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Between Bliss and Devastation:
The transformative journey of a federal prisoner

Excerpts from an interview with Fleet Maull
by Ross Robertson

Fleet Maull is a dedicated man. Founder and director of both the Prison Dharma Network and the National Prison Hospice Association, this fifty-five-year-old professor at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, is also a longtime teacher of Shambhala Buddhism, an ordained Zen Peacemaker priest, and the U.S. director of the interfaith Peacemaker Community. Perhaps most compellingly, Maull is a man who turned a life of contradiction into a life of integrity. In 1985, at the age of thirty-five, he was indicted for drug trafficking, sentenced to thirty years without parole, and thus began a fourteen-year odyssey of transformation behind bars at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, a maximum security prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Torn away from his family and his spiritual community, he was left alone to face himself and the choices that had led him to a point of no return.

Maull came of age during the cultural revolution of the sixties. Like many of his generation, he openly rebelled against the conservative world of his parents, searching for adventure and a life of vividness and intensity. Traveling to South America, he found something of what he was looking for living on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Later, he found it working a small farm in a valley high in the Peruvian Andes. And eventually, he also began to find it in the danger- and adrenaline-filled world of the international narcotics trade. In the mid-seventies, he read an article in Rolling Stone about Naropa and its founder, the renowned meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Immediately, Maull knew that he had to go there. With his Peruvian wife, who was pregnant at the time, he moved to Colorado, enrolled, and soon became a student of Trungpa. But he lived a double life. On one hand, he was engaged in a serious study of psychology and the Buddha-dharma; on the other, he was caught up in a drug habit and secretly hauling backpacks full of cocaine on smuggling runs from Bolivia. By the early eighties, he had become one of Trungpa's closest attendants, yet he was in turmoil over his inability to resolve the incongruities of his life, and his marriage was falling apart. When he finally quit smuggling for good, it wasn't long before his former partners fingered him, and he was confronted with the choice to run or face the possibility of life in prison. He told his guru everything, and after considering the matter for a few days, Trungpa advised him to turn himself in. “That was the first time,” Maull says, “that I ever followed his advice.”

It was in jail that Maull turned his life around, beginning to meditate in earnest. He completed the Tibetan practice of the ngondro (a foundational practice that includes 100,000 prostrations) in his tiny cell, received initiation from Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche, and took novice vows as a monk. He taught GED and ESL classes all day, cared for dying prisoners in a hospice program he helped develop, led meditation groups in the chapel in the evenings, and eventually matured into a national prison reform activist. In fact, he became so committed to the work he was doing at his high security institution that when given the opportunity to finish out his sentence at a minimum security facility, he turned it down, staying until his early release for good behavior in 1999.

Ross Robertson

I went to Peru looking for some kind of authentic life. I lived for years up in the sacred valley of the Incas, and there was one particular time when I really had a deep visionary experience of non-separateness. This was after taking a plant called San Pedro that contains mescaline. There was an energetic fluidity to the world, and the boundaries that I normally perceive as my own body were completely liquid and contiguous with everything else. My whole previous notion of the distinction between animate and inanimate objects completely broke down in that moment—in the experience of one living organic reality and energetic aliveness. The experience just continued and continued, even after the mescaline wore off. When I would put my foot down, I did not even have the sense that it was going to hit something solid.

Part of what had driven me into becoming an expatriate and living outside the system was my very polarized “us vs. them” attitude. But after that experience, I could never go back to seeing the world that way, because I had seen that we are all a part of one process.

Every summer in Colorado, Trungpa Rinpoche held a two-week retreat for his committed students up at the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. We were in a big field up in the mountains, with tents all around, and Tibetan banners flying, doing military-style training, with meditation and teachings and so forth. It was a complete vajrayana world.

Walking up from the lower gate one day, I saw Trungpa coming down the hill, heading toward the big tent where the teachings and meditation practice happened. And suddenly I saw him like I had never seen him before. I saw a dharma king, a magical Buddha figure. It was a powerful visionary experience that's very hard to put into words, but in some way it was similar to what I'd seen in Peru. It was as if I saw his essence.

This changed my whole relationship to Trungpa and to his teachings. Prior to that, I was very much trying to be in his world on my own terms, trying to hold onto as much of my own world as I could. Afterwards, I wasn't holding onto anything. When I saw that his essence was so impersonal, he became a mirror to my own condition. Being in his presence was either a joyful experience of coming home and being held in the essence of my own being, or, if I resisted, it was terrifying. In the nakedness of the experience, I was absolutely confronted with my ego.

When I got sentenced to thirty years my knees actually buckled. I didn't fall to the floor—my lawyer was standing by my side, and he kind of grabbed my arm and held me up. They took me back to the county jail, and that evening they put me in a solitary cell in an empty wing of the building. There was only one tiny window way up high; if I stood on the sink I could almost see the security lights outside. It was very dark. Every now and then I'd hear some sounds echoing through the chamber, but there was nobody else in the whole wing. I don't think I fell asleep until four or five in the morning.

At some point in the middle of the night, I came to a very dark precipice, and I had to make a choice between living and dying. It wasn't like I was contemplating suicide—it was a matter of choice about whether to live or to give up. By this time, I'd already been locked up for about six months awaiting sentencing. Most of the time I was in a cell with ten other guys, a cell filled with chaos, noise, fighting, and craziness. You couldn't sleep; it was insane. But on this night they left me isolated with the fact that I'd been sentenced to thirty years with no parole, and I thought that meant I would not get out until I was sixty-five years old. My son was nine at the time. As I stood there on the edge of this bottomless pit, I felt something well up in me and make a decision to live. It wasn't like the bells were ringing, “It's okay now.” It was just utter darkness. But somehow, a will had risen up in me like an instinctual thing and made a choice for life.

The next day, I finally began to experience the weight of the grief and the pain of what I'd done to my son, to myself, to my family and my community—the utter waste and insanity of it. I'd never really been confronted with the consequences of the decisions I'd been making; I'd gotten away with a lot over the years. Now, my back was up against the wall, and I couldn't deny my own complicity in creating all this damage. And that fueled me throughout the rest of my time in prison. I became radically committed to eradicating every kind of negativity and uselessness from my life.

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