THE CHARNEL GROUND (Coming Soon)
Co-Director & Co-Editor
with Daniel Fox
Every week 10,000 people are released from US prisons. Within five years, 75% will end up re-incarcerated. What exactly do we expect of these people, and how do we value their lives both inside prison and out? It seems that as a society, we prefer to pretend they don’t exist at all.
The Charnel Ground follows eight men in their first year of release following 20-40 years in some of the country's most violent correctional institutions. Resettled in a transitional facility built on the grounds of an abandoned insane asylum in rural Georgia, they now face life in the free world. Many of these prison survivors share stories of traumatic childhoods shaped by abuse and addiction. Many were teens when they made life-altering decisions that put them in prison for decades. Years later, they are now free — but without jobs, transportation, education, or counseling, they have almost no access to the resources that would help them rejoin society in a meaningful way.
In Buddhist tradition, the charnel ground is the above-ground site where bodies are left to decompose. It is a vista of corpses, scavenging animals, and purification. In charnel ground practice, practitioners intentionally place themselves in these confronting environments in order to gain understanding of the vulnerability of life. Without turning away in fear, discomfort, or aversion, these practitioners learn to see the world as it really is.
The profound suffering of the charnel ground exists metaphorically in our modern world too, wherever there is despair, deceit, fear, delusion, or wrath — be it a refugee camp, an abusive household, even a corporate boardroom. In the words of Roshi Joan Halifax: “Whatever our profession or calling, charnel ground practice is available; we are always sitting in the midst of subtle or obvious suffering. The mire we fall into when we go over the edge—this also is a charnel ground. It’s a place where we have to face our own struggles, and where our compassion for others who are struggling in the depths can grow strong […] When we take a wider view, we see that a charnel ground is not only a place of desolation, but also a place of boundless possibility.”
Are we a culture that locks people up and throws away the key? Do we believe in atonement and redemption? If we designate those who cause harm as irredeemable, what does that mean for each of our lives? How much longer can the fabric of our society sustain this model of carceral punishment over rehabilitation? And what might it feel like to instead enter the charnel ground of human suffering, witness without turning away, and allow ourselves to be changed by what we find?