The Iron Lotus Rises: FCI Petersburg’s Buddhist Community Celebrates Buddha Day

The Iron Lotus Rises: FCI Petersburg’s Buddhist Community Celebrates Buddha Day

Buddha Day, 2013. The air was warm, and the mood was Eastern. Not Eastern as in a New England college, but as in ancient Eastern medicine. The kind a shaman or a mystic would practice. Picture a monk waving sage in the air to dispel any dark spirits, and you’d get the right idea. A significant departure from my traditional Judeo-Christian roots, to say the least. This was to be the day that I would either visit a pagan worship service or celebrate a holy day, depending on who you are, the former if you are a fundamentalist Christian, the latter if you’re a Buddhist.

At 10:30 AM, I made my way to the Chapel at FCI Petersburg — a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia — for an event that I had been invited to, a celebratory meal and gathering celebrating Buddha Day. The day Buddhists celebrate the birth, life, and enlightenment of the Buddha. FCI Petersburg’s Buddhist community, the Iron Lotus Sangha, sponsored the event in collaboration with the FCI Petersburg Chapel.

Upon arriving at the FCI Petersburg Chapel, I was greeted by what appeared to be an odd assortment of characters for a prison gathering, where races tend to segregate themselves. There were Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, a man who appeared to be from Pakistan, and even a group of tough-looking Asians with tattoos covering their faces and bulging muscles. The group of Asians appeared to be led by a short, hunched-over fellow who further helped to emphasize the mystic feeling.

The service was to be held in the side chapel, a smaller room generally used for the “lesser” religions, as some have accused the administration of FCI Petersburg of denoting. The larger Chapel room was in use by a group of inmates who were making repairs to the ceiling. Throughout the gathering, we would hear the sounds of drills, hammers, and pipes being laid. A less than idyllic setting for a Buddhist gathering, to say the least.

This day of celebration had been in the works for months. As far back as December the plans were formalized and presented to the head Chaplain. And as the time came close, excitement was in the air. And when the day for the service arrived, when the excitement had reached a crescendo, it was canceled, due to staff failure of ordering the proper food for the ceremonial meal. In fact, even the true Buddha Day, a day of work proscription, got botched due to Chapel staff’s failure to put any of the Buddhists on the idle list, so that they would not have to go to work on their holy day. Instead, many of the Buddhists at FCI Petersburg were called to the Lieutenant’s Office on their most holy day to be interrogated about why they did not go to work. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and incident reports were not issued.  But Buddhists are not angry sorts, anyhow; many felt that while unfortunate, it happened for a reason.

A week later, the delayed day of celebration was held. The gathering took off with a series of photos. There were various individual shots, group segments, and the whole Buddhist gathering. All of this, in front of a magnificent (or perhaps the word majestic is the right one) altar. Hanging on the wall were several thangkas, colorful tapestries of deities, and there were several miniature golden statues and other relics. And before this altar were large, black pillows (zabutons, I was told, of Japanese origin) to sit upon. In a showing of solidarity amongst the various racial groups, extra picture tickets — the $1 tickets required to have a picture taken — were purchased by those who had more for those who had less. On this day, everyone who wanted to have a photo taken had a photo taken. The Buddhist community would not allow their brothers to go without.

After the greetings and photos, we sat to watch a video called Little Buddha. This was the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, before he was, well, before he became the Buddha. We learned of the son of a king who never knew sadness. We learned of his earthly enlightenment when he learned of sorrow, pain, sickness, and death. These things he had been sheltered from. And we watched as he went into a self-induced exile. We saw the man who was to become the Buddha starve, need, and go without. And we learned, as he learned, what the goal of true spirituality is: the middle way. As the story went on, there was also a tale (based on fact) of the reincarnation of a high lama, some of the search taking place in Seattle of all places. Three children were selected as potential candidates. And, eventually, it comes to be known that all three are part of the lama’s manifestation, are all different parts of the whole.

As a non-Buddhist, I learned much, as I always do when invited to these Buddhist gatherings. Even my Christian upbringing and study can’t help but find the study of Buddhism to be enchanting and very surreal, and how the practitioners of this religion, even in federal prison, are true believers who practice what, well, what they don’t preach, but what they believe. These prison Buddhists do not subscribe to “prison religion” or “jailhouse religion” as those who engage in showy rituals and speeches of their pureness and study. Instead, they are advised to show through works and to never make a public display of their religiosity since that cheapens their faith.

After the movie, we made our way to the FCI Petersburg chow hall, where all, but one of us, was served two giant trays of food. The one who did not receive a tray was a Buddhist but had either forgotten to submit his name for the meal or had some error occur on the part of the prison staff. Other Buddhists took food off of their own trays and gave it to their Buddhist brother. Again, no one would go without. Ironically, the non-Buddhist inmate who was taking the photos — a man who bumped off the other photo taker, a friend of the sangha, by complaining that he was not the one to take the photos — was able to procure a tray. Rightly so, this inmate sat with the prison guards. In my not-so-accepting opinion, no one would have felt right with him sitting with one of us, even those of us who were invited, but were not Buddhists. Even the kitchen workers were able to obtain trays of what was left over after the approved eaters finished their meals.

The food truly was magnificent. There was roast duck, chicken, fish, grilled cabbage, fried rice, beans, a banana, and even pumpkin pie. It was perhaps the best meal I’ve ever had since coming to prison 7 years ago. I left more than pleased. I left content. This would be a meal that I would remember. The Land of Never Enough had become the Land of Plenty, if only for a brief moment in time.

Looking back at the celebratory meal and gathering, I realize that I’ve experienced something almost unique. Prison life is a life of strife. Racial tensions are real problems and manifest themselves daily. Religious tensions, too. In fact, there are some religious services that I, as a white prisoner, would not be welcome in due to the color of my skin. But on this day, the day I was invited to the Buddhist gathering and celebratory meal, I was welcome. So were those of all other races, religions, and creeds. There is an ancient Buddhist saying that declares when the iron bird flies, there will be true freedom. On this day, the Iron Lotus Sangha rose, and I’m proud to say that I was a witness to it.