One day I was walking down the paved ramp at San Quentin State Prison, towards the yard to my destination, the education building. I like walking down this leisurely quiet route verses the stairway, which seems so abrupt and crowded. I admire the greenery on the side of the pavement; the agapanthus in various states of bloom, the blackberries and their occasional large fresh, juicy berry. I enjoy the mixed brick and mortar texture of the ancient brown, gold and tan colored walls, cracked, full of story, like old parchment.
Usually I walk this route between classes, so it provides me with a few seconds of solitude, as no inmates are allowed on the ramp. I’ll use these moments to “reset” my energy between groups, clear the slate, take a few bites of my flatbread and almond butter sandwich or a sip of water and breathe in the birdsong as it trills between the coils of razor wire. Those few moments of contemplation shift gears as the ramp rounds the corner into the large, open yard, consisting of a track, tennis courts, football field, baseball diamond, exercise areas, basketball court and several picnic tables where various games and activities take place daily.
On this particular day, as I rounded the corner, I was taken aback by how crowded the yard was, even for a Friday. I had never seen so many men here. My normal path around the perimeter of the yard was not accessible. My breath stopped short. I was going to have to walk straight through what looked like one large crowd of hundreds and hundreds of men, many without shirts, all standing, running, or sitting very close to each other.
As I approached the corner of the yard, I felt eyes shift towards me. I did not want to show my vulnerability by pausing. “Use this as an opportunity” I said to myself. “All these beings together in one place-what a great moment to generate compassion and bodhicitta!” I embraced my vulnerability, raised my eyes and walked forward, breathing in a prayer of peace and out a prayer of protection for myself, all these men, and the guards, all-one, no one alone.
In that very moment, as if by design, the alarm went off in the yard. In a single motion the hundreds of men sunk to the ground on their knees in silence, as if praying with me, bolstering my prayers for them, for us. Who but The Divine could have orchestrated this moment?
It was like the parting of the waters. Now the hundreds of men I thought I was going to have to pass face to face, were all kneeling down, lower than me. As an outside “free” person, us volunteers are the only ones besides the guards who move when an alarm is called. My path to the education building was suddenly clear. I did not have to weave or wind my way through anyone, as the men were frozen until the alarm was called off.
I continued my way through this miracle, saying hellos to the upturned eyes but imagining the power that could be generated if all of us on the yard at this moment WERE praying for the protection and welfare of all sentient beings. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes filled with the grace of this experience, this blessing. My heart swelled with love, which I imagined going out to all of the men and birds around me. “Hail Mary full of Grace! Shine your love on these men as they kneel!”
As I crossed the basketball court and walked through the gate to the ramp leading to the education building, the alarm was called off. Instantly, the yard went back to its high degree of activity and hubbub as if nothing had ever happened.
But something did.