A little over five years ago, in my role as an Associate Warden with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I was privileged to be mentored by a man named David Bacigalupo, who isn’t Buddhist, yet he radiated the four immeasurables to such an extent that he profoundly changed my life. The timing of this mentorship couldn’t have been more perfect. I had over twenty-five years of experience in law enforcement and had worked both in the most violent of environments and the most positive of environments and was in a position where I could have substantial influence over the lives of many people - yet I wasn’t prepared for the responsibility.
I believed I was a good man, and tried to help others as best I could, but as I watched Dave interact with inmates I realized I was only partly fulfilling my duties as a law enforcement official and a member of my community. He wasn’t just professional and courteous, he tried to make a positive imprint on every inmate (and staff member) he had contact with. It didn’t matter the crime they committed, the color of their skin, their gang affiliation or their intellect, he reached out with loving kindness, compassion and empathy to men who were commonly marginalized. Yes, we fed and clothed them, and at times tried to provide them with inspiration, but until I watched Dave in action, I didn’t know we usually ignored the most crucial truth - that the inmates continued to be human beings.
As I interacted more closely with the inmates in their self-help groups I began to hear terms I recognized such as: mindfulness, loving kindness, compassion and meditation. I learned that many of the men practiced Buddhist techniques as they developed their skills to deal with anger, fear and sorrow. The techniques they employed required the men to discard the excuses they had worn for much of their lives and face the deeds that had caused them to end up in prison. It was difficult for me to watch as these men accepted the truth of how their actions had caused so much pain to others. I had to hide my own tears as I watched men breakdown when the realization of their actions struck their hearts. And I had even more difficulty when I watched their peers reach out to them with love and compassion; without consideration of race or previous gang affiliations. In an environment where someone can be killed for sharing food or even conversation - to watch men of different races comfort and embrace each other was overwhelming.
Over my years in the prison environment, I had learned to require tangible evidence of sustainable change within our men before I agreed to sing their praises. As such we developed a tracking system of the disciplinary records of the hundreds of inmates in our self-help groups and over the next two years I was amazed and gratified that the records proved the efficacy of the programs. Their disciplinary records were significantly lower than men not enrolled in the programs and directly resulted in earlier release dates, to include the release of lifer inmates. I am no longer hesitant to sing the praises of these men, the staff facilitators or the methods employed.
My journey with Dave and our men opened another door, perhaps the most important. At one point I learned that volunteers were experiencing difficulty when being processed into the institution. I was able to safely reduce the red tape all volunteers faced and as a result I met volunteer Jon Landaw - who introduced me to Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi. As we talked about our men, I mentioned that I was amazed by the incredible changes I had witnessed and how I hoped to be able to make similar changes in my own life. The next thing I knew I was at the Vajrapani Institute experiencing my first formal meditation training “Mindfulness and Reality: Introduction to Meditation”.
I’m 6’1", have a black belt and used to be the commander of a Crisis Response Team (commonly referred to as “SWAT”) yet I was scared to death to go on this retreat. Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi and the staff made me feel safe and welcome. The location was so beautiful and peaceful and the schedule was full yet sensible. There were attendees of all levels of experience and they all sensed my fear and reached out to provide me the support I needed throughout the retreat. I felt that I was an honored family member returning home after being lost for many years. At Vajrapani I have found a place to study and develop the skills I need to be a better servant, husband, father and man. I am so thankful to those I met who have helped me realize this moment in my life. I am already planning a return trip with my wife and kids.
Bill Wilson is an Assistant Warden who manages 2,800 inmates through the California Departement of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In May 2013, inspired by witnessing the profound change of some of his inmates, he attended his first ever retreat led by one of the teacher of those inmates, Venerable Tenzin Chokgyi. He was looking to make the same transformation. Please help us in supporting amazing life transforming journeys like Bill's by donating now.