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What I Discovered in Hell

Buddhist instructor Justin von Bujdoss was a chaplain to employees at America’s most infamous jail—Rikers Island in New York. There he discovered two necessary classes: Buddhism actually helps individuals, and prisons must be abolished.

A educated Buddhist lama, von Budjoss started as a volunteer at Rikers and ended up as director of employees wellness for all the New York Metropolis corrections division. Picture by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

To say that Rikers Island is an intense place is a gross understatement. House to seven separate jail amenities, Rikers may very well be regarded as half hell realm and half emergency psychological well being clinic. Holding hundreds of New York Metropolis’s most traumatized, underresourced, and forgotten residents, it serves as a grotesque concrete and metallic witness to an unfathomable quantity of human ache and struggling.

I first stepped foot on Rikers in the summertime of 2013 as a volunteer. After a couple of years, I turned the primary chaplain devoted to the religious wants of Rikers Island employees. My background as a Buddhist instructor and educated Tibetan lama made my appointment much more distinctive. Later, I turned government director of the Chaplaincy and Employees Wellness division of the New York Metropolis Division of Correction, and my congregation turned the town’s ten thousand correction officers. I started to grasp the influence of working in correctional amenities, and the advanced intersectionality that makes locations like Rikers completely different from different correctional amenities within the nation.

After I might make issues higher, it turned my responsibility to attempt to take action.

A number of months after I started my new position, correction officer Alastasia Bryant was murdered by her boyfriend. Officer Bryant’s boyfriend was a Crip gang member and had put out successful on her as a result of she wished the automobile that she’d purchased him again. The decision got here late at evening. I’d by no means responded to a homicide earlier than.

First, I went to Rikers to assist her colleagues after which to the household house to help her household of their inconceivable and irreparable loss. I sat with them of their brokenness and rage. A few of her household wished revenge—to get weapons and go after the boyfriend, who was nonetheless at giant. It was a tense time as there have been studies the boyfriend had been sighted within the space. The occasions round this tragic homicide and holding area for everybody impacted led me to grasp I used to be getting into right into a world that only a few exterior Rikers might presumably grasp.

A lot of my position was emergency response. I nonetheless keep in mind watching in shock as assaults-on-staff notifications got here by one after one other. I couldn’t imagine the violence and fiery ache skilled by everybody caught throughout the amenities: struggling damaged noses, orbital fractures, stab wounds, fractured fingers, fractured ribs, boxer’s cuts, chemical spray publicity, fractured spines and skulls, being splashed with urine and feces, and sexual assault. I used to be witness to rage, melancholy, substance abuse, psychological sickness, PTSD, bodily violence, and in a couple of instances open suicidal ideation.

I’m not afraid of difficult circumstances. My work in hospice previous to Rikers supplied me with a excessive degree of consolation working with the dying and bereaved. At Rikers I turned the first contact when there was a dying of employees or a detainee. I responded to just about each employees dying and facilitated the notification of subsequent of kin for each dying of an individual in our custody. Excessive-quality response turned a type of religious follow for me: doing the best factor, responding in essentially the most compassionate and expeditious method I might, supporting not solely household and colleagues however all the company with each tragic occasion that occurred. After I might make issues higher, it turned my responsibility to attempt to take action.

Prisoners, employees, households—nobody escapes the trauma of Rikers Island. Violent, overcrowded, and underfunded, it is without doubt one of the world’s largest correctional amenities. Picture © Reuters / Mike Segar

At Rikers, I discovered a lot about myself and my dharma follow. I discovered that generally essentially the most profound—and hardest—a part of Buddhist follow is simply displaying up. Whether or not or not it’s on a meditation cushion or within the mundane moments of our lives, displaying up and being witness to what’s arising is a giant a part of the work. It additionally felt necessary to mannequin the Buddhist moral crucial for example of a 3rd method—a substitute for the hard-and-fast binary that defines the legal justice system.

In my position, I steadily quoted the Indian Buddhist grasp Shantideva in my remarks at commencement ceremonies for brand new recruits and at promotion ceremonies. As he wrote in The Manner of the Bodhisattva:

Might I turn out to be always, each now and endlessly, a protector of these with out safety, a information for many who have misplaced their method, a ship for these with oceans to cross, a bridge for these with rivers to cross, a sanctuary for these in peril, a lamp for these with out gentle, a spot of refuge for many who lack shelter, and a servant to all in want, for so long as area endures, and for so long as dwelling beings stay. Till then could I, too, abide to dispel the distress of the world.

In a tradition as dominated by Abrahamic values as American tradition is, particularly with respect to the ideas that inform “legal justice” and the “correctional” system, many Buddhist chaplains select to stay on the periphery somewhat than work alongside those that stay centered on theism. However I don’t suppose we will manifest any alternate options to those methods with out overtly providing fashions impressed by one thing apart from the prevailing Abrahamic headwinds of the day.

On this regard, I’ve come to seek out myself skeptical of a pattern in Buddhist chaplaincy to carry out in the identical method that chaplains of varied Christian denominations do. It’s okay to be completely different, it’s okay to be upfront that we don’t imagine in a creator God, and we definitely don’t should shed our fierceness and keenness for the best way buddhadharma reveals up by us as an expression of a strong knowledge custom. It’s okay to disrupt by the presence of distinction.

Buddhist chaplains don’t must be apologists for his or her wealthy religion custom. We have to carry the wealth of our custom to these caught in such closely binary pondering. The nonduality of Buddhist follow is a present to humanity. There’s super profit in enjoyable into an expertise of circulation and open being that provides a substitute for the narrowness and tight constriction arising in so some ways when persons are caught between tight binaries. In instances like these, the work of embodied dharma follow is crucial.

For instance, I used my experiences on Rikers as a floor for familiarizing myself with the joyful play of the next phrases of Tilopa, which confirmed me the best way to skillfully work in a few of the hardest and most painful of locations:

To transcend the apprehended and the apprehender is the king of views.
To be with out distraction is the king of meditations.
To be freed from effort is the king
of conduct.
To be freed from hope and concern is the king of outcomes.

In my work as a chaplain, I skilled nice magnificence in studying that dharma follow has the potential for profound therapeutic. For instance, the Vajrayana practices of Mahamudra and Ati Yoga supply the opportunity of deep restoration and inside therapeutic of the friction created by the dualistic factors of reference that Western tradition appears to be predicated upon. I discovered that embodied follow heals, nurtures, and enriches as a lot because it disrupts, challenges, and provokes. That is additionally true of tonglen, Drugs Buddha follow, and plenty of different meditations. There’s a lot energy in one of these therapeutic. Allow us to rejoice this! Dharma is younger within the West, and there stay so many potentialities for bringing profit to these round us.

A colleague at Rikers advised me that she didn’t know the way I held all the pieces that I’d seen—the entire dying, disappointment, ache, desperation, and huge brokenness—however she was grateful for all the pieces I used to be capable of do. Definitely, the job took an intense toll on my emotional and bodily well being. I used to be surprised, even regretful, about what I’d turn out to be accustomed to seeing, listening to, and discovering a house in.

My colleague then stated one thing that struck me with a reality I used to be unprepared for. She stated, “You and I make this place worse. We make it worse as a result of we attempt to make it work. Possibly it shouldn’t. Possibly these methods ought to simply be left to break down in order that a greater various can come into existence.”

Whereas this wasn’t essentially the kind of factor one desires to listen to whereas making an attempt to make sense of years of laborious service, I believe she was proper. Her remark gave me permission to let go of working in a method that retains a damaged system going. On the finish of 2021, I left my place.

Making an attempt to carry an ethos of compassionate response to the advanced intersectionality of struggling at Rikers Island made me a jail abolitionist. I can’t in good conscience help the existence of prisons and jails. Nobody must be caged, and the magnitude of hurt from centuries of penal enforcement has created unfathomable injury to communities of black and brown individuals, immigrants, the underresourced and underrepresented, and people affected by the complexities of substance abuse, psychological sickness, and homelessness.

I hope someday our tradition can manifest methods that heal somewhat than methods that create insufferable hurt, violence, and systemic oppression—not simply in correctional methods, however in every single place. Having had the distinctive alternative to observe a correctional company from the within not be capable of successfully tackle the present expression of all of those traumas, whereas additionally dwelling in a nation that appears to look away somewhat than tackle the foundation causes of those deep harms, my sense of hopefulness is usually challenged. My time at Rikers Island was heartbreaking and painful, nothing lower than a veritable five-year retreat in a hell realm, however my religion compels me to reside as much as Shantideva’s profound exhortation and Tilopa’s demonstration of the view. I can’t neglect my vow to maintain displaying up, and I’ll proceed to manifest the exercise of nonduality as I do.


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