A Journey to Zazen

by Thomas Haney
ADTC Avenel, NJ

I cannot remember ever feeling whole and good about myself, or a time when I felt that there was not something wrong with me. As a child I always felt different. By the time I was ten years old I was having violent and deviant thoughts regularly. I have been hurting people and destroying things ever since. Part of me enjoyed what I was doing. Part of me hated what I was doing. I started thinking of myself as two people and as crazy. I did not know how to stop the violent thoughts and felt that it was my lot in life to be a violent, disgusting person.

I have been incarcerated for sixteen years. I have been fortunate to have been incarcerated for most of those years in an institution that was specifically built to offer insight therapy, peer counseling and, in the last few years, 12-step-type support programs. In assisting people like me, this place has a higher success rate than any other prison. It has saved my life and that of those who might have been my victims in the future. I sincerely feel that it was a blessing that I was incarcerated in this prison. It is my sense that all prisons should have similar programs. Maybe then the prison system would work to truly benefit society. Since I do not think this will happen in my lifetime, I will suggest that one of the next best things my brothers and sisters in prison can do is study Buddhism.

Why is it important to study Buddhism? I recognize that the biggest reason we hurt other people is because we hate ourselves and feel empty. For so long I had felt as if I had a hole in my heart that I could not close. This not feeling whole led me on a search to find something I could believe in, a ?higher power.? However, I had always been uncomfortable with what I was taught as a child about religion and God. Because of something that happened in my childhood, I could not reconcile with what I saw as hypocrisy in western religions and my need to believe in a higher power. I had to come up with my own definition of God. I did so, but this was not enough. I still felt that there were unanswered questions, that I was missing something. I continued searching. Going through this process I have read the Bible cover to cover; I studied ?A Course In Miracles;? I worked 12-step programs and I practiced western meditation techniques. My search led me to correspondence theology colleges where, while incarcerated, I have earned a Doctorate of Divinity, studying addiction and a 12-step type of counseling. Over the years I have come to see that the idea of God and spirituality can exist separately from organized, traditional religions. However, I always stayed away from eastern teachings because I thought they were too ?mystical.?

A little over seven years ago a therapist from India sparked my interest in Buddhism by suggesting to me a new way of thinking based on Buddhist practice. I started reading more about Buddhism. Around four years ago another therapist started a meditation group where he taught zazen (zen meditation) and Buddhist psychology. He brought in more literature. I noticed something. First of all, I was enjoying what I was reading. Secondly, I understood it, even with the Sanskrit and Japanese terms. This is something that had never happened to me with the Bible. Thirdly, I began to realize that what I was reading seemed familiar. Indeed, some of the things I read I was already thinking and doing. It turned out that what I was learning through counseling was very much like the Buddhist teachings.

In my opinion, there are several reasons for trusting Buddhist teachings. In western religions there seems to be more mysticism (miracles, conjuring, hard-to-believe stories represented as fact) than there is in Buddhism. Buddha did not perform miracles. In fact, as in the story of a mother who asked Buddha to bring back her dead child, Buddha showed that wishing for such miracles caused suffering. Instead, he helped the woman by showing her that death was universal and inevitable, and her suffering was thus lessened. Another reason I have trusted Buddhism is that Buddha never said that he was anything more than an ordinary man. He did not claim to be a god. Upon his own death he did not become a god. Likewise, he promised that everyone could become enlightened as he had. All this was very important to me.

What I learned from western religious values was that I was already an inferior, bad and sinful person simply by being born. I learned that I had to rely on someone greater and more powerful than myself to end my own suffering, to be saved, so that after my death I could be accepted into heaven. To some Christians, because of my actions, I can never be ?whole.? I am condemned to some kind of severe punishment or, even worse, damnation to the tortures of hell for all eternity with no prospect of redemption.

Instead of hearing how bad a person I was for having violent thoughts and hurting people, instead of hearing that a person like me could never change, I was hearing that I could change, as Buddha, an ordinary man, did before me. To my western mind, this was the hope that I was looking for and needed in this life. The Ten Buddhist Precepts* are remarkably similar to the Ten Commandments, but without the implied threats of hell-fire and damnation. Most religions talk about what I must do in this life for my afterlife. Buddhism was telling me what I could do to live this life. Buddhist practices have shown me how to control and stop my violent and deviant thoughts through repeating a mantra and doing zazen.

I often wonder if eastern ways of socializing children may have built-in protective factors against later violent and deviant behaviors. I know that following the precepts and learning the Buddhist tradition, as best I can, will help reduce the likelihood of my redeveloping an aggressive life-style.

Practicing Buddhism has not been an easy journey for me. Besides being long, it has, at times, been painful. For example, there was no way that I could sit cross-legged; I have to kneel (sit in seiza position) for zazen. When I started sitting I was in pain within a few minutes, from my back to my legs. Trying to stand after sitting for only fifteen minutes was a chore, my ankles hurt, my knees were stiff, my feet and toes cramped up and my legs fell asleep, all the time. I practiced off and on for years, which did not make it any easier. I had to practice regularly and then it took over a year to become comfortable sitting for even thirty minutes.

And concentration, well, remember the ad that asked: ?How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?? The answer: ?1, 2, crunch!? In zazen it was: 1, 2... and I was already lost in thoughts. Concentration is still my biggest problem when I am alone and may well take me years to master.

Twelve of the sixteen years that I have been incarcerated I have been a peer counselor. Over the years I have been trying to get men to understand that the only proof of change is change in behavior. I am now trying to also get them to realize that all of our problems start within us - with the mind and the thoughts arising in the mind. I tell them that a change in thinking will result in a corresponding change in behavior, for the better.

A short while ago a man asked me if violent and deviant thoughts ever stop. He often has such thoughts and he gets angry at himself when he does. I told him: ?Because we have been having violent thoughts for most of our lives, that from time to time we will get these thoughts. It is what we do with them that is important.? I also think that when we have these thoughts, we are having them for a reason. They are a flag. They are trying to tell us that something is happening in our lives that we must look at closely. When we get angry at ourselves we miss the opportunity to discover the reason for the mind thinking these thoughts. If we stay angry at ourselves for too long, our mind will replace the anger with what it remembers feels good: the exciting, violent deviant thoughts. We then get angry at ourselves again, and have more violent thoughts, again, and again, and again. This is our cycle of violence and suffering. Instead, let us discover why and how these deviant thoughts arise in our mind. This leads to wisdom and compassion, instead of anger towards ourselves.

I like to think of Buddhism as my learning ?new behaviors? to replace the old destructive ones. What I am learning is how to practice new behavior. I am enjoying my ?new behavior? and I want to pass it on to help other people relieve their own suffering. It has been a long time since I have felt this way about anything, have wanted to share something precious with others. It is for these reasons I have decided to study and apply for jukai (formal commitment to Zen Buddhism).

I hope, too, that others will give Buddhism a try because Buddha is not a deity and therefore people need not give up any beliefs nor give up their western traditions. For those who wish to work a 12-step program, Buddhist teachings fit well because zazen is very good for the 11th step (meditation).

For those of us who were violent, just being in prison will not stop our cycle of violence. The state does not offer the help most of us need to stop. We must do the work that will change the way we think. This is not easy. Regular prisons are a failure! They are also traumatizing, an abuse to body and mind that makes it harder to live on the outside. For brothers and sisters in prison who will be lucky enough to get out someday, and truly want to ?rehabilitate? themselves, to change, Buddhist practice is not just something to study, it is a way of living, a way to be safe and to lead a better life. It is a way of taking responsibility for our actions. And for those of us who will be getting out someday, it will help us stay out.

My brothers and sisters who will not see the outside world again, what I leave you with is: they may have your body, but they don?t have to have your mind. The promise the Buddha made is that there can be an end to suffering and this is as true inside the walls as outside. Buddhism helps me survive everyday inside.