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Finding Peace and Skills

GETTYSBURG - From the road, it's a scene like any other in rural Adams County. A white farmhouse set back in the trees. Weather-beaten barn. A dog in the yard lifts its head at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

John Mulligan (left) and Angel Correa performing their daily meditation at Bodhi House in Mount Joy Township.
John Mulligan (left) and Angel Correa performing their daily meditation at Bodhi House in Mount Joy Township.Read moreSHANE DUNLAP / Hanover Evening Sun

GETTYSBURG - From the road, it's a scene like any other in rural Adams County. A white farmhouse set back in the trees. Weather-beaten barn. A dog in the yard lifts its head at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

Inside, cuttings from a bodhi tree, a tree sacred to Buddhists and traditionally planted at monasteries, catch the sunlight from a glass near the kitchen sink. A vase of pink freesia rests at the base of a small altar to the Buddha. A tall man in a pressed white cotton shirt gets up from an armchair to answer the phone. There's something about the calm, measured way he moves, his soft-spoken speech that's instantly compelling.

John Mulligan, 76, is the director and one-man band of Bodhi House, a Buddhist transitional-living community based in Mount Joy Township and designed for men exiting the state prison system. Since 2004, the program has offered help with post-release life skills while allowing residents to continue their Buddhist study and practice in a supportive spiritual environment.

Mulligan, a Theravada Buddhist, has roots in Adams County. While working with state prisons in the 1990s, he noticed a lack of post-release options for those practicing Buddhism. Bodhi House helped him fill that vision.

It's a muggy morning, and Mulligan is talking to Angel Correa, 42, formerly of Philadelphia and Puerto Rico, a current Bodhi House resident who has just come in after cutting wood outside. Until recently, Mulligan drove Correa to work every day - an hour each way - in the program's sole form of transportation, a worn green Saturn with 305,000 miles. Correa has his own car now.

Correa, who said he did six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, had welding and mechanic skills before his stint in prison. Those skills have helped him land a well-paying job nearby. While at Bodhi House, he participates in the twice-daily group meditation, early morning and again in the evening. He's been able to transition off the medication he was taking for his post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

For many exiting prison, the transition isn't smooth.

After arriving at Bodhi House, the next steps can often feel overwhelming for residents, Mulligan said.

Employers are not eager to hire ex-cons, and holding down a job requires reliable transportation and a place to live. For many men, family support is nonexistent. Bodhi House will take them in, and most are able to move on after six months.

There are risks, Mulligan acknowledges, but he refuses to make them his focus.

"Sometimes your spiritual practice represents obstacles and difficulties that call upon you to work through those so that you can really move from fear to fearlessness," he says. "I've done some of that work."

Mulligan said he thinks there is less familiarity with Buddhism than other religions, which can create confusion.

"We're seen as non-Christian," Mulligan said, recalling the time when a chaplain bluntly told him, "We're in the business of saving souls; you're in the business of taking them away."

Mulligan gets frustrated with such feedback, particularly because Buddhism shares similar values with other world religions, such as nonviolence, service to others, and guidelines on moral conduct and teachings. Raised Catholic, he studied and was ordained with Buddhist teachers in Sri Lanka. There's a long history in Buddhism of working with criminals and inmates.

On a more personal level, his wife had died in 2000, and the kids were grown and off on their own. He had the space. The farmhouse was where he and his family retreated to from Washington during the 1970s and '80s. He began to see that although there were quality Buddhist organizations working with inmates while they were in prison, there was nothing for them upon release.

Mulligan was "instrumental" in helping establish Buddhist services in the state system, said Ulli Klemm, administrator for religion and volunteer services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Lois Starkey, a Bodhi House board member and Mulligan's friend since the 1970s, is not surprised at his commitment. His time is 100 percent volunteer, and Bodhi House runs on a shoestring budget, primarily taking contributions from its four members of the board to survive.

"People talk a big line about doing this kind of work," Starkey says. "I've learned a huge amount from him."

Mulligan is more than willing to help the men, but he won't be a martyr. He recalls a former bank robber resident who loved sketching the bird life around Bodhi House but resisted doing the tougher, more practical work of moving on. The man eventually left the program, held up some banks near Towson, and is currently serving a sentence in Jessup, Md.

Transformation is an inside job, Mulligan said, one he can't - one he won't - do for them. It's a mirror he holds up for himself as much as the men, encouraging them when they get discouraged.

Every day, Mulligan reminds himself of this belief: "This isn't the way I wanted it, it isn't what I deserve, it isn't what I planned, but it is what it is. It's the dharma; it's that which is."

Correa has found peace at Bodhi House.

"The only two things I've done in my life are fixing cars and carrying a rifle," Correa said, referencing his youth and entering the military after graduating high school. He served time in New Jersey's largest state prison, South Woods, on an unregistered firearms charge.

While in prison, he heard about a meditation service being offered to inmates and decided to try it. The gathering was sponsored by Triple Gem Prison Sangha, the group Mulligan founded prior to Bodhi House.

Triple Gem volunteer Robert Sowers was at the meditation and gave him some books. "With 10 to 15 men in a sangha [a Buddhist group or community] nowadays, it's easy for us to know if someone's new."

Correa took the Buddhist "right of refuge" at South Woods, a ceremony where the individual vows to follow a path of right actions, such as avoiding intoxicants, no sexual misconduct, and no killing or doing harm to others.

In February 2014, Sowers was waiting for Correa - just released - outside South Woods with his van, ready to drive to Bodhi House. Sowers patted him on the shoulder as he got into the car, and he thought he saw Correa's eyes well up for a few seconds before he reined it back in, perhaps leaning on his military background, Sowers said, or his Buddhist practice.

Sowers has seen such transformations over his four-plus years as a volunteer: how what Buddhists refer to as "loving-kindness," the innate goodness and compassion for other living beings, can develop.

Sowers remembers a man serving a life sentence telling him he was thankful he went to prison because of the way meditation had changed his life.

"That blew me away," he said. "That's what I mean when I say some of the men are freer than their captors. Some of these guys have finally found freedom. Ironically, it just comes at a time when they are incarcerated."