The Dhamma Brothers is a multi-award winning documentary film by Jenny Phillips, Anne Marie Stein and Andrew Kukura. Yes, you read that right, we’re reviewing a movie, and for good reason – The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary that demonstrates just how transformative the practice of Vipassana can be, and it is therefore one that everyone who visits this site should make an effort to see at least once. The Dhamma Brothers is available on DVD for home viewing, and if you get as much out of it as we did, it is film that you are likely to watch several times over.
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The Dhamma Brothers shows how a ten-day Vipassana retreat changed the lives of prison inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama, and it’s important to note that few of the prisoners who participated in this groundbreaking retreat had any previous experience of meditation in any form. On the contrary, many of them went into the Vipassana program feeling doubtful that they would get any benefit at all. Not because they necessarily doubted the value of meditation in general, but because they viewed themselves as being ‘extreme cases’ who probably couldn’t be helped by any kind of program.
That initial reservation is understandable, because the Donaldson Correctional Facility isn’t an open prison for guys who were caught stealing candy bars or flipping the bird at traffic cops. The prisoners here are serving anything from six months to life for crimes that include common assault, aggravated assault and murder. The idea that any kind of program could help these inmates to let go of their anger, hostility and fear… well, it just sounds far-fetched.
What makes The Dhamma Brothers so compelling is that it shows us how the practice of Vipassana enabled the participating inmates to face themselves and their lives and with openness and honesty, perhaps for the very first time. The program participants learned to take full responsibility for their crimes and accept their past whilst at the same time drawing a line under all of that and experiencing genuine peace of mind. Yes, many of the participants are still incarcerated – in fact many are resigned to being behind bars for the rest of their lives – but through the Vipassana program they learned a way of giving themselves a spacious sense of freedom that transcends bars.
The Dhamma Brothers not only shows us how the Vipassana retreat affected the inmates at the time, but how some factions of the Bible-belt community responded to it (clue – not very well). The documentary also revisits the Donaldson Correctional Facility several years after the ten-day retreat to see how the program helped inmates over the longer term.
We could write about The Dhamma Brothers for hours and we still wouldn’t be able to do it justice, so allow us to summarise by saying that this film is truly inspirational. If you already practice Vipassana then The Dhamma Brothers will make you want to get straight back to your meditation cushion, and if you don’t yet practice Vipassana, The Dhamma Brothers will make you think very seriously about doing so.
Note: A Collector’s Edition of the DVD is available which contains an hour of special feature material as well as the documentary itself. The Collector’s Edition is recommended for its extended conversations with the Dhamma Brothers, their families and the meditation teachers involved.