Dogs and dharma: A prison ministry yields children’s book teaching Buddhist lessons
Years before Albert Ramos finished his children’s book about an energetic pup who learns that dog toys don’t bring true happiness, he began by writing a letter.
In 2010, Ramos, five years into a life sentence for murder at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina, mailed off his message to Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, in eastern Washington state.
Ramos had come to know the community through the abbey’s prison dharma program, which reaches about 1,000 prisoners across the United States. The monastics at the abbey correspond with the prisoners and send them a quarterly newsletter as well as books on Buddhism. Chodron and others from the abbey also visit prisons when they’re able and organize a virtual “Retreat from Afar” for about 200 inmates in the winter.
Over time, Ramos began practicing Buddhism, meditating daily and keeping a gratitude journal. He now aims to help other convicts as a field minister through the North Carolina Field Minister Program. Field ministers work with chaplains to help those in the prison system with religious concerns, drug dependency, childhood trauma and mental health issues.
“He has really taken the dharma to heart,” said Chodron. “One of the things about Buddhism that the incarcerated guys really tune into is when they hear about compassion, and Buddha nature, and that they can develop compassion for others, and that they have the potential to become a fully awakened Buddha,” she said.
“Ven. Chodron and Sravasti Abbey have helped transform my mind from being depressed and angry to being inclusive, empathetic, compassionate and joyful,” Ramos said in a written exchange. “It’s amazing, the degree of mental transformation a person can undergo when helped by others in a healthy direction.”
Ramos’ book, “Gavin Discovers the Secret to Happiness,” was published by the abbey in August. Ramos is already working on a second book, about a father dog who goes to the dog pound for committing a crime. Ramos said it will tackle feelings that children go through when a parent is incarcerated.
Chodron, a native of California who became a nun in 1977, has studied Tibetan Buddhism in India and Nepal under the Dalai Lama and other prominent teachers and has been an ambassador of Buddhism in the West for decades. She has written or co-written more than two dozen books on dharma.
She said she had no intention of doing prison work. “But back in 1997,” she said, “somebody wrote to me and said he wanted a Buddhist book, so I sent him a book and then we started corresponding.”
That prisoner then sent Chodron’s contact information to other prisoners, and she came to see the work as central to her mission. “When you take the bodhisattva vow, the broader vow is to become a Buddha for the benefit of sentient beings. So much of your practice is about cultivating love and compassion and cherishing others,” she said. When she founded Sravasti Abbey in 2003, she incorporated her prison ministry into the abbey’s life.
In 2019, Chodron co-wrote “Unlocking Your Potential: How To Get Out of Your Own Way,” with Calvin Malone, a Washington state inmate (now released) who had written two books on his experience as a Buddhist in prison.
Two years ago, Ramos, wanting to share some of the Buddhist lessons he’s learned with children, started writing a short story about Gavin the dog.
He said he wanted kids to learn to be satisfied with what they already have, particularly their friendships.
“Children and adults sometimes forget the blessings that are all around us,” Ramos said. “We live in a materialistic culture, which sometimes puts us in a coma-like state, which numbs us from true happiness. Happiness is already inside of us, we simply have to acknowledge what is truly important to us.”
He sent a version of his children’s tale to Chodron in hopes of it being published in the “Dharma Dispatch” newsletter. Chodron thought it could be something more.
“I read it and thought it was so adorable,” she said.
So she sent it back to Ramos for some edits and recruited an illustrator and a book designer.
Chodron said her hopes in helping get the book published are twofold: to help kids understand caring for people is more important than material possessions, and to help adults and kids alike to be more compassionate toward those who are in prison.
“People who are incarcerated are human beings, they have talents, they can contribute to society and we need to do more to support them,” she said. “We shouldn’t just think of people for the worst thing they did in their life. Would you want to be known for the worst thing you did in your life?”
Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. She serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.