Precepts In Prison

 by Members of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha

from Mountain Record 31.2, Winter 2012-2013


The National Buddhist Prison Sangha (NBPS) works with inmates around the country through prison affiliate groups and a one-to-one correspondence training program. Here some NBPS members share their reflections on grappling with morality.

As a Zen practitioner recently released from prison, I have had to think deeply about the moral implications of the crime I committed, the consequences and repercussions of that crime, and what my life and the lives of the people I harmed will look like going forward.

At first, I treated the precepts as the do’s and don’ts of Buddhism, an approach I no longer find especially useful. In particular, I found the precept Manifest truth; do not lie hard to keep, especially as I found myself in a situation where slavish adherence to the precept might not have been a good idea. Here is what I mean.

The victim in my criminal case was a child, and child-abusers are regarded as among the “lowest of the low” in the prison population. Therefore, while my case was still pending and I was out on bond, my friends and I came up with a cover story to explain why I was in prison. The cover story served a dual purpose of making me look like a tough guy and thus, I hoped, a less-attractive target for abuse.

At that time I was new to Buddhist practice, and becoming painfully aware of the ways I had hurt not only the direct victim of the crime, but also the victim’s family and society as a whole. In my zeal to clean up my life, I adopted an absolutist attitude toward the precepts, especially the one about lying. I had the idea that I had to tell everybody all the facts all the time. I realized, however, that deeper principles were in operation here.

When I committed my crime, I had told myself the worst lie: that no one would be hurt by my actions. The truth I had to face was that I had hurt not only the direct victim, but everyone (including myself), because all beings are interdependent. Those truths were more important than the bare facts of my case. So, who would I help by revealing the true nature of my case to other prisoners? I would only subject myself to violence, further harm my family, who had already lost so much, and make it more difficult to get through my sentence and, after my release, move on with my life.

Lily Ann Plumb