Buddha Behind Bars

For these federal prisoners, their last chants finally gave them inner peace.

Dane asks that his last name not be used. "I don't have a problem with my past," he explains, "and neither do my friends or employers, but their friends might." He's been on the outside for over a year, but he says he misses Ninemire and his other fellow prison Buddhists.

"I have a sense of being separated from the flock," he says. "The greatest practice moments I had were in the joint. Here, daily stuff keeps you so engrossed, so it's not as easy to meditate as it was on the inside. There was more community in there. The texture outside is just so different. And since it'd be a parole violation for me to associate with any of the other guys who are out, I can't get nearly as much support. It's like soldiers talking about the bonds they formed in foxholes. It kills me that I can't talk to Pete."

Dane's roots are in Appalachia; his career was bank robbery. In and out of jail his whole life, he was paroled in January 1990 by the Colorado Department of Corrections and returned to his wife. Just two weeks later, she was struck by a car and killed while walking across the parking lot of Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood. She was 24 years old.

"All my dreams and plans were lost right then and there," says Dane. "Four months later I walked into a bank in Longmont with an unloaded gun." It was a suicide mission, he says now.

"The cops came and I refused to drop the gun. I don't know why they didn't shoot me," he says. "I figure if I was anywhere but Longmont, they would've killed me. Then I went before this judge who had a reputation as a hanging judge and was expecting to get the full twenty years. But he looked at the circumstances and gave me 96 months. It was a break I'd never get again."

Soon after being sent to federal prison, Dane says, he heard about a daylong meditation retreat and thought it might be a good place to score some free food and break the daily monotony.

"Having been raised a Christian in Kentucky, everything they were saying was Greek to me," Dane recalls in his thick Kentucky drawl. "But there was this little bitty Tibetan nun who had come in to visit, and when I met her I had this 'comin' home' feeling. I just felt so much peace and contentment in her presence--it was something I'd been looking for my whole life and hadn't known it. It's like I'd leaned this ladder up against a wall and climbed rung by rung to the top only to find out when I got to the top that it was the wrong wall. I thought happiness was having money, a nice car and the right old lady. And like all criminals, I was seeking that life outside legal boundaries. But Buddhism looks directly at that illusion of reality and thinking that material things are going to make us happy. I took my vows that day and I never looked back."

In addition to the Wednesday-night sessions, Dane used the prison chapel on weekends. During the rest of the week, he'd sit in his cell and meditate, blocking out the din of the cell block. He says it took a lot of practice before he was able to meditate amid the clamor.

"Meditation is a tool which, at the very least, teaches you patience--something that every con or ex-con needs," he says. "And part of that is the patience to allow yourself to change. So many people get stuck in a mindset. You fancy yourself a gangbanger or a biker, and that's the way you act. Instead of changing that mentality, it's easier to just throw up your hands and say 'Fuck it' and go back to the same old thing.

"It's at times when I just want to say 'Fuck it' that I find meditation really useful. It's said that humans have an average of 3.2 thoughts per second and we tend to obsess about a lot of them. At times, when it gets overwhelming, I think about this analogy one of my teachers passed on to me: Life is like a dirty glass of water. If you let it remain still, all the sediment will sink to the bottom and things will become clear. That's not to say that it doesn't get stirred up, but you just have to know how to deal with it when it does."

Dane says he even discovered that he could personally relate to some of the Buddhist masters, especially Milarepa, whom he calls "the patron saint of criminals." Angered by cruelty shown to his parents, the eleventh-century Tibetan Milarepa chanted black-magic spells that unleashed destruction, killing his wicked uncle and aunt and destroying a village's harvest. Racked by guilt, Milarepa traveled to a Buddhist master, told him, "I am a great sinner and have committed all these negative actions" and set foot on the path to rehabilitation. His path was marked by hard labor, solitary confinement and repeated verbal and emotional abuse by the teacher, who finally showed him the light. Milarepa wound up becoming one of the most revered teachers in Tibetan Buddhism, known especially for his songs and his sense of humor. (Some ex-gangstas who have taken a gentler path claim that Milarepa was a rapper--first of destruction and then of peace.)

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