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Saturday, June 9, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religion

Serving spiritual needs of Buddhist prisoners

Seattle Times staff reporter

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As he does every Wednesday, Dharmachari Aryadaka drives 110 miles from his Seattle home to the Stafford Creek Corrections Center near Aberdeen.

The state's newest detention facility, it's not yet well equipped for religious services. "The inmates aren't very happy about that," he says. "But then, inmates aren't usually very happy."

But prisons, it seems, can be fertile soil for Buddhism: As one Zen minister told Newsweek 25 years ago: "We teach you to look at a wall to start meditation. Prisons have lots of walls."

As the state's first official Buddhist prison chaplain, Aryadaka illustrates a shift in how the state's prison ministries are handling an increasing range of faithful, reaching out in recent years beyond Protestant Christians to believers such as Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With rising demand, religious-programming manager Dan Williams of the Department of Corrections needed someone familiar with Buddhism's rites. "We do everything we can to let inmates practice the religion of their choice," he says.

For less popular faiths, the state has relied on volunteers. Aryadaka, 53, served Buddhist inmates at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center before being appointed to the Corrections Department's religious advisory committee in 1998. He became a paid state prison chaplain last year.

Buddhism's relative unfamiliarity made for a rough introduction to the prison system once volunteers began serving Western converts in 1993.

"The first Buddhist image sent in was made of plaster, and it was actually destroyed by corrections officers," Aryadaka says. "They were probably looking for contraband."

The next one, he says, was decapitated. "There's been a profound lack of sympathy," he moans.

All that has changed as Buddhist interest and practice has grown. With an estimated 2.4 million adherents in the U.S., Buddhism's prison presence includes Colorado's Prison Dharma Network, founded in 1989, and Berkeley, Calif.'s Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Washington's surge of Southeast Asian immigrants, many ethnically Buddhist, is echoed behind prison walls, adding to the numbers of Western prisoners looking to Buddhism for its meditative benefits.

Prisoners' main concern? Dealing with what Aryadaka calls "negative mental states" - anger, basically.

"That's probably what got a lot of guys in there to begin with," he says.

The environment doesn't help, he says. Peace can be elusive when cavernous spaces echo with voices and slamming doors or when an unsympathetic cellmate won't turn off the television.

Aryadaka's time once spent behind bars himself - in 1974, after a drug arrest in Scandinavia - helps him relate to prisoners, he says. "It helps to understand their form of suffering," he says. "You have to understand it before you can alleviate it."

Upon his release he joined England's Friends of the Buddhist Order, a near monastic experience he says helped him walk the straight path he hadn't managed before, though he'd embraced Buddhism in the early '70s. "I'd left out the ethical dimension," he says. "And it just doesn't work like that."

He returned to the U.S. in 1981, got married and started a family. In 1984, he committed to Buddhism and was ordained with his new name after a three-month Italian retreat. "It means noble sky-goer," he says.

Now Aryadaka visits some prisons weekly, others monthly, with several annual treks to Walla Walla and Spokane. He's paid for 10 hours a week plus expenses.

Aryadaka's three-hour sessions begin with meditation and conclude with ritual chanting. In between are study and discussion - for example, the "three jewels" that bind Buddhism's various forms: the Buddha, or ideal of human enlightenment; the dharma, or path of teaching, and the sangha, or spiritual community.

"A lot of inmates find that useful since they're living in a sea of negativity," he says. "That seems to be the general complaint: that they're irritated by their environment and the people they're pressed up against, day in and day out. It's intensified there."

Aryadaka taps volunteers to serve Cambodian and Vietnamese prisoners, for whom he says Buddhist practice is less about meditation than cultural familiarity.

His Buddhist order reflects the Western world he lives in, which is why he doesn't wear robes. "It's just another manifestation of Buddhism in a new culture," he says. "Wherever Buddhism has gone, it has adapted itself to those conditions."

With Aryadaka's help, it's found a place in Washington's prisons.

"I wish I'd done some things differently," he says. "But now I feel like I'm giving something back to the world."

Marc Ramirez can be reached at 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com.

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