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.
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!”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.