Touching Freedom Behind Iron-Bars

By Ven. Pajalo (Austria)

Published in 'Daily News', Feb. 17. 2000

Realizing that few monks and lay-people will ever have the interest and courage to walk voluntarily behind high walls and locked doors Ven. K. Punyaratana and myself started an unusual project mid October in a castle-like old square-building in the center of Kandy town: Meditation sessions in jails. After the first time it was clear to us how much prisoners and their jailers can benefit from such an undertaking.

Harmony is of crucial importance in a place like Bogambara prison, where 2300 (!) inmates are kept; and the number is increasing. Taking ‘Seela’ and listening to ‘Pana’ – often just a tradition without much deeper impact on the mind - is hardly enough to develop oneself beyond old strong habits.

For years the Indian government has been realizing the unique impact of the ancient method of Vipassana-meditation in prisons and intensive courses are contacted there regularly.

In a country like Sri Lanka, where religious practice is mostly based on traditional customs and rituals, many (including monks!) lost faith that ‘Bhavana’ is an actual tool for inner transformation. People chase in other ways for happiness. ‘Having no time’ is therefore a common excuse, even for Buddhists, not to meditate.

Inmates are facing the common problem of ‘time’ and superficial entertainment not to such an overwhelming extent. These facts, and the combination of the present misery of a dough prison-life and the past misery of unwholesome action, is an ideal ground to take up the effort to go within oneself. One female inmate expressed satisfied how she has here the time to actual sit down for this inner challenge, which she would never have at home.

Weekly one hour in Bogambara prison, in women’s prison and in the ‘open prison’ in Pallekalle seems little – too little – compared to 10-day intensive Vipassana retreats in Indian-jails, and increasingly in other – non-Buddhist(!) - countries. Yet it is a small revolutionary step which is breaking down social barriers behind stone-walls: I’m moved when I see those locked up with those who keep them locked up sitting together on the same floor to touch a freedom beyond iron-bars.