The Dhamma Brothers

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The Dhamma Brothers
Poster of the movie The Dhamma Brothers.jpg
Directed byJenny Phillips
Andrew Kukura
Anne Marie Stein
Release date
  • 2007 (2007)
Running time
76 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary film released in 2007 about a prison meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, Alabama. The film features four inmates, all convicted of murder, and includes interviews with guards, prison officials, local residents and other inmates, and reenactments of their crimes.[1][2] The soundtrack includes music by Low, New Order and Sigur Rós.[3]

The film was directed by Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist and psychotherapist; Andrew Kukura, a documentary filmmaker; and Anne Marie Stein, a film-school administrator.[4] In 2008 Phillips released Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars (ISBN 1-92870-631-2), a book based on follow-up letters with the inmates.[5]

The Dhamma Brothers has been compared with another documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (1997), which documented a large-scale meditation program at Tihar Jail in India with over a thousand inmates using the same meditation retreat format.[3][6]

Meditation program[edit]

Director Jenny Phillips, Vipassana teacher Jonathan Crowley and Dr. Deborah Marshall were largely responsible for the meditation program's inception at the prison.[1] Phillips had previously studied prison culture in Massachusetts. In 1999, she heard that prisoners at Donaldson were practicing meditation and she then organized the first ten-day intensive retreat there[7] in January 2002.[8] Phillips believes that was the first time a ten-day retreat had been held in a United States maximum-security prison such as Donaldson.[7] Previous US courses had been in county jails.[9]

The meditation program taught was Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka. The first ten-day intensive at the prison occurred in January 2002 with twenty inmates. The film includes material from the second ten-day intensive meditation retreat held in May 2002 with thirty seven inmates and a follow up three-day retreat and interviews in January 2006.[8] Each retreat consisted of a rigorous daily schedule and was held in complete silence. Convicted murderer Grady Bankhead described the retreat as, "tougher than his eight years on Death Row."[10]


Jack Brown of the Valley Advocate rated the film four stars.[11] Julia Wallace of the Village Voice said that the film contains "cheesy, half-assed re-enactments of the inmates' crimes."[12]

The meditation program at Donaldson was shut down shortly after the second meditation retreat. According to New York Times reviewer Whitney Joiner this was because the chaplain of the prison complained to administrators that he was losing his inmate congregation. In December 2005, the prison administration changed and the meditation program was allowed to begin again.[7] The program has continued with only minor interruptions at Donaldson since that time.[9] Vipassana programs at Donaldson and other North American prisons are organized by the North American Vipassana Prison Trust.[13]

The film also includes interviews with local residents who provide statements that are negative about the meditation program, perceiving it as anti-Christian. One resident compared Buddhism with witchcraft.[4]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Dhamma Brothers". The Hollywood Reporter. April 15, 2008.
  2. ^ " movie review of The Dhamma Brothers". Retrieved November 27, 2011.
  3. ^ a b "TV Guide review of The Dhamma Brothers by Ken Fox". Retrieved November 27, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Scheib, Ronnie (April 8, 2008). "Variety review by Ronnie Scheib". Retrieved May 2, 2018.
  5. ^ "Publishers press release about the upcoming book". Retrieved November 27, 2011.
  6. ^ "TV Guide review of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Ken Fox". Retrieved November 27, 2011.
  7. ^ a b c d Joiner, Whitney (September 13, 2007). "New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by Whitney Joiner". Retrieved November 27, 2011.
  8. ^ a b Publishers press release about the film
  9. ^ a b "Vipassana Meditation In American Prisons", North American Vipassana Prison Project
  10. ^ New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by Jeannette Coutsoulis, April 11, 2008
  11. ^ Brown, Jack. "Cinema Dope: Fedora the Explorer." Valley Advocate. Thursday May 29, 2008. Retrieved on October 9, 2010.
  12. ^ Wallace, Julia. "Inmates Go Buddhist in The Dhamma Brothers." Village Voice. Tuesday April 8, 2005. Retrieved on October 9, 2010.
  13. ^ "Vipassana Prison Trust"
  14. ^ "2007 Pass Award Winners" (PDF). National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Retrieved December 24, 2016.

External links[edit]