The Slammer


In the dark there is light, but don’t see it as light.

Light and dark are not one, not two; like the front and back foot in walking.

Each thing has its merit, expressed according to function and place. 

~ Shitou Xiqian (China, 8th Century)

I shut the door with the loud clunk of a heavy metal door meeting an equally heavy metal frame. I smile as I pause to read the sign that says something like, “Close the door completely but don’t slam it.” I have discovered on previous trips here that you can’t shut the door without slamming it. So slam it I must and I smile at the absurdity of this sign knowing well that contradictions are best met with a sense of humor and of course acceptance. The smile slowly fades as I walk briskly down the cement walkway that leads to the vast and open B-Yard. The walkway is lined by tall concrete walls and I know that I am being watched. Everyone in this place is watched wherever we go. Comes with the territory I suppose.

I soon enter the low ceilinged and windowless chapel, a place less chapel-like in its architecture than most highway restrooms. The men soon enter, fifteen or so of them, wearing the blue pants and shirts of the prison, tattooed and powerful. We greet each other, saying hello and shaking hands. They quickly set up the room for our Buddhist service, simple and clean in the Japanese style of Soto Zen. We form an oddly shaped circle of zabuton and zafu, constricted by the angular shape of the room. A  zabuton is a large square cushion much like a dog-bed; and zafu is a smaller cushion, firm and round. Both black. We each settle on the cushions in our own manner and with the sound of three bells begin twenty minutes of meditation. I settle in with several intentionally deep inhalations and exhalations and then simply let my breathing be natural. There is the sound of keys locking and unlocking doors somewhere nearby, the tick-tocking of a clock, and the men adjusting their postures as they become uncomfortable. When my mind wanders I gently come back to my breath, following it but not controlling it, as I stare at the tiled floor in front of my cushions.

I have been visiting this prison for several months now as a volunteer and still cannot get a grasp on the experience, can’t put it into words. I know that I come away both exhausted and invigorated by this. Hell if those guys can practice Buddhism in a place like that, I surely can in the more supportive world of home and community.  But it also more than that. For the one and a half hours that we are together, meditating and discussing Buddhism and life, the absurdity of being in this place melts away. I just meditate, bow, chant, and talk about things like compassion, patience, anger and how this practice helps in so many ways. I suppose it is the same for these guys; for a brief period of time they can relax and just be who they are and not worry about hustling, making deals, getting into a fight and whatever else happens inside these walls. Honestly I don’t really know and will never know their reality because I have a “get out of jail free card” (my volunteer badge) and they do not. Some are in for years while others are in for the rest of their lives.

The light sound of the bell being hit once brings me back to the present and tells me that the meditation period is over. It rings throughout the room in decreasing intensity like the ripples in a pond after a pebble has been tossed in. We rise up slowly, some of us stiffly, face each other and bow. I am struck, like the bell, by the contradictoriness of this place and time. I am doing something completely normal to me, something I do nearly every day – meditation – and yet I am also behind thick walls, fences of barbed wire, and armed guard towers sitting next to men who have been convicted of heinous crimes that I cannot even imagine. Both completely normal and intensely abnormal. Some of my exhaustion comes from trying to wrap my mind around this experience.

The men leave first and then the other volunteers and myself make our way back out into the sunshine. The largeness of this place, the thick walls, guard towers and barbed wire remind me of where I am and the absurdity, the differentness of it all, comes flooding back in. Suddenly I am exhausted and ready to be home with my family. Come next month I know I will be ready to head back up there again to the walls and the guards and the inmates and to the door that you are not supposed to slam but that you cannot close any other way. Slam! And I will be in the slammer once again, at least for a few hours immersed in the merging of the differentness and the sameness of it all.