Robert Brown is like a lot of retired people: He volunteers. Unlike a lot of retired people, however, his volunteer work is teaching Buddhist meditation to prisoners.
Brown is 70 and an Marine veteran. He retired from his job making signs for local businesses about four years ago. But he’s been a Soto Zen Buddhist for 40 years. In the late nineties, somebody in his temple asked if he’d like to come along to a meditation session in a prison.
"Since then, I’ve just been really motivated to do it,” Brown said. But, he joked, “It’s a lot more work than just laying back and listening to music.”
Brown runs a nonprofit temple in Battle Creek. Volunteer donations pay for the trips he takes to state and federal prisons all over Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. (He says there are a lot more Buddhists in the Upper Peninsula.) Prisoners who are practicing Buddhists, or those who are just interested in trying out meditation, can come to his meetings. He used to teach a non-religious class on meditation for stress reduction at the Deerfield prison in Ionia before it closed a year ago.
Asked why he enjoys the work Brown said, “Buddhist practice and prayers are always about others. You are not supposed to set yourself apart from anything, even criminals.”
Brown is now working in five prisons around the state. His classes are one hour a week. Class size can range from just a few people to up to 35. He’s taught a few hundred prisoners over the years, and he stays in touch with some of them. He centers his work on trying to help prisoners work through their aggression in ways that are healthy.
“Any rehabilitation that goes on in there, those guys are doing it themselves. It’s a really aggressive place. We work on training them how to work with that aggression and not look like a coward.”
Brown says this work is difficult, and not easy to teach in an hour a week. He’s now trying to persuade one or more of the prisons to let him conduct some longer meditation retreats.
Brown does not always work alone. He has taken several students with him over the years into the state’s correctional facilities. Recently, he has found someone who is almost as interested as he is in the work -- his wife, Priscilla. After knowing each other and practicing Buddhism together for decades they were married just a few days ago.