Prison Dharma

Posted by on May 19, 2015 | 0 comments

 

In 2011 I received a letter from on inmate in New Jersey, it had been sent to an old address, but the Aberdeen post office figured out who it was meant for and I got it a few months after Chris Richards mailed it. He had been in the New Jersey prison system for two years of a seven-year sentence.

 

“I was seeking the guidance of a teacher,” Richards says, “specifically a Zen teacher, who would be willing to work with me both while I was inside and later when I would be released. I got the original information from the back of Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in American Prisons. Then Prison Dharma Network mailed it to Thay Kobai. I’d written similar letters all over the world—I just went through the back pages of Shambhala Sun and wrote to all the centers and monasteries I could find.”  Two places answered him, saying they couldn’t help.

 

“I told you about taking refuge with Bhikku Bodhi in jail and about seeking a teacher for long-term guidance and training. I remember you told me you’d be more than happy to work with me and you gave me a list of reading materials to get me started and I remember you gave me your phone number. I was so excited! You warned me not to get caught up in fantasies about what this would be like and what a monk’s life is like. You said many Buddhist inmates fantasize about ordaining when they get out.

 

But Richards did get out and he came to Aberdeen Washington to train for awhile with Thay Kobai. The two traveled to Desert Zen Center in the Mojave Desert, where Thay Kobai’s abbot, Thich An Giao, was to do a training retreat for monks in his lineage. An Giao watched Richards carefully during the retreat and eventually agreed to ordain him a novice monk. This was done at a ceremony on April 9, 2015.

Richards stayed in Aberdeen for another month, learning the routine at Plum Mountain Buddhist Community and helping Thay Kobai in his street ministry and other activities. On May 10 he returned to New Jersey where he will take care of an ailing father and begin working on a BA in religious studies. He will continue his practice in temples and centers nearby and continue consultations by phone and Skype with Thay Kobai. In April 2016 he will return for another training retreat in the Mojave. He hopes someday to become a prison chaplain.

In other Washington DOC news, Seattle’s Genko Kathy Blackman reports that the Religious Advisory Committee has been re-constituted and met recently to advise the prison system on religious needs. “Most of the meeting was devoted to reviewing the newest iteration of the Secure Access Faith catalogue,” she says, “which became available May 1. There are a number of errors in it that have not yet been corrected, and malas are not yet in the catalogue.”

Bernie Warner, DOC Secretary, and Steve Sinclair, Assistant Secretary for Prisons, both attended the beginning of the meeting and asked for any feedback on programs. They also announced that a new Re-entry Director has been appointed, along with two re-entry specialists, to oversee some new re-entry programs.

 

Chris Richards shows off Kobai’s rakusu from Robert Aitken Roshi.  photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Chris Richards shows off Kobai’s rakusu from Robert Aitken Roshi. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Chris Richards shows off Kobai’s rakusu from Robert Aitken Roshi.  photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Chris Richards shows off Kobai’s rakusu from Robert Aitken Roshi. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Master of ceremonies, Sunyananda Dharma, helps Richards on with new kesa. New novice.Thich Tam Bi is to the left.  photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Master of ceremonies, Sunyananda Dharma, helps Richards on with new kesa. New novice.Thich Tam Bi is to the left. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Richards receiving water blessing from Abbot Thich An Giao.  photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Richards receiving water blessing from Abbot Thich An Giao. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Richards, now Thich Tam Hy, is right foreground after ordinations on April 9. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”

Richards, now Thich Tam Hy, is right foreground after ordinations on April 9. photo credits: “Eric Reed Photography”