The Dhamma Brothers.

I watched a film on the weekend, and the story behind it got me thinking about the causes of violence, crime and punishment, and the possibility of transformation. This is the trailer:

About the film.

The Dhamma Brothers (2007) is an unsentimental documentary about the effect of an intense meditation program that was introduced in what was one of the most dangerous and violent prisons in the United States – the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Assaults and killings within the prison were a regular occurrence, and, like in many others, all the ills of society flourished: gambling, forced prostitution, the drug trade, gang violence, and so on.

In 2002, Dr Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, authorised a Vipassana Meditation course to be held for prisoners who wanted to do it. This is the first time such a program was tried in a maximum-security prison in the United States – in the Bible Belt, of all places!  Its introduction followed the success of a similar program run in the Tihar Prisons in India, where vipassana seemed to have a calming effect on the prison population. Dr Cavanaugh wanted the program to be ongoing but, due to fears that the program was turning inmates away from Christianity, and the misperception that the program was affiliated with the Buddhist religion, it was shut down soon after the course that featured in the film. Years later it was reinstated, but in the intervening years inmates had to practice meditation covertly.

The film focuses on how the vipassana program affects four inmates in particular – four ‘Dhamma Brothers’ – participating in the second meditation course held in 2002. Edward Johnson is serving a life sentence for a gang related homicide. We meet his family, still dealing with the enormous pain of his crimes, and consequent separation from him.  Grady Bankhead was given life without parole, downgraded from death row, for capital murder (he essentially did nothing as his accomplices in a robbery savagely stabbed to death their victim). His beginning in life was appalling: at five years old, he and his baby brother were abandoned by their mother, in a deserted house. A few days later, his brother died, and Grady blamed himself for his death. The two other inmates featured, Benjamin ‘OB’ Oryang & Rick Smith, are also serving life sentences for murder.

Vipassana: HARDCORE meditation.

Vipassana is an ancient and rigorous practice based on the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. The intense program used in the prison involved no books, media, or external distractions, no prayer, complete silence, and 10 hours of meditation a day, for a 10 day period. There were specific rules about each day’s schedule, and, of course, inmates had to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and all intoxicants. This is meditation, hardcore. The prisoners found it extremely confronting and difficult – having to sit still and completely face the truth, face themselves. Silence and stillness can be experienced as heaven or hell, depending on what’s within you.

Many people these days have tried basic meditation for relaxation purposes. But this 10-day vipassana intensive takes the basic practice of meditation further – forcing the practitioners to go deeper, truly get in touch with their sensations and everything that is usually suppressed and repressed. At this level, a practitioner realises that it is these sensations (caused by thoughts and beliefs, both conscious and unconscious) that are driving their behaviour. Once this is identified, and they are able to become the observer of these sensations, they are able to take responsibility for them, and to stop being reactive. They become calmer, and able to choose a better way of responding to whatever situation is at hand.

Two meditation teachers — Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley – led the men through the 10-day program. Inmate OB helped them transform the prisons gym facility into a monastery of sorts, where participants ate, slept and meditated in seclusion for the duration of it. Crowley said of vipassana: “No one is telling them what to look at, or how to change. They’re gaining their insights within themselves.”

Why prisoners should be allowed to find ‘inner peace’.

I know a lot of people would hear of a program like this, introduced to help prisoners find peace, or change, and condemn it.  That is an understandable and very human response. After all, why should criminals have peace? The crimes these men committed are heinous – I am deeply saddened at the thought of what the victims, their loved ones, and even the perpetrators families must have gone through as a result. A few of the men in the film acknowledged this themselves. So why shouldn’t criminals suffer? Why should criminals be offered the chance of this relief, after the pain they have unleashed on the world?

The filmmakers and supporters of the program have several solid answers to this:

1) More peaceful and productive prisoners, who then have the capacity to influence fellow prisoners in positive ways (i.e. affect the prison culture).

2) Safer working conditions for prison staff, dealing with the prisoners.

3) The majority of offenders will eventually be released back into the community. If we can make sure their heads are in the right place before they get out, our community will likely be safer, and we might have citizens better able to reintegrate into society.

4) Potentially lower recidivism rates. There needs to be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation if we want to evolve as a society.  As things stand, the chances of released prisoners reoffending are pretty darn high.

All of these are compelling reasons for allowing this kind of progressive program in a prison. I also believe very strongly that the victims of crime themselves, and their loved ones, should have the option of participating in this kind of healing work for free. After all, they carry the pain of crime, the grief of loss, and the burden of un-forgiveness heavier than anyone. As for the issue of crime punishment – the program doesn’t negate this. Perhaps, if a prisoner actually comes to see and accept their responsibility, express genuine remorse, and tries to change their behaviour, this could be seen as a part of justice, not against it.

What the ‘Dhamma Brothers’ gained.

Through the program, the four participants featured were able to confront themselves, and their suppressed volatile emotions. Edward, for example, dealt with the grief of the accidental death of his baby daughter for the first time since the event itself. Many of the men harbor feelings of wanting revenge on other prisoners for in-prison disputes. In becoming ‘conscious’ of suppressed issues in this way, they were able to deal with them, and let them go. And they were able to identify ‘cause and effect’ within themselves – how various negative sensations within them were causing certain behaviours, and how they could now choose different, more constructive behaviours. Stewart and Crowley were delighted with the positive transformation they saw in a number of prisoners.

I’m still skeptical of some of the men – the film acknowledges some prisoners try to use these kinds of programs to benefit their parole hearings, trying to fake it until they make it. However, I am in awe of prisoner Grady’s attitude towards his sentence and his life. His complete acceptance of his guilt to me was an important indicator that he was honestly ready and willing to change. Though he didn’t kill the victim directly, he accepted his complicity in the crime, and the sentence he was given for it, taking responsibility for the pain he caused the victim’s loved ones and his own family. He accepted that the prison was his home, for life, neither seeking nor hoping for release. And when his daughter was murdered – a fact he found out about by reading the newspaper – he found it within himself to forgive the perpetrator, refusing to deny that man’s humanity. This is something that many would find almost impossible to do. I for one can’t even imagine. But I guess that is the power of sincere vipassana.

Inner peace and outer peace go together.

I’ve never committed a crime or an act of violence (excluding childhood scraps with my brothers). But I’ve been a bad girl, and a good girl. I’ve made mistakes and been the victim of the mistakes of others. Nowadays, all I want to be is a balanced and free woman – not an easy goal, for someone like me. As I’ve grown older I have used meditation more and more as a way to stabilise, deal with my many issues and let go of pain so that I (hopefully) don’t operate in the world in such a way as to bring harm or suffering to others, or to myself. As an emotional empath too, I must use meditation to continuously let go of psychological junk. I firmly believe in forgiveness, both of others and of self, and for absolutely taking responsibility for ones own feelings and consequent actions. Meditation helps me practice these beliefs in my own life. I want to channel all my drama into creative writing, not live the train wreck – not anymore. I want peace.

Perhaps that’s why the film resonated with me. Honest transformation inspires and moves me, deeply. The fact that a murderer can change should give us hope that the problems of humanity aren’t insurmountable.  But it also points to the fact that personal transformation is a journey that usually begins with a choice, which, ultimately, can really only be undertaken at an individual level. When someone “gets” this, though, dives in and does the confronting, difficult (but ultimately freeing) inner work to face their own demons, damage, grief, and find grace, the transformation can be astounding. This is not a purely selfish undertaking. The ultimate goal of such work, if approached sincerely and practiced continuously, is to be a more peaceful, loving, functional human being in the world. To be less hostile, judgmental, and negative. To transform and overcome every negative human emotion: anger, resentment, jealousy, self-pity, rage, bigotry, etc. in order to avoid manifesting this internal garbage as negative intentions, actions and words.

Making peace within is thus not separate from peacemaking in the world – it is a crucial part of it.  In this imperfect place full of imperfect actions and consequences, with all the physical and verbal violence inflicted on us and by us, it is understandable that some need to work harder at making this peace than others. Given the effect this will likely have on their actions in this world, it is perhaps wise to let them do that work.


2 Comments on “The Dhamma Brothers.”

  1. Sounds very interesting! Think I’ll have to watch this one 🙂

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