Michigan monastery takes meditation to rehab, prisons

By Natasha Blakely
Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK (AP) - Meditation is challenging for Brandon Navin. It feels like it goes against the whole way he's been taught to function in society, he said.

"I feel as though I feel I have to be constantly stimulated," he told the Battle Creek Enquirer. "I feel as though I'm constantly dragged against my will, my thoughts and feelings."

But meditation's helped to change that.

Navin is a client at A Forever Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Battle Creek right by Saint Marys Lake. One of the tracks available for clients there is the "Awareness" track. Meditation is part of it.

Navin, 47, has been in many addictions treatment centers. He thinks A Forever Recovery is maybe the 10th, and he's found it a different experience so far.

"It's been somewhat enlightening, calmed me down, helped me stay more present, helped me gain more acceptance," Navin said.

Three times a week, someone from SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery comes to teach a meditation and awareness class at A Forever Recovery. A bus brings interested clients to the monastery's brick building north of downtown twice a week.

The classes at A Forever Recovery aren't SokukoJi's only outreach.

The abbot, who goes by the single name Sokuzan, and his students hold Buddhist services and meditation classes in correctional facilities around the state, and they're looking to establish a regular meditation class for inmates and staff at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia starting next year.

Sokuzan said it's sad, painful even, to see people who have been in the system since they were teenagers, "someone who would be so much better outside, working in a job, and not a bad person at all.

"Most of the people in there - I'm not saying they haven't had trouble, but there's no understanding around that," he said, "so I find the very best thing I can do and my students can do when they go in is just to meet each person where they're at and help them work with their mind, so they can make the best of their situation.

"It would take a lot of energy, force, money, time to change the system, so we try to meet the system where it's at and meet the people in the system who are trapped and try to help as much as possible."

Sokuzan has been running Buddhist services at Richard A. Handlon for just a few months, once a month, but he's been coordinating with Lloyd Scharer, the chaplain and volunteer coordinator at the facility, to organize a meditation class for the general population.

"I know a lot of it is just kind of centering, kind of getting rid of all the outside influences and noise, if you will, and just kind of centering and focusing on a particular thing whether it be yourself or just a better thing," Scharer said. "I think that's a lot of what inmates could use, getting past the distraction, the noise and use the centering.

"I think it's just really important to bring programs in to get the inmates out of their cell and to focus on something that's positive," he added. "While someone may not necessarily be Buddhist, maybe they can pick up something from that that's positive."

Sokuzan is also a representative on the Chaplaincy Advisory Council, a group of volunteers that represent various faith groups who advise the Michigan Department of Corrections on religious issues.

"It's been very positive," Scharer said. "(Sokuzan and his students) really have a heart for the inmates here, it's obvious, and really want to come in and support them, which is always a blessing to see, because not all the religious groups seem to give a lot of support for the guys who are incarcerated."

Sokuzan, 77, was born in Battle Creek as Robert Brown. In 1960, while he was in the U.S. Marine Corps, he read a book called "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" by Paul Reps, which sparked his interest in Buddhism and meditation.

But it wasn't until more than a decade later, in 1973, that he started pursuing Buddhism more seriously. He came across "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" by Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, in Read-More Book Store in downtown Battle Creek.

"I saw his book and kind of shied away from it for a couple of weeks," Sokuzan said. "I picked up his book, I thought 'Oh my gosh, this guy's alive instead of some dead monk.' That kind of frightened me, but I went back."

Before he was halfway through the book, he was on the phone trying to find out where Trungpa was.

"I felt a really strong connection," he said.

He searched out, met and then started studying under Trungpa. He started a dharma study group in Battle Creek in 1975.

"I wrote a line in the Battle Creek Shopper News, and it said 'Buddhist meditation practice and study' and my phone number," Sokuzan said. "People would call me. We would meet once, twice a week. Sometimes our group was four or five people, sometimes eight to 10."

He moved to Minnesota in the '90s, and the study group in Battle Creek faded out. After he retired in 2003, he moved back to Battle Creek and restarted it.

In 2007, he was fully ordained as a monk by Michael Newhall, one of the dharma heirs of his second teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa. He was given the name Sokuzan.

While Sokuzan was in Minnesota, a fellow meditator invited him to come along to a prison where he would be talking to some inmates about meditation. After moving back to Michigan, he continued the practice.

Sokuzan doesn't count the people he thinks he might have impacted nor does he track them, but he's had former inmates come donate time to SokukoJi after getting out of prison and seen people who have completed recovery programs at A Forever Recovery come to the monastery to continue studying meditation.

A Forever Recovery is in its 11th year of business. Sokuzan and his students have been teaching a meditation class there for nearly the entire time it's existed.

"There isn't one modality of recovery support that fits all people, and we want to expose our population to the different types of recovery groups that they can use when they get home," said Pamela Anderson, the executive director of A Forever Recovery. "We want clients to look at all these modalities of recovery, so when they leave here they can find people who are like-minded and help them maintain their sobriety, so that's why we do it and it's been very effective."

Sokuzan doesn't teach Buddhism at A Forever Recovery, though he happily answers any questions clients might have for him. What he focuses on and repeats often in a session is to "train your mind."

A typical session at A Forever Recovery looks like this: There is an introduction of SokukoJi and its style of meditation, attendees are brought through roughly 15 minutes of guided meditation, and then there is a question and answer session.

"I'm not very religious, and it was a way to look into something new," said Domanic Hunnicutt, 22, who has attended sessions at A Forever Recovery and visited the monastery once. "I find that every time, when I get to the end and he says 'Turn around,' I feel a smile on my face. When I walked in today, I was losing it and I could feel angry, but when I turned around, I was happy."

For the guided meditation, clients face the wall and are guided through focusing on each of their senses for a period of time.

"I think it's sitting there with a blank mind, staring into nothing, looking for nothing, just being aware of what comes to you and doing nothing with it," Hunnicutt said.

Angella Porter, 19, attended her first class recently.

"I was negative before," Porter said. "I didn't know what it was going to be like. I didn't want to stare at a wall for an hour, but when I went in there and tried it, it was very self-awakening. It was nice."

Porter has family members who have practiced Buddhism, which is why she decided to try the class.

"It actually turned out to be a good experience," she said. "Everything just flows. You're not pushing it away, you're not pulling it to you, you're just letting it flow. I do have a lot of psychological problems, and it helps me calm down and breathe, just relax."

Published: Thu, Dec 06, 2018

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