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Zen and the art of law enforcement

A Buddhist seminar for Wisconsin police raises consciousness - and stirs an old debate

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If it had been a different day, just a few weeks earlier, Capt. Cheri Maples would have arrested the man without a second thought. He'd already threatened her and was refusing to hand his daughter over to his ex-wife after a weekend visitation.

But on this day, shortly after returning home from a retreat with a Vietnamese monk, the Madison, Wis., policewoman tried another tack.

"This guy was huge, a lot bigger than I am," she recalls. "I just talked to him about what was going on, and he started crying and sobbing and it was clear that he was in a tremendous amount of pain. And given that there hadn't been any physical violence, I decided not to arrest him."

Three days later, Captain Maples ran into him again. "He recognized me, and picked me up and gave me this big bear hug and said, 'You saved my life that night.' "

Maples credits the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh for her approach that night 12 years ago. She remained so impressed she organized a week-long retreat with the Vietnamese monk this summer for officers and others working in the criminal justice system. Mr. Hanh's message: the futility of meeting anger with anger.

The retreat here in central Wisconsin represents not only the expanding influence of an antiwar Vietnamese monk thrown out of North - and South - Vietnam during the 1960s. It also epitomizes the spread of Eastern religious tradition into American public-service jobs.

The movement stirs anew the debate over whether the incorporation of such teachings violates the separation of church and state.

In the main lecture hall of the Green Lake Conference Center, on a bright-blue lake outside Green Lake, Wis., the audience is almost completely silent. On stage, Hanh, a slight man, is taking a long, thoughtful - or rather, "mindful" - pause in his speech.

There is surprisingly little fidgeting during the long silence.


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