On The Dhamma Brothers

I’ve long been a sucker for a great before and after story. The transformation archetype comes in so many appealing packages; as a hilarious episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy profiling the transformation of an unkempt young man into a self-caring, well-groomed, more considerate gentleman; as the written memoirs of a life changing journey along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; or even as the stunning visual transformation of a slovenly room turned into a magazine-worthy high style space. And when the sure to please before and after story tackles issues of social relevance, such as the American prison system, with meditation as the transformative catalyst, I am completely on board.

Following a selection of inmates at an Alabama maximum security prison during their foray into a meditation program, The Dhamma Brothers speaks to the common humanity we share with people whose existences are relegated to the confines of a jail cell, the weaknesses of our current criminal justice system, the powers of the practice of meditation. The vipassana meditation program instituted at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility requires inmates to engage in an intensive ten days of meditation, nine of which they must remain completely silent. Forcing people who have committed crimes that landed them in jail for years, if not for the rest of their lives, to identify emotions from a place of observation and nonreaction is no small feat. And it certainly makes for a compelling story.

The documentary film profiles four of the inmates participating in the meditation program, highlighting their early histories, the situations in which their crimes were committed, the resulting sentences, and often their remorse as well. Nearly all of the inmates we meet are charged with murder or homicide, but The Dhamma Brothers makes more human the people who committed these most inhuman of crimes. Putting a face, a voice, a story, a struggle to these men’s experiences serves as one of the foundations from which viewers can evaluate for themselves the prison industrial complex, a very well executed move by the film’s directors Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, and Anne Marie Stein.

The audience is also privy to the prison administration’s skepticism prior to and even upon the completion of the program. For obvious reasons, executing a Buddhist meditation program to criminals imprisoned in a Bible belt state is bound to be rife with obstacles, misunderstanding, and judgment. Then there are also the vipassana leaders themselves, anxious and uncertain as they prepare to guide inmates through one of the most intense personal challenges anyway could chose to embark upon, and the psychologists and social scientists who share their primarily confident views on the power of meditation.  The directors capture the various moving parts involved in pulling off a program such as this, replete with the stigmas, doubts, and opinions of all parties.

But the vast majority of the film profiles the inmates’ journeys, identifying how strongly these men were transformed by the experience of vipassana. Family members, correctional officers, vipassana teachers, and of course the inmates themselves all provide moving testimonies upon their completion of the initial ten day meditation retreat. Maybe even more profound, however, is the way in which the new meditators struggle when they are no longer able to practice or find themselves without a community of like-minded practitioners. The men try to sustain their practice by holding daily sessions following the first ten day retreat. Soon enough the prison officially bars all group meditation on account of its Buddhist roots (in opposition to the largely Christian culture of the facility). Nearly all of the inmates seek other ways to meditate, so desperately do they require a regular practice in order to be their best selves. One of the inmates is transferred to a lower security prison, but speaks of the difficulty he encountered in adjusting to the culture. Without a community of meditators, in the absense of other inmates that endured the vipassana experience that so deeply changed himself, he finds it difficulty to sustain this now-essential practice.

The film’s impact on viewers slyly parallels that of meditation on the inmates. A gut-wrenching example of love and acceptance, one inmate cites vipassana as the reason he feels love for the man who murdered the inmate’s daughter. Recognizing that her murderer is still a human being, there is no room for hatred in his heart, even for a person who so irrevocably and brutally ended his daughter’s life. Likewise I doubt many audiences can come away from The Dhamma Brothers without an expanded sense of love and acceptance for these men, despite their horrific crimes and dark pasts, their unspeakable sins and irreversible mistakes, for they are still human just like us. The documentary’s directors ensure that audiences are unable to deny this most universal sense of common humanity we share with the folks captured on screen.

Part of what I found so moving about the film was simply seeing the inside of a penitentiary, not the set of a TV show cell or the all too familiar visitation rooms complete with thick glass dividers and old fashioned phones. A uniformity of beige cinderblock, solitary confinement rooms, padlocked doors, correctional officers on patrol, a sea of white-clothed men with hanging heads and handcuffs, patchy grass in the prison yard surrounded by chain link fencing and barbed wire. These rather mild images made all too real to me the sense of despair, depression, remorse, and hopelessness that an inmate must feel. To imagine that these are the only sights a person can hope to lay eyes on for the duration of his or her life. To be housed in such a “correctional” facility without receiving any rehabilitative services to provide even the smallest glimmer of hope that life after serving a sentence could be better enough to guarantee freedom. The images of prison life captured in The Dhamma Brothers alone unearthed these thoughts in my head, leaving me with a sense of deep sadness. Add to that sorrow the profound remorse and enlightenment these men found after meditating, and it was hard to feel anything but despondency that people are relegated to such heartrendingly bleak, monotonous, dead-end existences. I’ve always felt that our prison system is vastly under-rehabilitative and aggressively punitive, offering no form of practical guidance and displaying not a trace of Christian forgiveness. Encouraging them to confront their deepest faults and mistakes through a meditative practice is a incredible opportunity, but a tiny step in the grand scheme of things. 

One of the qualms I sometimes experience as a practitioner of meditation myself is how self-involved a concept it can be. The idea of utilizing this method to achieve enlightenment or to commune with the divine or to wrestle one’s personal demons are all veritable but ultimately selfish goals. The Dhamma Brothers, however, highlights some of the ways in which meditation serves a greater purpose than the one it most obviously serves to the person in meditation. As an inmate states in the film, if everyone in the prison had been practicing vipassana before they committed the crimes which landed them in jail, maybe they never would have seen the inside of the facility at all. The repercussions of their practice ripple continually outward to their community of inmates, to family and friends, to viewers of the film and even theirs feelings for total strangers. The Dhamma Brothers serves as a stark reminder of how meditation is not solely an individual transformation story. Simply witnessing the ways in which the practice impacted this group of Alabama prison inmates can be a true transformation experience for a casual viewer.

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