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Ming Zhen Shakya

Zen For Profit

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

So much of the State of Hawaii is owned by the families of missionaries who first came to preach the Gospels that it is said of them that they came to do good - and did very well, indeed.

We are all used to seeing the religious get rich by extolling the virtues of poverty. When hymns are sung to communal sharing, the well-known chorus may be 'brotherhood' but the unfamiliar verse is a prescription for primogeniture, a Grandfather Clause of 'first in time, first in right,' - a well-timed right stipulated in articles of incorporation that vest the common assets in an elite, controlling few. Non-profit does not necessarily mean unprofitable.

We have TVs. We know the score. Many of us came to Buddhism precisely because it seemed so free of evangelical chicanery. No autographed pictures of Jesus Christ for us. No drippy spiked eyelashes to spur us into runaway generosity.

Zen used to be a private affair, a communion between two hearts, one wise and one yearning, free of guile, and no more venal than Old Master Po's teaching us to be kind, to do good unconditionally and not negotiate 'markers' - as we might traverse a rice-paper floor-runner without leaving any footprints.

But then the "Zen as Club" juggernaut came rolling down the Path, crushing all those solitary, footloose Grasshoppers. The rice-paper runner became a red carpet for the privileged few; and the direction it headed was that venal one we had sought to avoid.

As Zen Centers proliferated, their administrators - the ones who operate that rolling "Zen as Club" machine - prospected for dollars and discovered in the homeless and the incarcerated a motherload of fundraising possibilities. Press releases and brochures proclaimed that they were trying "to do good"; the sorry likelihood is that they were trying "to do well."

Here, too, we know the score. When, for example, labor is obtained from people who offer it as a religious donation to non-profit organizations, labor and tax laws are circumvented. And so these administrators (I cannot call them clerics), trading on our religion's reputation for innocuous intent, reveal their plans to save society's 'disadvantaged souls.' They recruit homeless men, men who are bereft of family, friend, and money - but who are nevertheless able-bodied - and promise them that their rags will be exchanged for the Sangha's glorious raiment. The men, in their destitution, suspend credulity and believe.

The Center's administrators then give these men the requisite Dharma name and membership card, Spartan shelter and food (in prison lingo that would be "three hots and a cot") and a small stipend every month. In exchange, as part of their training and as an act of Buddhist devotion, the men are required to contribute their labor to the Zen community's benefit. Idle hands are the devil's workshop.

As a paying guest, I once stayed at a Zen Center that housed some of these 'disadvantaged souls.' They were gotten up at 3AM every morning and transported to a bakery to make bread and pastries for the Center and its institutional complex. Their products also stocked a retail bakery and coffee shop, the operation of which was given to an admittedly better class of disadvantaged souls who were similarly provided Dharma names, shelter, food and a modest stipend. Since the Zen Center served only vegetarian food, vegetables were vital to the menu and to satisfy this requirement a "truck farm" was started in the countryside; and naturally more disadvantaged souls were given Dharma names, room, board and a modest stipend to work the farm. This enterprise, being sufficiently productive, enabled a vegetarian restaurant to be opened, and more disadvantaged souls were recruited to operate the restaurant. And so it went. I recall that the first "guest work" assignment I was given was to clean up champagne bottles and glasses left over from an administrative staff party of the previous evening. They were celebrating something... the Buddha's birth, perhaps.

Lately, they have started to bleed emotionally over the plight of prison inmates. Though there are legitimate Buddhist organizations already in existence whose dedicated service in providing literature and guidance to incarcerated men and women has been well proven, a few Zen Centers have determined that this care is not sufficient to save these prisoners. They whirl the barber pole and sharpen the clippers. Enter the spin doctors.

Slick brochures, dispatched nationwide, ask us to consider the shame: all these convicts, desperately seeking salvation, and not just any salvation but Buddhist salvation - and there is not a single Buddhist priest in the U.S. who gives a rat's ass worth of concern for them. (I can't quote the brochure exactly since I gave it to the warden of the prison I regularly visit.) The need for citizen volunteers and, of course, donations to the Zen Center's own "ministry" was acute. I can't remember whether or not they accepted credit cards.

Other Zen Centers joined the goldrush to save all these felonious potential Buddhists. One farm-country Sangha that sounded like it met in Mayberry under the protection of Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife - (with an annual crime rate of 1 felony per million inhabitants) - has really been hemorrhaging.

What, precisely, are a volunteer's expenses in tending prisoners? Not food. Not clothing. Not shelter. Not medical care. Books can be obtained free from the Buddhist Promotion Society, a Japanese group which functions like the Gideon Bible Society. Photocopied material? There are copy machines in prison libraries, and prisoners never seem to lack the ability to use them. Ask any judicial body and you will be informed of the reams of "in-house" photocopied material that accompany prisoners' lawsuits.

And if the volunteer wishes to serve the Dharma in accordance with his Bodhisattva Vow, might we not suppose that he can offer to the Dharma the cost of his gasoline and the occasional book or photocopied material he may want to distribute?

Someone less cynical than I is entitled to ask, "What is the harm? Why not give a disadvantaged soul a chance at rehabilitation? With or without priestly credentials, what is wrong with a person visiting prisons, in extending the Dharma to inmates, in befriending them?"

The damage is in the discovery of the duplicitous intent; the harm is in eating the fruit of a poisoned tree.

What happens to all those disadvantaged souls that enterprising Zen Centers have cleaned up and saved?

One or two are maintained as shills, mine-salting nuggets of success; but the great percentage soon leave. They leave not because respectability suddenly seems like a bad idea, but because they discover that they were worse off than the slaves they were intended to be: they were dupes.

What had the administrators thought? Did they suppose that because a man lacked a home he also lacked intelligence and was blind, as well, to their lifestyle? People know the difference between cotton and silk; between Volkswagen and Mercedes; between institutional glop and gourmet meals. These workers leave because they talk to each other and the fellow who totes his Zen Prince's carry-on to the First Class window of the airline knows the difference in price for a ticket in coach. And so, inevitably, comes the realization that they are being exploited not for the commonweal, nor for their own self-restoration, but for the enrichment of the elite few. They know that yet again they have trusted and yet again have been deceived - but this time it is worse: before it was cheating wives or greedy employers or a confused government's garbled call to arms. This time the lies slithered from the mouths of "priests."

I remember the morning that one such worker had decided to quit. He slowly dragged a chair across the dining room floor making a screeching, scraping noise, his face as grim as the sound was wrenching. The night before, he had mistakenly gone down a forbidden corridor in the building and had walked in on what he described as an "orgy." "I thought I found refuge in the Buddha," he said sadly. "I didn't." Life on the streets was less disillusioning and infinitely more honorable.

For all his work, he was worse off than when he came for he had eaten the fruit of the poisoned tree. He had been led to believe that he had found security; a place where he "belonged"; leaders and teachers he could trust to guide him on the path to righteousness; a surrogate family that would embrace him with sturdy arms that would never yield him up to misfortune, that would continue to care for him if he became sick or disabled or old. The emetic for this poison was the bitter truth of Zen's dictum: "No work, No food." Sickness would get a man delivered to a public clinic where he would not likely be picked up again. We have a business to run.

I didn't meet anyone who had stayed long enough to test the vaunted accommodations for the elderly.

Holding out the lure of service to lonely prisoners is yet another means of exploiting people who want to be helpful. Here, when greed is proffered as altruism, when the meretricious prey upon the sympathy of the naive, we find the setting for tragedy.

There is an old story about a holy man who is sitting by a river and sees a scorpion fall into the water. He scoops it out and deposits it on land and is stung by it. Moments later, the scorpion again falls into the water and again the holy man rescues it and is stung again. This happens a third time and a man who is observing all of this is astonished to see the holy man reach into the water to save the scorpion. "Why do keep helping this scorpion when it persists in stinging you?" the man asks. And the holy man answers, "It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting just as it is the dharma of a human being to help a creature in need."

Good people reflect upon their own lives and are thankful, perhaps, that they never had to pay for their own mistakes in quite the same way that men in prison are paying. Or else they are extremely grateful that the people around them were so benign and effective in rearing and educating them that they were spared the occasion for serious error.

Someone whose dharma it is to be helpful, helps. In prison ministries, however, he does not know how or when he may be stung.

"Zen as Club" brochures will promise to provide the civilian volunteer with all that he requires to conduct a prison ministry. Why... he will conduct meditation sessions, liturgical services, and preside over classes in Buddhist doctrine. To a person with a good heart, this is truly inviting. What more rewarding experience can there be than to bring the Bodhisattva of Compassion to the disaffected? Who could possibly object?

But just as each state has its own penal system, it has its own prison ministerial service and you can bet the farm, folks, that service is not just Christian, but Fundamentalist Christian. Buddhists are about as welcome as nudists.

When I protested to one of the "Zen as Club" brochure writers that he was mistaken when he said that there were no Buddhist priests whatsoever ministering to prisoners, I received no reply, although in his next mailing, his pitch was altered. Now I am informed that there are no prison chaplains in U.S. prisons. Well, a chaplain, by anybody's dictionary, is a person - clergyman or layman - who conducts a service in a chapel. When I am conducting services in the prison chapel, I am the chaplain. No, I am not the "regular in-house" chaplain. But let us be reasonable. Despite the heartfelt indignation of the brochure writer, it would be strange indeed to see a minority cleric function as the "full time" chaplain in any U.S. prison. Were we in Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Iran or we should find prisons but few Christian chaplains.

For a religious volunteer to succeed in his spiritual program, he must not only pass his state's course in "prison deportment" - the do's and don'ts of communicating directly with inmates, the acceptable attire, etc., but he must also be given access to the prison chapel. And this can be an insoluble problem.

The chaplain who makes up the chapel schedule may not care to yield time to alien creeds. His reluctance is frequently warranted. Cults - from Witches to Peyote Worshippers, on down or up, covet chapel time so that they can better huckster the public. Unfortunately, owing to the excesses of American-style Tantric Buddhism we Buddhists are often perceived as sex-crazed, drug using, devil-worshippers. Even the most conservative Buddhists among us - those who actually observe the Five Precepts - must bulldoze our way through the entrenched regime.

Additionally, prison personnel are reluctant to open the gates to civilian volunteers simply because civilians so often get personally involved with prisoners, and their involvement may threaten the routine operation of the prison.

To prison personnel the threat is contraband, in particular, drugs. Wardens and prison guards dislike drugs for the same reason we dislike them. Drugs are addictive and to support the addiction people steal. When people who are already in prison steal, we have what mathematically might be called a chain rule. We in civilian life fear a drug-crazed person who runs amok, but we have means to separate ourselves from this person. Prisons are overcrowded and when, in "the yard," someone is drug-crazed - someone whose homicidal proclivities have passed beyond threat to documented verdict - the situation is far more troublesome. Keeping drugs out of prisons is what wardens try to do. Drugs not only make more work for them but create a rather depressing effect upon the non-using prison population. Hollywood is quick to blame corrupt guards; but guards are professionals with pensions to protect; in fact civilian workers such as teachers of academic or trade apprentice programs; counselors for alcohol and drug abuse treatment groups; and teachers of religion, among other volunteers, are far more likely to enter into the sort of friendly relationships that clever drug users know how to exploit.

A cleric has usually heard enough hard-luck confessions - and has had the "follow-up" experience of gauging the sincerity of those confessions - to be circumspect. The volunteer has no such experiential resource and his fund of sympathy is easily tapped. A dear, repentant fellow will suffer a pain - a toothache, perhaps, that the ruthless medical service refuses to assuage. The volunteer can't bear to see him suffer and the next thing he does is slip him some old left-over painkillers he has had in his medicine chest. Perhaps some dear fellow's mother has died and he cannot sleep from grief. Where is the harm in giving him a few sleeping pills to get over his loss? The precedent having been set, pressure to expand it follows. When a Buddhist volunteer is compromised into becoming a drug source, where is the benefit? A fool has no spiritual authority.

The threat to the volunteer is of a different order. Volunteers are forbidden to have outside contact with prisoners or their families. Yet they have names and they write letters. As they talk to a prisoner, they talk about themselves. But prison rules also forbid disclosing the nature of a prisoner's crimes to these volunteers. As a priest I receive notice when a sex offender is going to be released into the general vicinity of my address; but volunteers are not similarly notified. Further, when a prisoner has fully served his time, he is released without a parole department's oversight. Does anyone at these "Zen as Club" institutions bother to inform the volunteer that someone convicted of murder or rape or child abuse, someone he befriended in the prison, may one day show up in his living room?

Perhaps an ex-prisoner may ask to borrow money or be given a job. A priest vowed to poverty has neither the employment opportunities nor the cash to give his request more than a smile. But the volunteer may not be so unencumbered. A priest lives among those who support his goals; a volunteer's family may not be so forbearing.

Also, a volunteer may unconsciously acknowledge a hierarchy of crime. Some prisoners may be moved to confess their crimes to him, and he may easily extenuate such crimes as armed robbery or battery as acts of financial need or passion. He may not, however, be so sanguine about child rape or murder. A priest is bound by his vows not to differentiate between criminal acts. And if he is an experienced priest - one who has been through the wretched Dark Night of the Spirit (not just the petty Dark Night of the Senses) - he is not impressed by such differences. In any event, a priest, as agent of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, may not decide who is entitled to receive forgiveness and who is disqualified from receiving it.

In prison ministries, there is a toll to pay. Sometimes the prisoner pays; and sometimes we pay. A layman may tire of his service and find a reason to abandon it. In snow or sun (there are no shade trees in prison yards) the men stand and wait to escort him to the chapel, and he does not come. They are disappointed, hurt in ways we cannot understand.

In other unexpected ways we are touched and oddly saddened. A few months ago one of the men in my group excitedly told me about this "really neat computer artwork" he had seen. "If you stare into it just right, you'll see things appear," he said. How long ago had that computer art been popular? I thought of a fly caught in amber. Here, suspended in time, the experience was fresh and new. In such a moment we understand the power of drama: words on a page could not convey his isolation so completely as seeing his joy in the novelty of what was to us on the outside, passe.

There are other tolls which the casual volunteer may not be willing or able to pay. In the course of struggling to obtain chapel time (which I obtained largely through the intercession of the Governor's office and a Federal Judge) I managed to offend those Fundamentalist Christians who regarded the inter-denominational chapel as their private church. They were outraged that "devil worshipping" was being conducted there.

The prisoner responsible for initially involving me in the prison was one with whom I had corresponded through the mail. I had sent him a copy of our 7th World manual. An educated man, he spoke German and was pleased to see the word Wehrmacht on the first page. My parents routinely spoke German but what I had once known as a child, I had long forgotten. Though I tried to assure him that little beyond counting and a few bars of Lili Marlene remained in my memory, he matter-of-factly quoted Goethe to me. I remember being astonished by his grasp of esoteric Buddhist and Daoist concepts. Once, walking across the yard, he recited the famous final lines of Faust, "Alles Vergangliche Ist nur ein Gleichnis; Das Unzulangliche, Hier wird's Ereignis; Das Unbeschreibliche, Hier ist's getan; Das Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan." (All that is transitory is merely a parable; the incomplete here is fulfilled; the indescribable here is performed; the Eternal Feminine leads us higher.")

He compared the lines to Chapter VI of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: "The Valley Spirit never dies. It is named the Mysterious Female. And the Doorway of the Mysterious Female is the base from which heaven and earth sprang. It is there within us all the while; Draw upon it as you will; it never runs dry." (Waley's translation.)

I didn't know quite what to say. I've talked Buddhism with academics who wouldn't have made this connection if had they witnessed Goethe and Lao Tzu singing the lines as a duet.

But that hierarchy of criminal acts can exist among inmates as well as volunteers. His was one of the unacceptable crimes and it set him apart from the other prisoners.

His criminal history was brief and tragic. From what I was able to piece together from the handwritten letters he sent me, he had taken his wife and child to a picnic and had had too much to drink. Driving home he had an accident and they were killed. He went, as he put it, "off the deep end" emotionally and committed acts of child molestation.

With only a few months left to serve in his sentence, he was there, desecrating the chapel with his presence. Someone broke a broomstick across his skull and buried the jagged stump in his neck. When he recovered he was moved to a distant maximum security prison for protective custody which meant that he would be allowed out of his cell for only several hours a week. In the empty days, he wrote me long, remorseful letters about his past. He didn't know why he had done what he had done. His shame and his sorrow were an abyss through which he was falling and he prayed he would one day reach the bottom of it so that he might begin the long climb up and out of the pit. Within 30 days of his release from prison, he got a job and while sitting at his work bench, a blood vessel burst in his brain and he died. He was 36.

Karma is karma. I don't know how much my bulldozing a way into the prison chapel set off the chain reaction that got that broomstick on his head or if that incident had anything at all to do with his death. I only know that I listen to Mahler's 8th a lot... and often... much too often... when the Mystical Chorus sings Goethe's final lines, I stop doing whatever I'm doing because my vision is blurring and I find myself crying. I am not given to cheap sentimentality - as anyone who knows me can attest.

Perhaps when a person is motivated by money and power, he is immune to sorrow. The scorpion does not fear its own tail. But for the rest of us the barb is there, waiting to sting us.. again... again... and again.  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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