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Vipassana and Life Without Parole: The Dhamma Brotherhood

Vipassana and Life Without Parole: The Dhamma Brotherhood

Scott Rowland • July 11, 2015 • Lifestyle • 

Imagine being secluded to a max security prison with no hope for release, surrounded by brutality and a menacing disposition. Nowhere to turn for solace. No comfort to speak of. How long would it take before crumbling under the unfavorable environment? Would a “light at the end of the tunnel” even seem possible?

The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary about a group of convicted felons, murderers and gang members locked away for life without parole who discover the essence of peace and a Dhamma Brotherhood by accepting circumstance as it is.

Vipassana, a Buddhist tradition of meditating for a period of 10 days to reflect upon the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and the realization of non-self, becomes that distance glimmer of hope for the men in The Dhamma Brothers. Somehow, meditation turns into an effective application for establishing peace behind the bars of William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison known for its population of violent and mentally unstable residents: an unlikely place to nurture acceptance.

The idea was initially put into motion by Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, the Director of Treatment at Donaldson, after he discovered a prison in India implementing and achieving calming results through Vipassana. Under Cavanaugh’s authority, the first meditation program in a United States prison began in January 2002.

When Jenny Phillips, Ph. D., a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist specializing in crisis intervention, behavioral medicine and mindfulness training, found out about a prison deep in the Bible Belt with inmates practicing a regimented discipline of meditation, she decided to document and spread the results of this revolutionary concept by releasing it on video. During the second round of the Vipassana-meditation program in May 2002, a team consisting of Phillips, Andrew Kukura, a documentary filmmaker from Carleton College with a BA in Art History, and Anne Marie Stein, the Dean of Professional and Continuing Education at The Massachusetts College of Art and Design, observed and recorded the dramatically revealing process.

Five inmates in particular, Grady Bankhead, Edward Johnson, Benjamin Oryang, Rick Smith and Johnny Mack Young, are surprisingly objective of their experience at Donaldson. Each one of them was convicted of murder in some degree or another with no chance for freedom beyond the penitentiary walls and guard towers, yet they fully exemplify a raw openness to talk about their crimes and their reflections.

Dhamma Brothers pic 2 - Meditating during Vipassana

Inmates in Vipassana

The first time Johnson appears in the film he states with a somber tone, “I always looked at the guards like they are my enemies…. I felt like I had to have this ‘image’ to survive in this environment”. Almost every inmate falls into the misconception that they must be unbreakable and tougher than everyone else in their cell block. Before the program he partakes in begins, he persists that, “I’m gonna see what’s going on. That’s part of me letting know ahead: you ready man. You ready to go ahead and deal with life. Some people are scared to deal with life. I was one of those people scared to deal with life”.

“I spent eight and a half years on death row and [Vipassanna] was harder,” says Bankhead. As the hours pass and thought unveils its true nature, realization unfolds in an enlightening manor for, according to Bankhead, “Things don’t just happen. Your behavior causes the actions you get into, so I am guilty. Whether I hit the man, whether I stabbed the man, whether I cut the man, which I didn’t, but I am guilty.”

“Vipassana is something that should be used for personal development, personal growth respective of whether someone is free or incarcerated,” says Oryang, “I believe such work should be done if someone is to grow personally”. During the 10-day period, transformation occurred for Oryang, “So many things started to get in the way. I found myself getting angry at the things that were getting in the way…. I had been holding onto things too strongly. That became very funny. I started laughing about the way I was reacting. I began laughing because I was angry.”

Throughout The Dhamma Brothers, the absurdity of an eastern religious practice incorporated in the southern United States is not just questioned, but shunned by everyone except the convicts and coordinators. The program was so undervalued despite the peaceful results that a complaint from the prison’s chaplain regarding the loss of his congregation warranted immediate disbandment. Fortunately, the meditation program was allowed to return in 2005.

A desire to relinquish suffering from the unfavorable circumstance of life without parole continues to spread throughout Donaldson Correctional Facility. Today, there is a waiting list for inmates interested in taking the program. With no pretense necessary to embark upon the 10-day tradition, even discarded American criminals can recondition their thought process to understand the powerful message of Vipassana as a means to proliferate peace.

It is hard to believe that one convict imprisoned for the gruesome crime of murder can find solace and an acceptance of their actions, let alone the hundreds of Donaldson warriors (of mindfulness) who have volunteered. What if we implemented this program internationally? Many claim that the power of meditation can change the world. That is if each of us sat with our thoughts just like the Dhamma Brotherhood.

The Dhamma Brothers


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  1. There are very few instances,when I agree life without parole to be justified.It has always baffled me,as to the extent many are ready to dismiss these lives.The fact that so many ‘Christians’ in this country would approve of the barbaric treatment of fellow human beings,is extremely hard to understand.I had never heard of Vipassana before,but would hope that other prisons would share in the desire to implement such programs that would help those who face no future outside prison walls,to find some peace & purpose.


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