Saturday, May 14, 2005

Jizos Behind the Razor Wire

It took some months of poking and prodding to get the prison administration to allow us to bring the project inside the women's prison where a small group of us rotate leadership of weekly meditation. The chaplains were completely on our side, and on the side of the women. But the peculiar perceived interests of the institution were delicate.

We did get an okay and scheduled a time in early April to make Jizo panels during one of our periodic long days of meditation. A week or two before, I brought in descriptive materials. I explained the unique opportunity of memorializing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and building connections with friends in Japan for the sake of peace. I also showed the women a selection of imaginative panels that people had done the month before at Berkeley Zen Center. They were excited to take this on.

The appointed day came. I mounted a banner of Jizos from BZC at the start of the morning. We had a short service and spent several hours alternating sitting and walking meditation. After a silent lunch we distributed instruction sheets, cloth panels, pens, rubber stamps, paints and brushes. And we just got to it. We had two hours allotted to work and the women plunged right in using all the materials at hand. They certainly didn't need much instruction from me, particularly given my paucity of artistic skill and dexterity.

There were seventeen women from a surprising range of countries aside from the U.S.: Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ireland, Vietnam, and Canada. Some drew scenes of home and peace messages in Spanish.

Some created a miniature cosmos on their panel. Some women worked slowly, painstakingly drawing each figure, talking time with the faces. Some sped along, stamping or sketching their Jizos. The energy in the room was open and joyous. How wonderful to have a time of joy and freedom in the midst of a dreary, confined, and often unsafe. I didn’t ask women to work in silence. The fun of painting, drawing, and talking seemed much more precious. It was contagious, too. My friend Sara, who came in to help and I were caught in the contact high of Bodhisattva presence. I felt it for several days.

Our 25 panels were arrayed on the floor for all of us to ogle. We invited the chaplain and religious intern to come and have a look. It was very impressive. Then we came back together in a circle to close our day with a brief sitting and dedication of merit. And we were all left to ask ourselves: Now what can we do.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, CA

(Click on the photo to see more Jizo panels from the "Women's Prison" group.)


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