March 07 Newsletter » Sing Sing Sangha
RANDALL RYOTAN EIGER
Photo: DAVID KYUSHO GOEWEY
Randall Ryotan Eiger on the Village Zendo Program at Sing Sing
The Village Zendo's Buddhist program at Sing Sing will celebrate its
second anniversary in March. Randall Ryotan Eiger is the
coordinator of the program and we asked him to bring us up to date on
the group's activities.
Q.How are things going at Sing Sing after almost two years?
A.In general, they're going extremely well. We have a core group of
about eight members. Each Sunday they meet with me or another member
of the Sing Sing chaplaincy group for their regular weekly
Q.What's the Sunday program like?
A.Actually, it's a lot like our program at VZ. We sit for two periods
of zazen, then we have service and a dharma talk. Daisan (private
interview) is offered during the second period of zazen.
Q.How is Sing Sing different?
A.Some of the differences are what you would expect. We don't get
frisked and put through a metal detector when we come to the program
at VZ. But on a deeper level, I feel there is a difference in the
intensity of the practice at Sing Sing. The men there are in an
extreme situation. They are fighting both for their physical and
psychological survival. The Buddha once compared his teachings to a
raft and, for these men, the dharma really is like a life raft. They
approach it with tremendous intensity.
Q.Do you feel the men at Sing Sing are more dedicated practitioners
than most people in New York?
A.I wouldn't put it that way. I don't believe it does these men any
service to romanticize them or pretend that they are basically
different than we are. A number of the complaints I hear are similar
to ones I hear in New York -- I'm too busy! I can't get my mind to
settle down! How can I find peace when the people here are pissing me
off! I would bet that dharma students have been complaining like this
since the T'ang Dynasty and the guys at Sing Sing are no exception.
What I do believe I notice, though, is more gratitude for the
opportunity to practice. It took them three years to get their group
started again after their last teacher had to leave the group for
health reasons. These guys don't look at liturgy as a chore. They are
eager to learn whatever they can, and they really put their heart
Q.Have you run into any difficulties with the program?
A.There have been no major difficulties though we've had plenty of
minor hassles. Sing Sing is first of all a prison where safety and
security are the highest priorities, and it is also a state
institution where everything has to be filled out in triplicate. My
biggest regret is that we are not able to offer the practitioners
there as much service as they would like. They would like, for
instance, to have a weekday study group, but we simply don't have the
manpower to be able to fill this need. They would also like to have
more all-day retreats than the two we were able to schedule this
year. We're going to try to increase the number of retreats in
Q.What has teaching at Sing Sing been like for you personally?
A.I feel tremendous gratitude for having been able to make this part
of my practice. My interactions with both the prisoners and the
officers have been, at times, extremely rich, and I feel I have more
insight into the social conditions under which all of us live and
practice. Just the effort of, week after week, having to get up on
Sundays and make the two-hour trip up to Ossining has developed my
appreciation of patience and constancy, neither of which have been my
strong suit in the past.
Q.Where do you see the program going in the future?
A.I hope that one day we will be able to offer the Sing Sing sangha
another day for practice, a study group on a weekday perhaps. But
that is a huge commitment and, right now, Sunday is all we can
manage. I expect that practice at Sing Sing will grow as our practice
at the Village Zendo grows. The other members of the Village Zendo's
Sing Sing chaplaincy group are: Sensei Barbara Joshin O'Hara,
Sinclair Shinryu Thomson, Julie Myoko Terestman, Ywona Jushin Zralek,
Daniel Koshin Paley-Ellison, Charles Ryoshin Kalmanek and Robert
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