Alarmed by the high rates of incarceration in the United States, the Dalai Lama (in the 1990s), specifically asked 50 American Buddhists to serve the American prison population. One who responded o the Dalai Lama was Anna Cox, an Arkansas social worker and therapist. Interestingly, once her commitment was established, she received a letter from a man on death row in Arkansas who explained he had embraced Buddhism. His name was Frankie Parker. Cox responded and then visited.
According to Morgan Leyenberger, executive director at Compassion Works for All, the organization that Lama Cox founded for the purpose of serving the prison population and their families, a certain degree of freedom was allowed because of the nature of her professional specialization.“At the time she was allowed to just go to death row and walk around,” Morgan relates. “So she was walking around to people's cells, she was teaching meditation, and also just counseling because she was a practicing psychotherapist. So through her relationship with Frankie and others over time, she came to do prison outreach.”
Ironically, it was Parker’s execution that contributed to the outreach work. “Frankie Parker was executed in 1996 and after his execution an article was written about him in which Anna’s name was mentioned,” says Leyenberger. “Then a few people who were also on death row around the country started writing to her. She began a newsletter to correspond with these people who were in prison. Many of them were seeking coping strategies for dealing with their own scheduled execution.”
That newsletter, Dharma Friends, continues today, and until two-and-a-half years ago Lama Cox wrote all of the content for those issues. Dharma Friends is now in its 226th issue and is distributed in all 50 US states and in five countries. When tasked with teaching Buddhism to death row inmates, the text chosen was the Dhammapada, an anthology of verses attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha.
“Anna chose to write from the Dhammapada because she wanted a text directly from the Buddha that would be accessible to any Buddhist in any tradition,” Leyenberger explains. “She didn’t want the newsletter to be Vajrayana, Mahayana, or Theravada—she wanted it to be all-encompassing. She said that the Dhammapada is a foundational text that is instructive for us all, regardless of the path we’re on.”
(read the complete feature at www.buddhistdoor.net)