Justin von Bujdoss, the first-ever Buddhist chaplain at Rikers Island Prison, speaks with Lindsay Kyte about America’s most notorious jail, his role in supporting the prison’s staff, and how he finds beauty in prison’s “charnel ground.”
“There’s a lot of suffering,” says Von Bujdoss. But, “When people are supported, they naturally do the right thing.”
Read Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s profile of von Bujdoss in the January 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Lindsay Kyte: Hi, I’m Lindsay Kyte and I’m the associate editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. Today we’re talking to Justin von Bujdoss, who is the first-ever Buddhist chaplain at America’s most notorious jail, Rikers Island. Hi, Justin.
Justin von Bujdoss: Hi, Lindsay.
Lindsay Kyte: So, tell us, what is the atmosphere like at Rikers Island?
Justin von Bujdoss: It’s a place where there’s a lot of suffering I think you could say in the sense that nobody wants to be incarcerated. Nobody wants to have their rights taken away or their liberties taken away necessarily. And it’s a very challenging place for staff to work, so for officers there can be long hours sometimes, it could be stressful, and it can be unpredictable. In this particular kind of combination of things it’s very hard, you know, very challenging. That being said, there’s a lot of work being done here to provide very meaningful support on both sides. Both for the inmate population, and then also for staff.
Lindsay Kyte: Can you give us some examples of sort of the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day and what you’re doing?
Justin von Bujdoss: Because I serve staff I might start off my day visiting a staff member in the hospital, or I might visit a staff member who’s sick at home, or recovering from surgery at home. I might also be serving my kind of official role as departmental chaplain in a ceremony for some kind. Typically though, I’ll end up coming to the office and just kind of assessing what’s gone on overnight, because we run 24 hours a day. And then either going out into the field, so that could be facilities off-island, hospitals, nursing homes, or what have you. And then I offer meditation in the jail facilities.
Lindsay Kyte: Do you present your work as Buddhism or do you present it more as helpful techniques drawn from Buddhism?
Justin von Bujdoss: I think it’s not necessarily a very useful term to be called a Buddhist chaplain. I’m a chaplain who acts from my own internal kind of spiritual compass at the end of the day. Because what really I’m trying to bring is a piece of, a sense of calm, a sense of curiosity about what it’s like to be going through what someone’s going through. Not that necessarily I’m curious. I am, but I’m trying to allow people to develop a sense of inquiry and an ability to skillfully walk into the situation they’re in, and support them as they do that. I think that’s something that people respond very well to, and have actually been a little bit surprised that that can be done in an effective way. And then, once done, I’ve had so many people say, “Oh well of course you’re our chaplain, that makes total sense.”
Lindsay Kyte: On a personal note, what is it like for you to be in this atmosphere?
Justin von Bujdoss: You know, occasionally I’d like to really refer to this place as a charnel ground as you find in the Vajrayana tradition where everything is just really intense, everything is a little more heightened than normal. The beauty is that there’s just nowhere to hide. When there’s nowhere to hide, all you can learn how to do or learn how to be is yourself. Right? And then as a chaplain, as a Buddhist teacher, as a practitioner of Dharma, if there’s nowhere for me to hide, then I need to cope, and I need to understand, and I need to cut through everything that makes me want to disengage while I’m here. And, because I’m here to serve people, then I really need to learn in real time how to be able to do that. It’s not theoretical at all. It’s this kind of call to action to be a presence, and not an armchair Buddhist.
Lindsay Kyte: So, what is your hope for how this work will ultimately be of benefit to Rikers?
Justin von Bujdoss: I’m not so concerned about specific outcomes, as much as making sure that the people I’m serving are supported. I also have a lot of faith in the fact that when people are supported people naturally do the right thing.