Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Dhamma Brothers: East Meets West in the Deep South

I heard Jenny Phillips, the author of The Dhamma Brothers (book and documentary) on Oprah's Soul Series podcast. So interesting!! Especially in light of my new profession.

Phillips is a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist who helped start and then documented a program at Donaldson Correction Facility (a maximum-security prison in Alabama) where a group of prisoners participated in an intense 10-day Vipassana meditation course.

"Along with her crew, Ms. Phillips documented the process: cushions and sleeping mats were laid down in a Donaldson gym, where the participating prisoners meditated in complete isolation. Convicts serving life sentences for gruesome crimes focused on their breath, much like the Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago."
from NY Times Article Staring at Death, and Finding Their Bliss

The initial group had a 20% reduction in disciplinary histories and were better able to control their anger and conduct themselves. After the course ended, the group continued to meditate but months later the program was halted after the prison chaplain complained about it. Phillips was no longer allowed to film but continued to correspond with the inmates and their letters to her are in the book (Letters from the Dhamma Brothers). Three years later the administration changed and the program was allowed to proceed again.

I really, really want to read the book and see the movie now. My library has neither. A local spiritualist church sometimes shows films like this and I think this one would fit right in with the kinds of things they do so I suggested it. I hope they get it so I can go see it! Or I could buy the DVD for $20 LOL. I want to read the book first though. Along with Phillips, Oprah had two of the inmates on the program. It was just so interesting, but too short - just enough to make me want to know more!

From the Official Site (includes dates/locations of screenings): The Dhamma Brothers: East Meets West in the Deep South
"In interviews immediately before the Vipassana retreat, the men openly express fear and trepidation, wondering what they will find when they look deeply within and face the consequences of past actions and trauma.

They are shown packing their scant belongings and preparing for the journey inside, a very short walk down the prison corridor but a sea change in their lives as prisoners. We observe the transformation of the prison gym, a frequent site for violent battles among inmates, into a monastery, a separate, restricted place in which the inmate students can eat, sleep, and meditate in total seclusion from the rest of prison society. The Vipassana teachers, Bruce and Jonathan, prepare to live and meditate with the inmates. Teachers and inmates, men from culturally different worlds, are locked together in a dramatically revealing process. This is, most likely, the first time non-inmates have ever lived among inmates inside a prison. We follow the men day to day on the retreat. Seated on meditation mats on a red rug donated by the Warden, wrapped in navy blue blankets, the men sit still in silence as they journey inside. Their days are punctuated by a strict daily routine of eating, sleeping and

In individual interviews after the Vipassana retreat, the men tell their tales of pain and self-discovery. During group interviews, the spiritual warriors of Donaldson Correctional Facility discuss their collective experiences and vow to try to maintain their nascent sense of solidarity. In the nameless, faceless anonymity of prison life, where daily life is organized around social control and punishment, Vipassana has offered an alternative social identity based on brotherhood and spiritual development."


  1. That sounds really awesome.

    It's great when a religion can do something positive like that.

  2. It is cool isn't it? It's not actually a religion though. More like a technique. I don't believe the prisoners became buddhists, they just learned to meditate. Although now I do wonder what their religious beliefs are and how they may have changed after this experience.