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 Damien Echols, the Memphis Three, and Zen in prison.....

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Damien Echols, the Memphis Three, and Zen in prison.....   Sat Aug 18, 2012 8:48 pm


This was from an older issue of Parabola Magazine. Damien was one of the MEMPHIS THREE - and they were released from prison a year ago and Damien has a book coming out soon and HBO just broadcast a powerful documentary on the case that ended with the unexpected release of the three. I will also post a recent New York Times article on the case. Damien became a Zen student while in prison and I am sure that his upcoming book will talk about how meditation and Zen helped him deal with this situation.

In this issue of PARABOLA we interview Death Row inmate Damien Echols.


“All real living is meeting,” wrote philosopher Martin Buber. By that measure, death row prisoner SK913 in the “Supermax” Varner Unit in Grady, Arkansas, really lives just once a week. On Fridays from one to four p.m. he gets to sit in a monitored room without partitions with his wife, Lorri Davis, a Little Rock landscape architect, whom he married in a Zen Buddhist ceremony in 1999. The couple exchange insights about their separate and evolving spiritual practices, Davis tells me by email. Over the years, spiritual search has become their shared life.

The days thirty-three-year-old Damien Echols spends alone in a nine-by-twelve-foot concrete cell are not unreal. But how he spends his time is strictly up to him. “You can either turn it into a monastery and or it will turn itself into hell,” he tells me by phone. Intended for terrorists, spies, and other prisoners deemed extremely dangerous, especially those connected to groups, super-maximum prisons keep inmates in isolation and under constant surveillance, and have earned condemnations for inhumanity from a United Nations team and other groups. Echols and all the other death row prisoners from the nearby Tucker Maximum Security Correctional Facility were transferred to the new Varner unit about five years ago.

Born Michael Wayne Hutchinson in West Memphis, Arkansas, he became Damien when his stepfather, Jack Echols, adopted him. In the midst of converting to Roman Catholicism, the boy took the name of Damien along with Echols in honor of Father Damien, the Belgian-born priest who ministered to lepers quarantined in Hawaii, eventually contracting and dying of the disease himself.

Cleared to be canonized next year, the “Blessed Damien of Molokai” has long been regarded by many as the patron saint of outcasts. But Echols, a sensitive, troubled kid from a poor family, couldn’t have known that eventually he himself would transform in the judgment of some from misfit to murderer—and eventually in the judgment of many from misfit to martyr. In 1994, Echols was sentenced to death for leading two other teenagers in the horrific killing of three eight-year-old boys in what prosecutors portrayed as a satanic sacrifice. Lacking any physical evidence, the police zeroed in on eighteen-year-old Echols because he wore black, was known to be well read about occult subjects, and otherwise stood out as defiantly dark in his conservative, hardscrabble town. Even the name Damien was taken as incriminating evidence, since this had been the name of the son of Satan in the popular horror film The Omen.

Damien was convicted in part on a confession by one of his codefendants, a minor with a low I.Q., that was riddled with factual errors, and in part on the testimony of an occult expert with a mail-order degree. After the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost and a sequel revealed a likely miscarriage of justice, the plight of the “West Memphis Three” attracted the support of thousands, including celebrities as disparate as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson, and Sister Prejean, the Catholic nun who has battled the death penalty and who wrote Dead Man Walking.

To many what happened to the West Memphis Three resembled what happened in the Salem Witch Trials. At any rate, there was a panic to name and quarantine off evil rather than admit it might be walking around town wearing ordinary clothes and talking about common, non-occult things. As he awaits another hearing, Echols talked with Parabola about what Zen and the other contemplative traditions have shown him regarding doing justice to the vibrancy and possibilities of life, no matter what.

—Tracy Cochran
PARABOLA: Why Buddhism?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I started to feel angry all the time. Everything I had been through was really starting to turn me bitter and I knew that I had to do something about that or it was going to eat me alive.

P: Who taught you about Buddhism?

DE: The very first day I came into death row, there was another guy here who sent me a package of stuff. It was filled with shaving cream, razors, a bar of soap, uh, I think there was a grape soda in it, a couple of stamped envelopes, ink and pens, basic necessities. It had a note in it from the guy, who said he tried to do this with everybody who comes in, to help them get their feet under them. And this guy was a Zen Buddhist [Jusan Frankie Parker]. For about two years, I went to the yard with him and talked to him on a regular basis.

A couple years later, [Parker] was given an execution date. His spiritual advisor was this Zen priest who only did prison work, Kobutsu. I met him when he came for the execution in 1996. We started corresponding and eventually, I really delved into Zen and really committed myself to this practice.

I also eventually started corresponding with a Vietnamese Zen temple in Los Angeles. I first took refuge probably a year after I started practicing Zen. Kobutsu performed the ceremony. I was given the name Koson. It means “move toward the light” or “loves the light,” something in that vein.

P: I read that you were also given the name Jyoti Priya Karuna, Lover of the Light Compassion.

DE: That was when I took the next set of vows from the Vietnamese Zen temple. About two years after that, I received Jukai ordination from Shodo Harada Roshi. He’s a really popular Zen master in Japan. Kobutsu asked him if he would come over here to do this ceremony. He couldn’t speak English either. He had to bring one of the female priests with him to act as a translator.

P: Can you describe Jukai for Parabola readers?

DE: Jukai ordination is whenever you really begin to take the first step on the road to serious vows and it’s sort of like a renaming ceremony also. There aren’t too many things to compare it to in Western religion. For example, the first thing we did, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, which could be comparable to, say, baptism in Christianity. The closest thing [to taking the rest of the precepts against all forms of doing harm] would be maybe becoming a deacon.

P: Did you feel a connection with Shodo Harada Roshi?

DE: You feel this tremendous sense of discipline that almost comes off of him in waves. The only word I know how to use to even come close to articulating it would be beauty. There’s some sort of beauty in that discipline that makes you feel awe. Whenever I was around him, it was almost like being speechless. The reason I don’t say “connection” is because it implies almost an equality in status, and I didn’t really feel that with him. He was shorter than me physically but you still have that feeling that you’re almost looking up at someone.

P: He opened a door.

DE: Even now, coming up on nine years later, whenever I think of it, it really inspires me and makes me want to dig in my heels and try even harder.

P: How does your practice help you?

DE: It prevents you from becoming lost. It enables you to take a step back. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a gradual thing. If someone asks me, “What are you now?” it’s almost an offensive question to me. I think spirituality is the second most intimate thing a person has in their life, second only to their marriage. The reason I find it so offensive is because it is so hard to describe. For example, I’m still a member of the Roman Catholic Church. I go to Mass every week. I never miss it. It’s one of my favorite things in life, yet I don’t identify myself as a Roman Catholic. I have taken these vows in Buddhism but I don’t really identify myself as Buddhist.

P: It’s about getting in touch with who you really are, or what’s nameless?

DE: The way I approach it is to try it and see if it works. See for yourself. Get firsthand experience. That’s what I love about Zen. It didn’t require me to surrender my ability to think. It gave me techniques I could use that actually benefited me in my daily life.

P: I read that you start every day reciting the Heart Sutra [the shortest and most popular sutra in Buddhism, expressing the insight of nonattachment and the doctrine of emptiness].

DE: For about five years, I did start every day reading the Heart Sutra. Then I would do a hundred and eight prostrations. Then I would sit for an hour, and again at night. I had a little shrine set up in my cell. I had a little fold-out cardboard Buddha statue and I would sit a bowl of water on the table like an offering. Saturdays and Sundays, I would dedicate entirely to sitting. I would get up early in the morning and do sitting and walking meditation pretty much all day long. Eventually, we went from just sitting to practicing koan.

P: Rinzai Zen is known for koan study.

DE: I almost lost my mind when we first started the koan practice. The very first one I was given was “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” I would think “What am I supposed to do with this?” But then something did happen. It’s like being flooded with an epiphany or a realization. There’s no way to even describe the feeling of it but the weirdest part was after I did finally get that first one, no other one has ever presented a problem again. Eventually, it was let’s go on to something else.

P: A lot of people think of the interdependent nature of life only in a positive way, but life can be terrible. You can suffer injustice. But allowing yourself to be consumed by negative emotions is just participating in your own destruction.

DE: It would also stunt growth and if you don’t grow, you automatically start to stagnate. To me that was the nightmare, that was worse than the execution—that horrible stagnation that I see all around me.

P: Do you relate to your situation like a koan, confounding but something you have to handle somehow?

DE: It was almost like it did show me how to handle each day and each situation that would come along. It’s almost impossible to articulate to someone how sitting for five hours a day and holding the question “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” in your head helps you deal with prison life. But it does.

P: What is your practice now?

DE: I still do tons of meditation, and I want to keep moving forward. The closer I get to the experience of divinity the closer I want to be to it. So, I am trying to expand my own practices into Western traditions of meditation to do that. One of the things I spend an hour doing every morning now is what’s called the Middle Pillar exercise. It does the same thing that Zen does only it goes about it differently.

When I started practicing Zen, the very first thing that the focus is put on is mindfulness. In the Western traditions, they’ll say you have to develop a background awareness. It’s almost like separating a part of your psyche and standing as an observer at all times and observing what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.

P: I can see why you have to keep making it new. At the same time, the Jukai ordination you received and the Zen ritual you were engaged in must have thrown you a rope, connecting you with a lineage and also with the timeless, the divine as you call it.

DE: Not only that but everything that people put faith or belief or practice into, it creates a current of energy in the universe. Whenever you’re ordained or whenever you receive initiation into a spiritual tradition, it forges a link between you and that energy current in the universe.

P: Has your practice helped you transform your suffering into compassion for others?

DE: In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. I’ve really had a chance over the past fifteen years to study what causes people to be in this situation. You see these people who grew up in poverty with no education whatsoever and they go rob a store and shoot somebody. When you realize the hardship that they came from, that can inspire compassion. But you also see how they are once they are here—making no effort to change or to grow.

I don’t believe that anything excuses not taking personal responsibility. You know, I grew up so poor that we didn’t have heat in the winter; we had to go to gas stations just to get water to bring home to drink; the whole family would have to take a bath in one tub of water that had been heated up over a fire. I know that doesn’t make me a moronic zombie who has no choice but to give
in to some criminal impulse. So stories like that inspire, not the opposite of compassion, but I guess people would call it tough love, where you want to grab somebody and you want to say, “You can try to blame it on society or anyone else you want to blame it on but you make the choices to do what you are doing on a daily basis.”

P: The Buddha talks about how mysterious karma is. And yours certainly ranks way up there.

DE: I’ve heard that before, from a woman who had a Tibetan Buddhist practice who would teach these meditation classes.

P: Can you sum up your beliefs?

DE: In plain English, we shape our own realities. We don’t always realize the extent to which we do. I think the main thing is that we have to take responsibility for changing our own lives. That’s the thing that Lorri and I focus on all the time. We don’t want to settle. I call it living ferociously. If I’m not living ferociously, if I’m not trying to transform my life, then I’m wasting my life.

P: But different branches of science say there is no such thing as free will, that it’s just a perception, an illusion. When you make an action, the action begins before you have the perception of willing it. Everything just happens.

DE: Will is what in the Eastern tradition is called Enlightenment. Will doesn’t mean gritting your teeth and using white knuckle force. It’s more like in Tai Chi when you move without effort.

P: Will is awakening to the big picture?

DE: I wrote about this in my autobiography [Almost Home]. When I was in kindergarten, I was going out to play at night in front of our apartment and my mother tells me, “Do not leave the front of these apartments.” And I say, “O.K.” Then I take off. I’m a little kid. I’m going to go where I want to go. So, I went behind the apartments and played in this huge pile of dirt for awhile and I start to walk back around home. It’s already dark outside and I know I’m going to be in trouble. When I’m walking past an apartment that was empty, I see a man standing in front. He’s wearing a pair of black pants. He has on no shirt. He has shoulder length black hair and he’s standing there with his arms across his chest. And when I’m walking past, he says, “Your Momma’s looking for you.” I just stopped and looked at him. He said, “You know she’s going to whup your [banned term].” I didn’t think anything about that. I walked on. My Mom found me and eventually she did whip my [banned term]. Right before I was arrested, I had my shirt off. I walked into the bathroom and looked into the bathroom mirror. And I realized that I was the guy I saw that night.

P: Wow. You believe that everything that happens to us is predetermined somehow?

DE: I think reality operates like a computer. I think there are parts of our psyche that we never or almost never touch that have a hand in programming our reality or what we perceive as reality.

P: We make ourselves out to be smaller than we are.

DE: That’s a very good way of putting it. It’s tremendously important to practice and dedicate ourselves to so that we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again through ignorance or through losing awareness.

I think we are given the abilities to do a lot of things, say lucid dreaming,
for a reason. It’s not just for cheap entertainment. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that these are tools to help us prepare for death.

In my situation, that has really been driven home because in the time I’ve been here somewhere between twenty and twenty-five people have been executed. Whenever I have one of those days where I think I’d rather lay here and watch T.V., I think, is that really what you want to do or do you want to continue to get ready?

P: So you practice every day and try to make it new.

DE: Of course. There was one time after an execution when I could sense the energy patterns of the person who was executed. It was like he never knew he had been a person. It had no idea who it was, where it was, anything else. It was like leaves caught in a high wind, disintegrating, being blown in every direction.

P: Because he never laid claim to his life.

DE: Exactly. Experiencing that was horrifying.

P: You still have a connection with Roman Catholicism.

DE: I believe there are a lot of good things in it. One time when the priest put the Communion chalice in my hand, I realized as the wine touched my lips that not only was I tasting it, but it was tasting me. I realized that there was a sentient thing in my hand, that there was an intelligence in the wine. That’s why I go to Mass, for communion with that intelligence.

P: Can you say more?

DE: I just know that it was this huge, vast thing that made me feel tiny. It was like having an elephant open its eye and look directly at an ant.

P: Was it like meeting that Zen master?

DE: It was greater than that just because it wasn’t in human form. I was dealing with divinity face to face not in a human body but actual face to face contact.

P: Is there anything that you would like to add?

DE: Just that this is what I enjoy in life. This is what motivates me. Just even having conversations like this and exchanging ideas about these kinds of things. This is what I live for.
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PostSubject: Re: Damien Echols, the Memphis Three, and Zen in prison.....   Sat Aug 18, 2012 8:49 pm

from the New York Times -- this ran yesterday and is a full update on the situation of the Memphis Three.

August 17, 2012
West Memphis Three, a Year Out of Prison, Navigate New Paths
By KIM SEVERSON


ATLANTA — The list of things you learn about yourself when you get out of prison after 17 years is long: You’re allergic to shrimp, or you’re paralyzed by the choices in a grocery store or moved to tears by the softness of the night sky.

The men known as the West Memphis Three thought they would die in prison, linked forever as the torturers and killers of three young boys. They have been free for a year now, living as little more than acquaintances in a world flooded with possibilities.

Yet they are still linked, not only by a series of coming books and movies but by a legion of fervent supporters who hold them as a symbol of a flawed legal system.

“Honestly, we all lived through this horrible time in our own way and got through it differently, so now I guess we all have a different way of healing,” said Jason Baldwin, 35, who went into prison a quiet, heavy metal-loving teenager ready to start a job as a grocery store bagger and came out — much to the amazement of most people who meet him — a sweet, optimistic and slightly goofy man who wants to help people who have been wrongly accused.

Over the course of nearly two decades, their imprisonment grew into a much-examined narrative about wrongful conviction, class, conformity and the power of celebrity.

It ended last August in a legally awkward deal that had them declaring their innocence but pleading guilty to the murders while the State of Arkansas essentially admitted the evidence against them was weak but possibly viable.

On Saturday, supporters of the three will party on Beale Street in Memphis to mark the anniversary of their release. The three men will not be there.

In the year that has passed, their paths have crossed mostly for media events or awards.

Jessie Misskelley, 37 — then a hard-partying teenager with a low I.Q. and a penchant for fighting whose shaky confession led to their conviction in 1994 — headed back to his old Arkansas neighborhood to be near his father. He became engaged to a woman with two children and started to study auto mechanics.

Mr. Baldwin, who taught classes to other inmates while he served a life sentence, is working toward a law degree in Seattle. He is deeply in love with Holly Ballard, a longtime supporter who wrote and visited him regularly. He, Mr. Misskelley and Ms. Ballard are listed as executive producers on “Devil’s Knot,” a feature film that was shot in the Atlanta area over the summer.

Damien Echols, the brooding, charismatic star of the trio and the one who spent nearly two decades confined for 23 hours a day in a small cinder-block box on death row, could barely walk when he got out. Inside, he became a Zen Buddhist and married Lorri Davis, a Manhattan landscape architect who became the driver behind the effort to free him.

He moved to New York and wrote “Life After Death,” a memoir that will be released in September. He got matching tattoos with his friend Johnny Depp and spent time with Eddie Vedder, the Pearl Jam frontman who was a lead supporter for his release. He also helped make a documentary, “West of Memphis,” with the New Zealand filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.

And he learned about the power of social media, which did not exist when the men went in but which ultimately helped free them and continues to help Mr. Echols build a fan base.

“Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m actually out. That I actually survived,” he wrote this week in a Twitter message.

Who really committed the crime is still a mystery. Efforts of private investigators and lawyers and an avalanche of documentaries, investigative reports, books and the coming Hollywood movie, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth and directed by Atom Egoyan, all point to one version of the truth: whoever it was, it was not these three.

Supporters, including some of the parents of the second-grade boys who were killed in 1993, want the case reopened. The men’s lawyers and supporters keep pushing for Arkansas’s governor, Mike Beebe, to pardon them, which a spokesman said he was unlikely to do.

“This has so far been a very cynical and unsatisfactory end to a sinister prosecution,” said Mara Leveritt, an Arkansas journalist who wrote “Devil’s Knot,” the 2002 best-selling book that examined how an overmatched defense and what she called “satanic panic” led to the convictions.

She is working on a new book about them, and her original book is becoming the movie. Mr. Firth plays an investigator, Ron Lax, and Ms. Witherspoon stars as Pam Hicks, the mother of Steven Branch, one of the boys who was found naked in a drainage ditch, bound with his own shoelaces.

Ms. Hicks, who still lives in Arkansas, became deeply connected to the producer, Elizabeth Fowler, who spent nearly a decade trying to get the movie made. The two prayed together and cried together.

Ms. Hicks also spent time showing Ms. Witherspoon around the old neighborhood and watching the movie being shot, worrying that the pregnant actor was too hot in the Southern humidity.

Having a movie made about the most horrific thing to ever happen to you is kind of weird, Ms. Hicks said, “but I’ve been talking about it since Day 1, so it was a method of therapy for me.”

Ms. Hicks has never been able to see the evidence in the case, including her son’s bicycle, so she filed a suit this month against the West Memphis Police Department and city officials.

Like most of the people in the West Memphis area, Ms. Hicks first thought the teenagers were devil worshipers. But now she and the stepfather of Chris Byers, another victim, believe someone else committed the crimes.

On the top of her list is her former husband, Terry Hobbs, whose DNA matched a hair that was found in one of the knots used to tie the boys. Mr. Hobbs, who lives in Memphis, has repeatedly denied it, and the police say he is not a suspect.

Todd Moore, the father of one of the boys, has also insisted that no one other than the West Memphis Three had anything to do with the boys’ deaths. Those who think otherwise, he has said, are buying the hype that years of celebrity attention and an estimated $10 million or more in legal and investigative work can buy.

Scott Ellington, the prosecutor who negotiated the plea arrangement and is running for Congress, said that his office was working on material provided by the men’s lawyers but that he had not seen anything definitive.

“You don’t have dot to dot to dot,” he said. “And that’s what we need if we were to reopen the case.”

Still, he said he was willing to do that if such evidence appeared. “I’m man enough to present that evidence to a judge and let the judge decide.”

He has seen “West of Memphis,” but you will not see him in line for “Devil’s Knot,” and he does not plan to buy a copy of the third installment of the HBO documentary series called “Paradise Lost,” the first of which, produced in 1996, the men credit with ultimately bringing their freedom.

How much the men will support one another’s projects going forward is unclear.

Mr. Echols hated that he was portrayed as a blood-drinking devil in the original script for “Devil’s Knot,” and pushed for changes, said Lonnie Soury, a New York publicist who became part of his defense team. Then, in his book, Mr. Echols criticized Mr. Baldwin for not immediately accepting the deal, saying Mr. Baldwin had grown to love prison and was acting as if he was morally superior.

That hurt Mr. Baldwin, who initially did not want to admit to something he says he did not do, preferring to take a chance on an upcoming hearing to examine new evidence that would have probably included DNA samples and charges of juror misconduct.

But as the short timeline on the offer approached, he became convinced that Mr. Echols would not survive much longer.

“I didn’t take the deal for me,” he said. “I took it for Damien.”

The two currently are not speaking. Those around them hope the rift will heal.

“Part of the downside of the Hollywood thing is there are so many people who claim this,” Mr. Soury said. “They want to own Damien and Jessie and Jason. Part of their struggle was trying to take back their lives and own their story.”
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PostSubject: Re: Damien Echols, the Memphis Three, and Zen in prison.....   Sat Aug 18, 2012 8:52 pm

A Roshi on the Row - from Shambhala Sun - 2001 - so over 10 years ago

by Kobutsu Malone

Kobutsu Malone takes Shodo Harada Roshi on an unprecedented visit to Arkansas death row, where two condemned men now practice Zen. One of them, Damien Echols — subject of the hbo documentary “Paradise Lost”— is believed by many to be innocent.


This story begins, in a way, with the execution of Jusan Frankie Parker. Actually, it begins long before he was executed, in his more than eight years of intense practice while he was on death row of the Arkansas Department of Corrections in the prison known as Tucker-Max. This story is about the legacy of this remarkable human being, himself a killer, who by his own efforts transcended his karma through the practice of zazen while awaiting the executioner’s needle.

Frankie Parker affected many lives from his cell, both inside and outside of prison. Our present story involves two condemned prisoners who were inspired by him, and the abbot of a three-hundred-year-old Japanese Rinzai Zen Monastery .

I first met Damien Echols and Jack Jones on August 9, 1996, the day after Frankie Parker was executed. That morning, I had gone to the mortuary to perform a chanting ceremony over Frankie’s body and remove his mala and rakusu before his body was placed in the oven for cremation. I was really shaken when I lifted his head up to remove the rakusu; his head was stone-cold and lifeless, the same head I had held in a loving parting embrace the night before. Immediately after his body was placed in the oven, I did three prostrations on the floor of the mortuary. I will always remember the gritty feeling on my knees and hands from the ash and bone fragments of previous cremations.

Back at Tucker-Max, I was taken into the warden’s office and given Frankie’s ordination robe. Warden Morgan was accommodating and he gave me permission to visit with the men on death row and reassure them that Frankie had died in a brave and dignified manner. Being “on the row” was a new experience for me. I moved from cell to cell, visiting with each man, shaking hands, exchanging a few words. Many of them were very pleased to see me and expressed their condolences. Some cried openly. Passing Frankie’s empty cell, I could see for the first time where he had lived, where he had written us, where he had practiced.

Frankie had specifically asked me to see Damien Echols, Jack Jones and a few others. Damien’s is a famous death penalty case, involving an horrific crime and a controversial trial. He was convicted of leading two other teenagers in the brutal murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The case has been the subject of two documentary films, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills “and this fall’s “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, which raise profound doubts about the guilt of those convicted and the fairness of the trials.

I found Damien standing in the middle of the cell, his long black hair cascading over his shoulders. I immediately felt his intensity and presence, and I was struck by how young he was, very close in age to my own son. Damien appeared distracted, obviously upset over Frankie’s death, but he was cordial and pleased to see me.

Meeting Jack Jones was a moment of real import. He had committed a rape and murder, but his deep sense of connection to Frankie was obvious. Although I did not hear from Damien for some time, Jack and I developed an on-going correspondence over the following months, and periodically I would send him some Buddhist books and literature. Jack shared them with Damien and over time Damien developed an interest in Buddhism. When I visited Tucker-Max last year, I was amazed at how Damien had changed and how open he had become to the dharma. Our correspondence increased and we have had an intense relationship ever since.

I spoke to many people about Frankie Parker and the experience of witnessing his murder in the Arkansas “death chamber.” My friend Kyogen Carlson, abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, talked about Frankie to the Venerable Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogen-Ji monastery in Okayama, Japan. Harada Roshi was deeply moved by Frankie’s story and he repeated it often in lectures and formal teishos.

It was through this connection that Harada Roshi invited me to Sogen-Ji to teach and also offer some lectures on the death penalty for the Japanese people. In return for this profound honor, I invited Harada Roshi to visit the Arkansas death row to serve as the preceptor for a Jukai lay ordination ceremony for Jack Jones and Damien Echols. For almost six months I corresponded with Harada Roshi about his visit to the Arkansas death row, or pilgrimage as he referred to it. There were countless difficulties to overcome but arrangements were successfully made with the prison authorities. On September 19, Harada Roshi was given unprecedented access to the Arkansas death row.

The day of the visit, Harada Roshi’s flight was due in at the Memphis airport at 11:45 AM. We wouldn’t have much time to rent a car and then drive the 156 miles to Tucker, Arkansas, the former plantation town which is home to the Tucker-Max Unit. I packed my “traveling zendo” kit, a black detail case that I’d dragged into dozens of penitentiaries over the years. It contained a Buddha image, bell and clappers, altar cloths, incense burner with makeshift polyethylene cover fastened with a rubber band, incense, charcoal and other supplies used for performing various ceremonies.

I downed coffee with my compadre Dakota Rowland, not a Buddhist but someone with truly remarkable intuitive insight. She, a revolutionary social justice worker and prison abolitionist. I, Irish-American renegade Zen priest with a checkered past. Both of us broke. We were unable to rent a vehicle due to lack of funds or a credit card, so we had to take the airport shuttle and rely on our friends from Japan to take care of the vehicle rental.

We arrived at the gate with about twenty minutes to spare and I was feeling nervous. I had never met Harada Roshi and had very little information about him, only a few descriptions from some friends who had studied with him. Universally, they had told me that Harada Roshi was a very powerful teacher, known as a “master’s master.”

Finally Harada Roshi walked through the ramp door, and my apprehension evaporated instantly at the sight of him. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and bowed deeply as he approached. Finishing my bow, I looked straight at him and found him smiling with great intensity. I could feel a tremendous warmth emanating from him. He shook my hand American-style, said “Hello,” and told me how pleased he was to see me. I sensed immediately a deep karmic connection with him. We were all smiling and felt good about being together, preparing to travel into the “belly of the beast.”

Leaving Memphis in our rented van, the first town we encountered in Arkansas was West Memphis, where the three eight-year-old boys had been murdered in a wooded area just a few yards from the I-40. As we approached the area known as the “Robin Hood Hills” woods, I pointed it out to our guests.

Dakota had a lot to say about the history of slavery and oppression that permeated the South and spoke on these topics as the miles of Mississippi Delta farmland rolled by. This conversation led naturally to the blatant racism of the present prison system, the spread of “private” prisons run by big corporations, the death penalty, and the horrific incarceration rate in America. Harada Roshi spoke about the death penalty in Japan, the secrecy surrounding its application, and the isolation of death row prisoners.

As we entered the town of Tucker, we encountered a sign informing us that we were entering a penitentiary area and should not pick up hitchhikers. As we came into view of the Tucker-Max facility, we were assaulted by the sight of modern slavery—rows of prisoners clad in “prison whites” toiling with hoes at the roadside, overseen by armed guards on horses.

We were met at the reception building by Chaplain Norman McFall. Each one of us had to walk through a full-body metal detector and the items in my “Zendo kit” were examined and checked off against the master list I had provided months before. All was in order and we were pleased that there was no objection to bringing in our disposable cameras.

Tucker-Max is a relatively modern prison, with air conditioning in the cell blocks and general areas. This is a far cry from many other prison facilities in the South, in which the heat sometimes reaches a hundred and twenty degrees in the upper tiers. As our group walked down the ten-meter-wide main corridor toward the “Five Pod,” death row, we were scrutinized by prisoners and guards alike. How strange we must have appeared—Roshi, Chisan, the female Zen priest serving as his translator, and I in monastic garb, and Dakota in a bright, flowered, short-sleeved shirt. Dakota was concentrating on acknowledging as many prisoners as possible. Just by smiling, waving and making eye contact, she was reaching out in solidarity to them. Their response was in-kind and appreciative. Whether it’s through a formal Buddhist ceremony or just a smile, the indomitable human spirit shines through.

We arrived at the death row pod. We were now in “the belly of the belly of the beast”—three tiers of steel cages designed without compromise to hold human beings in isolation from the community and each other. I turned to Roshi and told him that every man in this unit had been condemned to death. I pointed out Jusan Frankie Parker’s cell, where he had lived and practiced for so many years. We saw Jack first, standing at his cell door, wearing his wagesa refuge sash and smiling. Looking around, we spotted Damien on the second tier at the far end of the unit.

The guards began their preparations, handcuffing Jack and Damien before opening their cell doors. The prisoners were brought out to the pod floor, where leg irons were applied to their ankles and double-security lock boxes were placed over their already double-locked handcuffs. I was pleased to be able to introduce both men to Harada Roshi, Dakota and Chisan. Damien and Jack bowed deeply to us all and were profoundly moved. They had both been looking forward to this day for many, many months.

We were allowed to enter a very small chapel room situated just off the floor level of death row. Damien and Jack had brought their Sutra books with them for the ceremony; I made a brief introductory statement and our meeting began. Jack presented Harada Roshi with a beautiful hand-made box covered in Japanese-style pen and ink drawings. Damien presented a hand-made box to me and gave both Roshi and me rosaries as gifts.

I asked them, “What do you think, how do you feel?” Jack replied to Roshi, “I am very, very nervous. I don’t know what to say to you because I am just so nervous.”

Damien, addressing Roshi, said, “I have been waiting so long to talk to you. I am so sorry because I wanted to ask this and that, a hundred questions, and now that I am with you my head is a complete blank. I am so sorry, please excuse me.”

Jack then asked Roshi, “What do you think of this place?” Roshi responded, “This place has an incredible sharpness. There is a very concentrated atmosphere here.” Jack said, “Yes, this is a very concentrated place. Every single day in here, every instant, is this whole world.”

Roshi responded, “Yes, I have thirty students, and for all of them, the most important point is each and every moment being the only moment there is.” To which Jack answered, “Yes, for us there is no time whatsoever here. I read many books but there is nothing in those books which compares to the depth that is in this one moment. It is because of my certain death that I have been able to realize this. If it were not for the fact that I am in these circumstances, this would never have become clear to me. Every day I do zazen and it is the most important part of my day. Every day I do zazen on my bed facing the wall.”

Just prior to leaving the small chapel room, I asked Chaplain McFall if it would be possible for Harada Roshi to take a look in Jack’s cell so that he could see how he lived. The Chaplain asked the ranking guard and we were granted permission to visit Jack’s cell, which was close to the chapel room at ground level.

As we walked over to the cell, I jokingly mentioned to Roshi that we had arranged for him to have an extended visit, and gestured for him to enter first. He responded to my joke with his broad smile. We entered Jack’s cell and looked around. It was a small space with a narrow vertical slit window which admitted some natural light. There was a narrow bunk bed with a thin mattress and a writing desk with built-in chair next to it. The front wall of the cell had a small stainless steel toilet/sink appliance. It enabled the commode to be used with the prisoner facing into the cell but still enabled anyone outside the cell to observe the prisoner at all times. There was no corner of the cell which could not be seen from the barred cell door.

Jack had a small shrine set up on his desk and mounted on a piece of cardboard over his desk were photographs of his two boys and pictures of a woman he writes to in Holland. We all looked at the photos and Jack explained who they were. It was, I am sure, a truly unusual event to be taking place on death row. Two large guards stood by at the door of the cell, keeping an eye on everything that was taking place. Finishing our tour of death row, we returned through the security sally port to the main hall. My black bag “Zendo kit” had been placed in the visiting room for the Jukai ceremony. We were admitted through a barred gate and Damien and Jack were escorted in. There were windows on both sides of the long visiting room and there were people we had not seen before behind them, watching us as we entered.

I chose one of the visit cubicles directly on the spot where Frankie had received Jukai four and a half years earlier, and began setting up an altar for the ceremony. I had purchased a supply of extra fine jinko, an extremely expensive and rare natural wood incense. Our altar consisted of a carved wooden Buddha, a ceramic incense burner, a ceramic water offering bowl, a candlestick and white candle, a small hand bell and a larger inkin meditation bell, and two shiki-shi calligraphic pieces done by Harada Roshi as gifts for Jack and Damien. Harada Roshi had also brought from Japan two beautifully made rakusus, inscribed with their new dharma names. I had made rings for the vestments from pieces of spaltered maple harvested from the forest surrounding Dai Bosatsu Zendo, my home temple in Livingston Manor, New York.

I gave a Jukai exhortation written by the Venerable Eido Roshi based on the Dharmapada. (It was a dog-eared copy of the Dharmapada, thrown with contempt on the floor of an isolation cell in “the hole,” that with its first reading changed Frankie Parker’s life so profoundly.) Jack, Damien, Roshi and I offered incense and we chanted the Purification, the Three Fundamental Precepts, the Three Refuges, and the Ten Precepts.

Harada Roshi explained the dharma names he was giving to the two men and presented each with a black rakusu. Damien received the name Koson, meaning “Searching for the Light.” Jack received the name Dainin, meaning “Great Patient Forbearance.” We chanted The Four Great Vows for All in Japanese and in English, I made a closing remark, and our ceremony was complete.

As the others gathered around Roshi afterward and talked, I took Damien and Jack aside for a few personal words. This was the first opportunity I had had in more than eight months to see them in private. We walked to the end of the corridor, being certain to remain in the sight of the four guards, and I chatted with each one for a few minutes. I asked them to write an account of the encounter while it was fresh in their minds.

Chaplain McFall had many questions for Roshi. He asked why we shaved our heads. Roshi responded, “To remind us that we really want nothing.” I couldn’t resist rubbing my own head and commenting, “How come I still want a Harley Davidson?” We all laughed.

It was hard saying goodbye. Jack and Damien both bowed deeply and embraced Harada Roshi as we parted.

On the way out of the unit we were delayed waiting for a security gate to open. We noticed the prison shoeshine shop and saw a black prisoner intently shining an officer’s boot. I said to him, “Shining the man’s boots, huh?” He said, “Yep!” and I said to him, “Be sure to give them a spit and polish shine—heavy on the spit.” We all cracked up over this, no harm was done, the boots got shined, and three people experienced a brief moment of solidarity. We left the facility, the hoe squads long brought in and locked down. We headed for a meal, and got back on the road to Memphis. Our trip back was quieter. Roshi took notes in the back; I drove the miles of darkened interstate. The next morning at the airport, Harada Roshi said to me that he would come back. I felt relieved, because I knew he had been affected by what he had seen and that through this man true dharma would flow into “the belly of the beast.”

The remarkable teaching of this experience was that there is an alternative to death row. Death rows and prisons do not exist in a vacuum. When we ourselves do not live in a state of sustainable harmony with each other and our surroundings, we perpetuate oppression. Harada Roshi’s pilgrimage to death row is an invitation to all of us to “Wake up!”, to look deeply and see things clearly, to walk on the path of the awakened state of mind in solidarity with our sisters and brothers.

Words cannot convey the intense personal pain, degradation, torment and torture that are experienced daily in our prisons. Inevitably, some of you reading these words will at some point find yourselves in prison, experiencing the horror firsthand. Any one of us could find ourselves accused, convicted and sent to prison at any time. So let’s rid ourselves of any notion that it’s “them” in prison, and “us” out here. Ain’t like that.

Kobutsu Malone, Zenji, is a Rinzai Zen priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage. He is a co-founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation, which fosters meditative practice in prisons and develops monastic alternative sentencing/post-release programs. The Engaged Zen Foundation can be contacted at Post Office Box 700, Ramsey, NJ 07446.


A Roshi on the Row, Kobutsu Malone, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.
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chisanmichaelhughes

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PostSubject: Re: Damien Echols, the Memphis Three, and Zen in prison.....   Sun Aug 19, 2012 2:33 pm

Interesting article thought provoking for sure,especially as over here Winnie Johnson has just died.


Winnie Johnson was the mother of Keith Bennett, a young boy that was murdered by Ian Brady,back in the 60s Keith was one of several children murdered and buried on Saddleworth Moor.
Young Keith's body was never found, and his mum died unable to give Keith a Christian funeral. Ian Brady is in a secure hospital.
I met someone who was in Durham prison when Ian Brady was there,when the other prisoners found out the details of the deaths they relentlessly tried to attack him.

I spent some time with Christopher Craig on his first night out,again Christopher Craig had shot a policeman and his young accomplish Derek Bentley was the one hung, as Craig was too young to face capital punishment. Christmas Humphreys was the presiding judge.
Well done for all the people who try to help people in prison,maybe sometimes they can be helped and sometimes they can't.


However this week end I have thought a lot about Winnie Johnson,and I send her my love and compassion.
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