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Nov 06
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This Prison Is Crying

We hear from Jampa Pawo and friend Norma Harris about his life as a prison inmate and as a Shambhala Warrior

by Jampa Pawo and Norma Harris

trungpa-calligraphyIt is now many weeks ago that Jampa Pawo, the inmate I’ve been writing about on death row, told me that he was mailing back to me a photograph I had sent him of Chogyam Trungpa. The Vidyadhara is in his white uniform, holding an ink brush in the midst of practicing calligraphy. I knew that Jampa liked this photo very much, and I wanted to know why he was returning it. Let me say here that Jampa never complains. But I began to get a clearer picture of life at this prison when he explained about the photograph.

He told me that when it rains, the water pours down the walls of his cell and big droplets form on the ceiling, dripping down to wet his bedding and all that he has. He had Trungpa Rinpoche’s photograph up on the wall. And he noticed that there were lines forming on the photo where water was dripping down it. Although he still liked the photograph very much, he felt the picture was being desecrated. So he was returning it to me. When I received the photograph, I could see thin streaks of red running down the photo where water has caused the pigments to separate. The entire picture is crying.

Editor’s Note: We are currently on hiatus from publishing new articles; in the meantime, please enjoy this classic item reprinted from our back issues.

How bad is life in this prison – really? I have preferred to imagine Jampa in this small cell, living the life of a monk with his basic needs taken care of and nothing to distract him. I know that the surroundings and the people he deals with — the guards, the other prisoners, and the heavy hand of law enforcement — are not monk-like. Yes, he has solitude and he has dharma teachings. But there is much more to it. Of course there is.

barbed-wire-482608__340Jampa tells me that when he first came to this prison it was run in an organized, professional manner. There was order and sense to the way things were done. During that time no one was being executed because the state was changing the manner of execution from electric chair to lethal injection. Once this transition was complete, and once people were again being killed, the prison began to change. Then, for a brief time, executions were again halted as the composition of lethal injections was being investigated. They have started up again now; since December 2015, people have been killed here every two weeks. The result is that this prison is a sick place and it is crumbling. I asked Daniel to write about this situation. Here is part of what he wrote:

The prison is crying. Its tears drip from the ceilings of cells and dormatories, pour down moldy walls in streams, and pool on the floor in puddles. The prison cries because it is dying. The body of the prison decays in its own suppuration, becoming restless and wild. Despite the fake veneer of fresh wax and paint, like makeup on a rotting corpse, the prison’s anatomy atrophies in decomposition, crumbling from within like a whitewashed tomb. Toilets vomit rivers of feces, trash, and urine: the discharged bowels of the prison. Windows hang in the frames like broken bones, and the prison shivers with a discordant groan of steel and concrete in the cold winter wind. The prison’s light fades into the sickly yellow of jaundiced flesh, its radiance dimmed by metal cages and filthy glass. The sun is setting on this prison.

barbed-wire-765484__340In this hostile environment of degradation, where our leaders murder human beings in the name of justice, invoking God and the peoples’ will, basic goodness has been abandoned. Inmates and officers, the people who live and work in this institution, fail to recognize one another’s humanity. With confused minds we sink deeper into the despair of setting-sun mentality.

The prison is a manifestation of society’s collective insanity as well as the individual karma of the people who live and work here. [This situation is] a karmic byproduct of the violence that is part of America’s history of violence. There is war in here and there is murder. Lies, rape, theft, bigotry, corruption, genocide, oppression, and racism, all reflected in here as a mirror that reflects American culture. Individually and collectively we have built this monument to setting-sun mentality.

freedom-957491__340Just as our bodies grow sick and die when our wind energies and elements become imbalanced, the living conditions at this prison decline under lack of leadership and the mental illness of destructive emotions. I’ve lived on death row at this prison for seventeen years. In that time I’ve witnessed the prison’s deterioration from an efficient and organized institution to a living hell on the verge of chaos. The administration and professionalism of the administration has devolved into negligence, incompetence, and indifference. Well-maintained facilities have eroded into disrepair. Decent food has soured into slop. Our contact visits have been all but terminated. Recreational activities and resources such as art supplies, library books, and educational programs have been taken away. Inmates are now placed on 23 hour lockdown without any positive stimulus for our minds.

I have committed murder, stolen the property of others, lied to my loved ones, sold and used drugs, and reveled in others of the ten nonvirtues. These sins and the harm I’ve caused others fill me with remorse and sadness. My heart is broken. To heal these wounds I practice to the best of my ability for the people I’ve hurt, for myself, and for all living beings. If I can heal, the other men at this prison can heal, you can heal, and together we can heal society. I am confident that our aspirations can be accomplished through dharma practice.

SNS Sun LogoI have identified as a Buddhist because I take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. I have practiced within the Tibetan tradition. I haven’t wanted to subscribe to any particular lineage. I was originally inspired by the lamrim teachings of the Gelugpa. I also began to study the teachings on the nature of mind and practice meditation as set forth in the Kagyu lineage. I have also followed the mind-training instructions of the ancient Kadampas. And I have been receiving Shambhala teachings for the last while. However, I have been hesitant to call myself a Shambhala Warrior. I felt like it was just another label, another layer of self-reification.

Jampa Pawo

Jampa Pawo

Today I see that being a Shambhala Warrior transcends ego. I feel that I can authentically proclaim my basic goodness and the goodness of all humanity, from this day forward and in all of my future lives. I proclaim myself a Shambhala warrior and vow to establish enlightened society on this earth. As for this life, my appeals are exhausted and the causes of my execution align. I am not afraid. I have faith and confidence in my practice.


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8 responses to “ This Prison Is Crying ”
  1. Anne Kerry Ford
    Apr 28, 2016

    This story inspired me to begin practicing tonglen for Jampa Pawo since I read his story last week, and most significantly, I practiced yesterday at the exact time of his planned execution. It was a profound experience practicing for him, as it expanded and deepened my experience of the practice of sending and receiving (tonglen) and I felt tremendous gratitude for that opportunity. I am grateful to have this connection to Jampa Pawo and for the remarkable example of his diligence as a sincere dharma student, and I continue to send him my prayers and appreciation.

  2. Diana Shane
    Apr 28, 2016

    Jampa, may you travel instantly into the heart of the Rigdens with great joy and continue your journey as a Shambhala warrior. You have been very courageous and an inspiration, so thank you.

  3. Manuel Medeiros
    Apr 27, 2016

    May all beings be free from suffering and the root of suffering . . . .

  4. Be strong within your mind and body
    Know this world is a transient stage on your eternal journey. Take the goodness you have gained and shown with your heart and spirit into your next life. I hope you will have now some peace. Strong man you are.

  5. I am a jail/prison volunteer. I have seen how those abandoned by the world can turn to spirituality with rare dedication. Sitting meditation with them is so fine. Corresponding with some–it amazes me how much letters can mean. Prison ministry rocks!

    One time I was standing in a visitation room. I looked around at all the mothers, wives, sisters, etc talking to the guys. I mentioned to an inmate-orderly standing nearby that love is what makes the World run. He said something I’ll never forget: “The Muslims have Mecca, the Jews have Jerusalem, I have this prison. It is here I have learned what love is.”

  6. Jampa Pawo, I don’t know if you have received teachings on the “charnel ground,” but if not, you are in it.

    In ancient India, the charnel ground was where unwanted newborns (usually girls) and other undesirables and untouchables were left to die. It was a horrific place, and monks were sent there regularly to practice.

    Many went insane; some committed suicide; and every so often, one would attain enlightenment. The Dorje Dradul said that in the charnel ground, because there is no hope, there’s also no fear. It’s the place where complete despair becomes liberation.

    You are in and facing horrific extraordinary circumstances, which, hopefully, have purified the karma of thousands of lifetimes. You are not alone; I know that my own karmic stream has included many lifetimes as a murderer, a prostitute, a thief, a beggar, and a slave.

    My prayer for you is that once this is over, you will be done with it and can go forward into the future birth with more auspicious circumstances where you can be of even greater benefit to beings.

    May the merit of the sangha accompany you on your journey.

  7. Adrienne Papermaster
    Apr 26, 2016

    Thank you, Jampa Pawo, for the raw honesty of this piece and for your beautiful example of warriorship. My heart has broken open reading these posts, and I am so grateful. If you can have such confidence in the face of such inhumane prison conditions and imminent execution, then I can certainly rouse confidence in my own practice and our ability to create enlightened society.

    And thanks to Norma for being the messenger between Jampa Pawo and the sangha at this time. You are fulfilling a vital and, I imagine, painful role and I deeply appreciate the connection you have helped to create.

    May you both be at peace.
    May you be unafraid.
    May you feel the love of sangha.
    May you have the confidence of the Great Eastern Sun.

  8. Kristen Sabol
    Apr 26, 2016

    This prison is like a giant being whose heart beats with ever-present, all-seeing goodness…. <3

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