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The Great Robe: A Prison Dharma Story

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After eighteen years as a practicing Buddhist behind bars, I was finally given the opportunity to take the precepts in the tradition Soto Zen ceremony known as Jukai.

The ceremony was held at noon on April 1st, 2013. It was the first, although I hope not the last of its kind in Illinois Department of Corrections history.

rakusu palouseHaving never been able to participate in any kind of formal ceremony before, this was especially meaningful to me. Finally, I was able to formally take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, receive the three pure and ten grave precepts, and recite the Bodhisattva vows.

The fact that I was able to do this in the presence of a long time friend, teacher and Zen priest who had driven all the way from Missouri to officiate, made it all the more special.

As an added delight, the institutional chaplain, a man who in our first interview about the ceremony had tried to convert me to Christianity, accepted an impromptu invitation to sit in and observe it for himself.

When the time came for me to receive my rakusu, kindly sewn for me by the Shinzo Zen Meditation Center of Missouri, I was overwhelmed by the significance of the moment. No words seemed so mellifluous to my ears than when chanting the robe verse out loud for the first time.

Great Robe of Liberation

Virtuous field far beyond form and emptiness

Wearing the Tathagatas teachings

We vow to save all beings.

Just as as the lineage papers record a direct line of dharma transmission going all the way back to Lord Buddha himself, so, too, I saw the great robe existing as a tangible connection to everyone and everything that had come before in the spirit and practice of the Great Way.

While the rakusu may only appear as a modest bib-like garment, it is infinitely more. It is an outward manifestation of what the Buddha taught and the field of moral excellence we strive for in our fellowship as a Sangha.

As confirmed in the last line of the robe verse, whether it’s with the Sangha itself or extended to family, friends and the community at large, that fellowship means everything. After all, it isn’t “I” who vows to save all beings but “we” who vow. Every time we recite the robe verse and don the rakusu we are reminded of this. And well we should be. We are nothing without each other.

I’ve learned this lesson well throughout the years of my incarceration. Coming to prison just a few months shy of my sixteenth birthday I’ve missed out on everything from prom and graduation to a first love, a wife, children, even a home to call my own.

What I haven’t missed out on, thankfully, is the opportunity to have known and shared in the lives of some very good people, the kind of men and women who, whether family or friends, free or incarcerated, Buddhist, Christian or Agnostic, have stuck by me through thick and thin.

They have supported my practice, helped me grow as a person, and stood as an example of kindness, loyalty, empathy, and compassion; I look up to and strive to emulate them in my daily life.

Not everyone in prison is so blessed. As well supervised as the prison system may be, some people still get lost on the inside. Isolated and without support from the outside world, it’s all too easy for them to fall victim to abuse, indifference, severe depression, even suicide. Others simply slip away.

Sometimes the difference between surviving a prison sentence and going out feet first comes down to something as simple as a friend who remembered to send a Christmas card, or a phone call that raises concerns about mistreatment with the administration.

I hope never to take the people in my life for granted and bow to them in deepest gratitude. They are the stitchery that winds its way through the fabric of the great robe and have been an integral part of my life.

Every time I put on my rakusu, I know in my heart that — in the spirit of interdependence — they are all here with me. Together we walk the path of self-discovery and liberation.

When in the Samyuitta Nikaya, the Venerable Ananda declares that, “half of this holy life is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good,” the Buddha lovingly corrects him.

“It is the whole of this holy life,” he says.

I bow to those words in wholehearted agreement. There can be nothing halfway about it. It’s all of us together – each act, each moment another stitch in this wondrous field of virtue, saving us all.

scott darnellScott Darnell entered prison when he was sixteen years old. He is serving a life sentence without parole in a medium security prison in southern Illinois. One of Scott’s articles was selected for Best Buddhist Writing of 2005, and he has been published by Shambhala Sun, the Inside Dharma Newsletter, and on the Sravasti Abbey website, among others. He has been practicing Zen Buddhism for at least 15 years.


Turning Wheel Media offers gratitude and deep bows to Inside Dharma for facilitating this publication.

Image credits: top image via wallyirrakusu image via Palaouse Zen Community.

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Comments (11)

  • Dan R

    “Scott Darnell entered prison when he was sixteen years old. He is serving a life sentence without parole”

    That’s insane. I’m not American so I don’t know the details of your legal sysem but how can it be possible to condemn a 16-year-old to that? I’m horrified.

  • Katie Loncke

    [Trigger warning: rape, imprisonment]

    Hi Dan, thanks for stopping in to talk. My understanding is that Mr. Darnell is serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl when he was 15 years old.

    Obviously, this was an extremely harmful action with a lifetime impact on the victim’s families, and opens up all kinds of difficult questions about the purpose and value of imprisonment.

    Where you live, how does the community handle extremely violent crimes and rape culture (assuming it exists) among young people?

  • Katie Loncke

    Also, I can’t help thinking of the story of Angulimala. As Wikipedia summarizes,

    “A ruthless killer who is redeemed by a sincere conversion to Buddhism, he is seen as an example of the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teaching and the universal human potential for spiritual progress, regardless of one’s background.”

    Personally, I do not want a society that tacitly condones and enables rape; this is a big issue for me. At the same time, I want a society that offers people real tools to transform ourselves — and truly believes, for instance, that Black men are as capable of redemption as white men. Mr. Darnell’s individual example illustrates the crux of this dilemma, but it’s a problem requiring long-term, systemic solutions.

  • Karen S

    All beings without exception are worthy of love and compassion and are capable if liberation through hearing and practicing the Dharma. I have a great deal of respect for this man who has worked so hard to change, and who is accepting the consequences of his action with right view and effort.

  • Dan R

    “Where you live, how does the community handle extremely violent crimes and rape culture (assuming it exists) among young people?”

    I’m British but I live in Thailand and, to be honest, I’m not sure how the Thai legal system deals with offences committed whilst a minor. On the general crime of rape, the country has a long, long, long way to go. But whilst the murder and rape of a 10-year-old is obviously an horrific crime, I can’t make sense of condemning a 15-year-old to life imprisonment, whatever he (or she) did. In fact, I have problems with anybody getting life imprisonment. It only makes sense as retribution and, however much we might want that individually when we are the victim of a crime, I don’t think it’s wise for the state to encourage this. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian racist mass-murderer, has not, technically, been given a life sentence; he got 21 years but will remain in prison as long as he is considered a threat. This may very well turn out to be his whole life but that seems like a different thing.

    “All beings without exception are worthy of love and compassion and are capable if liberation through hearing and practicing the Dharma. I have a great deal of respect for this man who has worked so hard to change, and who is accepting the consequences of his action with right view and effort.”

    I absolutely agree. I grew up as a Catholic and, although I was never a believer, much of the language stays with you: hate the sin and love the sinner seems to be a good jumping off point for thinking about these things.

  • Katie Loncke

    Agreed with both of you, Karen and Dan. Cruelty is not the answer…

    And, I hope we can offer the same amount of encouragement and respect to people doing the difficult work of healing from traumatic violence inflicted upon them. Just want to hold space for that in the discussion, as well. It’s kind of like, in the U.S., if we only ever focus on the trauma of soldiers returning from war, sometimes we lose sight of the trauma of civilians and others harmed overseas.

    As I was searching for images to illustrate this post, I stumbled upon a wonderful video that, although it doesn’t relate directly to prison dharma, speaks to some of the same themes of redemption and the ways our society too easily condemns prisoners to the status of pariahs.

    This was a tear-jerker for me! (I apologize for the lack of a transcript.)

  • Katie Loncke

    I’m going to try to forward this conversation to Mr. Darnell through our email liaison, and see if there’s a way for him to participate if he wishes. :) Gratitude to him for helping to foster this discussion.

    Would anyone like to comment on the content of his essay, and the lessons of the Jukai ceremony, if you’ve undertaken one yourself? I don’t practice in the Zen tradition so I can’t comment, necessarily, but Mr. Darnell’s words on the centrality and indispensable nature of community, especially for those who may be isolated or marginalized, rings very true for me.

  • carol c

    Scott is one of about 2500 men and women in the U. S. who have been sentenced to die in prison while juveniles. I’ve been corresponding with him for about ten years, and his story of transformation is most impressive, along with his efforts to be of benefit to those around him and to write about his experience.
    Here’s a link to another of Scott’s articles.It’s hard to imagine living in a 96 sq ft space with someone you like, much less with a talkative person with paranoid tendencies who is threatening your life.

  • anon

    In my nursing work with psych patients and inarcerated people I rarely focus on systemic injustice. people locked up or on the streets are dealing with daily survival and it feels like facing systemic. Iinjustice would not be helpful.
    But I also feel like its necessary to find ways to address the systemic injustices. Also it seems that at the level of political and social analysis most english speaking Buddhist teachers head for the exits . I wonder what Mr Darnell would have to say.

  • Kara

    A human life is a human life. I would highly recommend a documentary called “Dhamma Brothers” to anyone reading this who is interested in meditation in prisons. One of the inmates in the film, a convicted murderer himself, finds out that his daughter is killed during his sentence. Through understanding of the Dharma that he gained during a ten day Vipassana retreat in a southern federal prison, he was able to reconcile feelings of hatred toward the man who killed his daughter. That moment really stuck out to me. He was even able to say that he still loved the man as he loves every being. Firstly, I think programs like the Vipassana one I mentioned speak volumes. Penitentiaries’ focus on punishment instead of reform is one of the greatest human rights issues in America. Secondly, everyone deserves to be loved. Scott Darnell, despite anything he’s done in the past, is deserving of love and support. Kudos to this story about a man who is bettering himself through Zen Buddhism! And kudos to the Illinois Department of Corrections for being home to Mr. Darnell’s ceremony. His refuge matters and his life is a valuable one.

  • Penumbuh Rambut

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