Home / In the Spotlight / Teaching Peace in a Violent World – The Dhamma Brothers


We hear about problems regarding overcrowded prisons and the rising crime rate. How does that make you feel? If you are similar to the average high school student or adult, you have pretty strong feelings on the topic—feelings that don’t include much empathy. But what if there were a chance of reducing the violence? What if hardened criminals could learn to embrace peace? The Dhamma Brothers film demonstrates just how to do this.

Rehabilitation in Prison

The Dhamma Brothers is a powerful film depicting the true story of inmates in Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility. This prison holds 1,500 men and is considered to hold the state’s most dangerous prisoners. Within this dark environment, a growing network of men gather to meditate on a regular basis.

In January 2002, an ancient, rigorous meditation program called Vipassana, based upon the teachings of the Buddha, was brought inside the walls of this maximum-security prison in the Alabama countryside. Vipassana is rigorous, and even intense requiring 100 hours of meditation over a period of 10 days; one inmate, Grady Bankhead, says it was harder than being on death row. Considered worse than worthless by their society, these men undertake a radical inner journey that transforms their self-image, gives them power over their impulses, and enables them to give back to the narrow community in which they must spend their years.

Journeys in Film Curriculum

Journeys in Film is now offering a new curriculum, based on The Dhamma Brothers film and book, Letters From the Dhamma Brothers. The curriculum covers many areas including

– Getting to Know the Dhamma Brothers | Film Literacy
– Prison Writing | Literature
– Meditation and the Human Brain | Psychology, Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Neurology
– Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation | Psychology; History; Religious Studies
– American Prisons Today: A Statistical Study | Social Studies; Criminal Justice; Sociology
– Racial disparities in representation and sentencing
– Rehabilitation programs in correctional facilities
– Beginning Meditation | An Experiential Lesson

Additional Themes explored in this guide are:

– The power of meditation
– The hero’s journey archetype
– Prison stereotypes
– The U.S. prison system
– Prison reform
– Disparities in sentencing
– Mindfulness

Lessons in Empathy

One of the many beautiful lessons this film has to offer is one in the development of compassion. As the prisoners meditate, many began to understand the ramifications of their own actions. They feel copassion for the families of their victims. One of the Dhamma Brothers had his daughter murdered, and during his his meditation was able to let go of his need for revenge because he understood the human element in the man who murdered his own child.

As students learn about the Dhamma Brothers, their histories, and their pathways to healing, they become able to relate more to the complexities of the penal system. As one student wrote, “This film really opened my eyes to a lot of different things. My views on inmates is changed. Just as the men in the film. I no longer view them as inhuman people, but as human beings.”

Meditation Leads to Healing

Back in 2002, the prisoners learned about Vipassana meditation. The word Vipassana means “seeing things as they really are.” This was an intense 10-day program in the prison in which the prisoners couldn’t speak for the first nine days. It was successful, yet threatening to some of the leaders in the prison who were concerned that the prisoners would become Buddhist. Ironically, while the meditation sessions have roots in Buddhism, they don’t highlight any god. In fact, they teach concepts embraced by many religions, including Christianity. During an intense moment in the film, the Vipassana program is shut down.

After a few years, the prison had a change in administration, and the program was reinstated. Since the Vipassana meditation program was introduced, the prison has seen a 20% reduction in institutional infractions & segregation time .

Educators from various walks of life are embracing the curriculum based on The Dhamma Brothers. One sums up the experience by saying, “This course of study did inspire students to pursue research topics and engage in service learning. The materials generated great discussions, especially around film analysis and portrayal of prisons/prisoners, rehabilitation, mindfulness and research.”

You can download the curriculum at no cost, and find out more about the film on the Journeys in Film website (http://www.journeysinfilm.org/for-educators/the-store/the-dhamma-brothers/).