When difficulties provide the lessons we need

By Diane Wilde, BP3 Founder


At California State Prison Sacramento, we have had two or three major shifts in our sanghas (communities) as our “elders” have transitioned to other prisons or been released. Creating a new sangha, a sense of community and a place to feel safe has been challenging. On two occasions, I have even asked men who appeared to show no interest in Buddhist practice to take themselves off of our ducat list. The last time I made this request, it was due to the attitudes of four men—specifically, four active gang members. Three of the men didn’t return.  

However, the one person I had most hoped would not return remained with the group. I’ll call him J. J is young, good-looking and full of machismo. I remember at one check-in he stated that he was just fine the way he was. He described himself as “a fun guy” who enjoyed having a good time. Unfortunately, that good time was usually at the expense of others. He would engage in things like: whispering during meditation, never taking part in movement, or getting up and walking around during a Dharma discussion. He and I did not like each other. He knew I didn’t want him there. Yet he kept coming… every week. Perhaps to annoy me, I thought. And he did.

About two months ago as we were studying and reflecting upon Skillful View, I passed out an essay that had a homework assignment. I asked the men to reflect on the views they held about themselves as well as others, and the truthfulness of those views. Which views were shaped by life experience? Did they believe them to be truths? We discussed the assignment for the next few weeks. J as usual didn’t seem to take any of it very seriously.

Three weeks ago J asked to speak with me privately. He handed me four pages of writing on lined sheets of paper. “Here’s the homework you asked us to do,” he stated. I was astonished and thanked him for taking the time to look at the views he held.

I took his assignment home and read it. I could not believe this was the same smug person who found a joke in everything that took place in our group. His reflections about himself, his judgments of others, was penetrating and insightful. I actually wondered, “Is this someone else’s thoughts?” He admitted to not wanting to be embarrassed or ashamed, so he will hold onto a view even if he realizes it is not true. He spoke about carnage in El Salvador and how it comes up continually in his meditation. The qualities he wants to develop are compassion and honesty “because I don’t want to be hurt anymore.”  

At our last meeting on October 9, I actually mentioned to the entire group how proud I was of J for taking the time to put so much thought into the assignment. He beamed and offered the most honest check-in I had heard him offer. One of our few remaining elders leaned over to me and whispered, “This group has really gotten it together.” How true! And it will change again—nothing permanent here.

I am not sure I would have done anything differently, but I am so happy to have been proven wrong about one individual.