March 07 Newsletter Sing Sing Sangha

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 program.

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 into it.

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 2007.

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 Chodo Campbell.

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