Jeff Green | Feb 05, 2009
Back to HomeFeature Article - February 5, 2009 Teaching from the outside inBy Julie Druker
Photo: Liberation Prison Project volunteer teacher Lynn Swadchuk
Lynn Shwadchuk began teaching in 2005. She has 14 students, all from the United States, and she has yet to meet one in person. She doesn’t teach in a classroom but instead works from her home near Sharbot Lake.
Lynn works as a volunteer teacher for the Liberation Prison Project (LPP). Her students are all prisoners currently incarcerated in US jails. All of her students have shown an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Lynn, who’s been practicing Tibetan Buddhism herself for 12 years, corresponds with them by email answering their queries and sharing her own experiences.
The LLP is a not for profit organization and social services project affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Begun in 1996, the LPP’s mission is to, “offer spiritual advice and teachings as well as books and materials to people in prison interested in exploring, studying and practicing Buddhism.”
Based in San Francisco and the Australian Blue Mountains and with branches in Spain, Mexico and Mongolia, the program has served over 20,000 prisoners around the world.
Prisoners become aware of the program through other inmates, a visiting teacher or from a newsletter or book that they pick up at the prison library. Once interested, they write to the foundation and are set up with a volunteer teacher.
Lynn remembers first volunteering with the LLP as a pen pal. She recalled, “ A notice went out that they had more than enough pen pals but not nearly enough teachers, so some of us were asked to teach.”
Lynn’s students are living in prisons in Michigan, Texas and California. Most prisoners involved in the program are incarcerated men, estranged from their families, and many with histories of drug and alcohol abuse.
The LLP'S founder, a Buddhist nun, The Venerable Robina Courtin, describes the men as people, “whose needs are strong if not desperate, who are clearly in situations where they have little or no power to control their own lives. How could we not help?”
The project came about in 1996 when Ven. Robina received a letter from a young prisoner, Arturo Esquer, serving 3 life sentences at Pelican Bay, a maximum security prison in California. He’d read a publication titled “Introduction to Tantra” and wrote to the foundation wanting to learn more.
Ven. Robina responded, sent him books and magazines and upon his request she visited him in prison. Arturo’s cellmate then began writing Ven. Robina. By 1997 she was corresponding with 40 prisoners. By 2000 the project became official.
Lynn explained the founder‘s philosophy. “She (Robina) doesn’t really expect us to be scholarly teachers. Her philosophy is based on the fact that any prisoner who has someone outside the prison to write to is 6 times less likely to reoffend when he gets out.”
Lynn is currently teaching some of Robina’s original students. Asked of the challenges involved, Lynn explained, “You know, there is nothing hard about it. It’s so satisfying. I’ve seen guys overcome their anger and that’s the main great thing.”
Do you speak about personal things? “Oh yeah….but there’s no question…. I always make sure that I try to apply some dharma (teaching) to what we are talking about.”
Lynn has studied with the Dalai Lama and especially enjoys sharing those experiences with her students. “That’s something where they feel ‘Wow! I’m like one degree of separation away from the Dalai Lama’ and then they tell their buddies. I also pass on whatever I‘m reading or studying and I feed it to them and then they feel in touch”.
Lynn continued, “Aside from that, they just become friends, real pen pals so they tell me all of the awful stuff that is happening to them. It’s often not very just. It’s pretty rough”. She adds, “The ones who’ve been studying dharma for years, their attitude is that they are actually making their lives meaningful.”
Lynn tears a quote from the bottom of a piece of the Foundation letterhead on which all letters to the prisoners are sent. Written by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head monk at the FPMT, the quote reads, “Physically in the house of no release, but when the mind is practicing Dharma it becomes the house for achieving ultimate real liberation from the real samsaric prison.“
Thanks to the LLP and volunteer teachers like Lynn, there is hope for prisoners who are looking for ways to improve their minds and their lives from the inside out. For more information on the Liberation Prison Project please visit www.liberationprisonproject.org or watch the award winning documentary called "Chasing Buddha: life is not a sentence" about the project and its founder the venerable Robina Courtin.