A Lotus In A Swamp

by William (Red) Graham, Gowanda Correctional Facility, New York, The Buddhist

William (Red) Graham was denied access to a book "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" written by Ven. Kobutsu Malone. The Buddhist Channel and other organizations helped in some ways to convince the authorities from the Gowanda CF, New York to rescind what was ultimately a misguided decision. On June 19, 2006, "Red" received a copy of the book. This is his story, in his own words.

Dear Buddhist Channel,

I write to express my thanks and appreciation to Buddhist's all over the world that supported, sat with, voiced their concern, and were instrumental in my receiving the book "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines," by the venerable Kobutsu Malone. I received it on June 19, 2006.

Because I receive hardly any mail, especially of the feminine variety, I particularly thank those that wrote me personally. Like the Rev. Kobutsu Malone, David Seth Michael's Esq., Markus Roznowski and the Edinburgh Buddhist Centre, the Western Buddhist Order (Edinburgh), Community of Interbeing (Edinburgh), Theravada, Forest Sangha (Edinburgh), and Soto Zen Group, all of Edinburgh Scotland, U.K. And last but not least, I thank Kooi Fong Lim for his penetrating interviews and illuminating editorials.

Before the "Buddhist Peace Fellowship, " and the "Buddhist Channel in Malaysia," and Buddhist's throughout the world intervened, the book, Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines had been banned and denied to me by the "Gowanda Correctional Facility, Media Review Committee."  It was an arbitrary decision, unsupported by their own directives, policies and procedures. You cannot possibly imagine how frustrating, annoying and aggravating it is to be denied something that you are supposed to be able to have.

This was as ridiculous as the time, I was written a "Misbehavior-Report," where my sewing needles and sewing kit were characterized as "flammable liquids." I currently have this in court in an "Article 78 Proceeding, II of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. It was one of the factors that the "Parole Board," recently used in denying me parole! How true the adage, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

I am particularly sensitive to injustice owing my innocence concerning my incarceration. I have been confined for over two decades. I was given 25-50 years for a crime that I did not do and am innocent of!  Read the two newspaper articles of April 1st and 2nd of 2003. You be the judge and jury after reading the court records for yourself!

My confinement is de facto! I have done everything in my power to prove this and improve myself. In 1984, when I came to prison, I decided to throwaway my crutches. I decided to improve and educate myself. I quit smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, as well as drinking alcohol, using drugs, eating flesh and their by products, and I have recently given up all junk foods.

Although not as readily available as on the streets, drugs and alcohol are available in prison. The quality in here often exceeds that which is available on the street. This is attributable to some of the individuals that are confined and locked up for drugs, and some guards in need of making a quick buck!

In 1994, I was transferred to Sing Sing, one of the most infamous and notorious prisons in New York State.  Because of my temperament, personality and the way that I carry myself, I would never have believed that I could have endured and survived the prison experience as long as I have. Within myself, I purposed to run into life, instead of away from it. Previously through drugs, women, and alcohol, I had run away from facing life.

In prison out of necessity, you pay close attention to things and the people around you. "Yogen," is who attracted me to investigating Zen Buddhism. I didn't know who he was or what he was into. Out of curiosity, I approached him one day. I commented that he had a certain glow and peacefulness about himself, that most prisoner's lacked. He told me that he was a Buddhist. He gave me a book by Herman Hesse, "Siddhartha." He also invited me to the "Dharma Song Zendo," in the basement of the Sing Sing Prison auditorium.

The zendo was located in what was known as the multipurpose room. On Sunday mornings, the Quakers would use it for their meetings. The Pre-release Center would use it in the daytime throughout the week for their classes. The Buddhists would use it in the evenings three times a week.  They had their own storage cabinets to house everything incidental to the practice. I always believed that it was well stocked and supplied for something in a prison setting.

Kobutsu Malone was our monk. When I met him, to me he did not fit the stereotype of what I thought a monk should be like. He fit none of my preconceived notions of what a Buddhist Monk should be like. I was always impressed by the confidence and fearlessness that he displayed. Here is this white guy, with a bald head, wearing what appeared to be a long black dress that was a robe. He also wore what appeared to me as some kind of bib around his neck.

I later came to admire him for his stance against the death penalty. He engaged in protests and demonstrations opposing it. He traveled to different states and spent time with two men and gave them "Jukai," before "Frankie Jusan Parker," and Brother, "Amos Lee King," they were executed by the State! He was with them when they walked that last mile.

I liked the serene, contemplative atmosphere of our basement zendo at Sing Sing. To me, it was a lotus in a swamp. I walked through all of the garbage and chaos of my life and the prison and came to a place of peace and serenity.

Leaving the stadium sized prison corridor coming from "A" block, past commissary, Seven, Five-Building, and "B" Block. I took a sharp right another fifty feet and ascended the eight concrete steps leading to the locked barred auditorium gate. A guard got up from his desk, opened it and allowed me entrance. I told him that I was there to set up for Zazen meditation. I asked if the door was unlocked leading down to the basement and if the cabinets were opened.

I stepped off to my left and opened the double doors leading into the auditorium. I walked past the chairs with their blue plastic backs and seats whose iron legs were bolted to the floor. I walked straight ahead until I reached the wall of the auditorium and took a right, straight ahead fifty feet to the door leading down to the basement.

I descended the three flights of metal steps with their black metal banisters. At the bottom of the landing and to the right was a door with a barred gate behind it that was always locked. The door was usually open. I would stand in that open barred doorway, until Kobutsu or everyone else arrived to set up and do our sitting practice.

What the door opened out to was so beautiful. There were trees, beautiful green grass or snow in season.  Wildlife would pass by, like cats, geese, ducks and birds. Sometimes I would bring food to throw to them. From the door, you could look down the hill and see the Hudson River. At different times of the day and evening, the scenery was so ethereal.

What I liked most about our basement zendo, was the atmosphere its semi -darkness, temple incense and candles. The intense chanting always caused me to sweat profusely. Practicing the various chants over a period of years, contributed a power and resonance to my voice that it previously lacked. I liked the practice because it taught me to pay attention to counting my breaths and paying attention to my breathing. But, what I think I liked most about it was, it taught me how to focus with concentration on whatever I placed my attention on.

Furthermore, for those desperate enough to subject themselves to the rigors of Zen discipline, great peace and equanimity awaits them in their lives. I say this not only from what it helped me to weather the seven years that I was at Sing Sing, but, from a recent situation. 

As you can imagine, there are some real characters in prison. To refrain from doing what I had purposed, I sat in a full lotus for two hours counting breaths. Needless to say, the pain for the first hour was excruciating. During the second, it disappeared completely. After I had finished, my thoughts had changed considerably. I just wish that more people in here and out in the streets would pick up and embrace the practice.

I laugh on account of all of these bullshit rehabilitation programs that they have in these facilities.  Unless the individuals taking them want to change, no change is going to occur in their lives. Where there is no introspection, repentance, remorse, desperation and willingness to face life without crutches and dependencies, there will be no worth while change in anyone's life.

It is my belief from my own personal experience that all prisons and inner  city communities would benefit, were zazen, along with yoga and a strict vegan diet were incorporated as a therapeutic program. Perhaps it could even be an alternative to incarceration for wayward minors, addicts and alcoholics who are just tired of being tired! I believe that we become stronger, when we voluntarily subject ourselves to pain.

Paradoxically, this allows us to face and deal with pain in a more philosophical way, when we encounter it.

Those one, two and three day "Sesshin's," we used to have at Sing Sing, helped to prepare me for a lot of things. I still look forward upon my release to find out, test and push myself to the limit by participating in a seven day sitting. After I accomplish that, I know I will be ready to do a seven day one, where I will sleep in the sitting position. This will definitely increase my mental poise and spiritual feelings of invincibility.

I learned enough through my own study of law to get back into the courts to show that there is something terribly wrong with my criminal conviction. However, because I am not a lawyer, I feel that my efforts were undermined by an attorney that the court appointed me. There are certain things that were never done, that can be done to prove my innocence! However, my stationary position, and immobility prevents this.

Again I express my most sincerest thanks and deepest appreciation to all those responsible for my receiving "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism."

I remain,

William (Red) Graham, 84-A-6009
Gowanda Correctional Facility
P .0. Box 311
Gowanda, NY 14070
July 1, 2006