Yesterday I visited a prison where a small sangha gathers once a week. It’s been going on for over a decade, but I’ve only been attending for a year and a half.

I often bring little cards with a poem or saying printed on them that’s related to the topic of the day which, yesterday, was the second grave precept, not stealing. The poem was from Basho:

I’m wealthy-
going into the new year
with 20 pounds of old rice

The poem captures the idea that “non-stealing is contentment with what is” or “non-stealing is a resting mind.” There’s no need to steal when the mind is at peace.

It’s often an interesting conversation in the prison, and sometimes quite profound words are spoken. Some of the men have been able to use their time as if they were monastics which, of course, they are in a way. Others simply find the weekly meetings a calming reprieve from the noise and clamber of a thousand testosterone-filled men. Some use the practice of mindfulness and meditation as a tool in coping with the stressors of prison life. Others are simply curious.

I realize that going into a prison is a marginal activity.  Few people do it. Entering a prison is to step into the sphere of what John Kabat-Zinn calls a magnet of suffering. Guards and staff do it as their livelihood, much like nursing assistants go into nursing homes, doctors and nurses into hospitals and clinics, social workers and counselors into homeless shelters. Families and loved ones go into prisons for obvious – or not so obvious – reasons. Clergy and 12-step folks go in as well. I know of a troupe of actors and musicians who go in. They have, perhaps, the most unusual motivation. In general, however, people go into these magnets of suffering out of rational compassion for fellow human beings.

Yesterday a couple of the regulars were not in attendance because they were in the hole.  They had gotten into a fight that resulted in some serious injuries. Based on the fact that there was a lot of blood and one of the combatants had to be carried away in a wheel chair, speculation was that these buddhists were going to be in isolation for a long, long time. And buddhists they were: some of them had taken the 16 bodhisattva precepts a couple of years ago.

This is a level 4 facility, 5 being the highest security level. I am always escorted to and from the chapel and there is always a guard present during the gathering. On the walk into the bowels of the building yesterday, which is where the chapel is located, a couple of guards were discussing the new, more lax policy on putting offenders into segregation. “There are a lot more guys walking around with black-and-blue eyes,” one of them offered to start the conversation. The guards seemed to think the new policy was not good for security or for the safety of prisoners, but they were resigned to it.

That’s one thing about prisons: resignation. Everyone feels that they have little control over the rules and think decisions are often fickle. In that way, it reminds me of China. The bureaucracy rolls along, rules change without apparent logic and there is no any appeal. Some people fight the sense of powerlessness. Others accept it. It wonder if it’s the same way in monasteries.

Bill Porter wrote that the one thing that confounds Westerners the most about the Chinese is their acceptance of whatever happens. Here’s a poem by Wei Ying-wu that recommends “acceptance” to a fellow bureaucrat who is taking a leave from his career in order to go home to care for his aging parents:

Seeing Off Censor Chang of the Palace Library Leaving
for Chiangtso to Care for His Parents

Don’t sigh about the road beyond the city gate
or that you won’t be coming back in a carriage
your brocade robes are there in your trunk
along with your books from rue-scented halls
with red rice grown in a well-watered land
and whitefish fresh from the Yangtze
your breakfasts can also be offerings
what good is longing for fortune and fame

A phrase used a lot in yesterday’s discussion was, It is what it is. Somebody got trashed. It is what it is. Somebody is going to spend 60 days in seg. It is what it is. The prison’s budget for three meals a day is $3.69. It is what it is. The chaplain is here one day and gone the next with no explanation. It is what it is. Some higher-ups instituted a new policy that will result in more people being hurt.  It is what it is.

Of course, many of the guys have opinions, and It is what it is can be be said in many ways and convey a multitude of emotions and attitudes. Some men don’t understand why other prisoners continue the violence that landed them in prison in the first place. Some are confused. Humor is often used to diffuse the pain.

Anger is not an uncommon emotion, however. Some of the guys seethe with it. Some of the guys employ humor as a release valve for it. Anxiety is commonly expressed, especially as guys get close to release. It’s a strange world out there.

“It is what it is” can mean many different things
In the midst of suffering
in hospitals and prisons
homeless shelters and ghettos
AA meetings and lands ruled by despots
it is what it is has many guises
and can be uttered with many meanings
with a throat constricted in anger
with a cynical sneer of the lips
with a shrug of the shoulders
with teeth clenched in hatred
with a closed heart
a sad heart
a broken heart
uneasily with a nervous giggle
with a shake of the head in disgust dismay
or in fearful anticipation

In the midst of suffering
it is what it is
is seldom said with glee or celebration
joy or laughter

However
in these places
I have also heard it spoken
like a temple bell ringing