Chuan Yuan Shakya, OHY
So much of the State of Hawaii is owned by the families of missionaries who first came
to preach the Gospels that it is said of them that they came to do good - and did very
We are all used to seeing the religious get rich by extolling the virtues of poverty.
When hymns are sung to communal sharing, the well-known chorus may be
brotherhood but the unfamiliar verse is a prescription for primogeniture, a
Grandfather Clause of first in time, first in right, - a well-timed right
stipulated in articles of incorporation that vest the common assets in an elite,
controlling few. Non-profit does not necessarily mean unprofitable.
We have TVs. We know the score. Many of us came to Buddhism precisely because it seemed
so free of evangelical chicanery. No autographed pictures of Jesus Christ for us. No
drippy spiked eyelashes to spur us into runaway generosity.
Zen used to be a private affair, a communion between two hearts, one wise and one
yearning, free of guile, and no more venal than Old Master Pos teaching us to be
kind, to do good unconditionally and not negotiate markers - as we might
traverse a rice-paper floor-runner without leaving any footprints.
But then the "Zen as Club" juggernaut came rolling down the Path, crushing
all those solitary, footloose Grasshoppers. The rice-paper runner became a red carpet for
the privileged few; and the direction it headed was that venal one we had sought to avoid.
As Zen Centers proliferated, their administrators - the ones who operate that rolling
"Zen as Club" machine - prospected for dollars and discovered in the homeless
and the incarcerated a motherload of fundraising possibilities. Press releases and
brochures proclaimed that they were trying "to do good"; the sorry likelihood is
that they were trying "to do well."
Here, too, we know the score. When, for example, labor is obtained from people who
offer it as a religious donation to non-profit organizations, labor and tax laws are
circumvented. And so these administrators (I cannot call them clerics), trading on our
religions reputation for innocuous intent, reveal their plans to save societys
disadvantaged souls. They recruit homeless men, men who are bereft of family,
friend, and money - but who are nevertheless able-bodied - and promise them that their
rags will be exchanged for the Sanghas glorious raiment. The men, in their
destitution, suspend credulity and believe.
The Centers administrators then give these men the requisite Dharma name and
membership card, Spartan shelter and food (in prison lingo that would be "three hots
and a cot") and a small stipend every month. In exchange, as part of their training
and as an act of Buddhist devotion, the men are required to contribute their labor to the
Zen communitys benefit. Idle hands are the devils workshop.
As a paying guest, I once stayed at a Zen Center that housed some of these
disadvantaged souls. They were gotten up at 3AM every morning and transported
to a bakery to make bread and pastries for the Center and its institutional complex. Their
products also stocked a retail bakery and coffee shop, the operation of which was given to
an admittedly better class of disadvantaged souls who were similarly provided Dharma
names, shelter, food and a modest stipend. Since the Zen Center served only vegetarian
food, vegetables were vital to the menu and to satisfy this requirement a "truck
farm" was started in the countryside; and naturally more disadvantaged souls were
given Dharma names, room, board and a modest stipend to work the farm. This enterprise,
being sufficiently productive, enabled a vegetarian restaurant to be opened, and more
disadvantaged souls were recruited to operate the restaurant. And so it went. I recall
that the first "guest work" assignment I was given was to clean up champagne
bottles and glasses left over from an administrative staff party of the previous evening.
They were celebrating something... the Buddhas birth, perhaps.
Lately, they have started to bleed emotionally over the plight of prison inmates.
Though there are legitimate Buddhist organizations already in existence whose dedicated
service in providing literature and guidance to incarcerated men and women has been well
proven, a few Zen Centers have determined that this care is not sufficient to save these
prisoners. They whirl the barber pole and sharpen the clippers. Enter the spin doctors.
Slick brochures, dispatched nationwide, ask us to consider the shame: all these
convicts, desperately seeking salvation, and not just any salvation but Buddhist salvation
- and there is not a single Buddhist priest in the U.S. who gives a rats ass worth
of concern for them. (I cant quote the brochure exactly since I gave it to the
warden of the prison I regularly visit.) The need for citizen volunteers and, of course,
donations to the Zen Centers own "ministry" was acute. I cant
remember whether or not they accepted credit cards.
Other Zen Centers joined the goldrush to save all these felonious potential Buddhists.
One farm-country Sangha that sounded like it met in Mayberry under the protection of
Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife - (with an annual crime rate of 1 felony per million
inhabitants) - has really been hemorrhaging.
What, precisely, are a volunteers expenses in tending prisoners? Not food. Not
clothing. Not shelter. Not medical care. Books can be obtained free from the Buddhist
Promotion Society, a Japanese group which functions like the Gideon Bible Society.
Photocopied material? There are copy machines in prison libraries, and prisoners never
seem to lack the ability to use them. Ask any judicial body and you will be informed of
the reams of "in-house" photocopied material that accompany prisoners
And if the volunteer wishes to serve the Dharma in accordance with his Bodhisattva Vow,
might we not suppose that he can offer to the Dharma the cost of his gasoline and the
occasional book or photocopied material he may want to distribute?
Someone less cynical than I is entitled to ask, "What is the harm? Why not give a
disadvantaged soul a chance at rehabilitation? With or without priestly credentials, what
is wrong with a person visiting prisons, in extending the Dharma to inmates, in
The damage is in the discovery of the duplicitous intent; the harm is in eating the
fruit of a poisoned tree.
What happens to all those disadvantaged souls that enterprising Zen Centers have
cleaned up and saved?
One or two are maintained as shills, mine-salting nuggets of success; but the great
percentage soon leave. They leave not because respectability suddenly seems like a bad
idea, but because they discover that they were worse off than the slaves they were
intended to be: they were dupes.
What had the administrators thought? Did they suppose that because a man lacked a home
he also lacked intelligence and was blind, as well, to their lifestyle? People know the
difference between cotton and silk; between Volkswagen and Mercedes; between institutional
glop and gourmet meals. These workers leave because they talk to each other and the fellow
who totes his Zen Princes carry-on to the First Class window of the airline knows
the difference in price for a ticket in coach. And so, inevitably, comes the realization
that they are being exploited not for the commonweal, nor for their own self-restoration,
but for the enrichment of the elite few. They know that yet again they have trusted and
yet again have been deceived - but this time it is worse: before it was cheating wives or
greedy employers or a confused governments garbled call to arms.
This time the lies slithered from the mouths of "priests."
I remember the morning that one such worker had decided to quit. He slowly dragged a
chair across the dining room floor making a screeching, scraping noise, his face as grim
as the sound was wrenching. The night before, he had mistakenly gone down a forbidden
corridor in the building and had walked in on what he described as an "orgy."
"I thought I found refuge in the Buddha," he said sadly. "I
didnt." Life on the streets was less disillusioning and infinitely more
For all his work, he was worse off than when he came for he had eaten the fruit of the
poisoned tree. He had been led to believe that he had found security; a place where he
"belonged"; leaders and teachers he could trust to guide him on the path to
righteousness; a surrogate family that would embrace him with sturdy arms that would never
yield him up to misfortune, that would continue to care for him if he became sick or
disabled or old. The emetic for this poison was the bitter truth of Zens dictum:
"No work, No food." Sickness would get a man delivered to a public clinic where
he would not likely be picked up again. We have a business to run.
I didnt meet anyone who had stayed long enough to test the vaunted accommodations
for the elderly.
Holding out the lure of service to lonely prisoners is yet another means of exploiting
people who want to be helpful. Here, when greed is proffered as altruism, when the
meretricious prey upon the sympathy of the naive, we find the setting for tragedy.
There is an old story about a holy man who is sitting by a river and sees a scorpion
fall into the water. He scoops it out and deposits it on land and is stung by it. Moments
later, the scorpion again falls into the water and again the holy man rescues it and is
stung again. This happens a third time and a man who is observing all of this is
astonished to see the holy man reach into the water to save the scorpion. "Why do
keep helping this scorpion when it persists in stinging you?" the man asks. And the
holy man answers, "It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting just as it is the dharma
of a human being to help a creature in need."
Good people reflect upon their own lives and are thankful, perhaps, that they never had
to pay for their own mistakes in quite the same way that men in prison are paying. Or else
they are extremely grateful that the people around them were so benign and effective in
rearing and educating them that they were spared the occasion for serious error.
Someone whose dharma it is to be helpful, helps. In prison ministries, however, he does
not know how or when he may be stung.
"Zen as Club" brochures will promise to provide the civilian volunteer with
all that he requires to conduct a prison ministry. Why... he will conduct meditation
sessions, liturgical services, and preside over classes in Buddhist doctrine. To a person
with a good heart, this is truly inviting. What more rewarding experience can there be
than to bring the Bodhisattva of Compassion to the disaffected? Who could possibly object?
But just as each state has its own penal system, it has its own prison ministerial
service and you can bet the farm, folks, that service is not just Christian, but Fundamentalist
Christian. Buddhists are about as welcome nudists.
When I protested to one of the "Zen as Club" brochure writers that he was
mistaken when he said that there were no Buddhist priests whatsoever ministering to
prisoners, I received no reply, although in his next mailing, his pitch was altered. Now I
am informed that there are no prison chaplains in U.S. prisons. Well, a chaplain,
by anybodys dictionary, is a person - clergyman or layman - who conducts a service
in a chapel. When I am conducting services in the prison chapel, I am the chaplain. No, I
am not the "regular in-house" chaplain. But let us be reasonable. Despite the
heartfelt indignation of the brochure writer, it would be strange indeed to see a minority
cleric function as the "full time" chaplain in any U.S. prison. Were we in
Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Iran or we should find prisons but few Christian chaplains.
For a religious volunteer to succeed in his spiritual program, he must not only pass
his states course in "prison deportment" - the dos and donts
of communicating directly with inmates, the acceptable attire, etc., but he must
also be given access to the prison chapel. And this can be an insoluble problem.
The chaplain who makes up the chapel schedule may not care to yield time to alien
creeds. His reluctance is frequently warranted. Cults - from Witches to Peyote
Worshippers, on down or up, covet chapel time so that they can better huckster the public.
Unfortunately, owing to the excesses of American-style Tantric Buddhism we Buddhists are
often perceived as sex-crazed, drug using, devil-worshippers. Even the most conservative
Buddhists among us - those who actually observe the Five Precepts - must bulldoze our way
through the entrenched regime.
Additionally, prison personnel are reluctant to open the gates to civilian volunteers
simply because civilians so often get personally involved with prisoners, and their
involvement may threaten the routine operation of the prison.
To prison personnel the threat is contraband, in particular, drugs. Wardens and prison
guards dislike drugs for the same reason we dislike them. Drugs are addictive and to
support the addiction people steal. When people who are already in prison steal, we have
what mathematically might be called a chain rule. We in civilian life fear a drug-crazed
person who runs amok, but we have means to separate ourselves from this person. Prisons
are overcrowded and when, in "the yard," someone is drug-crazed - someone whose
homicidal proclivities have passed beyond threat to documented verdict - the situation is
far more troublesome. Keeping drugs out of prisons is what wardens try to do. Drugs not
only make more work for them but create a rather depressing effect upon the non-using
prison population. Hollywood is quick to blame corrupt guards; but guards are
professionals with pensions to protect; in fact civilian workers such as teachers of
academic or trade apprentice programs; counselors for alcohol and drug abuse treatment
groups; and teachers of religion, among other volunteers, are far more likely to enter
into the sort of friendly relationships that clever drug users know how to exploit.
A cleric has usually heard enough hard-luck confessions - and has had the
"follow-up" experience of gauging the sincerity of those confessions - to be
circumspect. The volunteer has no such experiential resource and his fund of sympathy is
easily tapped. A dear, repentant fellow will suffer a pain - a toothache, perhaps, that
the ruthless medical service refuses to assuage. The volunteer cant bear to see him
suffer and the next thing he does is slip him some old left-over painkillers he has had in
his medicine chest. Perhaps some dear fellows mother has died and he cannot sleep
from grief. Where is the harm in giving him a few sleeping pills to get over his loss? The
precedent having been set, pressure to expand it follows. When a Buddhist volunteer is
compromised into becoming a drug source, where is the benefit? A fool has no spiritual
The threat to the volunteer is of a different order. Volunteers are forbidden to have
outside contact with prisoners or their families. Yet they have names and they write
letters. As they talk to a prisoner, they talk about themselves. But prison rules also
forbid disclosing the nature of a prisoners crimes to these volunteers. As a priest
I receive notice when a sex offender is going to be released into the general vicinity of
my address; but volunteers are not similarly notified. Further, when a prisoner has fully
served his time, he is released without a parole departments oversight. Does anyone
at these "Zen as Club" institutions bother to inform the volunteer that someone
convicted of murder or rape or child abuse, someone he befriended in the prison, may one
day show up in his living room?
Perhaps an ex-prisoner may ask to borrow money or be given a job. A priest vowed to
poverty has neither the employment opportunities nor the cash to give his request more
than a smile. But the volunteer may not be so unencumbered. A priest lives among those who
support his goals; a volunteers family may not be so forbearing.
Also, a volunteer may unconsciously acknowledge a hierarchy of crime. Some prisoners
may be moved to confess their crimes to him, and he may easily extenuate such crimes as
armed robbery or battery as acts of financial need or passion. He may not, however, be so
sanguine about child rape or murder. A priest is bound by his vows not to differentiate
between criminal acts. And if he is an experienced priest - one who has been through the
wretched Dark Night of the Spirit (not just the petty Dark Night of the Senses) - he is
not impressed by such differences. In any event, a priest, as agent of the Bodhisattva of
Compassion, may not decide who is entitled to receive forgiveness and who is disqualified
from receiving it.
In prison ministries, there is a toll to pay. Sometimes the prisoner pays; and
sometimes we pay. A layman may tire of his service and find a reason to abandon it. In
snow or sun (there are no shade trees in prison yards) the men stand and wait to escort
him to the chapel, and he does not come. They are disappointed, hurt in ways we cannot
In other unexpected ways we are touched and oddly saddened. A few months ago one of the
men in my group excitedly told me about this "really neat computer artwork" he
had seen. "If you stare into it just right, youll see things appear," he
said. How long go had that computer art been popular? I thought of a fly caught in amber.
Here, suspended in time, the experience was fresh and new. In such a moment we understand
the power of drama: words on a page could not convey his isolation so completely as seeing
his joy in the novelty of what was to us on the outside, passe.
There are other tolls which the casual volunteer may not be willing or able to pay. In
the course of struggling to obtain chapel time (which I obtained largely through the
intercession of the Governors office and a Federal Judge) I managed to offend those
Fundamentalist Christians who regarded the inter-denominational chapel as their private
church. They were outraged that "devil worshipping" was being conducted there.
The prisoner responsible for initially involving me in the prison was one with whom I
had corresponded through the mail. I had sent him a copy of our 7th World manual. An
educated man, he spoke German and was pleased to see the word Wehrmacht on the
first page. My parents routinely spoke German but what I had once known as a child, I had
long forgotten. Though I tried to assure him that little beyond counting and a few bars of
Lili Marlene remained in my memory, he matter-of-factly quoted Goethe to me. I remember
being astonished by his grasp of esoteric Buddhist and Daoist concepts. Once, walking
across the yard, he recited the famous final lines of Faust, "Alles Vergangliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis; Das Unzulangliche, Hier wirds Ereignis; Das
Unbeschreibliche, Hier ists getan; Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan."
(All that is transitory is merely a parable; the incomplete here is fulfilled; the
indescribable here is performed; the Eternal Feminine leads us higher.")
He compared the lines to Chapter VI of Lao Tzus Tao Te Ching: "The
Valley Spirit never dies. It is named the Mysterious Female. And the Doorway of the
Mysterious Female is the base from which heaven and earth sprang. It is there within us
all the while; Draw upon it as you will; it never runs dry." (Waleys
I didnt know quite what to say. Ive talked Buddhism with academics who
wouldnt have made this connection if had they witnessed Goethe and Lao Tzu singing
the lines as a duet.
But that hierarchy of criminal acts can exist among inmates as well as volunteers. His
was one of the unacceptable crimes and it set him apart from the other prisoners.
His criminal history was brief and tragic. From what I was able to piece together from
the handwritten letters he sent me, he had taken his wife and child to a picnic and had
had too much to drink. Driving home he had an accident and they were killed. He went, as
he put it, "off the deep end" emotionally and committed acts of child
With only a few months left to serve in his sentence, he was there, desecrating the
chapel with his presence. Someone broke a broomstick across his skull and buried the
jagged stump in his neck. When he recovered he was moved to a distant maximum security
prison for protective custody which meant that he would be allowed out of his cell for
only several hours a week. In the empty days, he wrote me long, remorseful letters about
his past. He didnt know why he had done what he had done. His shame and his sorrow
were an abyss through which he was falling and he prayed he would one day reach the bottom
of it so that he might begin the long climb up and out of the pit. Within 30 days of his
release from prison, he got a job and while sitting at his work bench, a blood vessel
burst in his brain and he died. He was 36.
Karma is karma. I dont know how much my bulldozing a way into the prison chapel
set off the chain reaction that got that broomstick on his head or if that incident had
anything at all to do with his death. I only know that I listen to Mahlers 8th a
lot... and often... much too often... when the Mystical Chorus sings Goethes final
lines, I stop doing whatever Im doing because my vision is blurring and I find
myself crying. I am not given to cheap sentimentality - as anyone who knows me can attest.
Perhaps when a person is motivated by money and power, he is immune to sorrow. The
scorpion does not fear its own tail. But for the rest of us the barb is there, waiting to
sting us.. again... again... and again.