Finding Peace in Prison
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, February 20, 2019


Finding Peace in Prison



B.L. Goenka
B.L. Goenka—better known in Burma as Bandula U Shwe—is the son of S.N. Goenka, the highly respected founder of an international network of meditation centers. Although his father left Burma in the 1960s after his businesses were nationalized by the late dictator Gen Ne Win, Goenka is now a prominent member of the country’s Indian business community. He has also followed in his father’s footsteps as a popularizer of vipassana, a meditation technique developed by the Buddha and practiced in Burma for centuries. He supervises meditation centers around the country, teaching practitioners how to achieve liberation by carefully observing bodily sensations as a means of gaining insight into phenomena as they really are. Since July 2008, he has been allowed to extend his mission to some of Burma’s most notorious prisons. He recently spoke with Irrawaddy reporter Min Naing Thu about his efforts to help Burmese prisoners find inner freedom.

: How did the program to open meditation centers inside Burmese prisons begin?

Answer: We started in Insein Prison two years ago. We organize monthly 10-day meditation retreats, using the Goenka method to teach vipassana to prisoners.

QHow many instructors do you have?

A:  We have more than 50 in Burma. When we started teaching in Insein, we used four teachers to guide the inmates, but as people got used to it we reduced this to just one. We also organize a separate retreat for women prisoners there once every two months.

Q:  The prisoners who take part in the retreat have to eat vegetarian food. Is this provided by the prison authorities?

A:  No, we arrange everything by ourselves. We have donors for food, so we don’t need anything from the prison. The cost of running a retreat is about 900,000 kyat (US $900).

Q:  Do you have meditation retreats at other prisons?

A:  We also hold retreats in Thayarwaddy Prison and Mandalay’s Obo Prison. In Thayarwaddy, we organize the retreat once every two months.

Q:  Can political prisoners join the retreat?

A:  Yes, they can. A number of them have joined. Sometimes when I visit the prison meditation centers, I ask prisoners how they feel about the retreats. They often say how much they enjoyed eating decent food and being in a clean space. Some prisoners join just for the food and the cleaner environment at the meditation center. But then they tell me how much they have gained from deepening their understanding of vipassana. Some even say they can forgive those who put them behind bars. Others say they might never have tried meditation if they weren’t in prison.

Q:  Can prisoners in solitary confinement participate in a retreat?

A:  Yes. We have different types of inmates at the retreats. They [prison authorities] allow anyone to participate, as long as they are genuinely interested in meditation. We have prisoners with year-long sentences, and some who are serving for much longer. I met one from a government-backed cooperative enterprise who was sentenced to 505 years for more than 60 offenses. We also have some death row prisoners.

Q:  Do the prison authorities choose who can join a retreat?

A:  Prisoners have to apply for permission to take part in a retreat. I think the prison authorities then decide who they will allow, but we don’t know the details of the selection process.

Q:  How many months in advance do they have to apply?

A:  I don’t know about the application process.

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james o'brien Wrote:
Well, bless him for giving prisoners some peace of mind, but how much of this is the junta using religion as opiate of the masses?

Prisoners should not be forced to eat vegetarian during these short retreats.

They need to eat well, be fed well to survive and the prison diet is already horrible.

James O'Brien

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