Monk takes basics of Buddhism behind bars at Jefferson County's federal pen

By COLIN GUY, Beaumont Enterprise, December, 26, 2008

Beaumont, Texas (USA) -- The sound of a prison gate closing is distinctive and final, according to Bhante Kassapa Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk who travels to the federal prison in Beaumont each week.

But by passing through that door over the past year, the monk has nurtured a relatively small but dedicated number of inmates who want to participate in the weekly meditation sessions. The group has grown in number from about seven to around 15 and sometimes more, said Kassapa, an American-born monk who lives and practices at the Buumon Buddhist Temple in Port Arthur.

"I don't think many of them would have been Buddhist before they came," he said.

Prisoners have a lot of time to fill, he said, which encourages some to explore new ideas and faiths. Any faith, he noted, is likely to make incarceration more bearable, but some have found that the solitary, reflective nature of Buddhism suits their circumstances particularly well.

"There's solitude and quietness found in Buddhism," he said.

"One of the reasons I think why it works for them is that in the beginning, Buddha had to take himself out of society for a number of years while he discovered who he was and these guys have a similar situation."

Kassapa said he attended a conference in Oregon where one of the subjects discussed was Buddhism behind bars.

In India, he said, officials have found that encouraging inmates to practice meditation has had a calming effect.

Studies have found that in general, inmates who practice Buddhism tend to have lower recidivism rates - less than 40 percent - than the average rate for the population as a whole, Kassapa said.

Services, which begin at about 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, include rituals, group meditation and discussions about Dharma, the guiding principles of the Buddhist faith.

Kassapa estimated that probably about 20 to 25 percent of visitors to the Buumon Buddhist Temple are considering changing their faith to Buddhism. By contrast, he said, probably only one or two of the inmates at the prison meditation group are not interested in the spiritual aspects of the sessions.

"In the years I've been here (in Port Arthur), about 15 people have become Buddhist that come here all the time," he said. "(At the prison) it's really reversed. They are seriously becoming Buddhists."

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