressor because of the authority she wielded. To her surprise, Thay’s dharma talk the next day focused on fierce and gentle compassion—and how to be a bodhisattva while carrying a gun.
Maples once asked Thich Nhat Hanh how he was able to reach groups of people from so many different backgrounds. “I just try to understand their particular suffering,” he told her. For Maples, teaching criminal-justice professionals has been a matter of translating the dharma into their language. In one training exercise she introduced at the police academy and still uses today, she asks people to identify the three core values they live by in everything they do, at home and at work. “If you’re not really what you stand for, then the things that matter the most are always going to be at the mercy of the things that matter the least,” she says. “The Buddha used precepts for this.”
The exercise involves idenitifying what Maples calls “Zen activities”— those that give you great joy: “You have to water the seeds of joy in your practice by engaging in the activities that completely absorb you, that develop the same things mindfulness does: concentration, focus, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.” Her Zen activity is baseball. Though she no longer plays competitive softball or coaches her sons’ teams, she’s an avid fan.
Maples continually seeks ways to apply her practice for social justice. With her current partner, Maureen Brady, she set up the Center for Mindfulness and Justice as an umbrella for such efforts. Her focus at present is the Dane County Timebank—an alternative economic system, based on the exchange of skills, that builds community and invites universal participation by assigning equal value to all skills, whether dog walking or acting as legal counsel. Maples encouraged her sangha to join, and she has been instrumental in setting up the Timebank’s two criminal-justice programs: Youth Court, an alternative to incarceration for teenage offenders, and the Coming Home Prison Reintegration Project, which teaches meditation and mindfulness in prisons and provides training and support for prisoners upon release.
As part of her ordination ceremony, the Transmission of the Lamp, held at Plum Village in January 2008, Thay offered Maples a gatha—a short verse— and she reciprocated with one of her own. Just eight lines long, Maples’s “Police Officer Gatha” is the bodhisattva vow of a peace officer who no longer carries a gun but still packs heat. The verse ends like this:
Breathing in, I know my duty is to provide
safety and protection to all beings.
Breathing out, I am humbled and honored
by my duty as a peace officer.
Breathing in, I choose mindfulness as my
armor and compassion as my weapon.
Breathing out, I aspire to bring love and
understanding to all I serve.
Joan Duncan Oliver is Tricycle’s reviews editor.
Image 1: “Punishment isn’t the right philosophy to build a criminal justice system around,” says Cheri Maples. ©Andy Manis
Image 2: Maples meditates at a Madison, Wisconsin, police station ©Andy Manis
Image 3: Maples walks with her dog, Gracie, near her home, in Madison, Wisconsin. ©Andy Manis