After more than thirteen years behind bars, a prisoner’s short, bittersweet experience of freedom is a reminder of his guru and the free, cheerful state of mind that is available at every moment.
The guard inside the control center motioned me closer to the glass to I.D. me, and suddenly the outer glass windows of the sally port slid open. I stepped out into the free world, relishing each moment with amazement as I walked down the stone steps of the main entrance to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, a high security prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
The day was absolutely beautiful, not a cloud in the brilliant azure sky. The autumn air was just a little crisp but the afternoon sun bathed me in its warmth. A huge U.S. flag beat smartly in the breeze, high atop its flagpole just across from the main entrance guard tower.
Just short of thirteen years ago, I had arrived at this prison in handcuffs and leg irons, wearing a bright orange, county jail jumpsuit. Now here I was in the free world again, wearing slacks, a sports coat and tie, waiting for a taxi to the airport. After being locked up continuously for a total of thirteen and a half years, I could not believe I was standing there on my own-no handcuffs, no guards, no fear.
It was time for the afternoon shift change, and quite a few staff were coming and going. Some who knew me waved; a few stopped to chat. The rest simply paid me no mind at all. Just minutes earlier I had been an inmate inside a high security prison, where the slightest challenge to authority is met with swift and sure suppression. Now, just because of where I was standing and the clothes I was wearing, I was suddenly seen as a normal human being.
Standing there at the curb, I was a jumble of intense feelings. My father had died just the day before. I was headed home on a three day, unescorted furlough to attend the funeral and be with my family.
My dad had fought lung cancer valiantly during the past seven months. He’d had 31 radiation treatments and four rounds of chemotherapy and seemed to be winning, but a few weeks short of his 78th birthday, his damaged lungs and embattled heart finally gave out.
My greatest fear, losing one of my parents while still locked up, had come to pass. My greatest hope, that my dad would survive to see me walk out of prison for good, was not to be.
The day before, when I found out over the phone that my dad had died, I went back to my cell and fell apart. I cried and cried. Now I was standing out in the fresh air and sunshine, hurting like hell inside and grinning on the outside at the beauty and majesty of a fall afternoon in the Ozarks.
Unescorted funeral furloughs are all but unheard of at this high security institution. The standard practice is to send the prisoner in handcuffs and leg irons with an escort of two guards, sometimes four. You are only allowed to attend the actual funeral ceremony and burial, and you pay all the expenses, including overtime for the guards. I had really dreaded showing up at my dad’s funeral escorted by prison guards. As a low security prisoner only six months short of release to a half-way house, I’d long been eligible for transfer to a minimum security prison camp, and the only reason I remained in the high security institution was to continue the hospice work I’d been doing there since 1987. Even so, the warden was sticking his neck out by letting me go, and I was very grateful for his compassionate decision.
Standing gazing into the sky I couldn’t help but think of my Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. To this day, whenever I look at the sky, especially a deep blue, cloudless sky, I am reminded of my teacher and the joy I always felt in his presence, even after his death.
I had been in prison almost two years when he died in 1987. I was devastated by my teacher’s death and overwhelmed by deep regrets. I felt I had let him down in so many ways. He was my best friend and had given me everything, but at the end I wasn’t even there.
During the weeks following his death, I spent a lot of time walking the track in the prison yard. There, his presence was especially potent for me, somehow embodied in the vastness of the sky. Although I expected to be thoroughly depressed, I actually awoke each morning in a very cheerful state, and this uplifted state of mind remained unshakable throughout the day, sometimes approaching a state of elation or mild rapture, especially outside walking the prison yard. Of course, I experienced a powerful sense of emptiness and impermanence as the death of my teacher began to sink in, but these feelings were like ripples in a more powerful and very stable positive state.
Thinking about my dad and gazing at the clear blue sky, I recognized that raw, tender-hearted mixture of joy and sadness Trungpa Rinpoche described as the mark of being truly awake and alive. One of his most important teachings was that we could simply cheer up by connecting with our inherent sanity and healthiness, what he called basic goodness. He taught that there is an unlimited source of cheerful, awake energy always available to us.
Being rather thick-headed, it took getting locked up in prison for me to start practicing enough to realize the truth of this teaching. After years of daily practice and yearly retreats, that unconditional, cheerful mind became the context of my daily life in prison, immediately available even if not always present. To say I’m grateful for this would be no small understatement.
The three days I spent at home with my family were a great blessing, even in the circumstance of such loss and sadness. It was hard to grasp the reality of being out in the free world again. Everything had a surreal quality to it, especially on the day of the funeral.
I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for the rest of my family. They had been through all this just four months earlier with the tragic death of my 17-year-old nephew, David -same funeral home, same church, same cemetery. Just short of starting his senior year in high school, this free-spirited and much-loved young man fell to his death while attempting to climb down some river bluffs at night with his buddies. My dad was deeply grieved over the seemingly senseless death of his grandson, and now we were going to bury him, too.
I wanted to take my dad’s body back to the house and just hang out with him for a while, at least a few days or a week, like people did in the old days. Now everything is so fast, so busy. I needed more time with my dad, more time to cry and laugh and grieve for him.
The ride to the cemetery was really hard. My mom, who had been very strong and steady up until then, began to have a very difficult time. She said, “I just can’t believe we are really doing this-really going to bury your father.”
I spent most of my three days at home at my mother’s side. It meant everything to me, and I know it meant the world to her to have me there. I also had the pleasure of spending time outside the prison visiting room with Robert, my now fully grown 22-year-old son. We stayed up late together, talking and watching videos. It was also a joy to be with my brother and three sisters and all my nieces and nephews, all grown up in my absence.
It was strange arriving back at the prison in a taxi and asking someone to let me in. Furloughs are so rare at this prison that the guards outside didn’t quite know what to do with me. The guard who eventually let me into the prisoner receiving area said, “Welcome back,” the irony immediately obvious to both of us.
It took me just a few minutes to be strip-searched (“Bend over and spread ’em”) and change from my street clothes back into prison khakis. Dressed again in inmate attire, I was amazed how quickly the attitude of the guards shifted. The usual arrogant attitude and sick, “We’ve got your ass” prison guard humor started up immediately. Well, at least I knew I was “home.”
Despite being busy with numerous projects and my usual intense daily schedule, I’ve been in a deeply reflective mood since returning to the prison, carried along by a river of complex and unpredictable emotions. Anger and sadness, fear and loneliness, emptiness and longing have colored my days and nights, interspersed with feelings of peace or even joy at moments of acceptance and letting go. It all comes and goes of its own accord.
Nothing prepares you for losing one of your parents-not the hospice work I’ve been doing here for the past eleven years, not the meditation practices I’ve been doing for more than twenty years, not even the death of my own spiritual teacher. My father had always been a powerful reference point, a presence I battled with at times. In recent years we had grown very close and talked regularly by phone, finally just days before he entered hospital for the last time. I knew I loved my dad a lot and told him so regularly. But only when I saw his lifeless body laid out in a casket at the funeral home did I fully realize how deeply I loved him. It just broke my heart.
I have let a lot of people down in my life-my mom and dad, my teacher, my son, and many others. Somehow everyone has stuck with me. I have been the beneficiary of so much kindness from so many people. It amazes me and it inspires me to want to do something of value with my life, to be of service in some way.
I have been studying with Roshi Bernie Glassman for the past five years, inspired by his unique approach to contemplative social action and the Peacemaker path he established with his late wife, Jishu Sensei. Roshi and Jishu performed the Zen Peacemaker priest ordination for me in 1997 in the prison chapel.
Roshi’s vision for the peacemaker work has evolved into an international, interfaith community of Peacemaker Villages, each having a unique identity and focus. As a member of both the Shambhala community and the Zen Peacemaker Order, I would like to work with others when I get out to establish a peacemaker village centered around prison ministry and prison reform activism. I have lived in this prison world long enough that it’s now part of who I am. I could never just walk away from it.
As Buddhists, we aspire to experience all beings as family; I know all prisoners are my sisters and brothers. The prison situation in the United States is getting worse all the time and the challenge is immense-to slow down current trends, bring about reforms, and minister to the needs of the millions of men and women who are living with the realities of the system as it is today. It’s sad to say, but it looks like there’s an almost unlimited future in prison activism. It’s nice to have a mission in life, but it’s a job I would very much like to work myself out of.