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‘As well as immersing myself in all the Buddhist texts I could find, I also went headlong into all the drugs, sex, rock and roll’
Fleet Maull, 62, is a Buddhist teacher and writer from Providence, RI, USA. He is the founder of the Prison Dharma Network and the National Prison Hospice Association. He talks here about his Buddhist path and the 14 years he spent in prison for drug smuggling.
I first read about Buddhism at high school and I immediately connected with it. I was fascinated by spirituality and the mind, definitely what I’d call a seeker, but this was the first time I’d ever read any religious literature that made sense to me. At that time there was no-one I knew in Missouri, where I grew up, who had the slightest interest in Buddhism, and when I left for college I continued to explore it on my own. But this was at height of the whole counter-cultural revolution, so as well as immersing myself in all the Buddhist texts I could find, I also went headlong into all the drugs, sex, rock and roll and anti-war politics.
I came to feel that American society was completely hypocritical and felt very politically alienated, so much so that I left the country. I got involved in small time drug dealing as a way to live outside the system. I had a very strong ‘us versus them’ mentality that I used to justify what I was doing. I continued to pursue positive things and spirituality as well. So I created kind of a dual nature for myself. That twisted path led me to living in a very remote valley way up in the mountains in Peru near the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I was living some kind of outlaw/seeker/expatriate life there in Peru and had no intentions of returning home. I even met and married a woman from Peru.
I remember someone coming to visit me there, bringing with them a magazine article about the emerging spiritual movement in the US. It mentioned a university called the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) that had recently been established, offering courses that included meditation. I knew this was what I was looking for and soon after that, I returned to the US to embark on a Masters programme in Buddhist and Western Psychology and became a student of the renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had founded Naropa. I brought my pregnant wife to the U.S., and our son was born in Colorado where Naropa was located.
Even as my involvement in the Buddhist world grew, I was doing drug runs once or twice a year, keeping this secret from my teacher and community, whilst throwing money at my marriage, which had started to fall apart. I knew I had to extricate myself from the situation, but before I could get out I was indicted for my crimes. I knew I faced going to prison for a very long time, so I came clean to my teacher.
Drug smuggling was a clear violation of the ethical precepts of Buddhism, but he didn’t wag his finger and tell me how bad I’d been. Traditional Buddhism doesn’t take a moralistic view, at least in my opinion. It’s not so much about whether an action is right or wrong, but whether it creates suffering, or happiness, for oneself and other beings; whether it adds value to life or takes it away.
He was quite frank with me though. I had created quite a karmic mess for myself; karma being the Buddhist principle of cause and effect. He told me it was time to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings and to dedicate myself to the Buddhist principle of not harming others and to serving life in some positive way. I had asked him whether I should go on the run and try to avoid prison or stay and face it. His advice was that I should stay. He said that even if I went to prison for a very long time, I’d still be able to practice and be his student. He was very supportive.
So I turned myself in and went to prison for 14 years. When I was convicted and locked up in the maximum-security federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, I hit a wall of such deep devastation. Initially I had a 30 year no-parole sentence so I thought my life was pretty much over. I realised what selfish decisions I’d been making and that now my son was going to grow up without a father.
I became radically committed to changing my life. I wanted to try to do something of value and create a better legacy for my son. Those years were a very powerfully transformative time for me. I’d already received almost ten years of very intense meditation training from a phenomenal Master, so I came in with a lot of tools which I put to good use. I led a kind of monastic, yogic lifestyle in prison, practising intensely every day.
Through meditation my view of politics and of social action began to shift. I understood the importance of creating an enlightened society here on earth, rather than just trying to create a better rebirth for myself. Today I’m still very engaged in politics, social justice and peace work, but it’s now grounded in confidence in what we call the Buddha nature; the basic goodness of everyone and in society. I can’t tell you what an impact that understanding has had on my life.
You can read more of Fleet’s story here.