A Lesson in Urban Karma : Teenage Inmates Learn Nonviolence Through Sound of Silence


The 18-year-old carjacker and probation camp inmate furrowed his brow as he carefully tapped grains of orange sand out of a hollow tube, sketching a fine line around a mandala--a three-foot-wide sand painting.

"When I came here, I didn't have no patience," said Jimmy, a Maywood gang member incarcerated at Camp David Gonzales who is studying the ancient art under Tibetan monks. "When somebody looked at me wrong, I'd hit them."

"Now I got patience."

An onlooking monk smiled approvingly.

In classroom 1 at Camp Gonzales, talk is of the Dalai Lama, the sound of silence and mandalas. Six Tibetan monks are spending a month there, spreading the enlightenment of their remote Himalayan monasteries among the camp's hardened teens.

By teaching the juvenile chronic offenders the ancient art of sand painting--creating intricately patterned mandalas from multicolored grains of sand--the monks hope to spread their message of nonviolence and patience.

Regulations require inmates to walk with hands clasped behind their backs, partly to keep them from starting fights by making gang signs. Nobody expects them to immediately ditch street garb for scarlet robes and start drinking yak milk. Including the monks.

"This doesn't mean that to stop violence, you just call the monks from India and do some sand painting," said monk Sonam Wangchuk.

But organizers hope a month with the monks will broaden the horizons of youths whose world is largely limited to their gangs and nudge them from their path of violence.

Camp administrators are glad the monks are there. "Fewer kids come out [of the classes] with any kind of agitation," said Principal Gloria Newell.

"I never did something like this," Jimmy said as he smoothed out the lines of the mandala, decorated with sayings like "Stay in School" and the names of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. "It's different from gang work. We do block letters with gang-related words. These are peaceful words."

The program is the brainchild of Barry Bryant, director of the New York-based Samaya Foundation, formed to spread Tibetan culture through the West. Two years ago, he brought a group of Tibetan monks to the Watts Towers for some sand painting. This summer, he contacted the monks from Guyto Tantric University in India--where they settled after moving from Tibet--and asked them if they would cut short a U.S. tour to help fight violence in Los Angeles.

The monks enthusiastically agreed, but when they arrived at the camp last month, there was no instant karma.

"When they first chanted, we were like tripping out," recalled Lamont, 16, of Compton.

At first, the teenagers bombarded the monks with streetwise skepticism about nonviolence and celibacy, but after undergoing tutelage, links have been forged.

"The monks are pretty bad," said an inmate from South-Central, using a street language term as a high compliment.

Now the teenagers can say "Goodbye" and other words in Tibetan. In return, they're teaching the monks some English and Spanish and the handshakes of streetwise Angelenos.

"What really gets me," said Robert, an 18-year-old from Pacoima serving time for assault and battery, "is that those monks don't get mad."

Wednesday morning, the monks greeted the students outside the classroom: " Buenos dias ."

Inside, Bryant told the teenagers to listen to their breathing and meditate on the sounds of silence. After a few minutes of quiet fidgeting, discussion began.

Bryant asked the teens what they had experienced while meditating.

"I experienced a lot of fools moving around," replied one.

What, Bryant asked, were they thinking of as they meditated?

"How I messed up and how I'm going to get out of here," said a slim prisoner named Daniel. "I think of the same thing every day."

Donald, 17, said he violated the monks' code of nonviolence the night before, when a fellow inmate was taunting him. "I was practicing nonviolence by just lying on my bed and locking out what this fool had to say," he said. But the other inmate, frustrated by Donald's silence, grabbed him by the neck.

So Donald hit him.

"He was testing you," Bryant said. "You should say 'Thank you for testing me.' "

"It ain't like that around here," said one inmate.

"You can't give up," Bryant said. "What happened to Martin Luther King . . . ? He changed our entire system. Because he stuck to his guns with nonviolence, he changed our society."

As the probationers began sand painting, some remained skeptical.

"I don't go to my friends saying 'C'mon, guys, let's stop doing bad things.' " said Joel, 16, a short, skinny carjacker who hails from a tough neighborhood in North Long Beach. "You don't use big words in front of your homies."

Moments later, he huddled in a corner with Thupten Chonyi, reading to the monk from an English language textbook.

The inmates' mandala sports the names of rapper Coolio and actor Edward James Olmos, as well as the words "Keep your head up," and "I Have a Dream" emblazoned across a map of Africa. The monks are doing their own mandala as a demonstration, consisting of traditional images of flowers and the wheel of life.

At a later class, a husky inmate named Mark asked the monks whether they were enjoying their stay or "laughing at us."

"We won't laugh," Sonam said. "You must remember, there is somebody who cares for you," he said. "Somebody brought us from India to come over here."

By Dec. 14, both mandalas will be finished. That's the date when, in keeping with Tibetan tradition, the monks and teenagers will destroy them--sweeping the sand into an urn and emptying it into the Pacific Ocean.

At first, many of the probationers were as baffled by this practice as they were by the monks' chanting and nonviolence. All this work, just to dump it into the sea? But now Jimmy of Maywood says he understands.

"This'll go everywhere in the world," he said.

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