The teachings of Buddhism are now available for incarcerated people nationwide through a correspondence course workbook.
The Buddhist Prison Ministry correspondence course, created by the Reverend Susan Shannon, now offers a 12-lesson workbook called “Bodhicitta Behind Bars: An Introduction to Buddhism.”
In 2011, Shannon originally came to San Quentin as a ministry apprentice under Catholic Chaplin Father George Williams. This led to her being given permission enter Death Row as the Buddhist Chaplain.
In an interview with SQNews, Shannon said she facilitated several self-help groups at The Q. This included Houses of Healing, Guiding Rage Into Power, and the Victim Offender Education Group.
The correspondence course is a 71-page booklet that introduces various Buddhist traditions and helps one understand how to achieve an advanced level of internal and external peace, according to the Buddhist Prison Ministry.
“It was a great pleasure for me to read the Buddhist Prison Ministry’s An Introduction to Buddhism. I am impressed by the clarity and content of this excellent overview,” said Joanna Macy, author, teacher and Buddhist activist.
The lessons are made possible by funding from the Khyentse Foundation and are explicitly designed for prison residents. The goal is to present Buddhism in a way that cultivates inner transformation through applicable tools and skills taught by the Buddha.
An incarcerated person wrote to the Ministry saying they enjoyed the workbook’s different applications of integration as it relates to prison life, including how it assists newcomers in finding their path.
Another prison resident who wrote to the program explained that the course made them feel like they were “in the presence of the Buddha Dharma.” All people can benefit from studying the booklet, especially young people in our schools, asserted the Ministry.
At SQ’s Death Row, Shannon ministered to a group that over the course of 10 years grew to 65 men, which is where the course’s teachings got their inspiration.
In 2019, her intentions were to move to Washington state, write the course, and then return at least four times a year. However, when the pandemic struck in 2020 she was unable to enter the prison and has since decided to move on, noted the Ministry.
The men of SQ’s Death Row Buddhist community were distraught when Shannon revealed that she was leaving.
“It was hard for me to leave, because I knew I was not going to be replaced,” Shannon said. “It’s not about me; it’s about the Death Row men who wish to pay it forward. For me it is the power of true altruism.”
The course began when Death Row residents suggested that Shannon create a correspondence course for the women on California’s Death Row. The men wanted the women to have what they had benefited from and they felt the women were underserved, the Ministry told SQnews.
Prior to working and volunteering in prisons, Shannon spent 20-plus years working with Tibetan monks at two monasteries and was taught the fundamentals of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Six Perfections, but mostly about the Bodhicitta, the Awakening Heart.
The first distribution of individual lesson plans went to eight of Shannon’s students, who gave her feedback as to the lessons’ applicability to prison life generally but especially to Death Row. When she moved to Washington in 2019, she began to write the correspondence class. But when Covid hit prisons across the country and deaths began to mount, she realized that the workbook needed to be available to all incarcerated people, not just those in Death Row.
In 2020-2021 an organization called Compassion Works for All listed the correspondence course on the cover of their newsletters that gets sent to incarcerated people nationwide. Before Shannon knew it, her mailbox became jammed with requests for the course.
To help keep up with all the requests, Shannon reached out to local Buddhist groups asking for volunteers. Today the Buddhist Prison Ministry has 14 “super solid” volunteers all over the country, according to Shannon.
One volunteer was humbled by the prison residents’ knowledge of Buddhist viewpoints and other spiritual traditions. “They have revealed many of my blind spots in the Buddha Dharma,” said the volunteer.
Another volunteer felt honored to witness the sincerity of an incarcerated person’s study of Buddhism. “They go unfathomably into self-exploration and reflection, with a need for spiritual survival,” observed the Ministry volunteer.
Thus far a thousand workbooks have been distributed to various prisons in the United States. An August release is scheduled for the second workbook titled, “Prayer and Practices, Integrating the Teachings into Your Daily Life,” which will be a compilation of specific prayers and practices best suited for life on the inside.
If you are interested in the course, the workbook will be available on GTL tablets in August, or you can write to the Buddhist Prison Ministry, P.O. Box 426, Orcas, WA 98280