Tuesday, November 8, 2016


BARS, BLACKNESS AND BUDDHISM, PART ONE              by  Joseph S. Cook

There was no preparation for prison in the beginning of my incarceration.  The tiny, wretched two-man cave cells didn’t have a large bearing on my psychology. It wasn’t as stressful as being watched over and harassed, by the white correctional officers.  In addition to the officers the staff hierarchy were all white mostly male from the majority of white communities whose main ideas about black people came from rap music and other forms of stereotypical entertainment.  And now as correctional officers the first consistent interaction with Blacks is from a superior inferior dichotomy (or stand point).

A dichotomy that either consciously or unconsciously paints Black men,-and by extension Black women and children as the other, the criminal, the enemy.  Walking into Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), one of Wisconsin’s oldest and most notorious prisons, at the age of 17, I felt the racial hostility between the correctional staff and us --the Black prisoners.  I became indignant at how GBCI functions. It was a boys club a paternity nothing short of a state sanctioned gang. They made the rules not for a stable environment capable of producing respect and collective respect for one another. The arbitral rules that the prison enforced were to make us conform without questioning what we were conforming to.  The rules like their programs were to program us unto docile domesticated diluted versions of strong Black men.

Correctional staff was becoming the criminals they guarded over. They were lying on prisoners cussing us out provoking us with the hopes that we would either verbally or physically attack them. If we verbally attacked an officer we would get written up by the officer resulting in segregation or hole time, loss of recreation, or some other form of punishment that had no learning of prevention involved, or lesson in conflict management. Only pure punishment that ran the list of producing bitterness, debilitating anger and looking at all whites with contempt. Whether if all whites are contemptible or not isn’t a question that comes to mind.  All that comes to mind is that white people wrote laws with bias; administer the laws with bias and now since being incarcerated from the warden on down to the rookie officers white people are in charge. Often guided by the politics of us against them which makes a travesty out of the justice system it injures both the staff and our emotional development as prisoners. In an extreme and common scenario some officers provoke prisoners with the hopes that one of us prisoners would physically assault a correctional officer resulting in the officer receiving time off with pay and one of us prisoners more prison time.

And of course, all of the CO’s weren’t bad people.  But the good officers didn’t have the numbers, the influence, and the ability to create a good culture.  Their acts were individual deeds, not institutional practices.  The good deeds of an officer did more to make sure their humanity stayed intact.  The good deeds of a CO didn’t or couldn’t affect whether we got granted parole, transferred to a better prison, or time reduced from our prison sentence.  At best, the goodness of an officer got a prisoner a “good” job within the prison.

On the flip side, a corrupt staff member’s influence knew no bounds and could therefore push a prisoner back for years. Segregation time/hole time, conduct reports, and negative run-ins with the prison gets put on our records, then we have to answer for them for years to come.  Even when the prison officials are aware that the correctional staff who wrote the conduct report is spiteful, revengeful, petty and negative we still have to explain ourselves as though we crucified Jesus instead of being tangled inside of a web woven by institutional dysfunction, corruption and racism.

With that said, walking through the gates of GBCI and seeing nothing but white officers, supervisors, social workers, psychologists, teachers and all white administration, I knew there was a world of difference between them and us.  I knew that these people had no vested interest in my transition from a misguided young man into a productive grown man.  Their main external take-away was a paycheck, their main internal take-away was the comfort power-tripping provides the ego.  I quickly started to bump heads with the correctional officers, teachers and any staff member who approached us as robots in need of programming instead of people capable of producing our own ideas about ourselves, our own communities and our own healing process.

I stayed in heated arguments with officers. Sometimes these arguments landed me in segregation/hole time, other times I got the emotional gratification of telling one of them off.  On one occasion, I can’t remember how it started, but I do remember how it ended, I hit a nerve with one of the sergeants who was a part of the boys club.  I knew I had him when he turned hot red:  “look at ‘cha, too emotional,  all emotional.  Don’t take your job too seriously.  Don’t invest negative emotions in me.  It becomes personal then.”  He stormed away.  I looked at my cellie Tanio and we began cracking up laughing. “Dawg, you crazy.  He was mad as hell.,” Tanio said as we laughed some more.

On a different occasion, I was participating in a group called “Self-Help.”  All of the group’s civilian volunteers were white. They came into the prison twice a month to gather with a bunch of us prisoners to discuss thought-provoking, emotionally jarring and philosophical questions. One question was, “If you could erase one thing from the earth, what would it be?”  “White people,” I responded.  “I would erase white people because everywhere they went/”discovered”, they have robbed, pillaged, raped, and plundered, leaving whole civilizations destroyed/destitute, in a state of despair.  Yeah, I’d wipe away white people.”

During this early portion of my incarceration I started to attend two religious services. Both had white chaplains.  One was a Christian service, the other a Buddhist service.  We were only allowed to attend one religious service at the time, so eventually I had to choose.

After the Christian chaplain did a sermon using a bronze/brown -like creature to represent our lower nature and a white angelic creature to represent our Christ-like nature, he made the choice for me.  If the Christian chaplain wasn’t sensitive enough to Black culture to know how that type of thinking and imagery of Black being bad and white being good has had, and continues to have an impact on both Black and white people’s psychology, I couldn’t feel comfortable in his services.  The concept of a white Jesus and a Black Judas has produced a superiority complex in too many whites and an inferiority complex in too many Blacks.

I started attending Buddhism exclusively then. My Buddhist teacher was an older lady by the name Tonen.  By the time I met Tonen she had the aura of an Asian monk  probably because she had been practicing Zen Buddhism for so long.  Tonen broke barriers as a women Buddhist which means she was influenced by Americas long struggle for women’s equality. Instead of the traditional gender roles that are still main stays in most Asian cultures that practice Buddhism Tonen embodied America’s seal:  “e pluribus Unum” or “out of many comes one.”  Our sangha “a sangha is a Buddhist community” was a mixture of colors and creeds who more likely than not wouldn’t have developed a brotherhood outside of Tonen who introduced Buddhism to us on a personal level that books aren’t capable of doing.  Tonen was friendly yet firm she never condescended or acted funny towards us we all felt like we mattered. Like being ourselves was all we had to be. And ironically around Tonen we wanted to be more. We didn’t want to be like Buddha or Tonen or none of our teachers. We were always encouraged to be the best Joe the; the best mike; the best Doug we could be. Tonen cussed a little in her talks probably to relax us. She allowed us to vent without any fear of being reprimanded from security and we vented.

We vented about how an officer and a supervisor/white shirt plotted to send a prisoner to the hole, not because the prisoner did anything wrong, but due to a personal grudge between an officer and the prisoner and how the officer always needs the last word.  Or how the state allowed canteen vendors to increase the prices of the items we are allowed to purchase - predatory capitalism - while decreasing prison pay.  Or how when one of us prisoners goes in front of the board that will decide whether we go to a better, medium, institution that would allow us to take one step closer towards going home, the board would only read our criminal history, our present criminal case, the trouble we’ve been in since incarcerated and then the board would ask if we had anything to say.

After undergoing this grueling process, it felt like we were being re-trialed, re-judged and re-sentenced, which was/is a humiliating, degrading and dehumanizing process.  Most prisoners were too emotionally drained and mentally defeated to properly respond.  It felt like the decision was made by the board before we entered the room, so asking us questions about our future placement within the D.O.C. was perfunctory.  No questions about our progress, our goals, our personhood!  They just used files.  We were only files.

I highlighted the hypocrisies of a system that seemed to be built more on capitalism and racism than the benefit of justice and rehabilitation.  Tonen would look at me intently, sometimes stern.  I vented on purpose just to bring that social activism spirit into our sangha. I couldn’t see how meditating, the calming and cathartic effects of meditating, could help reverse the tide of economic injustice, racism, and the plethora of human degradations that plague communities of color and then are turned into building blocks, the foundations and cornerstones upon which America’s prisons were built and thrive.  But despite my reservations on Buddhism, I stayed the course.  “How can meditating end poverty, or chip away at mass incarceration?” I would ask myself.  As I continued to attend Buddhist services, I started to meditate more, listen more and talk less.

I can remember Tonen responding to the question, “Do you believe in reincarnation/rebirth?”…”It varies,” she would say, “some in the Buddhist tradition believe in reincarnation literally.  That means if you do good in this life, in your next life you will come back in a better form - a great leader, wise teacher, a mother or father of a nation.  If you do badly you will come back in a form that suffers extremely.” “Personally,” she would say, I think every night is a form of dying and every morning we are reborn.  We have a second chance to do better.  Every day can be truly a new day.  And every awakening a new awakening, if we allow it to be.”  Then she would say, “Breathe, be aware of your breath.  Each inhale you take in what you want to become, the positive.  And each exhale releases what you want to let go of, the negative.”

“Wow!” I’d think, “What a great way of looking at it.”  On a different occasion, Tonen did a talk on value, human value.  To paraphrase her, “After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the atmosphere was so chaotic and hopeless that many were searching both for lost loved ones and answers.  One man lost his parents, his wife, his children and all of his material possessions.  With nowhere to go, he decided to become a Buddhist for both practical and spiritual reasons.  Practically, he needed shelter and the Buddhist temple provided him that.  Spiritually, he needed answers and the teacher of the temple provided him that. Understandably his outlook was very negative and he often questioned the teacher of the temple.

So one morning the priest told the man to rake up the leaves, stones and twigs in the field surrounding the temple.  The grieving man did the task begrudgingly.  Once finished, the man piled everything together with a trash bag in hand, ready to throw the stones, twigs and leaves away.  Once the priest saw the pile he told the grieving man to separate the stones from the pile.  Once separated, the man said, “Now what?” and the priest told him that the stones would be placed on top of the roof and in the gutters to prevent the flooding of the gardens when it rains.  The student asked, “So now what, throw away the twigs and leaves?”  “No, separate them” Once separate, the priest told the student that the twigs would be placed in the fireplace to assist the wood, and the leaves would be used as compost for the garden.  The priest then told the student that all things have value.  “No matter how bad things look, nothing is trash.”  In obstacles, in people, and in things nothing is trash.

As a prisoner, I related to that story so much.  That story reaffirmed my humanity and was food for my spirit.  I slowly began to understand that life, and the struggles that come with living are complicated and complex and that Buddhism and meditation are for my spirit.  While it won’t end poverty, it does produce healthy people.  And only healthy people produce healthy communities.                                                                               

Years later Tonen and I were able to channel my desire to help society with our practice of Buddhism. I started doing bead work once I got good enough to attract customers I shared with Tonen my desire to share my bead work and donate the proceeds to a worthy cause. She thought it was a good idea so we started Flowers for Hope. I made three dimensional beaded flowers. Tonen did the marketing and advertising and they sold in no time. For every donation made I received letters from the cause the money went to thanking me and keeping me informed where Flowers for Hope was contributed to. In addition to the insight and calmness that Buddhism enhanced inside of me it also helped me channel my creativity and passion for helping others into a reality. A reality that while still behind bars still dealing with the same institutional racism and bureaucratic riff raff I’ve learned to do both, grow as a person and enhance my creativity to touch others beyond my immediate reach and hopefully we all can reach beyond our prisons. Whatever our prisons may be and help ourselves and others any way we can.

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