The Great Robe: A Prison Dharma Story
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.
Having 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 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.