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Transcending the Cell

Documentary explores Vipassana courses in prisons


From Israeli filmmakers who journeyed to Indian prisons Tihar and Baroda in the winter of 1994 comes Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, a documentary about the implementation of Vipassana meditation courses in two of India's most notoriously severe correctional facilities. A meditation technique developed 2,500 years ago, Vipassana is described as being a "journey of discovery taken with closed eyes," assisting adherents in a transformation to lead better lives and enabling those who meditate to "see things as they really are."

Doing Time briefly explains the history of Vipassana meditation before delving into teacher S.N. Goenka's modern experiments of Vipassana courses in Indian prisons, including archival footage from a single course Goenka taught in Baroda jail in 1975. Interviews with Kiran Bedi, who at the time of filming served as inspector general of prisons in New Delhi and was the woman responsible for introducing large-scale Vipassana programs to the prisons, as well as interviews with practicing inmates comprise the bulk of the film's material, and provide support for the proposed hypothesis that even the world's most hardened criminals living in the most dismal of conditions can find salvation and hope in the spiritual and mental reform discovered through the practice of Vipassana.

At times the film is indubitably inspiring, particularly when an inmate who committed a triple homicide testifies about the positive changes Vipassana helped him to achieve—like being able to ask the forgiveness of his victims' surviving family and his commitment to provide for them as though they were his own. In another touching scene, a crying inmate being comforted by his jailer after emerging from one of Tihar's 10-day Vipassana courses evidences the emotional possibilities of continued meditation.

However, the film's most endearing moment happens in its opening, as the narrator breaks down viewers' potential judgments of these prisoners by describing all humans as prisoners of their own minds, where fear and anger jail each of us in much the same way as the film's prisoners are literally confined. Asking who among the audience has not at one time desired to hurt another person or take that which was not theirs to take, the narrator levels the moral playing field, but similar attempts at such moving moments later in the film fail. In addition, with inmate interview segments almost exclusively dominated by three foreign English-speaking inmates from Somalia, the United Kingdom and Australia, much of the "Indian" perspective is obscured, though the universality of Vipassana is established.

Viewing the film a decade after its premiere poses significant questions left unanswered simply because of the passing of time—the most obvious question being that given the relative success of the Vipassana courses in the short time between their implementation in Tihar and the documentary's filming, how have Tihar's courses and prisoners progressed or failed since then? For the record, a brief Internet search yields evidence that since the film was made, Goenka and his students have continued to teach Vipassana all over the world—including at prisons in India, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Despite a general sentiment that Doing Time, Doing Vipassana is an inspirational 52-minute commercial for the practice of Vipassana meditation, the film has met with success in the United States and abroad in the last decade. In addition to having been broadcast internationally and in the United States, it collected awards at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival and from the American National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

May 6, doors at 6:30 p.m., Boise State Special Events Center, 1800 University Dr. FREE, donations accepted. A discussion with students who practice Vipassana follows. For more information call 866-0847.