Sitting with “Red”
By Kooi Fong Lim, The Buddhist Channel, June 7, 2006
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- There is this story about a monk and his disciple taking a stroll back to their hut just after dana (receiving offerings of food). By a creek along their path was an old willow tree and nearby, a banyan shrub resting on the slope of a mound. It was an unusually windy morning. The monk asked the disciple: "What's common between that old willow tree and the banyan shrub?"
The disciple took a while to observe and then replied: "Both are swaying to the wind."
"Yes," replied the monk, "both embrace and dance with the wind. Both are different, apart, and yet connected somehow. That's the path of nature, the way of the natural."
William "Red" Graham has been incarcerated in various correctional facilities in New York State for close to 22 years. In the last 15 years or so, he has taken upon himself to undergo a training regime for personal transformation that few of his fellow prisoners would even contemplate. It is called zen, and the daily practice which he embraces is zazen, sitting in dynamic, lucid stillness; the cultivation of mindfulness and concentration.
His teacher, the Zen Master Ven. Kobutsu Malone, as a volunteer Buddhist prison chaplain has dedicated eight of those 15 years teaching in the notorious Sing Sing Prison. For seven years, while Red was incarcerated in Sing Sing he took part with the Zen Priest on a weekly basis, with a small prison sangha called “Dharma Song Zendo” offering them formal zen training, providing guidance and presenting spiritual teachings.
As a consequence of Red’s zazen practice – solid 45 to 60 minutes of sitting everyday in full lotus position, the anger and deep resentment toward the turn of events leading to his incarceration has been transformed into a profound, well-grounded, perspective of wisdom and understanding.
More importantly, as Ven. Kobutsu observes, it has fortified his internal strength. Red may be sitting behind high security walls, but his mind is open, free, and vitally accepting of the inevitable change in nature just as the willow and the banyan in the wind.
A couple of weeks ago, Ven. Kobutsu mailed a copy of his latest book, "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" to Red, who is now incarcerated in the Gowanda Correctional Facility. The authorities in his facility refused him access to the volume citing what they claim to be a regulation they list as "Depicts/describes procedures to be implemented solely by Administration". We have since discovered that such regulation does not exist as a legal departmental regulation for rejection of media.
As the venerable, his close associates, and Red's attorney endeavour to engage with the prison authorities to reverse the decision to ban the book, there's a deep felt concern making its round in the worldwide Buddhist community as to whether it would be wise to initiate public support for Red.
While it is clear that Red's rights have been violated, to publicly censure the authorities could run the risk him having to deal with malevolent forces which are for the most part unseen, or disconsciously ignored, outside of prison walls. Yet to fail to respond, to do nothing, would mean to acquiesce to a system of oppression that impinges upon what is right and just. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who is among most the influential educational thinkers of the late 20th century challenges us with his quote, “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."
No, we do not wish to engage in activities if they result in harm to Red, or any other prisoner, and even those who might be acting in a repressive manner. But like the wind and the trees in the story above, we can do one thing for Red that high walls and authorities with their repressive rules and regulations cannot stop; we can all sit in zazen, or meditation, in solidarity with him. We can endeavour to sit in solid lotus positions, or in whatever sitting posture we are able to maintain in perfect stillness for 45 to 60 minutes a day— everyday, for as long as it takes for the authorities to rescind their decision to ban the Dharma book.
While we are in that mode of mindfulness and lucid concentration, let us we radiate our thoughts of loving kindness, solidarity and support to Red, so that he may continue to maintain his patience so that this episode does not jeopardise his store of wisdom and collectedness. Equally important, may we also radiate thoughts of strong compassion to the Gowanda prison authorities, so that they may gain the wisdom to recognize the repressive nature of their chosen action and take the leap necessary to admit that possibly an error has occurred, and to review the book with a more open and accepting frame of mind.
And so we sit - with Red. He may be sitting in a cell or dorm somewhere in Gowanda Correctional Facility in New York. You may be sitting on the other side of the world, in a corner of an apartment facing the Pacific Ocean somewhere in Seattle. But like the old willow tree and the banyan shrub, the Dharma engages both like the embracing wind, without regard for distance, physical differences or obstacles.
A full lotus position in a prison cell is just the same as a full lotus position in corner of our home. When we are aware of this inter-connectedness, we can remind our selves of the unique ways nature, or the way Dharma binds us all together. The suffering of one is felt in equal terms, and their joy celebrated in equal measure.
Red may have been denied access to a book, but we don't need a book to sit, just mind with focused intent. A book may have been denied, but look at who's sitting there, observing quietly all the foolishness and fear that abounds.
And so we offer in solidarity our support to Red. We sit with him, and like him. A solid 45 to 60 minutes of intensely focused sitting - everyday, in our best meditation posture - in dynamic lucid stillness, for as long as it takes for the ban to be rescinded.
With palms together in reverence.
Kooi Fong Lim is the Managing Editor of the Buddhist Channel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org