The Challenge of Prison Dharma

February 11, 2004

Source: Tricycle

On February 11, 2004 Tricycle published an article by Kobutsu Malone, who spent eight years running a Zen practice group in Sing Sing Prison, widely regarded as the most dangerous maximum security prison in New York State. He writes, "For a decade, I held tightly to the idea that serious in-depth Zen practice in prison was not only possible but also important—even necessary. But eight years in Sing Sing Prison, and correspondence with thousands of prisoners across the country, has gradually convinced me that the work of prison dharma groups is seriously flawed because of the often misguided and limited aims of prison dharma volunteers. It was a hard lesson. Buddhism is concerned with the emancipation of all beings, not just Buddhist ones. Is this the present function of prison dharma programs? ... We may have lofty ideas about making prisons into ashrams or zendos in which people can effectively make use of their time while incarcerated, but as long as prisons are places of brutality, these are pipe dreams with little basis. The reality of prisons today in America argues against this thinking. So what is our task as volunteers? What is prison dharma really about? Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist, once said: If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together." For an in-depth look at prison dharma, see

See also: Buddhism, Prisons