A Buddhist refuge for those released from prison

by Clare Becker, The Hanover Evening Sun, Dec 28, 2015

Bodhi House takes in former prisoners at their most vulnerable moment.

GETTYSBURG, PA (USA) -- From the road, it's a scene like many others in rural Adams County. A white farmhouse set back in the trees. Weather-beaten barn. A dog in the yard lifts its head at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

<< John Mulligan (left) runs Bodhi House, a Buddhist retreat at his family's former farmhouse in Mount Joy Township, Adams County. The retreat is used as a transitional center by ex-cons trying to re-integrate into society. (Shane Dunlap / AP)

Inside, cuttings from a bodhi tree, a tree sacred to Buddhists and traditionally planted at monasteries, catch the sunlight from a glass near the kitchen sink. A vase of pink freesia rests at the base of a small altar to the Buddha. A tall man in a pressed white cotton shirt gets up from an armchair to answer the phone. There's something about the calm, measured way he moves, his soft-spoken speech that's instantly compelling.

John Mulligan, 76, is the director and one-man-band of Bodhi House, a Buddhist transitional living community based in Mount Joy Township and designed for men exiting the state prison system. Since 2004, the program has offered help with post-release life skills while allowing residents to continue their Buddhist study and practice in a supportive spiritual environment.

Mulligan, a Theravada Buddhist, has roots in Adams County. While working with state prisons in the 1990s, he noticed a lack of post-release options for those practicing Buddhism. Bodhi House helped him fill that vision.

Home for those who don't have one

It's a muggy, late summer morning in August, and Mulligan is talking to 42-year-old Angel Correa, a current Bodhi House resident, who has just come in after cutting wood outside. Until recently, Mulligan drove Correa to work every day — an hour each way — in the program's sole form of transportation, a green Saturn with 305,000 miles. Correa has his own car now.

Correa, who said he has done six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, had welding and mechanic skills before his stint in prison. Those skills have helped him land a well-paying job nearby. While at Bodhi House, he participates in the twice-daily group meditation, early morning and again in the evening. He's been able to transition off the Paxil medication he was taking for his post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"I used to go to a therapist twice a month," Correa said. "She saw a huge change from my intake from when I started practicing Buddhism; she told me herself."

For many exiting prison, the transition isn't smooth.

After arriving at Bodhi House, the next steps can often feel overwhelming for residents, Mulligan said.

Employers are not eager to hire ex-cons, and holding down a job requires reliable transportation and a place to live. For many men, family support is nonexistent. Bodhi House will take them in, and most are able to move on after six months.

During his arrival at the house, Correa considered becoming a Buddhist monk. He was under the tutelage of Bhante Sujatha, the spiritual director of Bodhi House, who makes frequent visits to Adams County from Blue Lotus Temple, the Buddhist center he founded in Illinois. Correa has since decided against pursing the monastery path and has been allowed to stay on indefinitely at Bodhi House.

The farmhouse is Mulligan's home as well. He lives in one of its five bedrooms, giving him a front-row seat to both the good and the bad. Though infrequent, the latter has included a 4 a.m. call to state police to have them remove a resident who wasn't working out.

There are risks, Mulligan acknowledges, but he refuses to make them his focus.

"Sometimes your spiritual practice represents obstacles and difficulties that call upon you to work through those so that you can really move from fear to fearlessness," he says. "I've done some of that work."

Mulligan said he thinks there is less familiarity with Buddhism than other religions, which can create confusion.

"We're seen as non-Christian," Mulligan said, recalling the time when a chaplain bluntly told him, "We're in the business of saving souls; you're in the business of taking them away."

Mulligan gets frustrated with such feedback, particularly because Buddhism shares similar values with other world religions, such as nonviolence, service to others and guidelines on moral conduct and teachings. Raised Catholic, he studied and was ordained with Buddhist teachers in Sri Lanka. There's a long history in Buddhism of working with criminals and inmates.

On a more personal level, his wife died in 2000, and the kids were grown and off on their own. He had the space. The farmhouse was where he and his family retreated to from Washington, D.C. during the '70s and '80s. He began to see that although there were quality Buddhist organizations working with inmates while they were in prison, there was nothing for them upon release.

Many of the men he encountered in prison had family difficulties, Mulligan said, and it was rewarding to see them start developing a sense of self-worth "because they don't believe that themselves. Working with them and that transformation is part of what I do in my practice." With Bodhi House, their progress could continue, giving them a respite between prison and the outside world.

Mulligan was "instrumental" in helping establish Buddhist services in the state system, said Ulli Klemm, administrator for religion and volunteer services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Klemm estimated that there are probably 10 or fewer inmates identifying as Buddhists at each of the institutions throughout Pennsylvania. They are allowed to order mala (prayer) beads, possess Buddhist literature and meet privately with a Buddhist adviser.

"Any issue we have regarding Buddhist services, we can contact John with questions," Klemm said.

Lois Starkey, a Bodhi House board member and Mulligan's friend since the 1970s, is not surprised at his commitment. His time is 100 percent volunteer, and Bodhi House runs on a shoestring budget, primarily taking contributions from its four members of the board to survive.

"People talk a big line about doing this kind of work," Starkey says. "I've learned a huge amount from him."

Mulligan is more than willing to help the men, but he won't be a martyr. He recalls a former bank robber resident who loved sketching the bird life around Bodhi House but resisted doing the tougher, more practical work of moving on. The man eventually left the program, held up some banks near Towson and is currently serving a sentence in Jessup, Maryland.

Transformation is an inside job, Mulligan said, one he can't — one he won't — do for them. It's a mirror he holds up for himself as much as the men, encouraging them when they get discouraged. He paraphrases the Buddha's teaching on accepting the nature of current circumstances, regardless of how one might feel about them.

Every day, Mulligan reminds himself of this belief: "This isn't the way I wanted it, it isn't what I deserve, it isn't what I planned, but it is what it is. It's the dharma; it's that which is."

His road to Bodhi House

Correa has found peace at Bodhi House.

"The only two things I've done in my life are fixing cars and carrying a rifle," Correa said, referencing his youth growing up in Puerto Rico and Philadelphia and entering the military after graduating high school. He served time in New Jersey's largest state prison, South Woods, on an unregistered firearms charge.

While in prison, he heard about a meditation service being offered to inmates and decided to try it. The gathering was sponsored by Triple Gem Prison Sangha, the group Mulligan founded prior to Bodhi House, which provides literature, support and correspondence to those currently in state prisons.

Triple Gem volunteer Robert Sowers was at the meditation and gave Correa some books. "With 10 to 15 men in a sangha [a Buddhist group or community] nowadays, it's easy for us to know if someone's new. I guess from there his thirst for knowledge just grew," Sowers said.

Soon Correa was meditating daily, working a prison job in the morning and meditating in the afternoon when his cellmate was away, or even waking up early when everyone was still asleep to get in that quiet meditation time. He read Triple Gem Prison Sangha literature and corresponded with Mulligan about any Buddhist questions he had as he pored over it.

"I don't know if it's my military background — 85 percent mental, 15 percent physical to complete any mission — but it's parallel with Buddhism," Correa said. "It made so much sense to me. Like one plus one equals two, no matter which language, it's still the same. It's so simple."

Correa took the Buddhist "right of refuge" while at South Woods, a ceremony where the individual promises to follow a path of right actions, such as avoiding intoxicants, no sexual misconduct and no killing or doing harm to others. Sowers decided to take the right of refuge with him; he had been practicing for six or seven years. Other members of the prison sangha who couldn't be at the ceremony sat in their cells in silence, knowing it was taking place.

In February 2014, Sowers was waiting for Correa — just released — outside of South Woods Prison with his van, ready to drive to Bodhi House. Sowers patted him on the shoulder as he got into the car, and he thought he saw Correa's eyes well up for a few seconds before he reined it back in, perhaps leaning on his military background, Sowers said, or his Buddhist practice.

It's a transformation he's seen often in the four-plus years he's been a volunteer. Sowers has seen the changes over time, how what Buddhists refer to as "lovingkindness," the innate goodness and compassion for other living beings, can develop.

Sowers remembers a man serving a life sentence — one who also corresponded with Mulligan through Triple Gem Prison Sangha — telling him he was thankful he went to prison because of the way meditation had changed his life.

"That blew me away," Sowers said. "That's what I mean when I say some of the men are freer than their captors. Some of these guys have finally found freedom. Ironically, it just comes at a time when they are incarcerated."

Sowers said sometimes he receives skeptical responses from prison correction officers and others about Buddhism, that "you're going to ring this bell and put someone in a trance and make the world a better place," Sowers said. The process is practical, about looking within, and the men do not have to declare themselves Buddhists to attend the meditation sessions.

"I'm not asking them to put their faith in some other-worldly being. I'm asking them to look inside and ask how they got where they are," Sowers says, admitting even members of his own family question his commitment to helping "murderers and child rapists."

Like with Mulligan, it's Sowers' spiritual journey, his practice. Sowers believes everyone is born with that "Buddha nature" and hopes his meditation teachings cut down on the far-reaching effects of anger and stress.

"What better way to help someone who can't pay me back?" he said.

Do you have room?

Correa likes to keep busy even on his days off, working outside on the Bodhi House grounds or cooking for the other residents in the brightly painted green kitchen with its rotary phone and oil replica of George Washington. A whiteboard outside the kitchen divvies up the men's chores, their corresponding checkboxes in blue marker.

Years after leaving, Bodhi House still acts as a spiritual home to many, some even after death. This fall, Mulligan and others spread the ashes of a South Woods friend of Correa's who died in prison, as well as another former resident of the house. The remains are scattered on the mediation path outside in the trees behind Bodhi House.

The residential nature of Bodhi House has also attracted attention on a national level. Sita Lozoff of The Human Kindness Foundation out of Durham, N.C., one of the oldest organizations doing prison work, says Bodhi House is the only live-in program of its kind that she is aware of in the United States.

"I would call him occasionally and ask, 'Do you have room for this guy?'" Lozoff said.

Bodhi House is also launching a plan for an on-site organic farm and garden, Mulligan said, something that can offer a product to the Adams County community and allow the program to sustain itself long into the future. The first test garden was finished this past summer and will be expanded next year. A vegetation room was created and insulated for the winter.

At some point, Mulligan said, he plans to step back from the day-to-day work, which will free him up to travel and attend Buddhist retreats. Over the years, he's thought about getting ordained as a Buddhist monk, taking the robe, he said, but decided against it. It wouldn't add that much, "not in a practical, everyday sense where we've got some issues socially and in our community that really need to be addressed."

The goal is to keep Bodhi House going as long as possible, as long as it is needed, one resident at a time.

"Our work is not to focus on results, but to focus on the process. That way we don't burn out," Mulligan said.

"It's a great path. If more people understood it, I think we'd have a better world to live in."