“Meditation can help us know deeper forms of happiness,” posits Cuong Lu. “It can help us connect with our feelings and thus our stability.”

The Buddhist (or “Buddha,” as he came to be known in his time as a prison chaplain) is a master of the art of meditation. However, in his book The Buddha in Jail (O/R Books), Lu dispenses, in equal parts, the wisdom he learned studying at a monastery and the lessons gleaned from the prisoners he worked with.

After leaving Plum Village, where he was educated on the Dharma, Lu was hired by the Dutch government to work as a prison chaplain. As Dutch prisons have nondenominational Silent Centers and grant inmates the right to an hour per week for “spiritual care,” Lu set up shop in the Silent Center and started spreading the word of Buddhism.

Slowly but surely inmates began coming to him to meditate. In addition to these meditation sessions, Lu would deliver lectures, and the men would often bare their souls to him, expressing their frustrations and fears. They confessed to feelings of aggression and impulsivity, and implored Lu to help them let go of their emotional shackles, no matter how long their prison sentences. Lu was happy to help, and it wasn’t long before his lessons began to yield results.

In one instance, a man meditated after provocation from a fellow inmate. When he was through, he apologized to the instigator, and the men were able to reach a mutual, nonviolent understanding. In another, an inmate opened up to Lu about his childhood trauma, and Lu provided him with exercises to allow him to let go of this burden and release the hold his former abuser had on him. One inmate, later exonerated, insisted he was innocent, and Lu, required to remain impartial, said he could help the man “be at peace with [his] situation.”

These and many more anecdotes are presented, one after another, in a very loose narrative that links such moments thematically if not chronologically. Section breaks exist to separate tonally different stories, but the structure of the book is fairly loose. Lu is unconcerned with taking the reader on a journey with a beginning, middle, and end, and instead peppers in anecdotes and non-sequiturs wherever they fit organically.

This book is not a memoir, nor is it a self-help book. Cuong Lu offers little by way of background on himself, simply tracing his history as a Buddhist, telling the reader how he became enamored with the religion, and why he left Plum Village very suddenly, because that is what he needed to do to be happy. Lu left the monastery to start a family, and only recently, in 2017, left the chaplaincy. Since then, he’s written this book, and continues to spread joy, hope, and the same teachings that saved so many men under his care in the prison.

The Buddha in Jail is now available for purchase.

About Cuong Lu

Cuong Lu, a Buddhist teacher, scholar, and writer, was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 1968 and emigrated to Holland with his family in 1980. He majored in East Asian studies at the University of Leiden, and in 1993 was ordained a monk at Plum Village in France under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh. In 2000, he was recognized as a teacher in the Lieu Quan line of the Linji School of Zen Buddhism.

In 2009, Cuong left Plum Village and returned to lay life in the Netherlands, where, together with five colleagues, he stood at the birth of the Buddhist Spiritual Care Program within Holland’s penitentiary system. In 2015, he received a master’s degree in Buddhist Spiritual Care at Vrije (“Free”) University in Amsterdam.

Cuong is the founder of Mind Only School, in Gouda, South Holland, where he teaches Buddhist philosophy and psychology, specializing in Yogachara Buddhism combined with the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) School of Nagarjuna. Cuong leads retreats and offers Dharma talks in the Europe, the US, and Asia, and offers presentations to large organizations. He is the author of four books in Vietnamese and one books in Dutch.

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