Teaching Instead of Punishing

University of the West's outreach program offers inmates classes on meditation and Buddhism

Published : Wednesday, August 5, 2015 | 12:30 PM

Most, if not all, prison inmates face difficulties coping with a life far removed from the world of their families and loved ones. Some are tortured souls, begging for answers.

Buddhist-centric University of the West professors and students understand the need for meditation, awareness, and enlightenment in dreary life situations. This is precisely why they established Engaged Buddhist Alliance (EBA), which provides college-level classes on Buddhism to individuals incarcerated in state prisons.

University of the West adjunct professor of Buddhist Studies Dr. Lewis Lancaster originally proposed the teaching idea. It was quickly accepted and a number of students and professors volunteered to make it happen.

John Freese, a member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, explains more about EBA’s teaching arm.

“We’re using [this method] called contemplative pedagogy which was developed by a man named Hal Roth from Brown University. It’s teaching third person study of religion. Third person study means normal academic study [and it's] not requiring any kind of conversion. They don’t have to become Buddhist.”

Volunteers teach everything from history of Buddhism to actual Buddhist teachings, like the Four Noble Truths. The program has been ongoing for a year and a half.

While they don’t offer college credits, inmates get certificates of completion, “which they can put in their file. It’s helpful for their official record and, perhaps, towards their release,” Freese says.

The inmates, addressed as “students” by the UWest volunteers, have developed a more keen understanding of their situation.

Freese says, “A lot of them start doing mindfulness practice and end up understanding themselves better. [The teachings] help them observe reflective awareness of what’s happening in their lives, to be able to live in the present moment and have a calm, reflective awareness of what they’re experiencing.”

Apart from teaching, EBA also provides meditating classes in the county jail in downtown LA and is developing a correspondence program for inmates.

“We’re also exploring partnerships with local community organizations to help re-entry when, say, one of our students gets released. We want a network of people to help them with re-entry into the community,” he adds.

And if, one day, one of the students gets released and wants to study or work in UWest?

“We’re looking at the possibility of helping somebody do that,” Freese says.

University of the West is located at 1409 S. Walnut Grove Ave., Rosemead. For more information, call (626) 571-8811 or visit www.uwest.edu.

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