Locked Up; Thrown Out

Six years ago today, sitting in front of a television with the rest of the country, we jotted down a few thoughts that soon became a reflection on the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Two wars later, we see some of the strange fruit those attacks planted: news of the ongoing purge of religion collections in prison libraries across the US.

As it happens, we know a little bit about religion in prison – not because we’ve done time, but because we once tagged along with a Buddhist nun who serves as a volunteer chaplain at a federal lockup in Maryland.

It was quite an education, though not necessarily in Buddhist principles. What we learned was that, for many prisoners, a weekly window of time for fulfilling some sort of spiritual practice was the one right that could not be taken from them for any reason, punitive or otherwise. And so it seemed that like the old saying about atheists in foxholes, there were no inmates who were unwilling to consider being Buddhists every Tuesday night. So long as being Buddhist meant they could get out of their cells and sit for an hour with a bald lady in robes, it sounded alright by them.

For the nun, the weekly routine involved a pass through a metal detector, and then a check of any materials she was bringing in — usually a tape of ocean sounds and a few photocopied sheets filled with phonetic renderings of Tibetan prayers, which she would encourage her students to chant. It sounded something like this: MA HA SA MA YA SATO AH, and never have foreign sounds been chanted with such gusto as I heard that night.

Because Tuesday evening was the time for other religious groups to meet as well, through the door drifted other sounds, other songs. Like the Tibetan chant, they were all about liberation in one way or another, each subversive in its own way.

We’re thinking of calling our friend the nun and asking if MA HA SA MA YA SATO AH has set off any alarms.