murderers and thieves

This week at San Quentin, I returned the papers I had the guys write. I asked them to answer what, to me, is a pretty simple question. Given that there is no duality between enlightenment and un-enlightenment, what’s duhkha (suffering)? And the answer, of course, is that duhkha is a misperception of reality. It doesn’t exist. It’s a choice we make to suffer when in fact we aren’t. We’re already enlightened but too dumb to know it.

The guys struggled with this knowledge. It’s a hard sell to anyone, even if you don’t spend your nights in a six-foot-square room. Bobo seemed to get it. Or at least, I think he did. Bobo’s all over the place in class. When he makes comments, there’s always a kernel of accuracy in his thoughts, but they’re disjointed and rambling. Sometimes, when I’m speaking and say something that he gets, that he jives with, he’ll let out a loud “Hello!” in a voice that reminds me of Southern Baptists shouting out “Amen!” during Sunday service. (I secretly love this, by the way. Though I make it clear to him and everyone else who’ll listen that my job is not to “convert” them, I nevertheless feel boosted by his enthusiasm.)

During break on Tuesday I was talking to another guy who gets it, who’s paper was damn near perfect. He was telling me that he works with other guys to get their cases together for the parole board. It goes without saying that this must be rather thankless work. After all, in the last eight years, the California Department of Corrections has paroled only one inmate. While we were talking, it came up that he was working with Bobo on his case, too. Bobo chimed in to let me know why it was he was in prison in the first place. He’s been in the system going on fifteen years on seven-to-life sentence. He killed someone.

He was young. Nineteen or so at the time. A kid. And drunk out of his mind. About to get in a fight with some other local kids. He didn’t say it, but it was almost certainly gang related. He had a shotgun with him and fired one shot to scare the other guys off. It worked. But the stray bullet killed some kid a block or two away. He didn’t even know until the next day when the police came looking for him.

At the time, he told me, he denied it. Even to himself. But after spending fifteen years bouncing from one prison to another, it’s clear he’s come to some acceptance about his crime. What struck me, though, was that his level of responsibility and acceptance and remorse for his crime weren’t what I expected. It wasn’t overly dramatic. It wasn’t the stuff of The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, his level of remorse and personal responsibility seemed masked by his level of frustration with the system. He’s done fifteen years for a seven-to-life sentence. And he’s done all the things you’re supposed to do to get paroled in the first place. He’s playing by their rules. Of course he’s frustrated.

And this isn’t anything that I can understand. Or even begin to relate to. In some way or another, we’re all living in a “system.” But Bobo and the rest of my students really are in the system. It is their life. And this guy’s been there for all his adult life. He knows nothing else but that system. And even when playing by the rules of that system, he still can’t move forward. The source of his frustration.

But his inner calm is amazing. He is one of the happiest men I’ve met in years. It nears the inexplicable.

I go to San Quentin every Tuesday armed with a head full of witty and interesting things to tell these guys about Buddhism. To, in some small way, shake up their preconceptions. To blow their minds in some new and interesting way. And so often I feel as though I’m learning more than I can possibly teach.