Bodhicitta Behind Bars


“Just as a flash of lightning in the darkest night 
Instantaneously illuminates all  for just a moment,
So too, through the powerful wisdom of the Buddhas,
virtuous thoughts occur rarely and briefly in this world. “


(Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara Chapter 1, ” verse 5-my  translation)


I have been contemplating the next step to take in my Buddhist Services on Death Row. My groups have grown from 1 to over 50 men, all whom are deeply interested in pursuing any spiritual knowledge they can find in order to explore and expand their inner lives. Many of them attend the other faith services there as well, so though I provide the Buddhist teachings, I always ask them to identify where and how the topics we are talking about show up in the other traditions. Our discussions become multi-faceted, a real kaleidoscope of the inner journey seen through the multi-lenses of spirit.

For the past 3 years our groups have covered the basics of Buddha’s teachings, common to all schools of Buddhism. Now I hoped to provide some text study for the men as a way to see how the foundations of the dharma have been explicated, and to familiarize them with the basic texts of the Buddha’s teachings. The texts I chose for them were: The Lotus Sutra (many of the men follow the SGI school, which solely uses the Lotus Sutra), the Heart Sutra, the Dhammapada, and finally, Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara.


Though I’ve had a love affair with the Heart Sutra for decades, I kept coming back to how, really, when push comes to shove, the quickest way to the transformation of the heart and soul from a Buddhist perspective is the cultivation of Bodhicitta, the Awakened Heart. I often see the metaphor of a pilot light coming on, the spark of Bodhicitta becoming inflamed. Suddenly, life is different. Suddenly the teachings begin to work through you, your practice begins to do you, your life changes course in subtle or not so subtle ways, and you find the truth of interconnectedness and recognize that the teachings of the Dharma really are that wish-fulfilling jewel.



I know this, and have seen this at work in my own life, especially after meeting and being around my root guru who turned the prayer wheel of my life and showed me how large life can be when one is dedicated to cultivating a calm, warm, compassionate heart.


All that is fine, but how to get this across to the men, nearly all who will die there on Death Row either by their own hand, or sickness, old age and disease, or finally execution by the Death Penalty, if that should be reinstated here in CA?


Shift Happens, even on Death Row


I’ve already seen how some of their lives have changed course once they dedicate themselves to a spiritual path. Though stuck on Death Row, shift still happens. I decided to go for it, after all, what is there to lose?


As a way of supercharging my intention, on my 60th birthday I made copies of the first chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva on “The Benefit of Bodhicitta” and distributed them, along with a biography of Shantideva, through the prison mail. In addition, I included an essay on Emptiness, a translation of the Heart Sutra, and an intro to Bodhicitta, which I wrote:


“All of you are receiving a short piece on Bodhicitta-the Awakened Heart of the Dharma Warrior. Cultivating Bodhicitta, or, an Awakened Heart, is the goal of all Buddhist Practice. As you will see going forward, cultivating Bodhicitta can best be done by following the 8-Fold Path and the Six Perfections. You can fast track the cultivation of Bodhicitta by dedicating all your positive thoughts, words and deeds to the welfare of all suffering beings, and to praying that any negative thoughts, words and deeds be transformed by your own deepening awareness into positive energy. If you have established some kind of meditation practice at this point, please dedicate any fruits of that practice to the welfare of all suffering beings. Even if you haven’t established a meditation practice, you can dedicate your workouts, your reading of sacred texts, even watching TV, any act you do, to all beings.”



I was happy that the first group I would see in this new cycle of study was Yard 3. The Yard 3 guys are either pretty well versed in the Dharma, or have a solid spiritual practice, or both. As the 7 men took their seats in the medieval, iron clad, tiny makeshift chapel at the end of the cell block, I began with our usual meditation, while silently asking for guidance in how to explain Bodhicitta to them in a way that would apply to their lives.


A Warrior of the Heart



After our meditation, I spoke about the life-changing potential of cultivating Bodhicitta, even for them. What does it really mean to dedicate everything you do for the benefit of others? How does this practice change the way we energetically engage with the rest of the world? I noticed their expressions deepen when I named this journey “Becoming a Warrior of the Heart.” I drew from the stories other men in the prison have reported after following this path. “You might find that people come back into your lives you thought were long lost, or changes in your case might happen, or you will get new spiritual insights and understandings from your studies.”



It didn’t take long for a few of the men to begin nodding their heads in agreement.  I no longer felt like I was tripping over my heartwords as if describing a secret formless lover.  They were onboard. One man couldn’t contain his excitement. “I think you are talking directly to me here! All those things are happening! He talked about how recently, after decades of practicing meditation and mantra, some major new developments have been revealed in his case, which could lead to a re-sentencing. Not only that, but a handful of old friends and relatives have resurfaced in his life. “I don’t even feel like I am HERE! I mean, I know I am here, but not HERE here,” he exclaimed, pointing to the walls around us.


Again I elaborated on the infinite ways we can dedicate our lives to others, simply by being mindful and inclusive of what we do. From the minute we wake up, “may all beings awaken” to turning on the water faucet or hearing water in the matrix of pipes there in the cell block “may all beings have enough water” to walking, to working out, to talking, to thinking. Dedication can go hand in hand with all we do, every act, no matter how small.



Another man spoke up. He had been sitting right in front of me, smiling quietly the whole time, nodding, as he rocked his body ever so slightly back and forth, like monks do while chanting. “I know exactly what you are talking about and I do this every day in my own way. When I work out in my cell, doing burpees, I have sheet of paper on my wall listing out who I am doing each set for: the first set is for my homeboys; the second is for everyone in rival gangs or are different races; then my family and friends; then all the innocent people; then the plants and animals; then the guys in here-and the list goes on and on. In this way, they all motivate me to stay healthy and dedicate my fitness to them.

When I put on my shirt, I think of all the people who have no shirt.


I also do this when I get put on my clothes every morning.  As I put on my shirt, I think of all the people who have no shirt; same with my pants, my socks, my shoes. I imagine them all there in front of me and imagine them having clothes. Of course they probably wouldn’t want my clothes, but I do it anyway.”



I was electrified.  “Have you noticed any changes in your life since you’ve been doing that practice?” “Oh yea. I am so blessed. I am at peace. I am kind. I haven’t cussed in 17 years. I have good  friends, both inside and out.”



“You guys, this is exactly what we are talking about here, and this is exactly how we can all teach each other. I know where you are, and you know where you are, but our spirits and the cause and effect of the energy we put out can change our lives and the lives of others no matter where you are or what you have or how your life will play out. Tonight was a great example. I think we are all leaving here more full than when we came in. ”



Bowing to each other, we closed our night by dedicating the fruits of our evening to all beings, to the planet, to healing.



The men waited for “their rides” (their tier guards) to come get them, shackle them up, and take them back to their cells. I walked back across the ground floor of cells to the end of the Row, depositing my vest at the desk. A guard came over, unlocked the ironclad door and let me out. I emerged from the cellblock, walked back through the corridor and out the sally port to the incredible evening view of the Bay Area. The wind and the waves, the setting sun were always a welcome sight upon leaving the prison. Tonight though, it paled in comparison with the view from my heart, rearranged with joy by the wisdom and revelation of this sangha as they explored the Benefit of Bodhicitta, truly a flash of lightning in the dark sky.












Home is Where the Heart is