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True Freedom Pen Pal Program

Photo by Jody Davis

Pete – a long time pen pal, says: “A young man in prison sent a letter to the Mindfulness Bell magazine. He was struggling with “being peace” in his noisy, violent, and chaotic environment. He requested an article that might help him and others like him. The letter was passed on to True Freedom, a prison Dharma sharing practice. Some of us are in prison; some of us are in the free world. We are pen pals. We all try to be peace, as Thay teaches us. We support each other and laugh together. We don’t have an agenda. We just write what is in our heart and learn from each other. I think I learn more than they do. I will tell you this:  my brothers inside are the most reliable writers on earth.”

For years prisoners have written to our monasteries, and monastics and lay friends have responded. After some time they couldn’t handle the volume of incoming letters and in 2010, The True Freedom Pen Pal Program was started, and guidelines were set up.

This opportunity to serve is rewarding for all. Allowing someone to be heard, or to tell their truth, without judgment or perception is a beautiful way to touch another’s heart. For me there is a feeling of continuity shared by all. The writing and receiving of a letter is an elegant constructive relationship. Jack F.

The program puts practitioners in touch with prisoners who would like to practice. They correspond on a regular basis about practicing the Dharma. There are guidelines in place to make sure all those involved are appropriately supported: Practitioners who respond to the inmates also participate in an e-mail group in order to share about their experiences and to learn from each other and the program is fortunate to have a project coordinator as pen pal writers are anonymous and all incoming mail goes through Deer Park Monastery.

Ray is another long term pen pall and says: “I’ve been part of the True Freedom pen pal program for five years now. It takes roughly three weeks for a letter to get from prison to my home (through Deer Park), and about the same time for one of my letters to reach my inmate “pal” (through prison security). So, basically once a month, I receive a letter and I write a letter. I enjoy the fact that – due to the circumstances – these are old-fashioned hand-written letters. It is always like a special meditation when I sit down with a writing pad and a pen and take a few hours to connect with my Dharma brother “inside.” My current pal is a gifted writer. Over our three-year-long exchange, he’s come up with very creative terms for the place he finds himself in. My favorite is “Pri-Zen,” but I also like the “Hoosegow Hermitage,” the “Prajna-tentiary,” the “Gated Ashram Cell,” and “my Concrete Condo,” One letter began like this: “Greetings from the tropical paradise in my mind where I bask in the sea of serenity and the soothing breeze of ease while in exile at this all-inclusive resort.” I just love it when the Buddhist mind-set is let loose in a “correctional” facility!”

Thay
Thay’s letter to Daniel

Our teacher Thay has also responded to letters he has received from inmates. In two such letters he answered to Daniel (left) on death row in the U.S., and to Tommy.

The organisers of True Freedom are currently looking for practitioners who would like to volunteer to join this inspiring project and regularly correspond with inmates. All inmates are in the U.S., pen pals need not be experts but rather sincere practitioners with an open and compassionate heart. If you are interested in learning more, please e-mail Pete, the program coordinator at:  dptruefreedom@gmail.com

In addition to the True Freedom Program there are many practitioners in our Order of Interbeing community, who are supporting practitioners inside.

Many letters ask for a subscription to the Mindfulness Bell, the newsletter in the Plum Village tradition and currently 70 inmates receive free subscriptions of the Mindfulness Bell. During the past couple of years we have also been able to send hundreds of books by our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh to prisoners, since Parallax Press has offered damaged books to the program. 

Photo by Thomas B.

Writing meditation is a deep practice that opens the doors of the heart and generates the energy of healing and compassion for both writer and reader.

Join the conversation

  • To say that writing to our imprisoned pen pals benefits both the writer and the recipient is not just another platitude. It is very much part of my experience: It is not possible to speak of or write about the Dharma except from a contemplative mind. Moreover, the very act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, if your handwriting is like mine— too shaky to be legible) encourages me to strive for discipline and clarity. But more importantly yet, the insightful responses received from my friends inside are a further source of joy.

    I do believe that, as a writer, I gain a great deal from this wonderful practice, and I am deeply grateful to both the pen pals and our hard-working and ever-patient Pete M. for keeping the program flowing smoothly.

    With a bow of gratitude,

    Wayne H.
    “Awakened Heart of the Source”

  • I do believe in loving kindness and compassion deeply. Writing to people might be interesting however I would be interested in deep questions about life and philosophy…..

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    What is Mindfulness

    Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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