Prison Dharma activist Acharya Fleet Maull.

Prison Dharma activist Acharya Fleet Maull.

Dharma in Hell:
A Workshop for Prison Volunteers

As Acharya Fleet Maull sees it, modern prisons and jails are the “charnel grounds” of our culture. Like the yogis of Tibet who entered burial grounds to examine their own dark side, those who volunteer in these present day charnel grounds encounter difficult challenges.

On January 16 Acharya (senior teacher) Maull offered an all day workshop for prison volunteers and people interested in learning more about prisons. Hosted by the Portland Shambhala Center, the workshop was entitled “Dharma in Hell: Mindfulness-Based Programs in Prisons, Jails, and Youth Facilities”.

Maull is a senior student of both Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpche, as well as a Dharma successor of Roshi Bernie Glassman. A social activist as well as meditation teacher, he founded Prison Dharma Network, Peacemaker Institute, the National Prison Hospice Association and the Center for Contemplative End of Life Care. He is the author of “Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull”.

The Saturday program at the Portland Shambhala Center was attended by 30 people of different backgrounds, interests and Buddhist traditions. The focus of the workshop was on providing a structure in which participants could explore their own interests in prisons and prisoners.

Through a series of mindfulness-based guided meditations, self reflections and empowerment exercises participants were asked to examine their own fears, hesitations, and true motivations, including the question: is your interest in prisoners about you or about them?

Working in pairs, participants created stories in which they took turns assuming the roles of “victim” and “victimizer”. Many people expressed how powerful it felt to switch the roles. This was a way to experience being a victim, giving away power or taking responsibility, being empowered. Some of these same exercises of self-empowerment and transformation Acharya Maull presented at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) on his last visit to the Northwest.

The workshop was a first step in training potential volunteers to support the ongoing prison Dharma work done by the Portland Shambhala Center and Portland Dharma Rain Zen Center. This training highlighted the importance for those of us who volunteer in these challenging situations to be aware of our own confusions, misgivings and heartfelt connections.

During this training participants were able to interact and ask questions of current volunteers. The awareness that we are all human beings, can be a reminder that we are presenting more then a meditation program. We are also an alternative social role model. For that reason, we hope to bring some sanity and not add more confusion to these chaotic, toxic environments.

Portland Shambhala has been running mindfulness meditation programs at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem for the past five years, alternating on Tuesday nights with volunteers from Portland’s Dharma Rain Zen Center and the OSP Buddhist prison chaplain.

Every month Shambhala or Dharma Rain hosts an all day meditation program at OSP. These day long programs are led by visiting teachers such as Acharya Maull, or by local teachers. The program consists of extended periods of mindfulness meditation with instruction, followed by a Dharma talk or other transformative material and group discussion. Volunteers and the inmate participants share in a lunch provided by the prison.

Dharma Rain Zen Center also has ongoing programs at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (a women’s prison) as well as some correctional facilities in eastern Oregon.

Also present at the workshop was a representative from Living Yoga, which does volunteering at OSP and other facilities.

For more information about Portland Shambhala Center, Dharma Rain Zen Center, Living Yoga and their prison programs, please visit:

Contributor:  Doug McCanne.
Photos:  Courtesy of Prison Dharma Press.