"My Community" by Michael Rhynes

Auburn Correctional Facility
135 State Street Auburn, New York

I went to the Sho Shin (Beginner’s Mind) Sangha as a refugee seeking sanctuary from the politics of worshipping in a prison environment. In the politics of prison worship, there are three factors one must contend with before reaching God, enlightenment or a higher power:

  1. Prison administrations
  2. Religious hierarchy
  3. The body politic of the prison yard

After years of having my soul tossed and battered from these factors, I had no tolerance for religious instruction based on books, religious authority or yard politics dictating who could worship or not worship. I wanted a measure of peace. Arriving at the Sho Shin Sangha with a beginner’s mind, I passed through the security door of the prison chapel where all denominations worship. Upon checking with the officer at the desk, I was allowed to walk into the chapel.

Entering this space I was enveloped in serene darkness. Directly in front of me stand old world pews that could accommodate eighty worshippers. To my left is a row of tall security windows the officer uses to monitor our movements. Between two iron doors that masquerade as fire exits sit six imitation stained glass windows that simply bring no joy.

On the right side of the chapel are the same type of security windows. Gray lockers cover the wall where each denomination keeps its religious material. On a raised platform that sometimes moonlights as a stage sits a lazy Susan with an altar on top. This large platform had been transformed into a zendo. I was astounded at its beauty. A hand-carved Buddha made with tender loving care beckoned all who were lost. The arrangement of flowers stopped my beating heart and made my weary soul leap for joy. I am not accustomed to such beauty. The amber light of the candles reminded me of a homecoming. Cushions were arranged in neat formation on both sides of the zendo. There were wooden objects I’ve never seen before. Bowls that turned into bells tickled my heart with joy.

Out of nowhere, three sisters of peace appeared. The first bowed and said, “I am Jikyo. Welcome.” The second also bowed and said, “I am MyoEn. Welcome.” The third sister bowed and said, “Namaste, Michael.” The other men there for the service also bowed and welcomed me.

Sitting in the lotus position brought agony to my stiff legs. Chanting in a foreign language dredged up images of Salem. Prostrating to a craven image shook my Christian belief system. Looking up from my prostrations with one eye, I didn’t see any lightning or hear any thunder. The chapel wasn’t shaking, and besides this was the only respite from the harsh penitentiary winds.

I’ve been at the Sho Shin Sangha going on three years. It was not the wisdom of Buddha or an abbot that has stayed my course, but the love of community. The word love and the action of love are two different things. In meditation, I often find myself pondering my childhood. The question that pops up is how can one love a father or a deity who’s never there? Children have no concept of the word love; they only recognize the actions of love.

Not one person in the Sangha has ever pressed me into believing in what they believe. In fact, they probably have no idea what my core belief is. The action of love is ever present at the Sangha. For example, when I first learned to conduct tea service, I made a lot of mistakes. With the guidance of a loving hand, I came to realize the ceremony of serving tea was about more than soaking herbs into hot water. It was about the humble joy of serving others. I learned there is truly more joy in serving than in being served.

Dying in prison is a lonely business. Longtime friends can just disappear from the population one day without it being noticed for months or years. The sad news is passed through the prison grapevine without any sensitivity. There are no official announcements or memorial services to help one incarcerated person mourn another incarcerated person’s passing.

When I was told we would be celebrating O-bon, I was frightened. What kind of people celebrate death and worship ancestors? But I loved the pageantry of O-bon as well as the reverence of paying homage to one’s ancestors. With the delight of a child, I helped put up flags, streamers, lights and candles. The chapel was turned into a temple in some faraway land where one had the freedom to grieve and laugh in the same moment. I’ve never been on a boat or thought of building one. At O-bon we became shipwrights and engineers who constructed our own waterways. The solemn occasion of remembering our ancestors and transcribing their names brought back repressed memories of happier times. Joy mingled with sadness as we watched our boat pass from this doorway into another doorway where our ancestors were free from harm.

The drama of Buddha’s Birthday was another sight and experience to behold. The beautiful arrangement of flowers transformed the chapel into a garden where the Baby Buddha waited to be bathed in the sweetness of tea. We were read an account of Buddha’s birth, and then we reenacted the birth of Buddha.

The procession that led to the birth felt as though we were really traveling. I had an urgent need to wave at well-wishers. I felt just like the old sage I was portraying. The atmosphere was full of joy, waiting for the Baby Buddha to arrive. There were no mothers or fathers – we were all one in the celebration of life.

The Sho Shin Sangha is my community. It’s where I am learning the noble truths of Buddha. It’s where I come each week to rest my weary soul. It’s where I’ve learned I am akin to the lotus flower and this place doesn’t have the power to diminish me. It’s where we share the one breath that unites us to everyone and everything in this universe and beyond.

The love of my Sangha was so profound I wanted others to experience it. So I wrote to the Dalai Lama inviting him to visit our Sangha. He declined my invitation because of prior obligations. I then wrote to Ven. Tenzin Priyadarshi, inviting him to come. One of our members also wrote the abbot of the Zen monastery. So far, no one has come. (Actually, Shinge Roshi plans to visit this winter.)