FROM THE INSIDE
★ ★ ★ ★
FINDING BUDDHA – SEEKING SOLACE IN PRISON
Image by Jan Kopriva
By Ryan M. Moser
I breathe deeply, inhaling air through my nostrils and exhaling from my belly. The final chime of the golden Tibetan singing bowl reverberates through our confined space. Sounds of arguing echo from outside the classroom as I adjust my zafu cushion under the base of my spine, aware of the noise but letting it go. I smell cheap Fresh Scent deodorant. The blood flows to my legs as I sit erect and at attention, eyes slightly closed and tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, hands circled in a mudra in my lap, monkey-mind racing, anxiety slowing.
I breathe in…
I breathe out…
This isn’t my first time in a prison meditation class; I’m leading this morning’s zazen with our outside sponsor Tao, a kind soul from Miami who’s hip and wears beaded jewelry. We sit at the head of the class, facing six students and easing into thirty minutes of silent contemplation, insight, and painful body aches. As a long-time Zen practitioner, I’m considered a mentor and a Dharma teacher in my sangha, or community, and after two years facilitating the group I’ve grown to like the men in the room. Ed and Ramirez. Leon. Papa Zoe. We run into each other on the rec yard and bow respectfully, as if we share a secret. Our meditation group meets every Thursday morning in a space the size of a large walk-in closet, avoiding the extra desks stacked in storage and sweeping before we set up our blankets and cushions, eager to start our weekly moment of peaceful silence.
I never imagined that I would meditate inside the violent walls of prison; after all, living as a conscious being of peace while surrounded by brutality is a true dichotomy. The duality of the two worlds is comprehensive and stark. But after I was introduced to the ancient art of quietude during my first year of incarceration, I knew that it would remain a part of my lifestyle forever—thanks to a bald-headed ex-Green Beret with a bamboo stick.
Coming to prison is traumatic… a crisis similar to going to war, being abused, or living with a grave disease. The reason for the suffering is self-imposed in my case, as I chose to break the law, but the pain it inflicts remains the same. Regret, fear, hopelessness, and loss are all universal sorrows experienced by people in these situations, and just as someone who faces personal turmoil in their life must learn to cope, inmates like me must look deep inside to find a way to get through it. When I first entered the penal system, when all was bleak and life seemed over, as my family accepted my sentence and I lost everything I’d ever owned, while fighting and searching for some way to make the years bearable, a small ray of light came into view in the form of a simple Buddhist monk.
He was an imposing, stem-looking Polish man wearing traditional robes and twisting his mala bead necklace, a scowl on his rosy face and sweat glistening atop his clean-shaven head. I’d never met a monk before (let alone a large white one) and was unsure of the etiquette as he reached out his large paw and gripped my hand like a vise.
“I’m Casey. Thanks for coming.”
He was friendly but looked mean, with the relaxed confidence of an ex-boxer. I stepped into the prison chapel and looked around; a group of four inmates were gathered by a table of free books by Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Zen masters. I picked up a copy of No Mud, No Lotus as we were ushered into an empty space behind a partition with several cushions lined up in an orderly row.
“Please, sit down.” Casey lifted his robes above his knees as he squatted onto his cushion and waited for us to join him. The room was silent of the usual chatter you hear in every minute space within the walls of a penitentiary. The teacher stared at us for a moment before bowing with his palms pressed together at his chest.
“I’m the abbot at the Gateless Gate Zen Center. I first opened my mind after ‘Nam. When I was in the Special Forces I killed people for a living, and I was good at it.” A long bamboo stick was lying on the ground next to his cushion, alongside a bronze bell and a flower. His abrupt confession threw us off. “After the war I spent some time in Cambodia studying Buddhism at a monastery, then traveled to South Korea for a three-month silent meditation retreat in the mountains.”
I raised my hand. “You mean you didn’t talk for three months?” “That’s correct.”
I didn’t understand why someone would choose not to speak for so long, and was skeptical of the motivation. But looking over this hardened warrior, I respected him enough to keep listening. Our group spent the next hour discussing the human mind and science, breathing techniques, and how meditating can help calm our fears and worries. I was intrigued, but not convinced; furthermore, I’d read about new age-y things for years, and Casey wasn’t solving any of my current problems with his stoic whimsy.
I was living at a faith-based prison in Florida and had volunteered to check out the meditation class solely out of curiosity. I’d read the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind a couple of months prior, and the philosophy of studying one’s own mind had appealed to my non-religious beliefs. But now that we were lighting incense and hearing a monologue on loving-kindness, I held some reservations.
“We will start with a fifteen-minute sit today. Focus on your posture while breathing in and out through your nostrils. When you slouch forward because you’re sleepy…” SLAP! The bamboo stick came from nowhere across his thigh. “…I’ll wake you with a tap on the shoulder. Now… let’s begin.”
The intimidating teacher stood and paced behind us while we sat in quiet concentration, occasionally stopping to adjust our position gently with his hand and thrice hitting one of us sharply on the trapezoid with his stick, startling me back into the moment. When we were beckoned to end our session by the ring of a bell, Casey edified the benefits of being aware of every second and letting go of our worries.
“The past is gone and tomorrow is not guaranteed, men… focus on the now.”
That first meeting was auspicious, as I was searching the narrows of my mind for a reprieve from the pain of prison, and mining my heart for inner peace Meditation-Zen in particular-called to me. I’d shunned the dogmas and ceremony of other religions, but here was a practical guide to living: Right Thoughts, Right Speech, Right Action.
Our meditation classes got incrementally longer until our small group was doing zazen for thirty minutes straight—a feat that I’d never imagined possible. When Casey lectured before and after our sit (Dharma talks) I was enthralled, but still testing things out myself. He became a sage guide for the prison world we lived in… one of cruelty and manipulation.
“Nothing is permanent. Someday you will be released, but even if you have a life sentence, you’ll eventually die like everyone else. The Dalai Lama teaches that only the enemy can truly teach us to practice the virtues of compassion and tolerance. See the obstacles around you in prison as a test… a chance to grow and evolve. Practice mindfulness while you stand in the chow line.”
I began to transform the way I looked at my environment and the inmates around me, observing their virtues instead of their flaws. I understood that happiness was only a state of mind. My racing, neurotic thoughts started to slow down. In time, I became more centered and dealt with problems differently… I was less on edge and more balanced. I practiced equanimity amidst distractions. Attempted to lose my ego. Felt more empathy.
Each night in my noisy dorm, cigarette smoke hovering in the air, commotion all around, a heavy pale of misery weighing down the mood, I would sit on my hard bunk, contemplating my mistakes while sitting in silent meditation on top of my pillow. I’d try to still my mind by counting slowly with each breath, using the tips I’d learned, but thoughts would sprint laps around my mind like a greyhound.
I forgot to buy coffee at the canteen …the nurse looked really good today …She smiled at me again…Man, I haven’t had sex in two years…Don’t forget to watch American Idol tonight …
Inhale… exhale…one …
Inhale… exhale… two…
How the .f”*k did I end up in prison…? Why can’t I just stop using drugs and go back to living a normal life…? Will anyone remember me when I get out…?
Inhale… exhale… one…
Harnessing my mind was like corralling a wild mustang, so I always came back to the breath. Casey, Thich Nhat Hanh, Watts… all of the teachers in my nascent meditative life preached the same thing:
Still your mind. Follow the breath.
In the mornings I would read about the Four Noble Truths and it made sense to me—all of my suffering in life was avoidable! I was attached to every single thing that I felt made me happy, and when those comforts were stripped away, or change came around, I was dissatisfied. This aversion to change and attachment to people, places, things, and ideas caused me such great misery, so I adopted a lifestyle in prison that I could continue when I got out.
Several months after my first meditation class with the decorated soldier, I attended a three-day silent meditation retreat with Casey and ten other inmates in the education building- only returning to our dorms to sleep. We ate peanut butter in quiet and practiced yoga and kinhin (walking meditation) in between our grueling thirty-minute sits. My back hurt. My legs were numb. I had anxiety over the silence and got hit by the bamboo stick a lot. But in spite of it all I found insight … and calmness in the eye of the storm.
During the retreat, the deep sense of existential crisis I’d fought since coming to prison was laid bare before me, and I had no choice but to confront it—fighting for your life is not unlike facing down death. I needed to find my true nature, and stop living so superficially. After days of being honest with myself, I admitted that prison was the only place that could force me to examine my past so introspectively, and I never would’ve taken the time to immerse myself in self-betterment and meditation if it wasn’t for being isolated for a long period of time. I had hit rock bottom as an addict on the streets, and it would’ve gotten worse if I wasn’t arrested. Against all reason, after much emotional struggle, I acquiesced to one hard truth: prison may have saved my life.
Years later and long after Casey has retired, I sit at the head of the meditation class with Tao, watching over the Blue Lotus Sangha like an inquisitive guardian. I wonder if these men are asking the same questions (or finding the same answers) that I am… while contemplating a better life.
I breathe deeply, inhaling air through my nostrils and exhaling from my belly. The final chime of the golden Tibetan singing bowl reverberates through our confined space. I am finally at peace at least for this moment.
Ryan M. Moser is a recovering addict serving a ten-year sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections for a nonviolent property crime. Previous publications include Evening Street Press, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Progressive, themarshallproject.org, medium.com, thewildword.com, thestartup.com, and more. In 2020, his essay “Injuries Incompatible with Life” received an Honorable Mention award from PEN America, including publication on pen.org. Ryan is a Philadelphia native who enjoys yoga, playing chess, and performing live music. He is a proud father of two beautiful sons.
This column was made possible with the help of Exchange for Change, a non-profit based in Florida that teaches writing in prisons and runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside.
Exchange for Change believes in the value of every voice, and gives their students an opportunity to express themselves without the fear of being stigmatized. Their work is based on the belief that when everyone has the ability to listen and be heard, strong and safe communities are formed, and that with a pen and paper, students can become agents of change across different communities in ways they may otherwise have never encountered.