Three Spiritual Lessons from Inmates

Gen Kelsang Nyema is Ganden Center’s Resident Teacher.  Since 2008, she has taught extensively in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.  In this post, Gen Nyema explores three spiritual lessons she’s learned from teaching in South Carolina state prisons.

When I moved to South Carolina in 2008, Kadam Michelle Gauthier (Ganden’s previous Resident Teacher) told me about the class she’d started at a maximum security men’s prison in the Upstate. She asked me to continue the class if I could.

At first, I didn’t teach in prisons; some of it was that I was adjusting to being a Resident Teacher and being in South Carolina, but I must admit in retrospect that some of it was also reluctance. I wasn’t so sure about being a female going into an all-male environment filled with violent offenders.

How wrong I was.

I’ve been teaching in prisons (two now) since 2009, and it’s been one of the most meaningful, educational, and gratitude-inducing things I’ve done since coming to Ganden. Here are three of the many spiritual lessons I’ve learned from working with “the guys.”


1. People are people are people — the lesson of equanimity.spiritual lessons from prison

The first step in developing universal love and universal compassion is to develop equanimity: an equally warm and friendly feeling towards everyone. Normally our attitudes are unbalanced; we feel close to some people due to our attachment and we feel distant from others out of our aversion or anger.

It is quite common for us to label people who have committed a crime as “bad” people and then feel aversion or dislike towards them. But the men I have met behind bars are not bad people; they are ordinary people who made a mistake — often a very big mistake — that they will regret for the rest of their lives.

When I first started going to the prison, I started asking myself, “How am I really that different from these men?” Do they have really big delusions? Yes, but so do I. Have they acted in uncontrolled ways due to their delusions? Yes, but so have I. I realized that the only real difference between the inmates and me is that my delusions have not pushed me to the point where I committed a serious crime, but theirs have. However, given the right circumstances, our roles in life could have easily been reversed: I could have given free reign to a delusion to the point that it put me behind bars; they could have been the ones who became spiritual teachers. There is no real difference between us — or between inmates and any other students I work with — other than a matter of circumstances and temporarily different karma.

Lesson: I don’t think of the inmates I work with as criminals; I think of them as people who made some very misguided decisions. In that way, they are no better and no worse than any other students I have worked with over the years.  This understanding has helped me deepen equanimity, an equally warm and friendly feeling towards everyone.

2. Time for spiritual practice — lessons on distractions and worldly attitudes.

One thing that I hear a lot from students “on the outside” is that they don’t meditate or they don’t read spiritual books because they don’t have the time. There’s a problem with that reasoning, however: Inmates have told me the same thing.

“The one luxury an inmate has is time,” an inmate told me once.

Unlike us, an inmate’s time is often more or less his own. In fact, I have read and heard from inmates that finding ways to fill all the time they have is often one of the most difficult parts of prison life. One inmate told me, “Some guys sleep 80 percent of the day and only get up to eat, shower, or go to the canteen.”

So does that mean inmates in our Buddhist class always “have time” to meditate? Not always! Many (most, I think) of the inmates in our class DO take advantage of the time they have; many of them meditate every day and some of them have read a greater number and variety of Buddhist books than I have. But over the years, occasionally I have heard some of them say that they’ve “been too busy” and haven’t recently meditated or come to class.


Of all my students, inmates have the most free time to use for spiritual practice. The fact that they don’t always use that free time for practice should be a lesson for all of us: If even people who have incredibly flexible schedules don’t seem to “have time” to practice, then time isn’t actually the issue. Our issue isn’t that we don’t “have time” for practice; our problem is that we don’t MAKE time for it.

We do the things that we value. If we really like doing something, we will definitely find time to do it.

For example, if you tell yourself that you value spiritual practices, such as meditations, mantra recitation, prayers, or spiritual readings, but you never can “find the time” to engage in those actions, maybe you haven’t yet fully understood the value of spiritual practice. Alternatively, maybe you tell yourself or others that you value these practices because you “should,” but maybe in your heart of hearts you have more feeling for the value of your favorite TV show than for the value of meditation.

Lesson: If even inmates can’t “find the time” to meditate consistently, maybe the problem isn’t time. Maybe it’s distraction or a misalignment of values.

3. Never take a class for granted — the lesson of gratitude.

I’m very grateful to have Ganden Center in my life and very grateful to have the opportunity to teach Dharma. I think that most of the students that I work with are also very grateful for the Center and its teachings.

Inmates, though? Those guys are really, really, really grateful.

The first two meditations in The New Meditation Handbook are on our precious human life and death. They remind us that our opportunity to practice the spiritual path is both rare and fleeting. I find that my own mind can get a little complacent around these two facts.

“Rare?” we ask.  “Heck, there’s a Buddhist Center right on 378 in the middle of West Columbia, South Carolina — it can’t be THAT rare. Fleeting? Have you ever looked at Ganden’s calendar of events? There’s something going on all the time! If you miss an opportunity to go to class this week, well, there’s always next week.”

“There’s always next week” is an attitude that prevents us from

1) recognizing how unique our opportunity actually is,
2) feeling deeply grateful to have these teachings in our life,
3) and taking advantage of the resources available to us.

Most of the inmates I work with don’t have this problem. First, they never know when their class will get canceled because a bigger group needs their space or because the facility will go on lock-down (which means they cannot leave their cells for days at a time). Even if class is on and they have permission to be there, there’s no guarantee that they won’t get on the wrong side of a grumpy guard who won’t let them out of their dorm.

Furthermore, most of the time the inmates are on their own, without the benefit of a teacher. Sure, they have each other and they are certainly growing their own wisdom, but they never know when someone like me is going to show up to teach class. Imagine going to Ganden Center on a Sunday morning and never knowing if there would be a teacher there or just the students!

Lastly, these guys never know when they will get transferred to another facility where there is no Buddhist group at all. It’s one thing not to have a teacher; it’s a whole other ballgame to not even have spiritual friends you can bounce ideas off of.

For all these reasons, when I go to teach at one of the prisons, the guys are so, so grateful. They are effusive in their thanks to me.

Their attitude makes me reflect upon my own: Am I as grateful as I could be for all the Dharma wisdom that I have received? All I did was walk through the door to Rameshori Center (now Kadampa Meditation Center Georgia) one day in 2002, and everything I needed was already there — a Center, a qualified teacher, a loving Sangha, and amazingly clear Dharma books.

Do I say “thanks” to my root Teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, enough? Is there really even a way to say “thank you” enough, given all that I’ve gained from this spiritual path? Now THAT is probably a rhetorical question!

Lesson: The inmates know that any Dharma teaching they receive might be their last. The same is true for the rest of us, but do we really recognize that?

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

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