03 October 2008

the prison/hospital/ashram context

This morning I got to see a patient who needed medical care during her
time at the King County Jail. There's a hell of a story but the
important parts is that she is smart enough to be writing books about
her life instead of living it. She meditates when she's not too
connected to the vices to do so, so I'm going to bring her one of the
little books on meditation that Reverend Heng Sure gave me a few
months ago, at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. And then I remembered
this passage from Vinoba and couldn't help typing it up...

Prison Life

It was in jail that I experienced real Ashram life. All I had were a
few clothes, a tumbler and a bowl. What place could there be for
following the vow of 'non-possession'? Bathing, eating, working were
according to rule, going to bed and getting up by the bell -- a
perfectly regular life! One was not even allowed to fall ill! The vow
of control of the palate was practiced every day; even the Ashram was
not a better place for that. There was also plenty of time for thought
and reflection. So even the jail could be made a part of the spiritual
exercise of Ashram life.

I was even given a period of solitary confinement in a cell measuring
nine feet by eight. In one corner was a stone hand-mill and in another
an earthenware piss-pot. There was no work to do, no book to read, no
pencil or paper, no chance even to go out. It was enough to drive a
man mad.

However, I drew up a daily timetable for myself: ten hours for sleep,
two or three hours for meditation, about three hours for eating,
bathing etc., and eight hour for walking up and down. I covered at
least ten miles each day, reckoning my speed at about one and a half
miles an hour. As I walked I sang all the hymns I knew by heart.

Once I was pacing to and fro like this at about one o'clock at night,
engrossed in thought. The warder came on his rounds, and puzzled at
seeing me walking about, he knocked on the door. As I was completely
absorbed I failed to respond, and the poor man became alarmed. He came
in and shook me and asked me what was the matter. I tried to explain
what I was doing and what the fruits of such contemplation might be,
and he was very pleased. The very next day I receive a real boon - he
arranged for me to walk a short time daily in an open place.

I felt quite at ease in that cell. During the night I would meditate
for about three hours, and one of the warders, who noticed this, would
come and sit near me. One day he came with a lantern, and found that
my eyes were closed. After waiting for some time he said: 'Babuji, may
I speak to you?' I opened my eyes and he said: 'I am leaving tomorrow.
Please give me some teaching to guide me.' Seeing me sitting every day
with closed eyes he thought me some sadhu or yogi. So I gave him a few
suggestions to satisfy him, and he went away happily.
I was kept in that cell for fifteen days, and during that time I
realized the meaning of that verse in the Gita, which says: 'One who
sees non-action in action, and action in non-action, is truly an
enlightened being.' Finally, seeing that solitary confinement was no
hardship for me, the gaoler sent me back to the 'general ward', and
there too I felt equally happy.

In 1932 I was in Dhulia jail for six months. Many of my companions
there found jail life very dull, because they had not learned the art
of acceptance, and were feeling very rebellious. I decided that it was
my job to cheer them all up. There was no question of seeking pardon
or release from the Government, so I set to work to help them not to
lose heart, and to find some interest in life in jail.

During that time of imprisonment I had to take it on myself to control
all the political prisoners; conditions were such that if I had not
done so there would have been no discipline at all. They were bent
upon rebellion and would listen to nobody. There were about three
hundred of them, all 'freedom-fighters'. In my view, a solider of
freedom ought to do some bodily labour every day as part of the
discipline of freedom. The jail discipline was to require every
prisoner to grind thirty-five pounds of flour a day. I told the
authorities that these political prisoners would refuse to do such
work in obedience to an order, even if they were put in iron for
disobedience. 'Please don't insist on it,' I said. 'Instead, we will
voluntarily supply the whole prison with all the flour this needed,
and we will take responsibility for all the kitchen work also.' They
agreed to this proposal, so my next job was to tackle the prisoners.
Everyone, I said, ought to grind at least twenty-one pounds of flour
daily. They did not all agree at once because they suspected that I
might be letting them in for something which I would not do myself.
But when they saw me grinding, they all began to work
enthusiastically, old and young, seniors and juniors. They not only id
their own full quota, they ground also for the sick and the aged. As
we worked we talked, discussing ideas and extending our knowledge. The
place was no longer, a jail; it became an Ashram.

- Vinoba Bhave, from "Moved by Love"

1 comment:

bubbler said...

That's a wonderful quotation