Prisoners put faith in Buddhist shrine

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The Independent Online
SUNRISE AND SUNSET are times of quiet contemplation and meditation for Henry, a convicted robber and recently converted Buddhist.

An inmate at Springhill open prison in Buckinghamshire nearing the end of a four-year sentence, he practises yoga and meditation in a consecrated Buddhist shrine, the first in a British prison.

The Buddha Grove, designed and built two years ago by prisoners with the support of the governor Tim Newell, will soon be joined by two more - at nearby Grendon Underwood and Risley in Cheshire - as part of a project by British Buddhists to extend into penal institutions the benefits of contemplation and spiritual development.

At Springhill, the Buddha Grove is a quiet area of paths, trees, and brick walls surrounding a bronze statue, or rupa, of the Buddha on a raised platform. All are welcome to enjoy its peace regardless of their religious beliefs or status.

The Venerable Pra Ajahn Khemadhammo, spiritual director of Angulimala - the Buddhist prison chaplaincy - has agreement for two more shrines in Welsh prisons and hopes one day to see rupas in all 130 institutions in England and Wales. An appeal has been set up to pay for the shrines, which aim to inspire users to 'do the work within the heart that frees oneself from the imprisonment of greed, hate and delusion'. Prison was an appropriate place for a shrine, he said. 'Prisons and monasteries have a great deal in common - people are locked up and spend a lot of time facing themselves, usually with little or no help.'

For Henry, the grove acts as a focus for the inner work he is doing to reverse what he describes as a bad background. 'I've spent 40 years of my life taking from the system. I would like to spend the rest of it giving something back. How I manage that I don't know, but first I have to straighten myself out. If I don't, nothing I offer will be genuine.'

The prison system cannot reform people, Henry believes, only offer the facilities for them to come to terms with themselves in their own way. 'If you open yourself up to your own pain, you feel the pain you have caused others: you can either turn away from that or face it,' he says.

Mr Newell, governor of Springhill and Grendon Underwood, understands that Buddhist inmates are a tiny minority - 170 in a national prison population of 47,000 - but believes the benefits of the grove extend beyond religious boundaries. 'A faith that emphasises the sanctity of life and respect for the potential of each individual fits closely with our therapeutic approach.'

(Photograph omitted)