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No Choice

Snake River-1A Special Rigden Weekend is Offered at Snake River Shambhala Meditation Group, Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon

by Trime Persinger

The Snake River Shambhala Meditation Group is different from any other — it operates entirely inside a prison. In May 2014, Acharya Fleet Maull led a Rigden: Unconditional Confidence weekend program in this unique environment. Over the course of the weekend, the twenty participants were lifted out of their own mental prisons into a connection with their basic goodness.

The venue, Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, is the largest prison in the state with 3,200 inmates. The Shambhala Meditation Group was formed in 2007, shortly after I started my career there as a full-time chaplain. In preparation for the Rigden weekend, I had presented the Way of Shambhala I curriculum at weekly classes over the course of several months.

Early in the course, dyad discussions were introduced. I assigned dyad partners, pairing newer students with others who had more experience. This was uncomfortable for everyone because prison inmates distance themselves from others who are unfamiliar or different, even within a group such as ours. As the course progressed, though, people settled in with their dyad partners and slowly formed connections with others in the group. But the shadow of their deep-seated wariness lingered throughout the course.

This shadow finally lifted at the last class, when we rearranged the room to form a circle with the cushions. It was a moment of awakening — people began to see themselves as a community. We have kept the circle formation each time the group has gathered since that class, including during the Rigden weekend. The circle has had a significant impact on the group dynamics, helping the men to bond with each other and to develop a strong sense of sangha that transcends the inmate hierarchy.

Two days after the last class, Acharya Maull arrived to lead the Rigden weekend. Throughout the Way of Shambhala, I had emphasized the importance of this program, and had said how fortunate we were to have Acharya Maull come to lead it. But we were unprepared for the phenomenal connection that he had with these men. He magnetized them with stories from his own incarceration and pried open their hearts with his wisdom and care.

Acharya Maull had been directed by the Sakyong to introduce Shambhala Meditation at our Rigden program. As the men leaned into this powerful practice under his guidance, their barriers fell away and they connected with their sad and tender hearts. At one point or another, almost everyone wept openly — unheard of in a men’s prison.

The group discussions centered on the participants’ understanding of the Shambhala Vow and what it meant to them personally. During these discussions, they shared their inner struggles and their passion for the Shambhala teachings. One man, a veteran of the Iraq war, said on Sunday morning that he had stayed up for several hours the night before re-reading The Shambhala Principle in its entirety. He had concluded that he had no choice but to take the vow.

Snake River Meditation Group

Snake River Meditation Group

The weekend culminated on Sunday afternoon with the vow ceremony. All participants recited the Shambhala Vow together and received their Shambhala names with calligraphies done by Acharya Maull. They also received pocket folders containing a print of the Primordial Rigden thangka, a booklet about the meaning of that imagery, and the Ground Lungta text. These folders were received with great appreciation and a certain amount of awe — prison life does not normally include such beautiful, meaningful things. The program concluded with cinnamon rolls and fruit punch provided by the prison’s Production Kitchen, a special treat.

In his concluding remarks, Acharya Maull said that leading this weekend was like “coming full circle” for him. With tears in his own eyes, he told the men that it had been the best Rigden program he had ever led. No one who was there will ever forget it.

The Rigden weekend at SRCI was made possible by a grant from the Shambhala Trust. John Light, a Portland sangha member, traveled to Ontario (375 miles east of Portland) to staff the program.

Trime PersingerTrime Persinger
has been a student of Shambhala Buddhism since 1987. She is employed full-time as a chaplain at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, where she leads the Snake River Shambhala Meditation Group.

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9 responses to “ No Choice ”
  1. Dawn Kimble
    Oct 4, 2014

    Thank you for sharing the experience of the Rigden retreat in Oregon. It’s good to know about these men showing up so fully for each other in the safe space that Fleet Maull can provide.

  2. Tamara D Sell
    Oct 2, 2014

    Thank you Trime for sharing such a wonderful story with us. What good work.

  3. Pam Gaines
    Oct 2, 2014

    This is so wonderful, Trime – what you do, what you’ve accomplished, what you offer to people and now, here, sharing it all with us. Thank you so much for this story, and keep them coming! Many barefoot hugs to you.

  4. Jeanne Cain
    Sep 30, 2014

    Incredible work by all of you! I am so happy to hear stories like this.
    Keep up the great work, Trime.

  5. Julia Huttel
    Sep 29, 2014

    I suppose there are, but I can’t imagine more fulfilling moments than these. This picture is worth a thousand words. Trime, thank you for holding fast to this journey and as well, Acharya Fleet.

    Facing East

  6. Timaree Bierle-Dodds
    Sep 29, 2014

    Thank you for sharing. Thank you Rinpoche, Acharya Maull, Trime and staff, Prison staff, Shambhala Trust and the new Rigden students for making it possible.
    Have no doubt that the students’ energy of goodness will affect others in a great way.

  7. So wonderful and inspiring to hear of this happening within the criminal justice system.

  8. Yael Codriansky
    Sep 29, 2014

    An absolutely beautiful and powerful story.

    May more groups like this one florish in the world.

    Love from Chile,


  9. Emily Danies
    Sep 29, 2014

    What an extraordinary article. Thank you.

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