“Our System Isn’t Restorative” 

2 weeks ago

Dan Troyak is Australia’s first full-time Buddhist prison chaplain. He recently opened a retreat center called Yulo Kopa in New South Wales, north of Sydney. He recently spoke with Tricycle about his prison chaplaincy and his own dharma practice. Dan last spoke with Tricycle in 2022. He can be found online at BuddhistCounselling.net 

Tell me about Australia’s prison system. We have a very similar structure to that of the United States. We have state-run prisons, and all the states run their prison systems independently. I’m most familiar with what we do in New South Wales. I’d like to say that we have a chaplaincy service that is the gold standard. We have government support, [and] we’re able to draw an income on this work, which allows us to be dedicated to it. 

At the moment, our prison population is the lowest it’s ever been. It’s maybe a post-COVID phenomenon. The system that we work in is very similar to the US model, far from the models of Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. But change is always happening in corrections, there’s always something different, a different style, or a different approach [emerging]. 

Are we healing people? Are we really putting all the effort into restoration [that] we can? I think we could do better. But that’s not a criticism. Australia is a convict nation. We have a history of convicts and inmates. We have a stigma associated with prisons and people who go to jail. We don’t sort of see that as being something very positive, because our system isn’t restorative.

Society has rules, and Australia is a secular country. If we don’t have a religious base or religious ethics, then perhaps we have secular ethics. And [since] those secular ethics are not standard in this country, we don’t have a [single] standard secular ethics, we have laws, so people follow laws, and that’s considered in many people’s eyes as the base of ethical conduct. Follow the law, [and] if you don’t follow the law, well, it’s not well received.

How does the chaplain system work within the prison system? You’re teaching meditation and you’re working with prisoners? Are you working with corrections officers? Absolutely. We even work with the governors of the jails. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that we have an all-encompassing, holistic approach to well-being and happiness right now. It’s not something that’s in the future. For many other traditions, the view is that in the future, it will get better. It’s unbelievable promoting that and being able to support people with mindfulness and meditation, but also going into the deepest stuff, [like] working with trauma. The dharma is so profound. It’s psychology. It’s philosophy. It’s religion. It’s a way of life we love. We hear that so much. But also because Australia is secular, that holistic Buddhist approach to [an] all-encompassing well-being is very well received. Right now, Buddhism is incredibly fashionable amongst inmates, amongst staff, and on the outside. 

Often, I’ll have different departments of the jail contact me and ask for conflict resolution support [or] help in developing relationships. Also, I run an eight-part program that works with staff to inspire them to improve their [own] mental health and how to work well together as a team. [The program] encompasses things like meditation, living mindfully, integrity, and conflict resolution. I’ve been able to use things that I’ve learned from my teachers—like Avikrita Vajra Rinpoche of the Phuntsok Phodrang of Sakya and Dorje Denpa Rinpoche of the Dzongpa branch of Sakya—with their support and their teachings.

Do you look to your teachers for guidance in building a curriculum? I’m definitely not a teacher. There’s been no formal monastic training here. However, I have received training from my teachers in this sort of work. So I like to say that I share in the dharma, I share what I do, I share what I know. I certainly won’t be giving teachings on deep philosophy when I’m not trained in it. But talking about how I improve my mental health, my well-being, how I worked through trauma, and learning to let go—I can do that, using those tools that were given to me by my teachers.

How did you get involved in prison work? A very kind and supportive friend of mine shared a Facebook post with me that said the Buddhist Council of New South Wales was looking for prison chaplains. At this time, I had a great fear of going to jail. It was actually a very deep unrest or fear of being locked up, of not even doing anything but just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought, I’ve got to get over this fear, and [maybe] the only way to do it is to just go into it head-on. Maybe the best way is not to get arrested. Maybe I could do it this way.

What do your teachers think of your work? Are they curious about what you do? Our teachers are there to support not only our dharma work but also our spiritual work. They understand the teachings on suffering, interdependence, interconnection. So they’re not surprised, because suffering is suffering. It doesn’t matter if you’re in jail or outside, it is there. 

What I receive from them is an unbelievable amount of spiritual support. Of course, I’m very lucky to be able to receive emotional support if needed. And if there are dharma questions that arise that I’m not sure how to answer, I have that support network there. I see them as not just my gurus but my real teachers, my tutors, and my overall well-being support.

Tell me about your students, the people who are coming to you in the system. I’m a really casual guy. I dress sporty, I walk in as I am. Because of that, I connect with people very easily. I [even] drew a bit of attention in the yard. People will come and ask who I am, so it’s [been] easy to create a connection and [to have a] rapport with people. 

We have a high proportion of indigenous people in jail, which is incredibly, incredibly sad for a nation of multicultural people. We have a long way to go. Many indigenous people are very curious about Buddhism, because there is a deep spirituality in [those communities] and they recognize the interconnectedness of all things. I’ve had wonderful connections with young indigenous men who have had deaths in their families. Death [usually requires] a sacred ceremony, but that’s very difficult to do in jail. [So] we’re able to use Buddhism to provide the support that’s needed for ceremonies and so on. And the inmates appreciate that, and they see that there’s a connection, or even an overlap, in some of those things. 

The other group that I connect with, or at least find coming to me, are Caucasian Australians, especially younger men, who want to work on themselves, who are not happy in life, who have either done things that were not good for themselves and others, or who are in the system and perhaps shouldn’t be. There are many Caucasian men [in the system] who want to work with trauma, who want to work on themselves.

You talk about Australia as a secular country. What happened with the indigenous religion? Was that consciously destroyed over time? I have heard stories when working with indigenous people. I have sat with people and connected on a deep level of storytelling. And what I see is that there is a tremendous amount of trauma, handed down from generation to generation, and a deep distrust for society, and for the political system, and so on. But what I want to focus on with [our] indigenous inmates is [the] here and now. How do we work with what we’re feeling? How do we work with what we’ve been carrying? History is important, there’s no denying that culture is important. There’s [also] no denying that, unfortunately, a lot of the [indigenous] religious practices have been lost.

Are people looking for meditation? What are people asking you? Oh, yes, absolutely. If anyone attends any one of my group sessions in the prison chapel, what they’ll see is not just someone who’s teaching mindfulness or shamatha (calming the mind or calm abiding) but someone who will engage with them. What’s happening for them in that space? What is it like for them right now? What’s happening in their wing or their yard right now? And they share with me the stresses that are there, and I can offer tools to help. 

What they’re asking for is not just calm, cool, and collected mindfulness. I teach integrated practice, integrated into your everyday life. And that includes ethics, meditation, the dharma, mental health tools, conflict resolution, communication, relationships—everything.

The prison community is its own community. The rules are very well defined but also they change all the time. But people need to know how to operate in this new kind of community. The prison system, regardless of where you are in the world, is a very small, densely populated, and finely tuned samsara where the stress is high. There’s nowhere to retreat. There’s nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to hide, you cannot distract yourself. It is just a really small, intense samsara.

Tell me a little bit about Yulo Kopa, the center you’re starting. Buddhism here in Australia is very small. We officially have 500,000 Buddhists, but, of course, the interest is huge. We don’t have a lot of visiting teachers. And we don’t have a huge monastic population. So the dharma can be fragmented, especially in regional Australia, where it’s really inaccessible. My vision is to make the dharma more accessible in regional and rural areas, a space where people can come together and form spiritual friendships—kalyana mitrata. I’d like to see a space that incorporates an all-round well-being approach that uses the dharma as a basis for living well and with integrity. There’ll be visiting teachers of all traditions, and our first is H.E. Dorje Denpa Rinpoche. 

Have you worked with inmates who are now on the outside? And have any of those relationships continued? I’m very happy to say that in one particular part of the prison system where we have violent offenders, every one of those men that I’ve supported with Buddhist chaplaincy has been released and [has not been sent] back. That, for me, is not a personal achievement but a testament to the dharma. These men have investigated Buddhism and integrated the dharma into their everyday lives. They’ve done the homework, they’re doing the work, and now they’re really living their lives to the fullest. That makes me incredibly happy. 

Original Article