Adventuring in Brotherhood
The Human Kindness Foundation offers prisoners friendship and support in their spiritual growth. This compassionate mission is especially needed today with prison populations in the United States continuing to soar and lawmakers passing more and more laws stipulating mandatory prison time for various groups of offenders. Why kindness? As cofounder Bo Lozoff has written:
Every great spiritual, philosophic and religious tradition has emphasized compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and responsibility. These are not suggestions, they are instructions. If we follow them we will thrive, if not we will suffer. The socially-sanctioned hatred and rage which we express toward criminals in modern times violates these timeless instructions. We are breaking a fundamental spiritual law, and the price we are paying for it is increased crime, violence, depravity, hopelessness, and of course, more hatred and rage.
The Foundation has its roots in the Prison-Ashram Project that was begun by Bo and Sita Lozoff and Ram Dass in 1973. This Project is based on the insight that prison time can be an opportunity for spiritual growth similar to an ashram if individual prisoners choose to use the conditions to transform and improve themselves. Its primary purpose is
to inspire and encourage prisoners and prison staff to recognize their depth as human beings, and to behave accordingly. Our inmost nature is divine. The nature of our lives is an incomprehensibly wonderful mystery which each human being can experience only in solitude and silence. Prisoners have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to this inward journey without the distractions and luxuries which occupy many people in the "free world."
The Human Kindness Foundation was founded in 1987 to administer the Prison-Ashram Project. It also sponsors the Lozoffs' prison workshops and seminars; a direct mail book catalog service, with some materials free to prisoners; and Kindness House, 13 acres in rural North Carolina opened in 1994 as a transitional housing facility for about half-a-dozen people at a time, mainly newly-released prisoners, where spiritual practices and human service are emphasized. Its latest project seeks to open North Carolina's first biodiesel refinery to provide job training for newly released prisoners. As Lozoff explains: "Here are people who go out into the world with two strikes against them. First, they're felons, with all that conjures up for people. Second, they don't know how to work for a boss. Don't know how to handle a schedule, how to show up on time, how to manage the obligations. When they leave us [at Kindness House], it's like they're swimming upstream." Lozoff hopes that the factory will create and finance jobs for about 17 ex-convicts.
But what can the rest of us do, day in and day out, to promote compassion, lend a hand to felons, and end the "socially sanctioned hatred" of criminals? Lozoff suggests that we can see that spiritual organizations we belong to support and include prisoners and ex-addicts; be informed about prison issues and speak up when criminals as a group are demonized or vilified, or executions are cheered; and also
strengthen our personal practice so that compassion and clear-thinking don't fly out the window when we are confronted by crime. If we are victims of a crime, we can insist on meeting the perpetrator, insist on keeping it a human interaction rather than one which is sanitized and depersonalized by the state. We can press for a restorative approach in the trial and sentencing -- one which emphasizes responsibility, restitution, and healing rather than retribution.
We can take seriously the ageless teachings which remind us to see everyone as our mother, everyone as having buddha-nature. Even with the most despicable of criminals, we can strive to remember that our happiness and liberation are interdependent with theirs; that they are as much the beneficiaries of all the bodhisattvas' vows as we are. . . .
It's a wonderful challenge to apply dharma teachings to such a serious social problem. And it's a great thrill and deep inspiration to get to know people who are striving for wisdom and compassion even in such circumstances. The old stories are true; the teachings work. We don't have to avert our eyes from this mess. We can help to transform it -- and ourselves -- instead.
The Prison-Ashram Project has a sister organization in the UK, The Prison Phoenix Trust. More information about the Human Kindness Foundation is available in Bo Lozoff's books, such as We're All Doing Time and It's a Meaningful Life, as well as on the Foundation's website at www.humankindness.org.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)