Dhamma helps inmates accept fate

Dhamma helps inmates accept fate

Raise awareness: Phra Khru Phawana Viriyawat teaches dhamma to inmates at the Corrections Department.
Raise awareness: Phra Khru Phawana Viriyawat teaches dhamma to inmates at the Corrections Department.

The Corrections Department has invited Phra Khru Phawana Viriyawat, the abbot of Wat Phutthaphot Hariphunchai in Lamphun, to teach dhamma to death-row inmates to help them accept their destiny.

It's been five years since the latest death-row inmates were executed by lethal injection. At present, the department has 255 death-row inmates.

Recently, Phra Khru Phawana Viriyawat was invited to teach dhamma to a number of death-row inmates at Bang Kwang Central Prison in Nonthaburi. The Bangkok Post had an opportunity to talk to the abbot to learn about his experiences.

What kinds of dhamma lessons do you choose?

I let them talk about their feelings and provide suggestions regarding Buddhism practices to help them calm their mind and maintain their focus in the present. I also gave them encouragement how to live until the last breath of their lives.

Buddhism practices will help encourage inmates to accept the four signs of sentient existence -- birth, ageing, sickness, and death -- are unavoidable. Until the last breath of their lives, they can still have an opportunity to do a good deed, or be granted a royal pardon.

The foundation of Buddhism teaches us the consequences of our deeds. For example, monks who were once inmates were able to develop mindfulness to become "Arya" which is a term used in Buddhism that can be translated as a "holy one" or "a saint". Whenever we practice dhamma, we will in turn be protected by dhamma.

The practices can begin with meditation. All inmates can practise meditation and mindfulness. They will then feel thankful for what they used to have including gratitude for their parents.

What are the anxieties of death-row inmates?

Most of them expressed anxiety. The death sentence causes stress among inmates from the fear of death. Some were worried about things they did before.

So, it is useful to practise mindfulness because it can enable the mind to focus on the present and make the rest of their lives worth living. Being in the present also helps them move through grief.

Is dhamma teaching for inmates different from other people?

It is different. Buddha attained enlightenment from being aware of four noble truths, which is the truth of misery.

The misery begins with the cycle of life. As long as we can accept birth and death, it can mitigate the fear of death. These inmates can get at the core of this teaching more than other people.

Do inmates change after the attending your class?

Some inmates have shown relief while others can even smile or feel less depressed. They also asked me to visit often.

Sometimes, inmates also write to the temple asking for help such as help for their families, as they do not know whom they can talk to. Some inmates also asked me to help support tuition fees for their children.

You also have a project to ordain ex-prisoners. How many have participated in the project so far?

The project, Phatcharatham, was initiated by HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendiradebyavati and is currently managed by the Department of Corrections.

The project aims to guide the former inmates with dhamma teaching and practices while they stay in the monkhood. We aim to prepare them to their lives and hope dhamma teaching will prevent them from returning to prison in the future.

We have ordained many of the ex-prisoners. This month is the fourth round in which 32 former prisoners have joined the project. They are ordained at Wat Pa Araya Wangsa in Bang Sai district of Ayutthaya. The also carry out religious activities in the southern border provinces under the supervision of 4th Army Region. They stay in five temples for one month.

The activities raise their awareness of dhamma and boost their sense of personal worth and true happiness in life.

Most inmates' families are delighted to see them ordained under the project.

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