So I realize that many of my past posts have been about the negative portrayals of Buddhism or Buddhist images in mainstream culture, particularly in the media. I guess in a lot of ways, I find the negative much more interesting to message about.
But just this past Tuesday morning, I heard on the radio a report on Alabama’s most “violent and mentally unstable” prison inmates practicing Vipassana meditation. They’ve seen positive results in the inmates that participate in the program. Yet, the most interesting part of the story for me is the intercultural implications of having a program derived from Buddhist practice in a dominantly Christian state.
The Vipassana technique, though secular, is based on the teachings of Buddha. Soon after it started at Donaldson about a decade ago, the prison system’s chaplains expressed concern that it might not be in keeping with Christian values. The state put an end to the program.
But Hetzel, the warden, saw the dramatic results and brought it back.
It seems a bit ironic that of all places to see a positive, religiously relevant mention of Buddhism in the media, it appears under the context of a prison. Go figure.
You can listen to the whole report on KQED Public Radio’s website here.
This past summer I visited my main spiritual teacher, and he naturally inquired how my practice has developed since we last met three years ago. When I first met my teacher, I told him that I was Buddhist, and he asked me what that meant. I was still active in a college Buddhist association, and for me that was the chief example of what it meant to be Buddhist. I was Buddhist because I was in a Buddhist club.
My perspective on Buddhism has almost entirely been framed by my American upbringing, whether I like it or not. I classify Buddhism as a religion, on par with Judaism and Christianity (among many others). I call myself “Buddhist”, and I wear a symbol of my faith around my neck and wrist. I even use it as an excuse to avoid drinking (“It’s against my religion”) or to justify my behavior (“I’m Buddhist, I don’t kill bugs”).
But I recently stumbled across an interview with SN Goenka, a famous teacher of vipassana meditation, where he says, “I don’t teach Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist.”
My practice of meditating every morning and evening fell apart about a week before the deadline for filing taxes. I’d kept it up every day for a month, but for the past couple of weeks I’ve been avoiding it. All this on-and-off meditation reminded me of one of Tricycle magazine’s cover articles: Commit to Sit.
Commit to Sit is a 28 day vipassana meditation challenge to basically “go on retreat without leaving home.” The goal is to integrate meditation into your daily life. I looked at discussions about it on past blogs and found a wide range of reactions: a starter course that some weren’t going to try out, a month of reinforcing a dedicated practice, or a chance to jump back on the path again. Others dove right in (while others sort of waded their way in).
It’s tempting for me to try out something new and do the Commit to Sit. But this time, I think I’m just going to go back to what I was doing before taxes. All I have to do is set aside the time. In my view, falling off my meditation schedule isn’t much different from when my mind wanders. Just gotta to catch myself and come back to the breath.