Tozan, Henry "Hank" Matthews
Passed away November 17th, 2010.
|by Henry Mathews
My name is Henry and my practice is counting my breath. Counting each exhalation from one to ten. There was a time when I counted the days that went by, then the months and finally the years. Now I count only my breath. Now, for the first time in the fifty years that I have walked on this planet and for the nineteen and a half years that I have been in prison I have found something to have faith in.
A lot of people would say that fifty years is an awful long time. Many people go through their entire lives seeking spiritual substance only to come up empty handed. I consider myself immensely fortunate to be able to practice Zen Buddhism after only fifty years of searching.
When I was a kid, growing up on the streets of Harlem, I was fortunate to get my hand s on a copy of "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck. That book had a profound effect on me by enabling me to develop a respect and interest in Eastern culture. Throughout my life that interest has remained - the astute detective "Charlie Chan"; the devastating kicks of Bruce Lee and all the martial arts movies - were not merely entertainment. Elements of Confucius, Lao Tsu and the Buddha's teachings managed to penetrate almost imperceptibly into my psyche along the way. I was never able to grasp the deep meaning of any teaching ; all I could do was read about them. It is quite possible that I would not have wound up in prison had I been able to actualize the Dharma. But the past is past, what's done is done.
Now, I am right here, in the present and this, the quality of the present moment, is the determinative factor that guides my life. Being in prison, especially as long as I have been, is not an easy task. It has a crippling effect on the body and the mind. I am somewhat surprised that I have managed to survive and maintain some sense of purpose these nineteen plus long years. I have to conclude that somehow my past has been an unconscious preparation on my part that has brought me to spiritual practice. My practice is counting, it's so simple!
The first time I laid eyes on Rev. Kobutsu Shindo Kevin Malone, he reminded me of the "Jake LaMotta" character from the "Raging Bull" movie. Built short, low to the ground and about as wide as a California redwood! I did not have the honor or the pleasure of knowing him during the first short sightings in this world-renowned human warehouse known as Sing Sing Correctional Facility. I first saw him in the facility hospital. I happened to be in the hospital area participating in one of the prison programs. During a short break from my program, I stepped outside the room to stretch my legs and get a much needed breath of fresh air to clear out the lethargy that had settled in my body. I paced the hall out of boredom, I glanced in all the rooms that lined the dismal corridor. When I got to the end of the corridor, I turned to begin my return trip. As I turned, I glanced into a darkened room. I halted in my pacing and peered into the room. The first thing I saw was the crystal ball-like head of Rev. Kobutsu. He was sitting on some blankets that were arranged on the floor. The room was small, dark and dingy, probably a place where people stored things no longer wanted. The lights in the room were off but there was enough ambient light for me to see the people inside. The Reverend, a young lady, E-Kun Liz Potter, and several brother prisoners were sitting on blankets, perfectly motionless on the floor. When I saw them, something told me deep inside that I wanted to join then in the profound peaceful stillness and silence within the little room. I was held back by a feeling that I was an outsider who didn't know the way in. It was just a step across the threshold, but I couldn't take it. Besides, I had to get back to my own program.
The next time I saw the Zen Priest and E-Kun sitting with prisoners (in what I was later to learn is called Zazen), I was on my way to the prison law library to do some research and there they were, just sitting perfectly still. I stood by the door window and looked in on them for about ten minutes. Anyone who has watched intently or sat and done Zazen understands the peaceful serenity and powerful intensity that is generated. Even though I was standing outside the room, a fact that I was well aware of, in the depth of my heart I was inside sharing in the sitting practice. Again, I experienced an incredible sense of being drawn into the room. I still wasn't able to take the step from the outside to the inside, but I knew within my heart that I was going to find a way.
I continued my journey to the law library but knew that the real research I wanted to do was not to be found in a law book or a library, it was in that room with those people. I made inquiries with friends and finally found out through the prison grape vine when and where the Zen group met. By that time, the group had moved to a larger and much cleaner room in the basement of the prison Chapel. I didn't know if I was dealing with Buddhists or Gypsies!
When I first entered the Zendo my earlier feelings of "out-of-placeness" dropped away in an instant and were replaced with a warm and friendly reception by the members of the group. Rev. Kobutsu took me aside for a few minutes and explained the Liturgy and the Zazen (sitting practice) to me. With that brief bit of insight I began my practice of counting. Since that time I have sat Zazen as often as I can with the group in the Zendo and alone by myself. As the brothers who practice, the Sangha, know, it is not easy. There have been times when I have not been able to count my breath beyond "two" or become one with the physical pain that we endure when we do Zazen, but there are those precious moments when, during sitting, that the sitter forgets himself and there is just sitting. This is the actualization of Zen.
There isn't enough space here to name all of the people whose support have made it possible for the Sing Sing Dharma Song Zendo to exist. You are not forgotten. To the Reverend Kobutsu Shindo and E-Kun Liz Potter, a special debit of gratitude - without your efforts and dedication there would be no Dharma Song Zendo. Reverend Saman Sodo's Sunday morning Buddhist Studies classes have been an inspiration for all the Dharma Song Brothers. A special thanks to Scott Bramlett who shares his presence with us week in and week out for evening sitting. Last, but by no means least, thank you to all my Sangha brothers for being here, alone together with me. Thank you all for coming together to create the safest and most honest environment in this hulking old prison. Thank you, thank you, thank you . . .