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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(11 December, 2004)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

At Christmastime, Sunday morning Zen Buddhist services in prison are unusually well attended; but the mood is always more somber, more anxious.

To get to the back rooms of the Chapel complex, the rooms reserved for 'other' religions, the men have to walk past the brightly decorated, overflowing Christian chapel near the front door. Ebullient Christians, brimming with enthusiasm, coax passersby to join them. Often they succeed. When they don't, they're visibly dejected by their failure to squeeze one more soul into fellowship. It's an uncomfortable gauntlet to run.

Many of the men who head for the Zen Buddhist meeting room have ventured into the chapel complex for the first time. They're responding to a ancient need to celebrate the season, a requirement that transcends holiday sentiment. They come in and warily sit down, not knowing what to expect. Religion had failed to apply any of its famous ligatures to them before they went astray; and now that they're incarcerated, there doesn't seem much point in being ethically constrained to avoid things they couldn't do if they wanted to. Perhaps because the holiday isn't one for homilies and pointless preaching, they acquiesce and follow that ancient directive that leads to the chapel.

So they come, with the white or red edge of a Christmas card sticking up from their shirt pocket like a chevron that gives them rank over the men who get no cards at all.

On this particular Sunday - the Sunday on which Shakespeare unexpectedly gave the message, I rehearsed my usual "winter solstice, December 25, earth precession, celebration of our Future Buddha Maitreya" sermon on the drive out to the prison; but the road was icy and a highway accident stalled traffic. I arrived late and in a less than festive mood.

The men had that "away from home" holiday sadness, and telling them how the earth spins like a top wasn't going to lift their spirits. Most of them probably prayed for nightfall; and assuring them that from here on in the days would be getting longer wasn't exactly the news they wanted to hear.

The Christians in the main chapel were singing carols.

"What are tidings?" somebody asked.

I thought for a moment, "News, just news." I ventured a guess. "You have to remember that when these songs were written, there was no radio or TV. Ships brought major news stories, and ships likely came in with the tides." (I later learned that this was incorrect, but it seemed reasonable at the time.) I continued, "At Christmas the custom was for groups of carolers to come to your gate and sing that they're bringing great news... that something wonderful has happened in the world, that your troubles are over. The carols and hymns they sing bring the news, the tidings, of the birth of Christ."

No one registered the slightest interest. I tried harder. "The carolers come and sing at your gate, like the little bird in Shakespeare's marvelous poem, Number twenty-nine." The group continued to stare.

"What's the name of the poem?" one of the men finally asked, stepping into my little trap.

"It doesn't have a name, just a number. Twenty-nine." I hoped that this would resonate with men who also are identified by number. It did; and finally, I got their attention.

Years ago, when I first started to teach Zen, I always gave my students some poems to think about during a stressful time. This poem was one of them; but as more students got computers, there was less need for handouts, and I stopped the practice.

To make things easier, I summarized the lines. "Sometimes a man feels like a real loser, he's ashamed because he's got nothing. He's busted, lost... and nobody gives a damn. He cries to God for help, but God doesn't seem to be listening. Maybe his cries are too beggarly, too orphan-poor and shoeless to be noticed..." I went to the blackboard and picked up the erasable marker.

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

They understood this without difficulty.

And look upon myself and curse my fate..

"And then the man looks around at what other men have. He sees this guy is better looking; that one has connections; that other guy is really educated; this one has talent; and that guy has a great future. And what does he have? Nothing. Even the things that used to bring him pleasure bring him nothing now."

wishing me like one more rich in hope, featured like him, like him with friends possessed, desiring this man's art, and that man's scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.

"When he thinks like this, he just about despises himself. And then a little miracle happens! It dawns on him! He remembers one special girl who loves him - maybe it's his wife, his girlfriend, or even his daughter; and he bops himself on the head and says, 'What am I.. nuts? I've got the love of the most wonderful girl in the world. She loves me! ME! Yes. ME. I'm the man she loves!' And then his self-esteem rises up the way a little song bird rises when the dawn breaks. And from its dark, dreary place, the little bird flies up and stands right outside the gates of heaven and sings carols, telling everyone inside to cheer up, that things will get better for them, that something wonderful has happened in the world."

When in these thoughts myself almost despising, haply I think on thee, and then my state, like unto the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate.

Somebody laughed, "He's sticking it to God." Everyone laughed.

Somebody else said,"The bird is givin' 'em the bird!" Now they all howled.

I had to laugh, too. (In my mind I saw an Oxford Don delivering a lecture on Shakespearean sonnets and getting this response.) "And then he realizes that the man who has the love of such a special girl is the luckiest man in the world; and no matter how bad things seem, he'd wouldn't change places with anyone."

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings that then I scorn to change my state with kings.

"What about queens?" one of them asked, referring to the local homosexuals. More laughter.

This wasn't what I expected, but it was not unwelcome. The mood had changed. I might even call it cheerful.

Tidings of comfort and joy can come by many messengers.

"Ok, Merry Gentlemen," I said as I retreated to my "winter solstice, December 25, earth-precession, Future Buddha Maitreya" sermon.

While I droned on, I noticed that a few of the men were copying the lines on the blackboard. A few others had taken Christmas cards out of their pocket and had that look that says they were reading them, "Again, for the first time."

I wish I could say that when I left, the walls and guard towers looked less formidable; but they were as bleak and uncompromising as ever.

On the surface, nothing much changes in prison.

Humming Bird
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