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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin

 

 

 

 

 

Experiences of Prison Course Participants

“There has been a very definite impact, even with the correctional officers, and its something that certainly needs to be continued. I firmly believe the visit from Goenkaji had a profound effect on many people here and Im not talking about only inmates. Speaking from personal experience, I must say that Vipassana had the most profound effect I have ever witnessed on a group of inmates. The changes Ive noticed within myself have made a remarkable difference in the way I view things.equanimity. Im able to deal with situations more calmly than before because now I can see everything in a better perspective. I have given myself a substantial period of time to assure myself that everything I experienced during the Vipassana was real and not a passing fancy. Now I can testify that the experiences were indeed real. I continue to practice daily. It has brought about tremendous changes in my life.

I find such peace in sitting daily. Occasionally I sit for two hours in the morning and, as difficult as it may be to believe, the second hour is always better than the first. With this in mind, I have decided to sit through the night this Saturday and Sunday. I plan to begin at 10:00 PM and finish up at 6:00 AM. Vipassana can make such a difference in the collective minds of the men here, which in turn could let society as a whole acknowledge that people can and do change.”

-A Donaldson prison inmate-student

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“When I came out of my course less than a year ago, I had no idea of what I had done. I had no idea of the impact that it would have on my life in the future. Every day I see changes in myselfin how I relate to people, in my own peace of mind, in how I handle situations. I admit I do not practice every day. I try to, and even if I cant sit for an hour, Ill sit a little while, and it helps!

While here at NRF, I was not happy and did not want to be here, obviously. But now I can look back on it with nothing but gratitude for the experience Ive had and for being here while the Vipassana course was offered. It has totally changed my life. I especially want to thank you and your wife for your great part in this, but also the NRF staff and the local Vipassana community. All I can say is, I’m full of gratitude today.”

In one letter, a student inmate quotes from the Dhammapada:

“Let it now be known that Dhamma warriors of Donaldson now offer this declaration: Blessed are we who live among those who hate, hating no one; amidst those who hate, let us dwell without hatred.”

-A letter by an old student to Mr. S. N. Goenka from North Rehabilitation Facility 

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From the state of Haryana, Gurmel Singh entered the world of crime in 1983. He joined the terrorist group of Bhindranawale, and was arrested in Gujarat in 1984, two months prior to the famous operation Blue Star at Amritsar. He was implicated in the largest criminal case in the state, for murder, bank robbery and possession of weapons, and he served a ten-year jail sentence. After serving time in four jails in Haryana and Maharashtra from 1984 to 1992, he had the good fortune to enter Baroda Jail in June '92, and within six months of his entry into the jail he sat his first Vipassana course.

In his own words, "The first three to four days of the course were difficult, aches and pains, an agitated mind, but from the fifth day onwards the body started becoming lighter, and the mind was much better." He said a major transformation occurred in him. The main change he notices is in his thinking, his "wrong thinking", as he said. He gave an example, where this has changed completely -previously, if any officer in the jail said anything to him, his spontaneous thought would be: "Either that officer remains, or I will remain." Anger was always one of his major weaknesses, especially when he had to face views which were contrary to his own. Now he finds that his tolerance of other's views-however different they may be-has increased tremendously as a result of this course.

He said "I was living in hell, but after this course things have changed completely. Revenge was always at the fore in my mind. I used to feel that I would not be at peace until I had chopped off the head of the Nasik session judge who sentenced me. Now I thank the judge, because it was he who sent me to Baroda jail. Instead of being filled with revenge, I am now filled with an immense desire to serve the poor, to serve society, to serve humanity."

He continues his meditation practice daily, at least two to three hours a day , and gains a lot of peace of mind because of the equanimity which results from his daily practice. He called this technique of Vipassana a "sanjivani" herb. This word is very difficult to translate, but it is like a herb which gives life, or has very strong rejuvenative properties. He said "This technique of meditation is mandatory for every human being, not just prisoners. The government is spending lakhs of rupees and imposing all this punishment, but still can't produce any change in the inmates. But one Vipassana course can produce so much change. This may seem unbelievable, but my own case proves this point."

He requested Madam Bedi to send the police personnel who still continue to harass inmates after their release from the jail, to undergo this course. He also said that the administration and the authorities should try and look into the possibility of rehabilitation of the inmates once they have left the prisons., especially occupationally. "They promise, but their promises are not fulfilled."

He ended by saying: "Previously my life was useless, but now I have a new life thanks to Vipassana. I am filled with gratitude towards Baroda jail and I vow not to re-enter the world of crime."

- Personal Account of an Ex-Prisoner of Baroda Jail, by Mr. Gurmel Singh (Translated from Hindi and summarized)

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Today I go back to Insein Prison, where I was detained in the late 1990s and where throughout the decades of military rule in Myanmar, most political opponents were interrogated, tried and held.

I was taken there directly from my home in 1998, as a 20-year-old university student, and was given a 21-year sentence on charges of distributing subversive pamphlets. I served seven years, in Insein and two other prisons, before being released in a general amnesty in 2005.

Now I am heading back, as a volunteer in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course for prisoners.

As the day approached, I felt at times overwhelmed at the prospect of seeing so much misery again. But mostly I felt excited. Since my release eight years ago I have thought recurrently that while prison is a human hell, it offers exceptional opportunities for inner peace by creating, if forcibly, a haven from the distractions of ordinary life.

Living conditions at Insein 15 years were tough. We were locked in our cells all day — many, like me, in solitary confinement — except for a few minutes for bathing. We ate only rice that had been boiled with peas or the roots of water spinach. We had no reading materials; my parents could visit only once a month.

After a two-week interrogation period at the beginning of my detention — during which I was just deprived of sleep for a few days and slapped around a couple of times — life was actually quite cheerful. This may sound improbable, or mad, but we were young and blindly confident that the dictatorship would collapse sooner or later. After day broke, I would pass the time chatting with my friends who had been arrested with me, talking loudly through the walls of our cells.

But then, in late April 1999, we were transferred to various prisons in central Myanmar. I was taken to Myingyan, the most infamous of the lot. I was again placed in a cell alone, but there no communication was allowed at all and any violation met with heavy punishment, like caning. The days passed with little or no human interaction but for rare, brief exchanges with the prison guards.

I would fantasize about reading, and I would listen to passing conversations in the hope of picking up something about the latest political news. At night, I would try to coax my dreams into letting me go home — only so that I could pick up some books and bring them back to prison with me.

I remember dropping a plastic spoon one day, and then wondering whether the feeble sound that followed came from its hitting the cement floor or my muttering something to myself. I could no longer remember the sound of my own voice.

My mental pain kept growing — until it dawned on me that I would go mad if I continued to want things I could not get. Although this was a moment of utter hopelessness, it ended my delusional urges. I lost my love of books then — and I have yet to win it back fully — but I gained something else.

I started experimenting with modes of meditation I’d vaguely heard about while growing up. I tried visualizing myself as a collection of bones, scanning every part of my skeleton. I tried metta, wishing myself well and radiating that peace toward others. I tried to observe my own breathing.

It worked. Over time, I stopped thinking about how many more years I had left to serve and started looking upon my loneliness in confinement as precious solitude.

Just one month before I was released from prison in 2005, we, the political prisoners at Myingyan prison, were shown a documentary called “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana,” about the first meditation courses given to detainees in India. I still don’t know why this was organized. But it was our first TV experience in years and the strict regimen of the exercises depicted in the film made an impression on me.

Just after I was released, I went to a meditation center in Yangon run by S. N. Goenka, a Myanmar-born Indian businessman. I took a 10-day course requiring students to meditate from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. in an atmosphere very much like solitary confinement — and came out of it with more clarity and peace than I’d ever known.

Goenka now conducts similar courses inside Insein and other prisons in Myanmar; it’s one of those that I am joining today. I’ll be among the volunteers who, in order to free up the inmates for meditation, cook or take on whatever other chores they usually are asked to perform. At other times, I will have a chance to join them. But I will not be allowed to read or write, or to communicate with either the outside world or others who are mediating.

A well-known saying among Burmese inmates has it that if on the day you are released you turn around to look at the gate, you will return to prison. On the day I was let out, I did turn around to take a last look at that red-brick wall. And I’m going back all right.

-By SWE WIN, Copyright: 2013 The New York Times Company.

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Experiences of Participants from Hermon Facilites, Israel

For years I have been asking myself, “Why am I suffering?” For years I have asked myself this very question. When I am drug-free, I suffer. In my childhood I suffered. When I take drugs, again I suffer. Why does this suffering happen to me? I didn’t know that it came from inside me. That is one of the main things I discovered . . . that I do not suffer because of the prison head, or the head of my ward, or a particular officer or anyone else. I suffer because of the anger within me, because of craving. All that caused me to suffer and not enjoy life. I always thought that drugs were one of the things I was addicted to. I am not addicted to drugs – I discovered that I am addicted to the sensations that drugs give me.

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I understood that things around me are not that important. It’s what I think of myself, I am the center of myself. If I understand who I am, and what I am, it shouldn’t really bother me what other people think – what their actions are towards me. It’s not as if I discovered America. I found myself, after 45 years of being alive.

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I began to sit on the cushion and do what I was told, which was simply to breathe in and out through the nose, and to concentrate just on the breath. And I’ll tell you, I don’t know how to describe what I experienced. I never imagined that it would be so hard. Just to look at the breath as it goes in, as it goes out. And in those moments that I tried, for one or two seconds I succeeded, and suddenly I found that I was in a completely different space. And again I remembered that I needed to do this exercise, the breathing, and again the mind took me somewhere else entirely. And I began to feel that actually I was struggling with someone who would not let me rest. And that drew me to think about my life – I never knew how to look at the here and now. I always looked either to the future, when I did not know what would happen, or to the past, which was already past. And that led me to understand that I need to focus on the here and now – what is happening to me now in this moment. And that brought to mind my life – what I had forfeited. Every time I had encountered a difficulty, I ran away.

I have so many things to say, but the emotion I feel makes it hard to recall them and hard to express them. . . . At the end of each evening’s talk Goenka would say, “May you be happy, may you be liberated. May all beings be happy.” And that truly is what I wish everyone.

Anecdotes

A convict named Babu Satyan Baiya is undergoing life imprisoment at Baroda Central Jail for murdering three male family members in broad daylight in a thickly populated city. After attending a Vipassana course in the prison, he had a complete change of heart. He humbled himself before the women whose son and husband he killed, and asked for their forgiveness. He further took upon himself the responsibility for the maintenance of the families who are suffering because of his crime. The women accepted him as their lifelong brother.

—R.L. Vora (Superintendent, Baroda Central Jail)

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On the final day of the November course, a convict addressed the gathering of 2,000, including members of the press. He said that during his prison stay, he had prepared meticulous plans on paper to murder the judge who had wrongly convicted him. On the seventh day of the Vipassana course, however, he burned the plans, because he no longer felt any desire for revenge.

A 30-year old man served a sevenyear term in Baroda Central Jail for bank robberies. He had escaped once from the prison. He had been plotting to avenge the death of his father, who had been killed by terrorists. After taking a Vipassana course, he said: “It is good that I attended this course. Otherwise I would not have rested until I had my revenge. Now I feel pure, healthy and free of any thoughts of crime.” When he was released in 1992, he went to Dhammasindhu (in Gujarat) to take another course, before returning to his home in the Punjab.

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During the April cOn Day 10 of the January course, a release order came for one of the inmates attending the course. His relatives had arrived to take him home. According to prison rules, an inmate cannot stay in the jail once a release order has been issued. The young man insisted that he be allowed to stay until the end of the course. The jail authorities were insistent that he leave, but he refused. His family was astonished! Finally, he convinced his relatives to sign a declaration saying that they would not file a case against the prison. While the inmate sat for the evening discourse, his relatives were busy filling out various documents. He got his wish: he was allowed to stay overnight. After attending the closing session the following morning, he left the prisonourse, one of the jail officials was describing to an assistant teacher how the IG and jail staff had been searching for something to help the prisoners. They tried many different things, but did not get the “magic,” the results they were seeking. He said: “Vipassana turned out to be the magic we were looking for.” The assistant teacher laughingly replied, “A Vipassana course isn’t magic. It’s hard work for ten days!”

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A foreign inmate who took the April course publicly expressed his gratitude on the last day: “I was reluctant to take the course because I was afraid it might make me give up my religion. But now I know that Vipassana is not concerned with religion at all. It is something which will make anyone’s mind good. And for me, the mind is more important than anything else....

I can see changes in myself—I feel more peacefulness and more love, and I want to share this with all human beings all over the world. If I have done anything to harm anybody, I am truly sorry. I am a human being, and I may fail, but I will keep trying not to do anything bad in my life again.”

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A group of foreign inmates taking the April course, including many from countries in Africa, met with Goenkaji on Day 8. One young man asked: “Is there any branch of Vipassana in Africa?” Goenkaji responded: “You will be the branches! You will all be ambassadors of Dhamma for your countries!”

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On April 17, 1994, Gurmail Singh spoke at a seminar on Vipassana at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. He had served a ten-year sentence for murder and robbery starting in 1983. Towards the end of his sentence, he was transferred to Baroda Central Jail where, within six months, he took a Vipassana course. The day after his release, he took his second course. He said that prior to practicing Vipassana, he had felt he would not be at peace until he cut off the head of the judge who sentenced him. Now, he said, he thanks him. He said Vipassana has helped him to reduce obsessive negative thoughts, including anger and revenge, and has instilled in him the desire to serve humanity. He said that the government is spending huge amounts on programs which produce little change, when Vipassana produces transformation in ten days. He said: “I vow not to reenter the world of crime.”

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At the invitation of the jail officials, Goenkaji gave two discourses in Hindi to a total of 2,900 prisoners unable to attend the large course. In his discourse on Day 9, he said: “It is more important to be released from inner bondage than to be released from this prison. External misery in life may change, or it may remain, but you can learn to remain peaceful in any situation, pleasant or unpleasant. Learn how to remain peaceful. Learn how to come out of your bondage.”

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Shri Ramsingh Prahladsingh Chauhan is an ex-military and ex-police officer who was convicted for killing his own subordinate. He shot the victim six times while in a drunken condition. He is undergoing a term of life imprisonment. He said: "Due to Vipassana, I have realized the value of life and have also learnt to control my anger..."

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Convict is Babu Satyan Baiya. He is undergoing life imprisonment. He is a well-known and notorious hard-core criminal who killed three members of one family in broad daylight, in the midst of the thickly populated city of Amhedabad. He also jumped his parole leave and has been charged with petty crimes. After the Vipassana camp, he changed completely. He bowed down before the ladies whose son and husband he had killed and asked for their forgiveness. He further took upon himself the responsibility for the maintenance of the families who were suffering because of his heinous act.

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Convict, Shri Manharbhai Patel, was an engineer. He was a hard-core terrorist of Punjab Majeendersingh and was convicted for the offense of bank robbery. He was sentenced to seven years. He was so deeply influenced by Vipassana that he gave up the idea of rejoining the group of terrorists to whom he was formerly attached. After his release, he attended a Vipassana camp at Bada, Kutch.

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An under-trial named Mr. Saveri is facing criminal charges for the offense of bank fraud involving crores of rupees (millions of dollars). He was asked about the effect of the Vipassana teachings on his concept of life. Having attended only one camp, he replied: "The more we learn, the more we know how little we know!" Mr. Saveri expressed sorrow, lamenting the fact that, had he been acquainted with Vipassana sooner, his life would have taken a different direction.

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Another person, Arvind Sanghavi, has had a record of various criminal activities for the past 30 years. He underwent a complete change after his Vipassana camp to the extent that after his release on 7 March 1994, he went straight away to the Jaipur Vipassana Centre to give his service there.

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Not only the inmates in the jail, but also the members of the staff also have gained benefit from the meditation practice. Shri Upendrasingh, a guard staff, learnt a new perspective from Vipassana which has changed his outlook towards the prisoners. Reforming the inmates has become the ultimate aim of his services to the Prison Department.

(Courtesy: research paper Jail Courses and Vipassana)

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I visited Navjyoti, a de-addiction center in New Delhi that runs residential programs for addicts mainly from a criminal background, hoping to get contacts of released prisoners.  I interviewed 3 people with a criminal background who had undergone the de-addiction program at Navjyoti and even done Vipassana courses.  I also got the opportunity to interview and talk to the staff members including the senior doctor and social worker who had been associated with the institution for more that 15 years to learn about their observations about effects of Vipassana on the recovered addicts.

All the 3 Vipassana meditators from Navjyoti had done Vipassana after being released from jail.  They believed that Vipassana had helped them leave their addiction.  One of them, who had been a hardened criminal having spent 10 years in jail at one time, and then repeated shorter stays, had a totally transformed personality.  About his transformation, he said “the difference between me now and then is like night and day”.  Vipassana has had a very powerful effect on him, and he had done 3 courses within 2 years.  Talking about his personality before he did Vipassana, he says

“I was such a person that I would never listen to anyone, would do exactly as I would please, and had a lot of anger, was very egoistic, did not have cordial relations with family, or anyone.”

But having done Vipassana he says his personality has undergone a transformation.  It has helped him get balance of mind; get more control over his mind.  There is no longer hypocrisy in him, and on the contrary he has become more empathetic about others’ thoughts and feelings.  His relationships with his family, have improved considerably, and now he feels he is able to live his life like a responsible person and tend to his duties.  The greatest benefit that he derived from Vipassana is

“That my entire body feels very light, I get extra energy inside myself, I get more active, no tension, I get very balanced.  I get a deep insight into my own nature.  I don’t let myself wander, if a person is able to control his mind, then he has won the entire universe, and Vipassana teaches you this.”

Even the staff at Navjyoti is surprised by the changes they see in him.  One staff member, who has worked with him says that he did not expect him to improve or reform to this extent.  After Vipassana he has seen a more determined change in him to correct himself and work on himself.

“(He) was a hardcore criminal a strong addict.  We had no hope that he would become alright because he had a very long background of theft and pick pocketing.  But today he is a changed person.  Although there is still scope for him to improve as at times he gets tempted to do wrong, but we notice that he realizes and says ‘no’.  This I feel is the effect of Vipassana.  This change has come only after Vipassana.”

In each of the addicts, Vipassana has not only brought about a behavioral change, but it has also helped them keep away from drugs.  One of the addicts admits to have tried various methods since a few years to give up his habits.  But after Vipassana, his resolve has become stronger, and he has been able to stay clean.  All of them feel that Vipassana is very important because it gives them an insight into their own nature.  This is one of the greatest benefits they have experienced.  They feel that it is very important for them to understand their own nature so that they can get better control over themselves.

It has given them the ability to introspect and realize that they themselves were attached to the craving for drugs or alcohol and cannot blame others or the environment for their situation.  Beginning to realize their mistakes, they are now more positive in their outlook.

(Credit: Research paper titled 'Role of Vipassana in Prison reform & reintegration of prisoners into society' by Dr Amulya Khurana and Prof. P. L. Dhar )