By Shyamal Sinha
Buddhism is a religion and dharma that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spi ritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism originated in Ancient India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, from where it spread through much of Asia, whereafter it declined in Indiaduring the Middle Ages. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada (Pali: “The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (Sanskrit: “The Great Vehicle”). Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion, with over 520 million followers or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists.
For the past three years, Buddhism has been the fastest-growing religion among prisoners in Scottish prisons. Data recently obtained via a Freedom of Information request, shows that 22 prisoners registered their religion as Buddhism in the past three years.
Prison chiefs could not say where these prisoners are housed or how many were Buddhist before 2014, however they do believe that the number has significantly increased over the past three years.
It is so far unclear why the convicts converted to Buddhism. As once source noted: “It was a surprise to see so many cons professing their belief in a peaceful religion about karma and love. In the past, inmates have said they were Jewish or Muslim to get better food but it’s hard to see what’s behind the sudden surge in popularity of Buddhism.” However, it has been suggested that Buddhism might help the convicts come to terms with their incarceration and being removed from society, and the usual material pursuits. (Daily Record)
Buddhism has also been the fastest-growing religion in English prisons in the last decade, and many organizations are now teaching mindfulness-based meditation programs to prisoners, including Angulimala; a Buddhist prison chaplaincy organization in the UK, with the stated objective:
To make available facilities for the teaching and practice of Buddhism in Her Majesty’s Prisons and other places of lawful detention or custody, specifically:
1. To recruit and advise a team of Buddhist visiting chaplains to be available as soon as there is a call for their services;
2. To act in an advisory capacity, and to liaise with the Home Office chaplaincy officials with individuals’ chaplains within her majesty’s prisons, and with any other relevant bodies or officials; and
3. To provide an aftercare and advisory service for prisoners after release. (Angulimala)
The name Angulimala comes from the Buddhist sutras. Angulimala was a robber and murderer whose name was derived from the garland he made of his victims’ fingers, which he wore around his neck (Angulimala literally means “finger garland”). One day, the Buddha passed by and Angulimala tried to chase the Buddha to kill him, but could not catch up, even though the Buddha was walking at his usual pace. After some time, Angulimala stopped in his tracks and shouted, “Stop!” at the Buddha. To which the Buddha responded that he had already stopped—he had stopped harming and killing and told Angulimala that now it was his turn to “stop.”
These words struck Angulimala to the extent that he did indeed “stop.” He threw down his weapons and followed the Buddha, becoming a monk and eventually attaining enlightenment. It is from this parable that the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organization in England takes its name. (Community of Interbeing)
British monk Venerable Khemadhammo founded Angulimala in 1985, and has since introduced Buddhism to more than 100 prisons throughout England, and since 1999 to numerous prisons in Scotland. According to Venerable Khemadhammo, it is not only prisoners who are imprisoned; everyone, including monastics, is imprisoned by their own greed, ignorance, prejudices, aversione, and attachments.
“It was my belief then, as it is now, that Buddhist techniques equip us with the means to escape that imprisonment and enjoy a secure and lasting peace,” said Venerable Khemadhammo. (Bangkok Post)
Dick Allen, a former prison chaplain with Angulimala who had been visiting prisons for nine years, observed that in his experience Angulimala helps not only the prisoners, but also Buddhists on the outside. Working for the organization and visiting the prisons has helped Allen along the path, and no doubt the activities of Angulimala will be a source of inspiration for many others. (Community of Interbeing.
Buddhism has spread across the world, and Buddhist texts are increasingly translated into local languages. While in the West Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East it is regarded as familiar and traditional. In countries such as Cambodia and Bhutan, it is recognized as the state religion and receives government support. In certain regions such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, Buddhist monuments have been targets of violence and destruction.