Buddhists Ministering on Prison Issues, Five Commitments, Food, Mental Health

From prison hospice rooms to rooftop gardens in the Bronx, Buddhist ministers are redefining what it means to serve in the world, according to participants in a panel discussion on “Special Ministries” at the Zen Peacemakers’ Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism in Montague, MA on Wednesday, August 11. It’s about applying Buddhist dharma and mindfulness practice in different settings, said moderator Fleet Maull, a Zen priest and a pioneer in the field.

Fleet MaullAmong his many projects, Maull has founded the Prison Dharma Network and the National Prison Hospice Project; the latter, established during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, was the first hospice project in an American prison. Today it lists 125 organizations in 15 countries and in 30 states of the United States.

Very little Buddhist prison ministry existed in the 1980’s and ’90s, Maull said, and conditions in the prison hospitals were horrendous — he cited, as one example, terminal cancer patients in agonizing pain given Tylenol as treatment. From these hellish beginnings the National Prison Hospice Project emerged.  The Prison Dharma Network, meanwhile, is building a resource movement, Maull said, counting among its many programs an ongoing enterprise that sends dharma books to 2,500 prisoners.

The Network ministers not only to prisoners but to prison staff, Maull emphasized. “Everyone,” he said, “is a bodhisattva and buddha-to-be.” Through these Buddhist ministries, Maull helps bring the dharma to some of the seven-to-eight-million people in America enmeshed in various ways within the nation’s prison-industrial complex.

Prison ministry is also a focus of Anthony Stultz‘s numerous socially-engaged Buddhist projects with the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, PA. These projects are organized around the Five Commitments, principles that emerged from a multi-faith World Parliament of Religions conference.

The first Commitment is Non-Violence. The ministry of Stultz’s organization meets this Commitment, he said, by addressing the issue of bullying in local schools and offering mindfulness-based “true self-esteem” programs.

The second Commitment is a pledge to create Solidarity and a Just Economic Order, which Blue Mountain Lotus works to fulfill not only through its prison ministry, but through collaborations with the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters, and through sponsoring a “mindful meeting” practice that encourages sangha members to meet with local legislators. “It’s important for Buddhists to organized in the political system,” Stultz declared.

The third Commitment is Tolerance and a Life Based on Truthfulness, and as efforts to fulfill this commitment Stultz mentioned support programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities and counseling for Rainbow groups; a “Shared Pulpit” program that builds relationships with churches, Jewish groups, and a local mosque; and providing English as a Second Language courses for Mexican immigrants.

To meet the Fourth Commitment, Equal Rights for Men and Women, Stultz said that members of his group stand at abortion clinics to support women there, run a YWCA program for women escaping abuse, provide an interfaith family shelter, and offer seminars on parenting.

For the fifth Commitment, Earth Stewardship, Stultz’s organization supports programs to protect state forests and water resources.

Francisco LugovinaFrancisco Lugovina, Zen priest and socially engaged Buddhist, works in the Bronx — in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country, afflicted with crime, drugs, violence, and high rates of health disorders such as asthma. He combines earth stewardship with youth outreach to help ensure that families get access to healthy food. By teaching kids to grow rooftop organic gardens, and by encouraging not only them but their parents to harvest and keep the produce, Lugovina promotes healthy nutrition, something he learned as a child himself living in the countryside of his native Puerto Rico. He also has helped cook wholesome meals for kids in a public charter school, an activity, he says, that has a valuable ripple effect: “The kids then go home to their parents and say they want to start eating differently.”

Lugovina’s socially-engaged Buddhist ministry doesn’t stop there. He also has provided mindfulness training to public school teachers — “without presenting it as specifically ‘Buddhist,'” he emphasized — and has set up a meditation room in a community health club.

Jules HarrisMental health is as important as physical health, and Jules Harris described his work as both a Zen teacher and psychotherapist in offering techniques to achieve calmness and clarity of mind. “I saw people studying Zen for 15 years who still were not at peace,” he said. “I decided I’d teach Zen and borrow techniques from psychotherapy,” addressing — among other problems — “spiritual bypassing,” a term coined by John Wellwood to denote a person’s action of using spirituality to avoid psychological issues.

Harris’s socially-engaged Buddhist ministry isn’t confined to the therapist’s office, however. He also described his group’s work in a Federal detention center and a homeless group shelter in Philadelphia; with at-risk youth in after-school programs; and with women recovering from drug and alcohol and mental health issues.

The purpose of such efforts, Harris said — in a statement that summarizes the socially-engaged Buddhist work of his colleagues Maull, Stultz, Lugovina, and others — is to “provide service and share dharma.”

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