Buddha Behind Bars

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

Van Etten points out that, like the Buddhist volunteers, the Quakers came to prison more to help inmates come to grips with their crimes as opposed to trying to convert them to their religion.

Bill Bilek, in the slammer for mail fraud, says he doesn't consider Buddhism a religion.

"I see it as a way of life, and I think I've made lifelong changes," says Bilek, a soft-spoken, big-bellied man with a mustache. "I know people in here who have found some form of organized religion and are using it as a coping mechanism which they can disregard when they get out. I feel really at peace in here. When I walk the track, I don't even see the fences; I see the mountains and the sky. I guess you could say that guys like Pete and I are complete aberrations in here, because so many people in here can't see beyond the fence.

"As far as freedom is concerned, you can still get that in here. I don't feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for my wife because she's still out there in the same corporate life I was. I feel like I've been set free and she's still in prison."

Bilek says he had to come back to prison to feel freedom. Wearing a tan prison uniform, he looks relaxed, almost relieved, behind the twenty-foot-high fences topped with razor wire.

"When I first got in here after a parole violation and met Pete Ninemire I told him that the outside world is overrated," says the 42-year-old Bilek. "I told him he's got everything he wants in here. It was sort of a joke, but I truly believe it. I'm experiencing the first control of my life I've had in a long time."

Bilek once ran his own publishing company and bilked advertisers who thought they were financing something to help police and firefighters; the money went into his own pocket. He originally got nailed on 69 counts of mail fraud in 1984. He got out in 1990 but was arrested for trespassing and assault last February. Those parole violations sent him to FCI Englewood, where he'll serve the remainder of his fraud conviction. He's scheduled for release in 2001. Bilek looks as if he wouldn't mind a longer sentence. Like Ninemire, he never mentions court appeals or any other attempt to shorten his sentence.

The outside world doesn't seem to hold any allure. After his first stint in prison, he got a job working as a sales supervisor for MCI. He soon found himself putting in thirteen- and fourteen-hour days at the office.

"I got totally caught up on materialism and power of position," says Bilek. "I wanted to be over people. Now I see I was living all wrong. Coming back to prison for me was a necessary evil. If any of us in the group had been allowed to stay out there, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to break free of crime and to think about how that mindset has affected our lives.

"Meditation should be mandatory for all prisoners, because we all rationalize that we're the victims. Most criminals can't get over that part. If a guy is a bank robber, he feels like Robin Hood. He thinks there's no harm because the money is insured. But he never thinks about the trauma he's caused the bank teller who's looking into the barrel of his gun. And that's the first step in Buddhism: accepting and taking responsibility for your crimes. That's what's going to set you free."

Growing up as a black man in Kansas City, Kenneth Johnson says, he had two religious options: Christianity and Islam.

"In my 'hood, which was pretty much all black, there wasn't any other choice. I tried both of them and came out empty," he recalls. "So when I got bored in prison, I picked up a book on meditation and liked the different slant it had on religion. Plus, I'd been living a life of crime since I was fourteen years old, and I was just tired of going to jail, so I thought I'd give it a try. And when I finally met my teacher, Gangaji, I knew I was finally awake."

Gangaji, a 56-year-old former schoolteacher and acupuncturist who was christened Antoinette Varner and grew up in Mississippi, traveled to India, where she picked up some Hindu meditative teachings from a man named Papaji. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1993, she was invited by a group of inmates to visit Englewood--the first prison she'd ever been to. Her teachings apparently have caught on. An employee of the Gangaji Foundation in Boulder says that there are more than 14,000 people on the group's mailing list. Gangaji now lives in northern California.

While Buddhism focuses on the path to enlightenment and higher consciousness, Gangaji says people are already there. She stresses that there is no path that needs to be followed. Despite that difference, Johnson meditated in prison with Ninemire and Bilek. He credits Gangaji's teachings with keeping him out of jail since he was paroled in 1994.

"I was a diehard con," the fifty-year-old Johnson explains in a gravelly voice while taking a break from mowing a friend's lawn in Boulder. "I did 27 years in prisons around America. In 1982 I got sentenced to do forty years for writing bad checks and was going to have to do ten years flat before I had any chance of parole. I was 32 years old, and I was thinking suicide, because ten years was longer than I could imagine. But I found meditation before I killed myself, and it was the fast track to spiritual freedom. Before, I thought freedom was going to come from money, drugs and women, and I always thought that I was just one more hustle away from getting all those things."

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