Prison Program Philosophy - Dharma Rain Zen Center
Prison Program — Philosophy
This report was written by Getsushin in 2008 as part of an evaluation
of religious programs at Coffee Creek Corrections Facility. It it organized
by factors defined
by the Oregon Department of Corrections (the Oregon Accountability Model).
Updated in 2010 by Genko. It summarizes the overall philosophy behind the
The Buddhist program at CCCF started in 2001
in response to a request from Chaplain Arnadene Bean. A couple of years
later we expanded
to the Medium
upon repeated requests from an inmate who is still a regular
member of our group. Both the Medium and the Minimum groups are still going,
we have made some changes in the Minimum facility.
The Oregon Department of Corrections requires that each religious group working
within the prison system should be familiar with the Oregon Accountability
develop intentional programming that directly addresses crimonogenic factors.” Since
most of the inmates we are working with will sooner or later be transferred
back into society, we agree that it is important to present material that will
be helpful not only inside the prison walls, but also prepare them to reenter
The historical Buddha frequently compared himself to a physician devoted
to healing the suffering of the world. This suffering, he believed, is centered
in the mind, and it can be healed through skillful inner work. Buddhism is
not an “evangelizing” religion. It is a spiritual practice which
teaches us to change the focus away from the distractions of everyday life
and focus instead on what is going on in our own minds. Consequently, Buddhist
practice can benefit anyone regardless of regardless of religious affiliation
or world view.
Most criminal acts are caused by impulsive reactions to negative
emotions such as anger. Through meditation, we learn to be mindful of our emotions.
Instead of acting out and empowering our negativity, we can step back, focus
on the breath and observe how emotions rise and fall in our mind without acting
them out. The power of this simple practice has been noticed by health professional
of many kinds, and meditation is used as a component of healing in many hospitals
and clinics today. In our groups we show how ancient Buddhist teachings contain
tools for healing which are as relevant to our problems of our own daily lives
as they were to the lives of people who lived more than 2500 years ago.
In the following paragraphs we focus on the seven components of the
Oregon Accountability Model and the way we work with them in our Buddhist
One of the foundational teachings of Buddhism is interconnectedness. The
Buddha believed that all beings have “buddha nature.” What separates
us from our own intrinsic wisdom is negative karma caused by conditioning
and habit energy. Our practice is to look at our conditioning and discover
the root causes of the negative behavior which led to suffering both for
ourselves and other people. In this often difficult work we need support
from people who are more spiritually advanced than we are (teachers) and
from fellow students who are doing the same practice. We emphasize the importance
of good spiritual friends and associations with people who will support our
effort to live more positive lives. On the other hand, we discourage close
associations with people who drag us down.
2. Substance Abuse
The ethics of Buddhism is centered around a series of precepts, which are
offered as a guideline to the practitioner. When dealing with substance abuse,
example, we point to the following precept:
“Do Not Become Intoxicated — Polish Clarity, Dispel Delusion.”
Intoxicants obviously cloud the mind and are in direct conflict with the Buddhist
aspiration to wake up and see reality clearly.
3. Community Functioning
Buddhism teaches that we are all connected and we are all dependent on one
another for survival. We encourage the members of our groups to use the prison
experience as an opportunity to practice skills for living in community.
In order for this to work they will need a refuge, a place where they feel
safe. Our aspiration is to build a group that is solid enough to provide
this kind of refuge. We explain that it is important for each member to be
willing to accept the ground rules of tolerance, kindness, mutual respect,
these ground rules are broken, we deal with it as compassionately as
possible. While this has at times been challenging, it is an excellent opportunity
to interact with others in a way that promotes harmony rather than chaos.
We believe that if the group members can learn to do this within a caring
circle, they will gradually be able to apply it outside the group as well — in
their living units, in the entire prison community in general, and ultimately
in the society they will return to once they’re released from prison.
4. Education and Employment
The women in our groups represent many different educational levels, from
elementary school to college graduates. In our groups we teach a number of
skills that will serve them well when faced with potential employers, such
as uprightness, honesty, accountability, “right speech,” discipline,
generosity, and equanimity. Teachings that support this include discipline,
accountability, mindfulness, the ability to focus on the task at hand, and
work as practice. As Buddhists
once negative habit patterns are weakened. We always encourage them to nourish
their own potential and start moving in the direction they want to go, one
step at the time. We applaud members who tell
us that they have completed GEDs or other milestones in their career development
5. Emotional and Mental Health
This is one area where we can make a great difference. As
already mentioned, the historical Buddha repeatedly compared himself to
a physician devoted to healing the suffering in the human mind. In our prison
groups we do extensive work on emotions such as anger, grief, jealousy,
Ancient Buddhist scriptures and modern commentaries provide a lot of material
for us to work with. We find that many of the newest research and practices
in counseling are aligned with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness,
and that counseling
and Buddhist practice reinforce each other.
6. Marital and Family Life
Buddhism is a practice of harmony and balance. Many of the members of our
groups come out of abusive families and relationships, and frequently criminal
originated in deep, unhealed wounds. We believe that healing these wounds
through therapy and/or spiritual practice is essential to breaking the circle
of violence and to begin developing healthy relationships.
Since professional psychotherapy is limited within the prison environment,
a spiritual practice focusing on the mind can be very helpful.
One basic Buddhist teaching is about the three
poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. For each, we talk about how to turn
it to its opposite.
Greed / generosity
Hate / loving kindness, compassion
Delusion / wisdom
We focus on transformation.
Our transition program is in the process of development. We have had volunteers
who have been working on creating a more coherent and comprehensive
program, including ways
with other faith groups
in the area
services. HGO connects with a network of services and
seeks to provide positive role models for those released from prison. They
find resources and assets in the community, such things as help creating a
resume, finding clothing, helping to learn about the Internet and transportation,
We have a monthly support group for those released from prison and prison
of our inmates haven’t been released to Portland. We have had a
program of Dharma Friends for many years, where an individual member corresponds
with an inmate who will be released soon, and then becomes a friend helping
them when they are released. These have been very helpful to inmates.
One thing we have learned is that transition is very difficult. Inmates are
really fearful about it, and need more support than they are getting.
We are exploring how best to meet
their needs within our own resources and mission. We are encouraging people
in our Portland sangha to commit to this work.
Back to Prison Program main page