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Nov 10
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Basic Goodness Behind Bars

by Skylar Rickabaugh and Ted Fremd who both help Trime Persinger, the Buddhist Chaplain in the Snake River Correctional Institution in Eastern Oregon. This story is about Sunday morning of the Lineage Festival weekend and the experience of the vow ceremony occurring totally within a prison – the only established meditation group that we know of that is a group of inmates.

The Shambhala Meditation Group of Snake River was launched in January of 2008 and, to the best of our knowledge, is the only officially affirmed Shambhala Meditation Group with a full-time staff and a Shambhala Buddhist Chaplain within a prison. The Snake River Correctional Institute is the largest prison in Oregon, located close to the Idaho border. You have to do things differently in a prison.


Trime Persinger, the Shambhala prison chaplain, has manifested a potent opportunity for many men to be exposed to and experience a culture of kindness, sometimes for the very first time in their lives. There is a core group of about 30 men (many of who took Refuge Vows from Acharaya Ferguson in 2009) that participated in the Lineage Festival and had an opportunity to take the Shambhala and Enlightened Society Vows. However, in prison, you only have a few hours on Sunday morning to do anything special, like Shambhala Day celebrations and festivals like this. Trime has to pre-arrange a “call out” list in order for the inmates to be released into a central room where gomdens can be arranged and a network feed projected. What ensued during this festival weekend for the three of us became powerful and humorous contemplations of the immediacy of these vows.

When Ted and I (and a beloved “rescue dog” we had just obtained and planned to leave in his “kennel” in the back of our vehicle) arrived at Trime’s house on Saturday, it was about the time that other Shambhala centers and groups in North America were starting to enjoy their salon dinners. It was a time of condensing the program for the three of us – there would be only 3 hours in the morning for these guys to partake in all the suggested discussions and Acharya Rosenthal’s video before the vow ceremony at 11 am MDT. We would be relying heavily on a meticulously programmed Enso timer to go through our condensed version of the schedule posted online. Going to bed that night feeling confident that all could be accomplished, we were awakened at 3 AM by a loud and violent event occurring just outside Trime’s house. As the aggression and fear of the policemen escalated, to the view of flashing red and blue lighting reflected on the bedroom ceiling and windows (“….get out of the truck NOW….keep your hands up! Throw the keys out of the truck NOW…Keep your F—-hands where I can see them! Do you want to get F—-shot!!!), we anticipated gunshots. After this finally ended, our sleep was replaced by a profound contemplation of the Enlightened Society Vow we were to take in a few hours.

Trime Persinger, Buddhist Chaplain at SRCI

Six in the morning started off with a series of mishaps. Recalling the prison policy not allowing dogs in the parking lot, we decided to leave this poor dog alone in a strange garage, and we saw a ghost of panic in Trime’s eyes. “Oh my gosh! In all the demands of this week, I forgot to get clearance for you and Ted to get into the prison!” (This being a required process that needs to be done many days in advance.) So, while Trime was making a frantic phone call to the Officer in Charge (hoping it to be one of the captains who knows Trime’s work in the prison), Ted and I proceeded to load the car with a box of supplies we were taking. This box contained two wonderful flower arrangements in vases of water, which tipped in the front seat, dumping the flowers on the floor and thoroughly soaking the seat. There was nothing to do but place two jackets over the water-soaked seat and hope to have time for rearranging the flowers when we got to the prison. Experiencing annoyance, anger, and panic (and regret of having to leave the poor dog incarcerated in the strange garage), we drove fast along the several miles to the prison, not knowing if we could even enter with Trime without a pre-arranged clearance. It was an effort to let this stew of emotions dissolve into humor, and hope that confusion would dawn as wisdom … or something like that.

Gaining entrance to the prison by the kindness of the Officer in Charge and listening to the standard warnings concerning our safety, we arrived deep within the sterile and secure complex –a very different experience from entering a shrine room (or tent) of a center. A few of the men were waiting to set up the shrine and arrange the gomdens. An inmate and member of the group who is an IT specialist connected the space to the Shambhala information stream for the ceremony to take place in a few hours. The intervening very full three hours went well, with all the men totally engaged with Acharya Rosenthal’s presentation, the discussion questions, and sharing in small groups – all smoothly timed to the compressed schedule synched to the gong of the Enso clock. During the last “harvesting” session, just as one of the men was sharing something profound and heartfelt, the power went out throughout the whole prison (we never found out what caused this). When that happens in a penitentiary containing over 3,000 felons, all kinds of fearful and wrathful thoughts race through the mind. During this time, one of the guys said, “The dralas are pranksters, aren’t they?”.

As the prison converted to backup generators, we realized that the network router was knocked off and the online vow ceremony couldn’t be received. We could see the concern and dismay as the men had to stand in a series of lines just before 11 o’clock as the officers called “count time”. The usual staff IT crew was off on Sunday and the officers were not sure if the router could be re-booted. An IT inmate knew how to do just that, but was informed by the officer that we could not have access into the secure control room – understandably. In a slightly deranged mental state, we wondered what to do with the discouraged group of prisoners now, while keeping an eye on the computer’s network connection, hoping that the router might magically re-boot, which seemed impossible. To everyone’s surprise, at about 11:10, the network light on the computer started to blink. Trime hastily re-logged on and it was our good fortune that the Sakyong was late to arrive to the gathering in Halifax, so we hadn’t missed an auspicious word. The inmate count ended and all quickly took to their cushions and participated in the profound vow ceremony.

During the “harvesting”, we again observed the depth of introspection and understanding that arises within these humans, convicted felons that are supposedly “not fit for society.” Many said that it is only in the twice-weekly times with the Shambhala meditation group that they know a culture of kindness. These men are training in meditation, gentleness, and simply learning how to sit with themselves, vowing to uphold the Shambhala principles while living in an extreme crucible that constantly circulates aggression, greed, and fear. They could be literally killed by showing gentleness, which is commonly misperceived as weakness by the other 99% of the prison populace they intermingle with every day. In the call out list of 31 men, 22 took the Shambhala Vow and 14 took the Enlightened Society Vow alongside the three of us. We felt humbled and grateful to take these vows along with such courageous warriors who are able to recognize basic goodness in themselves and in their niche in prison society.

The impossible becomes the possible.

Skylar Rickabaugh and Ted Fremd are both devoted vajrayana students of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and have the great good fortune of living and practicing in the remote regions of the John Day Basin of eastern Oregon. Skylar is a zoologist studying northern goshawks after retiring as a medical technologist, and Ted is a vertebrate paleontologist with the University of Oregon following a career with the National Park Service. Their property is a three-hour drive from the Snake River Correctional Institution, and they consider the Snake River Meditation Group to be their nearest sangha.

Note on the photos: The two pictures featured here were taken outside of the prison and against the prison wall. Unfortunately a photo of the Snake River Meditation Group is not available, as the Department of Corrections has strict restrictions upon disseminating any photo of inmates or pictures taken within the prison itself. This is unfortunate, for one is a picture of the Refuge Vow Ceremony with Acharya Ferguson.

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12 responses to “ Basic Goodness Behind Bars ”
  1. Trime Persinger
    Nov 25, 2011

    Thanks to everyone for your support & kind words. The members of the Snake River Shambhala Meditation Group are truly inspiring, and I feel privileged to work with them. Warm regards to all!

  2. Great to read about the good work you are doing, Trime.

  3. Jillyan Gift
    Nov 17, 2011

    Hello Trime, Skylar and Ted,
    What a fabulous account of your profound SLF experience! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
    I’m wondering how your dog made out.

  4. Denise Kilshaw
    Nov 17, 2011

    Thank you for sharing this heartfelt story. Congratulations dear Trime…you are really doing it!
    All the best from a long ago BC sangha friend…Denise

  5. Linda V. Lewis
    Nov 17, 2011

    Bravo! What a great story! And now it seems one of the inmates, Bryan Falls, even wants to learn Tibetan!
    The Halifax Shambhala Centre gets many letters from prisoners throughout North America. I always respond and then try to connect them with the wonderful Ratna Prison Initiative in Boulder if the letters come from the States. This charitable foundation serves the needs of inmates, troubled youth, and youth-at-risk. Ratna Foundation, the umbrella organization, is composed of meditation instructors and teachers in the Shambhala buddhist tradition. The organization sends dharma books and magazines, Sakyong Miphams article on “How to Meditate”, and correspondence courses: Turning the Mind into an Ally, Myth of Freedom, and the Power of Patience, Healing Anger. They have been doing this good work for many, many years.

  6. This is exactly what is needed in this country. The prison system we have is clearly not functioning. Programs like this give everyone hope that that it (enlightened society) can spread to anywhere. These brave men embody the concept of fearlessness and bravery. To be gentle with others and oneself in the midst of a prison is one of the bravest things I have ever heard of. This just proves that with some hard work, there is nothing that cannot be overcome. I would be interested to follow the progress and challenges of this group going forward. Without the belief that anyone can change, that no human is a loss, that redemption is possible, we will not progress as a society.
    All the best in your endeveors,

  7. Russell Rodgers
    Nov 17, 2011

    Fantastic. So glad you are doing this.

    –Russell Rodgers

  8. Lisa Steckler
    Nov 17, 2011

    A big heartfelt thank you to Trime, Ted, and Skylar (and to those at the prison who bravely gather to discuss basic goodness and to those that are in charge that encourage this).

    I am so happy and inspired by reading this story. And all those mishaps- sounds perfect for a good ole Shambhala event!

    Hope to see you both soon!

  9. Robert W French
    Nov 10, 2011

    Amazing! Thanks

  10. Erik Blagsvedt
    Nov 10, 2011

    Having taught meditation and buddhism in prison this story is very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Shambhala Warriors are everywhere, hooray. So glad the Sakyong was late for his talk that morning.

  12. Kristine McCutcheon
    Nov 10, 2011

    Trime – WOW

    This is SO wonderful. You and the group inspire me. We really can do it. Thank you Skyler and Ted for this article.

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