Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

On Feb. 16, the Yale Buddhist Sangha hosted a talk, guided meditation and discussion led by Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute.

Maull has practiced mindfulness-awareness meditation for more than 45 years and has been a senior meditation and Dharma teacher in the Tibetan and Zen Buddhist traditions for over 40 years. At the event, he spoke about his vast range of life experiences and how they led him to his current leadership of the Prison Mindfulness Institute. Coordinator of Buddhist Life Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim introduced Maull at the talk.

In 1985, Maull’s life came to a self-described “screeching halt” when he was indicted for small-scale drug smuggling in Latin America. He ultimately served 14 and a half years in federal prison.

“For those 14 years, I just completely dedicated myself to practice and discipline and service,” Maull said. “I ended up doing my time … in a federal prison hospital in the middle of the AIDS epidemic [and] started an organization, the National Prison Hospice Association, to get that model out into the world … and eventually started the Prison Dharma Network to support prisoners.”

During these 14 years, he also focused on teaching meditation and helping other prisoners get their graduate degrees, learn to read and study for college.

Maull’s Prison Dharma Network has since transformed into the Prison Mindfulness Institute. The organization’s mission is to “provide prisoners, prison staff and prison volunteers with the most effective, evidence-based tools for rehabilitation, self-transformation, and personal & professional development,” through the use of mindfulness-based interventions, according to the PMI’s official website.

“I do a lot of training for correctional officers and public defenders … prosecutors, judges, police, U.S. border patrol, probation parole officers,” Maull said. “It’s about a contemplative approach … to social change. Social justice, social action, is not about polarization.”

At the talk, Maull also shared his early life stories and referenced some of the groups and programs that have influenced him, including the Zen Peacemakers, which Maull described as a program that brings resources to the “poorest of the poor.” For example, he said, in one community in Yonkers, New York, the Peacemakers offer free clinics, housing and childcare for people experiencing homelessness.

Attendee Natalie Savoie Cauley LAW ’21 expressed her excitement about the event, as she plans to work in the criminal legal system after her graduation.

“Anyone who spends time incarcerated has wisdom to share, and Dr. Maull confirmed that,” Cauley said. “Dr. Maull spoke forcefully about how he weaves together his belief system, mindfulness and activism [so] I was especially intrigued by his discussion of the Zen Peacemakers, and I am excited to look more into their practices, tenets and frameworks.”

Maull spoke at length about attending retreats through the Zen Peacemakers’ Bearing Witness program, essentially “street retreats” in places with a history of suffering like Rwanda, Auchwitz and Black Hills — the location of the 1877 Great Sioux War and the Native American Holocaust.

Maull has personally visited Auschwitz through the retreat program about 20 times, every year since his release from prison in 1999.

“It’s what we call a plunge practice because it takes you so far out of your ordinary reference points that you’re just left in this place of not knowing — it forces you into not knowing,” Maull said. 

He also explained the three tenets of peacemaker work: not knowing, which means letting go of fixed ideas about the world, bearing witness and loving actions. 

Attendee Daud Shad ’21 mentioned his appreciation for Maull’s perspective of and approach to modern activism.

“I think that regular reflection on goals and strategies is essential for any activist,” Shad said. “It was useful to hear Dr. Maull really emphasize the importance of mindfulness in activism based on his work at the Prison Mindfulness Institute.”

After discussing human tendencies to polarize and suggesting that people submit to the “idea of not knowing,” Maull led a short meditation with the goal of relaxing into the system of not knowing and simply bearing witness.

Maull’s most recent book, published in 2019, is titled “Radical Responsibility: How to Move Beyond Blame, Fearlessly Live Your Highest Purpose and Become an Unstoppable Force for Good.”

Amelia Lower | amelia.lower@yale.edu 

Amelia Lower covers football, men's ice hockey and men's lacrosse. She is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College from Rye, New York, double-majoring in Spanish and the History of Science, Medicine and Public Health.