Dhamma (Sanskrit Dharma): may mean (1) the doctrine of the Buddha, (2) the Truth, (3) the Ultimate Reality, (4) the correct conduct of life, (5) the ultimate psychic events which combine to form the content of consciousness.
The Dhamma Brothers is a 2007 documentary chronicling the introduction of Vipassana meditation (the same technique I learned during the 10-day course I attended) into one of the worst prisons in the US, the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama. The facility houses over 1400 inmates, many of whom are serving life sentences without parole, and about 20 inmates who are living on death row.
The first 10-day course taught at the facility included 20 inmates who were completely segregated from the rest of the prison in order to fully dive into the teachings. In one of the pre-course meetings, the inmates are told that the rigid daily structure in the upcoming 10 days will perhaps be even more strict than their regular daily time tables. The camera captures some inmates laughing at this idea while others look concerned and even frightened. When I watched this scene I was brought back to the very first night I was at the Ontario Vipassa Centre. We had eaten dinner and were now to listen to an introductory talk by one of the many experienced students and caretakers of the grounds. I remember him repeating the information I had known for years prior to arrival; there would be no talking for 9 days, there would be hours upon hours of meditation, we were all to stay for the full 10 days…it was going to be hard. Even though I was as prepared as I could be for this adventure I still had a moment of sheer terror and panic. What was I doing there? How could I possibly do this? These thoughts are very visibly written on the faces of the 20 inmates in this scene.
The Dhamma Brothers then continues on to capture the participants gathering up all of their belongings, walking into the large gymnasium that would be their home for the next 10 days, and finally starting the course. While watching this section of the film I burst into tears. Although I couldn’t quite figure out why at first, I realized later that it was out of happiness. I think if a dear friend told me they too were about to do the course I would have the same reaction. That is how amazing I found my personal experience. It was like watching these inmates walk up to the proverbial abyss and without looking back, diving in head first. An act requiring tremendous courage. I can tell you I was shaking in my boots when I reached that edge.
Even before I watched the documentary I wondered what these prisoners would be dealing with on their meditation cushions. With no distractions and the ever-deepening examination of the internal, my personal 10 day experience was pretty intense to say the least. How much more would it be for these prisoners who had committed serious crimes, including murder? How do you sit with yourself for that long when you have done horrific acts of violence? How do you accept the fact that you are not only incarcerated at the moment, but will be for the rest of your life?
The documentary unfortunately seemed to only really skim the surface of these questions. I am not sure if it was due to length of film considerations but I felt like I would have enjoyed a much deeper examination of what the prisoners experienced and how the course had altered them. Don’t get me wrong, there are personal interviews throughout the entire film with a few of the participants of the course, but I felt like they were the smallest snippets of a much larger tapestry. I am not sure if it was reluctance on the inmates’ parts to really open up, or editorial discretion, but I felt like the documentary overall was really holding something back. For viewers who are unfamiliar with Vipassana I think the documentary would raise much more questions than it answered. Although, I also realize that the alternative could be true. Perhaps due to the deep nature of my own personal experience I was seeking something that would mirror that depth more than this documentary, or any, could.
It was an interesting film and I am especially pleased whenever I hear of any correctional facility trying something more conducive to actual rehabilitation of prisoners…but I think my views of the prison system in general is a subject for another post…
A bit of background provided by one of the directors of the film, Jenny Phillips