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Book Review: "Dharma In Hell" by Fleet Maull

Posted Aug 30 2012 7:39pm
"I'm thoroughly convinced after spending fourteen years in prison with murderers, rapists, bank robbers, child molesters, tax dodgers, drug dealers and every sort of criminal imaginable, that the fundamental nature of all human beings is good.  I have absolutely no doubt in my mind."
                                                                                                                   Fleet Maull

Fleet Maull started out a Buddhist practitioner studying with Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron's root teacher, in the mid 1970s into the mid 1980s.  During this time he also became both an addict and a cocaine drug smuggler.  He lived two lives side by side.  After being under investigation by federal agents for a while, he was indicted in May of 1985 and following the advice of some senior Buddhist teachers, he turned himself in.  He got a 30 year, no parole prison sentence.  This was his first and longterm introduction into hell.

His years of Buddhist training gave him a spiritual and practical foundation, a focus and a purpose, which, despite the hellish circumstances, he soon put to good use.  Being in such close contact with all the men suffering around him and wanting to be of service as his teacher Chogyam Trungpa had taught him soon shifted his attention from his own pain to the pain of others.  Not only did he start a meditation group, but he also found a way to begin a prison hospice program and became a hospice worker for the rest of his stay in prison.  He was particularly moved by the isolation and suffering of AIDS patients during a time when the fear of contracting AIDS was at its peak.

Meditation practice was anything but easy in an environment of overcrowding, noise and potential violence, but Fleet Maull was not deterred.  He committed himself wholeheartedly and set an example that other inmates could respect, some even follow.  Meditation was his life raft, but his service work with dying inmates gave him the spiritual food and water to sustain him through the many years that followed.  In this way, virtual strangers became friends and the friendships he created gave meaning to him and to those he helped.  Of course, it was not easy sometimes, but even the difficulties became important lessons that helped him to continue with his important work.

In the first chapter of "Dharma In Hell" the author compares his Buddhist practice in prison to the Buddhist training gotten by serious practitioners in charnel grounds.  Charnel grounds are cemeteries for the impoverished; it is where dead bodies are left outside to be eaten by animals and to decompose.  A core teaching for Buddhists is the teaching on the impermanence of life and the fact that death comes for every living thing.  Accepting impermanence and death is an advanced yet effective practice, one that Fleet Maull embraced and through it all as his practice deepened, so did his moments of happiness.
Not easy, but a very useful and very honorable way to do time.

"Dharma In Hell" is a rather short book, but it is a good book to read to get some insight into life in prison from the perspective of a spiritual seeker and practitioner.  There is a Tibetan Buddhist mind training slogan that goes, "When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of the bodhi."  This is just what Mr. Maull did, he took extremely difficult life circumstances and turned them into a spiritual path.  This is good news, not only for other inmates who would like to do that same thing, but for all of us who have struggled with harsh realities.  The hells we face on earth can be transformed, if not into paradise, then into close approximations of it.  But it takes dedication to practice, it takes courage and it takes a willingness to open your heart to others.

I can identify with Fleet Maull's experience of prison, though I have never been inside a prison.  I've survived a domestic violence relationship and that had at times the extremely restricted feel that I imagine prisons to have.  And then there was me getting through the acute stages of mental illness where the paranoia, which is a deeply rooted part of the illness, left me feeling exposed 24/7.  I felt as if I were never alone and as if I could not escape to freedom, no matter how much I wanted it.  More than that, I felt the daily torture of it all and no matter how many people I was around, I still felt isolated in my misery.  The fact that people such as myself can feel what it is like to be imprisoned, while not being locked up in an actual prison, says a lot about the human condition.  But that the institution of prisons exists in the US for over 2 million people on any given day says even more.

It says that we as a culture do not want to deal with the fact that people are human, that they make mistakes, that they get addicted, that they get pulled into violence amongst other things.  Over 400 teenagers in the state of Texas alone have been sentenced to life imprisonment.  More than 70,000 prisoners get raped each year.  At least 50,000 men are existing in solitary confinement each day.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.  To add insult to injury businessmen have turned making prisons into private business ventures.  This is the wrong approach; prison reform is desperately needed.  Convicts are so much more than what they are convicted of, they are human beings and the potential for healing their illnesses and reforming their behaviors is great, if they are treated with common sense and respect.  Give a man or woman who has committed a crime some respect and responsibility and let the transformation begin.

Fleet Maull founded the  Prison Dharma Network  in 1987.  You can also find out more about him on his website:  http://fleetmaull.com
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