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Letters from Prison: Jimmy Tribble
By Jimmy Tribble
As I write from inside the walls of a federal prison, back again for violating my parole, I’ve only just realized how fortunate, how extremely lucky I am to have met the Dharma and my precious virtuous friend, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. As I prostrate at dawn, out in the field, in the middle of the rec yard, sometimes tears roll down my cheeks in gratitude.
It wasn’t so long ago that I was floundering in heavy samsara, constantly in and out of the hole, drink and drugs bringing me to the verge of extinction. Then the hand of karma began to reveal what was in store for me. Some years ago, while in prison, a dramatic change began to occur in me. I was invited by the Native American community to participate in the sacred Inipi ceremony of purification and prayer. It floored me! It was right there that the bigger picture began to unfold.
Shortly after, I was transferred to Terminal Island prior to my release after being in and out of prisons most of my adult life. On the south yard one day I noticed an inmate beading a tangka of Vajrayogini in what Native Americans call lazy stick. This led to Dharma discussion and a deep respect for this inmate, Russ Ellis. He brought me to the Shambhala meditation classes. I had sat in sweat lodges, Krishna kirtanas, but something about hearing the Dharma hit my core. It was dignified, and I connected with Kalu Rinpoche through Russ’s kind generosity and his extensive Dharma library.
Also at this time I met Bo and Sita Lozoff, who had been working with the Prison Ashram Project and were on a prison lecture tour. They had just returned from India and had had a personal audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Bo blissed us out with his loving energy and his eloquent speech, but it hit me real hard as he spoke of His Holiness and the Chinese and how His Holiness cherished Mao! Afterwards I wrote to Bo and Sita and was lovingly guided and encouraged to practice and to use the dynamic energy of the prison to practice Dharma. Sita sent me His Holiness’s address and I wrote him because I felt this connection. When I received books and a letter from his secretary, I wept.
I began to wake up at 5am with my mala, a photo of His Holiness and I would recite a rosary of manis. Next I was working with prison staff to help the suicide prevention program and the wellness program. I started to feel compassion for cops! The outcast inmates, the sex freaks, the rats, I realized that, like myself, they suffer.
But karma had some surprises in store. When I was to be released, all my paperwork had been hastily done and I was sent to Chicago. My plan was to go to San Diego, but the Feds said I was to report to my new probation officer in Chicago in three days! I had $100 and a ticket and not a clue where to go. One call to Sita calmed me down; she said to find the sangha.
Then I remembered I had taken refuge vows from Kusum Lingpa in Terminal Island, and the folks from Dharmadatu had mentioned they had centers all over. When I called they invited me to the Dharmadatu center in Chicago. It as here I met Joy Reece whose kindness is only matched by her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. All I saw was Tara. She immediately empathized with my situation and took me to dinner in a five-star Chinese restaurant with Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. I kept asking what about His Holiness and the Gelugpa tradition.
Joy told me about a woman named Wongmo at a center called Togmay Sangpo, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun who taught Lam-rim. I had no idea my life was to change forever. When I called Wongmo she said to come over to spend Easter together as we were both probably in Chicago without family. I came to the center and we spent Easter watching the Chicago Bulls! Soon after that I was studying lam- rim.
Never had I been treated so kindly, and soon I was driving her to teach and meeting lamas and more sangha. It was awesome to hear her teach, never had anyone elucidated the Dharma so clearly to me. Also I was growing fond of this woman on a deeper level. She disrobed, and we were soon married.
As was my dream, we decided to go to India, and on the way she took me to meet Lama Zopa Rinpoche in England. Then we went to Greece, and it was here, in Paros, that my habituated disturbing habits began to rear their ugly head. My ego went out of control, drinking and playing guitar in night clubs till 2am with other musicians.
When we finally reached India I was brought to the feet of His Holiness. I went to some pujas but the temptation of drugs overwhelmed me and I made it a hell for Wongmo. But her dedication, patience, and kindness somehow never changed. And it’s to her that I’m most grateful. It’s a miracle she still loves and encourages me to practice. I had left a trail of embarrassing disaster in India and Nepal, where I ended up using heroin again. I returned to the States and when I arrived in Los Angeles was immediately arrested at the airport for my parole violation.
In prison again, I detoxed, my mind began to clear and within three weeks I was practicing and leading yoga and Dharma discussions. I wrote Wisdom for images of deities for my altar and for books, and they didn’t hesitate to send them. I began to truly practice for the first time in my life. It was then that I had the courage to admit to Wongmo that I was truly wrong from the depths of my heart and I was sorry for the pain I had caused her.
Wongmo came to the States, and so did Rinpoche. When I wrote Rinpoche and he wrote back I wept like a child who had found his mother after being lost! I connected on the deepest level right there in that cell and knew this profound energy was going to transform all this negative karma into merit. Within a month I had memorized the 100- syllable mantra of Vajrasattva and soon Wongmo and I were sitting in prison visiting rooms in Illinois discussing lam-rim, my instructions from Rinpoche and she was helping me understand emptiness. By her loving example I am now trying to practice compassion and bodhicitta here in the prison yard. With the guidance of a virtuous friend like Rinpoche I’m capable of the stability it takes to demonstrate the transformative power of the Dharma. It was a joke saying I was Buddhist but behaving like an idiot.
Now I teach Dharma to the prisoners who are interested. I’m able to create a blissful, safe environment in this hectic scene sometimes. With my heartfelt, genuine understanding of our universal responsibility, and my music, I’m being asked more and more to share my small Dharma wisdom with all races and from all the diverse spiritual communities.
I thank Wongmo-la for believing in me; she’s inspired me beyond words. And I thank Rinpoche for his uncompromising compassion, and all the FPMT sangha for their awesome energy. Homage to the Buddhas! May all our collective merit be offered up for the benefit of all sentient beings and prayers for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Osel Rinpoche.
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- Buddhism Breaks into Prison
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