Issue 13: Spring


Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy

By Devin Ashwood

Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation

Angulimala was one of the first formalised Buddhist organisations in the UK that might be said to have been set up with a specific mission of engagement in a particular domain of society. A little history may give some perspective to the work I engage with in supporting Angulimama.

In 1977, Ajahn Khemadhammo found himself in the old Hampstead Buddhist Vihara on Haverstock Hill after studying in Thailand for many years with the Venerable Ajahn Chah. This happened to be the Buddhist contact address for the Prison service, so when a couple of prisons requested someone visit Buddhist prisoners for the first time in that year, off he went. But as the years progressed and the number of Buddhist prisoners grew, it became clear that the newly appointed ‘Visiting Buddhist Minister’ would no longer be able to see everyone and more people would need to be involved.

Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation was founded on Magha Puja Day in February 1985. Following consultation with the Prison Service Chaplaincy, Angulimala was recognised in March of the same year as the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning the Prison Service in England and Wales. Angulimala has since been referred to as the Buddhist Nominating Authority and is now officially the Religious Consultative Service to the Prison Service for Buddhism and the Prison Service contributes to its costs.

Angulimala does not favour any form or school of Buddhism over another and has the backing of most major Buddhist organisations in the UK. Membership is open to anyone in sympathy with its aims, whether they wish to play an active part or not. We usually have about fifty chaplains working in around a hundred and twenty of the penal establishments in England and Wales. A committee that meets quarterly and which helps with the wider organisation oversees our several activities. Currently Lord Avebury is the Patron, Rev. Saido Kennaway of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey co-ordinates the appointment of Buddhist Visiting Ministers and is the Secretary, Dharmachari Sunanda is the Treasurer, John Preston co-ordinates Angulimala Scotland and the Venerable Ajahn Khemadhammo is the Spiritual Director. There is present in Britain a wide diversity of Buddhist schools and practices, and were it necessary to provide ministers representing all of these it would be a nightmare for us and for the Prison Service. Fortunately, this diversity is represented within Angulimala’s membership and amongst its chaplains and there is broad agreement that what should be offered is a basic Buddhism with provision when necessary for whatever school or form of practice that might be required.

Experience of a Buddhist Chaplain

Like all Buddhist chaplains to the prison service, I offer my time as a generic Buddhist chaplain. This means that I avail myself to support Buddhists from a wide range of backgrounds. Having grown myself in the Soto Zen tradition, to be the most service I can be, I have enjoyed finding out about a wide range of Buddhist practices and perspectives. Buddhists from around the world find themselves in prisons in the UK, all with stories to tell, stories that reflect the ever-smaller global village we live in, whether from China, Thailand, Vietnam or elsewhere on the globe, some come accused of trafficking people, others trafficked themselves by organised criminals to work in cannabis factories, one man found himself in trouble trying to get by in a country that no-one can agree whether he has the right to be in or not. Some prisoners who are new to the country speak English well, but many not at all. I imagine that being locked up in a strange country with an alien culture with which one cannot even communicate must be a frightening experience.

I have come across a second-generation western Buddhist returning to practice after a life of drugs and chaos landed him at the mercy of the justice system. Every one who comes has a story but most don't share their past, maybe preferring to leave painful memories behind or maybe not wanting to invite yet another person to judge them for their past karma.

Those above were born into Buddhism and their approach is often different to the majority of Buddhist prisoners: those that came to Buddhist practice in the prisons themselves. Maybe seeking an entertaining diversion, maybe seeking a way out of the samsaric revolving door of drugs, crime and incarceration or maybe even offering themselves to a practice for the welfare of all beings?

Most of the men I see have used drugs in the past and many still do. A good few have been to prison many times before and all are subject to an institutional system that offers a mix of punishment, rehabilitation and public protection; how much of each is intended may not be well understood by those that send them let alone those who serve the time.

I sometimes ask myself, what do I have to offer by going into a prison and meeting with a group of men who for various reasons identify with a the label 'Buddhist'? I have no formal authority to teach in the tradition I have grown up in but have stumbled into a role as a Buddhist chaplain, a role people look to for guidance and support. This stumbling was in part due to a desire to realize support for my own practice in the absence of opportunities for extended residential practise, however, the acknowledged selfish motivations seem to be less to the fore as the years pass and I realize not only that support is always present but also that the practice is one of devotion.

This devotion doesn’t know if it is helpful, but I hold a space for silence, sometimes giving guidance to encourage people to sit upright and still in the centre of their experience, sometimes we talk about Buddhist teachings but interestingly, I feel that never is my practise more evident and what I have to offer so distilled, as when I am serving a group of people who do not speak any English. Here, with the koan of how is the teaching expressed without words? It is somehow most clear that all I have to offer is myself in the moment of meeting. My only method of communicating the teachings I receive is through a mindful and compassionate attention to my physical presence with them. The way I greet people, unlock the door, walk into the room, offer incense, bow, sit and ring the bell, these simple, physical activities are my only opportunity to realize our connection and so demand a deep commitment to practise, a physical, devotional practise that I hope to engage in all aspects of life.

Devin Ashwood
Angyu Daichi

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