16 November 2007

An Interview With Jusan Frankie Parker by Jean Crume, editor of The Ecumenical Buddhist, a publication of The Ecumenical Buddhist Society

Jean: As I recall, you received a copy of the Dharmapada from a Corrections Officer when you had asked for a Bible? Could you tell us that story and the effect it had on you?

Jusan: I discovered the Dharmapada in December of 1988 while in "the hole." I was a mad, mean and very cruel inmate. I was always giving everyone a hard time. The guards had to throw me in the hole and I was yelling and screaming and cussing then and I demanded a Bible. The only book you're allowed in the hole. During the day they would take your mattress away from you so you have very little to do, so I'd read the Bible when I wasn't pacing the floor, hating everyone for doing this to me. The guard, thinking he was screwing me over, threw in a copy of the Dharmapada at me and said. "here's your God damn holy book", and laughed. Then he closed the door real fast so I couldn't throw it back at him. I yelled and screamed, then, when I got tired, I sat down on the floor and looked at this "heathen book." It was simply the greatest gift I had ever received! Later, maybe a year later, with tears in my eyes, I thanked that guard for his gift. He, naturally, thought I was quite insane. From that day on, I've tried to live a life in concert with Buddha nature. "Inside the Buddha there is a sentient being; Inside the sentient being there is a Buddha." I kept that copy of the Dharmapada until about a month ago when I gave it to a friend, one who has started his journey as a seeker. That Dharmapada led me to other books and an even deeper thirst for the Dharma.

Jean: What did your early practice consist of?

Jusan: I used to sit and try to meditate based on the instructions in "We're All Doing Time", a book on spirituality for inmates by Bo Lozoff. Then a friend got me the address of Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii. Aitken Roshi sent me additional books. My "meditation" consisted of sitting on a folded blanket and counting my breath. I still can't sit in the full-lotus posture, and I go back to my breath-counting practice on occasion. My practice is perhaps more Zen in style rather than Vajrayana, but I suspect that it all leads to the same thing.

Jean: How has that practice changed?

Jusan: Well, now I have a shrine in my cell, and on it resides a six-inch brass Buddha which Anna Cox generously gave to me. I have decorated the shrine with origami paper flowers that I've made, and a photograph of Lama Tarchin Rinpoche who gave me the Three Refuge Vows. I now fold up the end of my mattress and I practice sitting for about 25-40 minutes at a time, twice a day. Four in the morning is the best time to practice; it is the quietest time of the day on Death Row. In 1990 I decided to shave my head as a devotion to the Buddha. I knew that it would help me to live a life that would reflect my Buddha nature, in hopes that others who saw me on a daily basis would want to be like me, i.e., a Buddhist (I was a real proselytizer; I was convinced beyond doubt that what was good for me was also good for others!) What I did learn was: If you're going to have a shaved head and have been indoors all winter, when it's sunny out, wear a hat! My head is burnt!

Jean: What practical impact has your practice had on your life in prison?

Jusan: I think it would be better if someone else answered this question. I will say I've tried to live as the Buddha taught we should. Through contemplative practice I've learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important thing a sentient being can learn - how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the state. I'll die with a smile on my ugly old face; they may not understand, but you'll know.

Jean: What has been the most difficult obstacle in your practice?

Jusan: The publication review committee that approves books for prisoners is composed of Fundamentalist Christians. They used to stop books I'd ordered from coming to me. This activity caused me stress and tested me. I tend to view all obstacles as a test. I had many talks with the committee and my attorney. We finally came to an agreement.

I've had to fight with the facility administration and employees every step of the way. I've had to fight a warden who lied to have me put in the hole to ruin my record. He's no longer here; he was fired. The warden who followed him said something to me that made me the proudest I've ever been in my life. He said he wished that all the inmates were Buddhist if they would live like me.

Jean: I find that when I think of you and your dedication to practice and the Dharma that I experience tremendous compassion for all beings who are struggling to make sense of life. But, in spite of your difficult situation, you always seem to find the positive aspects of even the worst events. Could you tell us a little about how you see your role in spreading the Dharma?

Jusan: Good question. I used to think, "Boy! as soon as I reach enlightenment I'm going to teach!" Then I realized that that day was too far away so I'd better try and do something now. People see me practicing Tai-Chi in the yard. They see me at peace with the world and they see me always smiling. That, my friend, is how you spread the Dharma - smile, be happy. I once read a book where the question was raised, "How do you spread the Dharma if the person you meet is blind and dumb?" - the answer is a hug! Kindness, a hug, is a smile, a smile that can be felt. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a science. It is example. It is a method of liberation. I feel liberated, and soon my be liberated from this world. I change, as all things change.

Jean: Thank you for taking this time with me. Is there anything else you would like to share with the Sangha?

Jusan: Yes. Thank you all for accepting me into your family - a person you knew to be the worst that society could offer, yet you have accepted me nevertheless. I trust that I have not let you down in any way, I trust that this world will be helped in some way by my death. I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha gave me refuge. Thank you my friends. Y'all take care . . . live by example!

The Ecumenical Buddhist Society is a non-profit, non-sectarian meditation and education group which promotes Buddhist practice. Teachers of many Buddhist traditions come to Little Rock through the sponsorship of the society to offer teachings. If you wish to receive more information, please write to EBS Buddhist Center, Gans Place Carriage House, 1010 West 3rd Street, Little Rock, AR 72201.
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