The Dhamma Brothers

The Dhamma Brothers is a remarkable documentary about inmates at an Alabama prison who do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s currently being shown on PBS stations around the country.

Vipassana, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a traditional form of Buddhist meditation. The Vipassana course taught at the prison was based on the program developed by S. N. Goenka.

Although this was not the purpose of the documentary, as an introduction to the teachings of Buddhism, The Dhamma Brothers was far superior to The Buddha shown on PBS a few weeks ago. I found this to be a powerful film, with fresh insights into the process of meditation, and overall, a very positive message. The Vipassana program appears to offer some hope to men in a hopeless situation.

The Goenka approach to meditation is non-sectarian. “It’s not that it’s teaching a religion,” says Warden Stephen Bullard in the film. “It’s teaching a meditation practice that was born there.” The warden goes on to say that if the Vipassana teachers came in and tried to teach against Christianity, and to teach Buddhism, it would become a problem.

Apparently, it did anyway. This film was released to theaters in 2008 (and won quite a few awards), but for television they have cut out some of the more controversial elements. The film now only deals briefly with the controversy that resulted in shutting down the Vipassana program. The Wikipedia article on the film states, “According to New York Times reviewer Whitney Joiner this was because the chaplain of the prison complained to administrators that he was losing his inmate congregation. In December 2005, the prison administration changed and the meditation program was allowed to begin again. The film also includes interviews with local residents who provide statements that are negative about the meditation program, perceiving it as anti-Christian. One resident compared Buddhism with witchcraft.” Very little of that was in the film I watched.

The Dhamma Brothers offers some excellent instructions regarding the philosophy of meditation. One of the meditation teachers says, “No one is telling them what to look at or how to change. They have been getting their insights from within themselves.”

One of the prisoners comments, “I thought my greatest fear was growing old and dying in prison. In truth, my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself.” Another says, “When you start to practice Vipassana, you can’t hide anymore.”

And some great insight on how to teach: “We can’t really expect the men to do anything. Our job is, you know, just to give. The results really are up to the men.”

If you want to find out when this excellent film will be showing in your area, go to The Dhamma Brothers website here.