A week-long Shambhala meditation intensive takes place in a prison setting
The Snake River Shambhala Meditation Group is the only entity within Shambhala that functions entirely inside a prison—the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon. This medium-security facility is the largest prison in Oregon (25 acres under roof) and houses 3,000 male inmates. Led by Chaplain Trime Persinger, the group was chartered as a Shambhala Meditation Group in 2007 and has functioned continuously since then.
While there are limitations and adjustments because of the prison environment, we maintain many of the Shambhala forms. Each Sunday we transform the chapel into a meditation hall with a shrine, banners, and meditation cushions. We do opening and closing chants, along with sitting and walking meditation. Most of the teachings consist of recordings by Sakyong Mipham or Pema Chödrön. Earlier this year we completed Walker Blaine’s commentary on the Supplication to the Shambhala Lineage, presented by Shambhala Online.
Our big event of 2016 was a Meditation Intensive from June 14 – 21, sponsored by the Shambhala Trust and led by Acharya Gaylon Ferguson. The Intensive took place during the summer Education break, so we were able to use a large and somewhat secluded room normally used for Education classes. All the prison staff were aware of the Intensive while it was happening, and most were very supportive.
For each of the seven days, the twenty-four participants arrived immediately after breakfast at 7:45. They stayed through lunch and dinner (which were brought to the room) and returned to their housing units with the 8:20 p.m. line movement. From 1:00 to 2:00 each afternoon, they had the use of a nearby gym to stretch their legs or work out.
For the entire program, the participants sat in a circle. Most of the time was spent in sitting meditation, interspersed with walking meditation or Shamatha Yoga. There were occasional talks, and one evening we did the Shambhala Sadhana. Over the course of the program, each participant had a private meditation interview with the acharya.
Acharya Ferguson followed a traditional pattern of allowing the participants to settle in gradually, tightening the forms until we were in deep retreat by the end of Day 3. For a couple of days, the group was in total silence—even during the recreational gym time. Then there was a gradual loosening of the forms as people prepared to return to “normal” life.
The highlight of the Intensive came on the last night, when fifteen people took refuge in a beautiful, magical ceremony. During Acharya Ferguson’s remarks following the ceremony, the Officer in Charge of the prison dropped in for a few minutes and was deeply impressed by what he observed.
There was one more half-day after the refuge-vow ceremony, when we did a short practice session followed by a banquet prepared by the prison’s Food Services. And what a feast it was! Everyone dug into a buffet of cold cuts, cheeses, hoagies, potato salad, baked beans, chips with guacamole, and a marvelous dessert. One participant from New Jersey was particularly impressed by the guacamole, never having tasted such a thing.
The Superintendent of the prison joined us for the banquet, along with one of the Assistant Superintendents. Each participant received a certificate of completion and a protection cord that had been blessed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche especially for this program. Beautiful art cards, hand-drawn by some of the participants, were presented to Acharya Ferguson, Shambhala members Skylar Rickabaugh and Ted Fremd (who staffed the program), and Chaplain Persinger.
Later, an art card was sent to the Shambhala Trust to express our appreciation for their financial support of this program. In addition to the 2016 Meditation Intensive, the Trust has funded previous programs held within the prison.
Before the Intensive started, Education had removed all the tables and chairs from the room. A crew of program participants had hauled all the supplies from the Chapel (at one end of the prison) to the program space (at the other end), and created a truly Shambhalian environment in this unlikely place. On the final afternoon, everything was packed up and returned to the Chapel.
All that remained were smiling faces and a memory of something truly wonderful. Shambhala shines everywhere, even here. Perhaps especially so.