This is a question that I get all the time. So, let me take a minute and speak to it clearly and directly. It is a Zen center and no where in its internal operating instructions is reentry or any related term referred to. This is an incredibly important distinction on several levels.
The first and most important is that the practice of Zen and meditation follows the form of the Kwan Um School of Zen. Second-under the law and within the confines of the city we are listed as a monastery. Third is that in the eyes of the IRS and state we are a non-profit. As in all such facilities within the Kwan Um School of Zen, there is no paid staff. Every one from the abbot down pays the monthly training fees and membership to the School.
Having said all of this, by virtue of being in the South, the population we serve and being located in a University town where 1 out of 4 citizens of Gainesville are students, there are precious few individuals predisposed to adapt to a style of living that asks so much. Mind you, change is at the core of the Zen experience and change all the way down to the DNA level does not come by sticking a post-it note on a bathroom mirror or ice box door. Change comes through action and the action is the practice of meditation in all its forms on a constant moment to moment basis. The resistance to change is strong and as such those without a powerful motive to change don’t undertake such an experience.
We do have a very large and intensive prison program. At the moment and for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this monologue, our program is centered at the women’s prison in Lowell, Florida which is about 40 miles south of Gainesville where we are. Our program at Lowell CI started out and existed for a couple of years as strictly a Zen program. At about the same time, the center moved from High Springs to Gainesville. The center struggled trying to find space that came in at little or no cost because we had no assets or resources. This meant lots of moves and trying trying to find space in the community to hold retreats.
To make a long story short, we discovered that if one or two people lived in an apartment or house that we could have a stable environment for practice and this in turn promoted its appeal to residents of the community. Then in 2007, everything changed.
We had to drop most of the prisons where we had programs and our program at Lowell CI went from 2 days a month to 3 or 4 days a week with the inclusion of Mind Body Stress Reduction(MBSR) and the Inward Journey. These are not small programs as between 300 to 400 inmates a year voluntarily enroll in these programs. Also but unrelated to this event was the point that the only people to come to the center to live and consequently allowed the center to pay for the rent, insurance, utilities and etc were those that had been in our prison programs. Where as there was an occasional student, professional or retired person that came by to live, they never lasted long because the program is too rigorous for anyone that is not dedicated to serious change.
As our programs grew and became well established at Lowell CI, more and more inmates from were attracted to the center in order to further the progress and change they had started on at Lowell CI. It is important to bear in mind, that at no time in the process did we ever modify our internal operation to accommodate those that came in. What did happen and is happening is that we as individuals go to great efforts to help those in the transition from prison to outside prison. Bear in mind, it is individual and collaborative assistance on the part of the residents and those that practice here. The one concession we do make is that those coming out of prison have the first 30 days out of prison to come up with their training fees.
Another point to bear in mind is that training fees are not rent. Everything that happens at the center is a part of a constant program of mindfulness. Some of it is hard meditation training on the cushion and other parts are the practice application as it applies to social interaction as well as integration with work and education. It is an intensive training program and not a rent/renter/landlord relationship.
What Zen does is provide a set of benchmarks to make rational decisions that allow those that practice here to engage competently in life. Essentially, that boils down to hurting no one or causing no pain or suffering. This is a tough road for everyone and much more so for those whose lives have been filled with drama and trauma as well as abuse in all its forms since early childhood.
A second and equally important distinction along these lines is that the Gateless Gate is classified under codes as a monastery as well as there is no paid staff with any form of social services rendered. This means that ex-offenders can live here and not be classified as dangerous persons and by codes relegated to living in an industrial park. As a monastery and according to codes we can be located just about anywhere we want in the city.
Having said that, we are and have been in a residential community for about five years without a single incident that has brought the attention of the law. Members of the program participate in community social events as well as such things as clean up. The community in turn supports some of the activities we are involved in. It is a serendipitous relationship that just worked out as a non-profit, city codes and the community.
One of the biggest surprises is that when you bring together a group of like minded people with similar backgrounds is that you develop a rather cohesive and self supporting group. This is emerging at the center in the form of a strong sisterhood of those that have been to prison. They don’t have to hide or explain anything. They are focused on recovery, education and getting a life. They see each other stumble and are there to help them. They as a group are over achievers and for the most part at the top of the class in education endeavors. We have received incredible support from Santa Fe College in getting these men and women from college to prison. Not because it is an official policy of the school but because the staff as individuals sees the potential of the individuals and reaches out to help them.
Have we made mistakes, most certainly. Are we perfect, most certainly not. However, what we are is a Zen center with individuals attempting to learn those skills that will allow them to engage competently in life.
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