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Andre Smith

When I first came to the Kadampa Center, and started studying Buddha’s teachings, they really had a powerful impact on me.  I have always felt compassion in my heart, even when I was a very young kid, so I came with that spark of compassion—it is just who I am—and I think that is why the teachings really resonated with me.  When I was very young, my mother was always worried about me because I was one of those kids who was always into something. She used to have books laying out in hopes that I would pick one up and learn something from it.  When I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I found one book called, The Cross and the Switchblade. It was written by David Wilkerson and tells the true story of his work as a pastor in the inner-city of New York, ministering to disheartened kids, offering to them alternatives to drugs and gang violence. As I read it, I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those books that gripped me. When I finished it I had a realization of what I was supposed to be doing with my life. At that very young age I already knew what my purpose in life was. I rebelled, however, against that notion and spent much of my life doing everything I could to avoid realizing that purpose.

Now, knowing what my purpose is, knowing why I exist, and living it enables me to find contentment.  While resisting this path, I was always frustrated.  I was discontented and dissatisfied because I knew I was supposed to be doing something else, but I could not get a handle on what it was.  While I was working against the direction that my life was supposed to be headed, I was doing all these very stupid, destructive things with drugs and petty crime, small-time breaking and entering, that kind of stuff.  I engaged in all these activities that were not bringing any satisfaction, not bringing any happiness, and I knew that I was out of my element.  I didn’t know where I fit.  I ran away from my path because I just wanted to be a normal guy. There was always this pull, this spark, but I have always resisted it.  I come from a family of religious people, at least on one side, ministers and people like that, but I didn’t want to be that. So now I think I’ve found the right place:  I’m not a preacher, but I am a teacher, which is sort of like preaching, but without saying, “You’re going to go to hell if you don’t do what I am saying.”

I remember one time I was just walking on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh near where the Catholic Church is.  There was this priest walking by—he had a collar on.  I thought how great it would be if you were just walking, if you were just a regular guy, and people could just feel the kindness and love from you without them ever knowing that you were anything special or different.  Once you put on a special uniform, people relate to you in a certain way.  What if people could relate to you with respect and kindness without any of that?

It reminded me a little of what Gesha-la was saying Sunday.  The squirrels don’t know that he is a monk, but they do know that he would never harm them—even a fly could feel safe.  I’ve always felt like that is the way it should be.  It shouldn’t be about whether you’re a Catholic or a Baptist or whether you’re this or that.  It should really be just that you’re a kind person and that people feel safe and want to be around you.

After I had been studying at the Kadampa Center for about a year or so and had taken the Discovering Buddhism classes, Herb Cunningham asked me whether working with him in prison would interest me.  I was a student at NC State at the time and, at first, I did not think I would really have the time for it.  I also did not know if I could do it or even if I would want to do it.  Herb, being typically Herb, persisted at getting me to go and gave me plenty of time to really consider it.  And then, when I met the Venerable Robina for the first time and heard her teachings, I learned that she was involved with prison work. Hearing her teachings and her stories about these guys triggered that realization that I had when I was a kid, and this time it was just too strong to ignore. The more I learned and experienced through practicing the Buddha’s teachings, the more I felt like I had to do something with these teachings—to just sit and hold compassion in my heart wasn't enough for me—I actually had to take action.


Whenever I talk about compassion, people think, “Oh, you are saying that I should just allow myself to be a doormat, just invite them to come in and take advantage of me.”  But my experience has been that you get the exact opposite of that.  Instead of attracting people who take advantage of you, you actually attract people who want to be with you, who admire you, who want to benefit you, who want to be around you.  But you will never know how it works until you practice it.

It is a matter of letting go, saying, “Even if a person wants to hurt me, even if this person takes my life, then that is OK.”  With that attitude, I can trust people fearlessly.  I always think about what Shantideva said:  “if I have already given up my body, then what does it matter what you do with it?”  This was the attitude of the Christ; this was the attitude of the Buddha; this was the attitude of Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, so we know that it can be done.  But we have to have the courage to it, and it does take a lot of courage to open up.  I certainly did it.  I finally decided that I am just going to start opening up and including people, give them the opportunity either to take advantage of me or to do the exact opposite. I do not find people want to hurt me or take advantage of me.

People denigrate idealism as unrealistic.  The idealists make the changes.  Buddha, Gandhi, and Christ:  they were idealists.  And Thoreau, Emerson, the writers and all these guys:  they were idealists.  They inspire us to their idealism.  I think that is how growth takes place, inside that place of possibilities, for them and for us.  We are all in it together.  And we all can transform and become better together.

In order for me to be happy and live a meaningful life, I have got to be compassionate.  It is one thing to have this compassion, but if you’ve been given this precious gift and you are just holding it to yourself, that seems very selfish, you know?  I’ve been given these teachings that have transformed my life, that have made me feel so much better about myself and the world, but I am not going to just hold onto them because that is extremely selfish.  That awareness convinced me that this prison work is what I am supposed to do, this would be something to help give my life purpose.

Living with Purpose

When I finally found these teachings on compassion and finally found the Kadampa Center and finally found this wonderful teacher, Robina, it was like I really knew that I finally found where I fit.  I found my element; I was no longer a fish out of water—I was now in the water.  And so I could swim, and I could do the things I was supposed to be doing in life.  Now I tell these guys in prison that I look forward to every Friday because I cannot think of anything more satisfying than helping people actually figure stuff out and begin to make the change in their life that they want to make.  For me, if one prisoner makes this change in his life, then that makes it all worthwhile because that one person is going to be the seed for someone else, and someone else, and someone else.  Everybody wants to be kind and compassionate.  It is in our DNA; it is who we are.  Everybody wants that, but we just don’t know where we fit.

People are always asking me, “Why are you happy?  You’ve got this disability; you’ve got all this crap going on, and your son was murdered.  How can you be happy?”  It is because I live my life in service—that brings me happiness.  I’m open; I’ll give you a shot.  If you want to hurt me, that is on you.  Even if you kill me, you’ve got to live with what you’ve done.  That is your karma.  People say that I would be justified wanting the guy who killed my son to suffer.  On one level, you could say that I would be justified if you believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But that kind of thinking is fruitless. It doesn’t change anything for the better. As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye will only make the world blind.”

I volunteer for a couple of groups other than the Kadampa Center Prison Project. I also volunteer for Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Restorative Justice.  In our meetings we sit in a circle, and we tell our stories.  Some people are still living their loss after seven years, twenty years—they still can’t let it go. What can you do?  There is nothing I can do or say.  They hear my story of forgiveness, but they don’t see how they could get there or even if they should get there.  I thought my daughter would be angry at me for forgiving her brother’s killer but, after a time, she told her mom, “I’m not mad at Dad.  I am just angry at myself because I can’t get there.”  You do question yourself and ask, “What is wrong with me?  Is it because I do not love my son?”  It is not an easy path.

How I Can Benefit Prisoners

I finally started going with Herb and Ben White to Nash Correctional Institution.  Herb wanted everyone to be able to work independently, but it took me a while because I was actually pretty shy. After gaining some confidence, I went to Caledonia Correctional on my own for a little bit, but when I needed a place closer, I went back to Nash, and that became the place I go—I feel like it is my place now because I have been going there about ten years.  I know where I fit.

I wasn’t always this nice guy; I know that I’ve brought a lot of pain.  I almost couldn’t help myself to bring pain; it becomes your habit—you think you have to be this way because you’ve got to get respect, people have to fear you.  If you aren’t this way, then no one is ever going to respect you.  Typically, for the guys I work with in prison, respect is synonymous with fear:  if you fear me, then that is respect.  If you fear me, then I’m the biggest and the baddest—I’ve got the biggest gun, whatever, and you fear me.  I am going to get your respect.  They just have no idea—I had no idea—on the flipside of that, just by being what people consider a doormat, I get the exact opposite.  I get respect; I get kindness; I get all the things I ever wanted, simply by giving all of that to others.  To me it is kind of simple.  But you’ve got to get there, right?

I have been doing this long enough now that some of the guys have been released and some of them stay in touch with me.  They tell me how they are doing.  One guy, now out, goes through something and gives me a call for advice, so that tells me that this is all worthwhile.  I have had a couple of guys who got out and are now back in again—one of them has gotten back in touch with me again after a long while.  He said that he didn’t call or write me because he felt so bad, but I said, “That’s OK.”  He had contacted some other people and organizations, but they did not respond to him—they just dropped him—and he said, “Andre, you’re the only one that still believes in me.”  I said, “How could I not believe in you?”  This is a process.  This is not overnight.

We know that our students are going to slip.  They only thing that we require is that they try.  That is all—just make the effort, every day.  They are going to screw up; I screw up. I tell them, “Without support from my Kadampa family as well as from my wife and my daughter— if I didn’t have people I can rely on—I don’t know what I would be doing.  So how can I just turn my back on you when I know that I need people to help me to stay on this path?”

What Classes are Like

There are some pretty evil people in the prisons. There is no sugar-coating it.  One of the lieutenants at Nash said, “You are just getting the cream of the crop.  They’re not all like this.”  He was pointing out that they actually volunteer—it takes a certain mindset for someone to say, “I want this class,” because of the others from which they could choose.

The best that we can do is to plant some seeds that might later grow into strong fruits of compassion and forgiveness.  I do my best to plant a lot of seeds without being preachy or teachy.  I mean I’m always teaching—that is kind of who I am—I talk about giving the guy who killed my son forgiveness, and I also explain why.  The reason is because I want to be happy.  If I keep holding on to this stuff year after year after year, I will be totally unhappy.  I am hoping that hearing my story will help them see that if they, too, want to be happy, then it is imperative that they let it go. I don’t think you have a choice.  If you want to be happy, you have got to forgive.  You’ve got to heal.  You’ve got to have compassion.  That is the best we can do, I think. Most of them are unable to forgive and have compassion for themselves. “This is where you must start”, I tell them. 

I tell the prisoners:  “This is your university.  This is it.  There are lessons to be learned, and you keep getting those lessons until you learn them.”  And then, when we learn the lessons, we can teach them.  I am limited as to what I can teach because my experience is limited. But I have had enough experience with, for example, anger and have overcome enough that I feel qualified to teach about letting go of anger because I have been able to do that.  That is the stuff that I stick to.  The stuff that is not in my wheelhouse I don’t know and I don’t teach.  I teach the stuff that I know works.

Meditation plays an important role in my prison work because you can calm your mind, and when you calm your mind, you can begin to see your thoughts and you can begin to work on those things that need to be worked on.  Maybe your blood pressure will go down, I don’t know.  What I am saying is meditate because then you will begin to see these thoughts, these crazy thoughts, that cause you to do what you are doing and then you can work on getting rid of those thoughts and planting new seeds, new thoughts.

Benefits to Prisoners

There is this one guy who is never going to get out, and he struggled with that.  He is a writer—I just bought one of his books. He started attending the classes, and he now says, “I find contentment because I know that this place is where I am, that I can make it what I want it to be.”  So he has decided he wants to make it a nice place.  He realized that the only way to make it a nice place is to create that environment himself.  I tell him,

This place can be what you want it to be.  You are the boss; it is your mind.  This place can be a prison, or it can be a monastery; it can be your temple, or it can be your Zen Do.  These clothes can be the way of defining you, to keep you down, or you can say, “These are my robes—this is who I am!”  You determine that; it is not really what anyone else thinks—you determine who you are.
Once I understood that I had control, that I had this power, oh man, the transformation that took place!  I don’t have to be this way?  It is tough.  It is scary when you first start out, but not so much when it becomes your way of being—it is not scary anymore.

Another guy, when he started the class, was filled with anger.  He said that he just wakes up and he wants to hurt somebody.  So he started taking the class because the prison psychologist thought he could really benefit from it.  At first, he was just so quiet.  He would just sit and listen, and every now and then he would say something, often just to try to get a laugh.  He would throw out some really awful curse words just to get attention, just to get a rise.  But then he started changing—you could actually see the transformation taking place in his posture and everything.  His face began to soften—it was brighter.  He was released from prison; he has been out for over a year now, and he is still not in trouble or anything.  He is holding a job. It is obvious that this class benefited him. There is no mistaking it.

Another guy has been in class for about as long as I’ve been teaching there.  Just last year, he opened up as to what happened in his life; he was abused and sexually molested by a relative, and he also became a sex offender.  He could discuss it because we were talking about the crimes that people commit.  They have this hierarchy of crimes, and sex offenders are at the very bottom.  I tell them, “Listen, a crime is a crime.”  So finally he opened up and, for the first time, said, “I am in here because I was sexually molested over and over again,” and for him to divulge that took a lot of courage. Opening up took him several years. It could only happen because he felt safe and believed that he would not be judged.

Benefits to Communities

Creating people who are loving, kind, compassionate, who would not harm even a fly, benefits everybody, even if you do not even know it.  People live their lives in fear when they see a person dressed a certain way, an African-American male dressed in a hoodie, for example.  We live our lives in fear.  But if we help people become kind, compassionate, loving people who would not harm even a fly, then everyone will begin to feel safe, to lighten up a bit, to loosen up.  That is what I’m about:  I envision a world where our kids can go outside again, where our kids could talk to a stranger without fear and make a friend.  I know we’re a long way from that—it is extremely idealistic, but I am an idealist.

You have to ask yourself whether that protective mistrust has really served you well.  If you are living your life not trusting and always being overly cautious, how happy are you?  If we can open up and just let go and begin to trust, then we can find happiness, and that serves us well.  But always living our life filled with destructive emotions—that is their life, incarcerated people.  They are always worried about who might come, who is doing this, when are they going to do it, why are they doing it—"I am going to get them before they get me!" Without some help, they can’t find any happiness like that.  The way that I understand it, the way that I teach it is, the more that we can let go of all that stuff, when we really begin to be more open and more trusting, then the happier we can be.  You get the exact opposite of what you think you’re going to get.

I hope that correctional officers see that their jobs becomes a lot easier because they witness fewer infractions.  Some of the prisoners will tell you straight up, “I haven’t had an infraction in one year, two years,” and they attribute it to this class.  So I know that it is true, and I think that the problem is that we on the outside do not really think these guys can be rehabilitated.  We think that incarceration’s primary role is punishment, not rehabilitation.

The MVFR, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, group went and talked to politicians about the Racial Justice Act, including the state’s governor.  Our group is against the death penalty, but many politicians tend to be in favor of it.  They often think that the only alternative to the death penalty is letting offenders get away with something.  I said to Governor Perdue,

No, Governor.  That is not what we’re saying.  That is certainly not what I’m saying.  I think definitely if you’ve committed the crime, you’ve got to do all of your time, without a doubt.  The focus, however, has to be on rehabilitation rather than on punishment because some of these guys will be getting out.  What kind of human beings do you want them to be when they get out?  If you don’t focus on rehabilitation, letting people come in and do whatever they can to try to help them, the problem is just going to exacerbate—it is just going to continue.
That approach really helps politicians feel more comfortable with opposition to the death penalty.  If they think we are just saying, “Let all these people who have committed crimes warranting the death penalty get away with it,” then of course they will oppose our efforts. But, if there is an alternative approach—an educational effort aimed at looking at the mind and changing the way that we think and behave—they can get on board with that.

Benefits to Volunteers

Going into prisons can help you become more open—it is just the nature of the work, the effect it has on you. I am always trying to make it personal and make it real.  So I tell the guys all about me and my stuff, and that opens them up, and they begin to share about how their father or mother treated them or about how they were physically and/or sexually abused, which is very, very tough for them to admit.  When you open up to them about your own situation, the prisoners will respond to you.  That is what we have got to do.  We have got to create an environment in which they feel safe enough to talk about it.

It is important to know, as instructors, that we need this as much as the prisoners do. I keep insisting that this has got to be real.  For these guys to really open up and tell their stories, we have got to really open up and tell them our stories.  That is how we are going to develop trust.  Until they can open up, nothing really changes. The same thing applies for us.  When our protective shell finally begins to crack and we begin to open up a little bit, it starts to take on a life of its own and we see more changes within ourselves.

We have got to realize that this class is not just for them.  This class is for all of us.  These teachings apply to us, too, so if we are talking about opening up, then we have got to open up.  That is when spiritual growth happens, theirs and ours.  Very interestingly, that is when you get excited about the prison work because you see that you are changing, that it really helps you.  The more we do it, the more we see that it is benefitting us, the more we want to do it.