Behind bars, the way of the Buddha to find himself

- through Francois Leclercq

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More and more people detained in France are interested in Buddhism, according to the report of prison chaplains. Locked up, they seek inner peace and question their journey as human beings. For some, it's a real eye-opener.

“The money, the casinos, the party… I had a crazy life! The life story of Joseph, convicted of fraud, contrasts with his calm and relaxed attitude. Mid-length hair, a scarf around his neck, the sexagenarian takes advantage of his few hours of daily freedom away from home to tell his entry into Buddhism, seated in a café in Clermont-Ferrand. Placed under electronic surveillance, he was released from prison four months earlier, after nine months behind bars, to complete his sentence at home. It was during his stay at the Riom prison center (Puy-de-Dôme) that the former property developer met Christian, the local Buddhist chaplain. "I was attracted by this spirituality in my quest for serenity", explains Joseph, who adds: "So I followed the Tuesday sessions on the discovery of this tradition, and the sessions of zazen (sitting meditation) of forty minutes, where you expel your negative energy to the rhythm of the beats on the timpani". Son of a Belgian mother and a Kabyle father, he practiced no religion before entering prison. “In my family, there are Jews, Catholics and Muslims. What seduced me in Buddhism is that beyond any belief, I could materialize and experience my search for tranquility, by getting closer to the Buddha. »

“Questioning my life and my mistakes. »

Like Joseph, most of the prisoners met by the Buddhist chaplains "think that Buddhism can bring them something", testifies Philippe, Buddhist regional chaplain of the prisons of New Aquitaine, also known under the name of lama Shedroup. “Those who want to take refuge (1) think about their emotional functioning, to learn how to manage their impulses,” he reveals.

Seated by his side, in a living room of the Auvergne monastery of Dhagpo Kundreul Ling (see box), the national Buddhist prison chaplain, Fabienne Guillaume – lama Drupgyu – agrees: “We invite them to think about the notions of causes and consequences”. This aspect really challenged Joseph: “In my working life, I had never had time to think about it. It allowed me to take a step back, to question my life and my errors, and bounce back,” he remarks. But if it is true that the Buddhist practice prevents certain excesses, it cannot prevent them all: "Buddhist practitioners generally avoid getting into problems", agrees Lama Shedrup. “That said, I have met several people who were interested in this tradition and who nevertheless ended up incarcerated for drug or sexual matters, most often due to uncontrolled urges. On the other hand, I have never known a Buddhist follower of organized crime”.

“I have met people who were interested in Buddhism and who ended up incarcerated despite everything for drug or sexual matters, most often because of uncontrolled urges. On the other hand, I have never known a Buddhist follower of organized crime”. Lama Shedrup

“For my part, I spoke to a Buddhist practitioner who had taken refuge, but who was not really practicing, and who, during a drinking bout, killed a person by accident. He took it for fifteen years, ”testifies lama Drupgyu, who adds: “A Muslim prison chaplain confided to me that he was often approached by disoriented young people from the estates, with a lot of anger and resentment towards society. Among the people seeking a Buddhist chaplain, there are very few who have this type of profile”.

Fewer teachings, more rosaries and prayers for Asians

More and more inmates are interested in Buddhism, but few are fully committed. Lama Drupgyu sheltered two people at a ceremony in the presence of other practitioners; Philippe, on the other hand, gave refuge individually in their cell to two men serving long sentences. And, at Riom prison, where Joseph was imprisoned, five prisoners signed up. "It creates a Sangha (2), a group of practitioners, it's interesting", notes lama Drupgyu.

To take refuge supposes to engage in a path, yes, but of which tradition? "Those who want to be helped by Buddhism do not differentiate between them," notes Lama Shedrup. Those who already have an idea often have questions about Zen, because they have heard of the martial arts practiced by the monks of Shaolin, for example”.

The two chaplains do not notice a predominant tradition in prison. "To interested prisoners, I present the different possibilities, I naturally talk about my own and I am attentive to their sensitivities", explains Lama Drupgyu. For the moment, the chaplain gives refuge according to his own tradition, “but a reflection is underway to meet specific needs”. After being offered three schools to choose from, Joseph opted for the Kagyupa tradition, the Tibetan Vajarayna current practiced by Christian, his chaplain.

Unlike Western Buddhist aspirants, "the Asians I met in prison are less in demand of teachings", remarks lama Drupgyu. Faithful to their family tradition, they ask us instead to obtain objects of worship: rosaries, books, pendants, reliquaries or prayers...”

“Before, it was the race for the most beautiful house, the most beautiful car… Today, I'm more in tune with nature, I manage to dwell on small things. »Joseph

In prison, the chaplains also sometimes exchange with "Muslims and Christians who are interested in this tradition", notes Lama Shedrup. “I remember a Muslim detainee whom I had not been able to see; the supervisors asked me not to forget to schedule an appointment with him, because our interviews did him a lot of good. And, it's true that our conversations are important moments, because prisoners cannot show their weaknesses to others,” agrees Philippe. An observation corroborated by the experience of Joseph: “In prison, we find ourselves with dangerous people or we are infantilized. The practice has helped me keep my dignity and preserve myself.”

“Today, I am more in tune with nature. »

Today, Joseph does “a half-hour of meditation a day, around 8 am. It is a phase of therapy, to fix me”. After having swallowed up fortunes in the casino, he now seeks "to lead a more serene life". If Joseph is followed by a psychiatrist, he affirms that "it is Buddhism that helps me the most not to relapse ». Its practice is also combined with a healthier way of life and goes hand in hand with a simpler way of life: "While for forty years I ate and dranks no matter what, I now avoid red meats, I eat organic, I have almost banned alcohol. Today, I no longer seek to obtain the most beautiful house, the most beautiful car… I am more in tune with nature. From hyper-nervous, I became someone who was zen and calm. »

This is also the opinion of those around him: his mother finds him “more balanced” and encourages him to continue in Buddhism; his partner, half Kabyle half Emirati, wants to join him on the path of the Buddha.

At the end of his placement under electronic surveillance, in mid-December, the sexagenarian will remain on parole until September 2019. But, from February, he wishes to request authorization to settle in Thailand, to enter into a more intense ". Previously, his path will take him, to begin with, to the Dhagpo Kundreul Ling monastery, in Bost, where he “will observe the Thousand Buddhas and, why not, do a retreat of a few months”

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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