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Searching for a Way to Leave No One Behind: The Transformation of a Mexican Gangster
CYA [California Youth Authority] was a world of its own, and I soon got completely involved in it. There was little time to even think about what was going on on the streets. My people lived by the standards here as we did at Juvenile Hall, but there were a lot more rules to follow, which were set up to keep my people strong in their actions and to eliminate the weak. Much of it was to do with your conduct, such as keeping yourself, your things, your room clean; never allowing other races to wear your clothes or drink out of the same cup, etc. And whoever didn’t follow these standards were beaten severely and made an outcast.
There were a lot of fights, but because we were able to go to each others’ rooms undetected, it was considered cowardice to fight in the open where the officers would break it up in a few minutes. Behind closed doors, we could fight longer and not get sent to the hole for it. I had a few fights, but most people kept out of my way.
When I turned fourteen they sent me to another institution (Fred C. Nelles in Whittier, not far from Pico Rivera). I’d heard many wild stories about this place, that there were riots, stabbings, rapes and the rest. But I was ready for it. When I first arrived I had fights and was sent to the hole twice for two weeks. And I knew I had a lot more fights coming, because it seemed that many of guys here had real bad attitudes and played a lot of disrespectful jokes.
I met the main shot caller on my unit. He told me he knew who I was and where I was from and that he respected me (he’d heard about my fights). One of the guys I’d hit had been the second shot-caller, he said. He explained the rules of our people and how the program was set up. He invited me to join his ranfla (the group of guys you hang out with most); one of his homeboys had been shipped to another unit, he said, and I was welcome to take over his chair and kick back with him.
I became good friends with the head shot-caller, who was in his twenties. He said CYA was much worse when he was fourteen, with more stabbings and riots. He would tell me about which male officers bring in drugs, cigarettes, coffee and hard core sex magazines, and which female staff would let you have sex with them. He told me about the various guys on the unit and throughout the CYA, and who I could and couldn’t trust. And he would tell me which ones would take a fall one day and which would stay strong till they died.
I quickly absorbed what he told me and began to figure out who was who and how everything functioned between the inmates and the staff. And a lot of things surprised me; things happened in jail that I’d never known about.
I began to see people fall, just as he told me. People had to prove that they were strong and were always being put to the test. And if they failed, the humiliation was brutal. People with even a little power could ruin someone’s life so easily. And I did the same.
When I was fifteen I was sent to a lock-down unit for six months, which is basically where you’re locked in your cell, with someone else, for most of the day. My celly was from a rival gang, and for two weeks, every day, I fought him until he said he didn’t want to fight anymore. Once I got him to accept defeat, I proceeded to humiliate him completely. I had him curse his own neighborhood and family. I took everything he owned, made him clean the cell, make my bed, wash my clothes. He had to give me the food I wanted off his tray. I read all his letters before he read them, and read his letters before he sent them out. I got him to ask the mother of his only child to write me sexual letters and send me photos of herself naked, and I would make him read the letters I sent her and her response to me. Then I would sell the photos to other guys in my unit. I would hit him continually and demand that he hit me back, but he never did. All he had to do was fight me, I told him, then I’d respect him again and leave him alone. But he would just say that he didn’t want to fight. I never let up for a minute and always thought of something new to humiliate him.
I know that I shattered his spirit and made his life a living hell. It seemed to me, then, that it wasn’t the fact that he was my enemy that caused me to feel so much hate and rage; it was because he wouldn’t stand up to me and, in my mind, then, made my people look like cowards. There was so much madness in my mind, and I didn’t seem to care, didn’t even notice, how much harm I was doing to people. Fortunately, my celly’s torment came to an end when I was sent to the parole unit.
Many of us who went to the parole unit weren’t really fit for parole, but because there was an inmate overpopulation everywhere, they gave us the benefit of the doubt. As soon as I and several of my old trouble-making friends arrived, we quickly enforced our rules on everyone and took full control. And most of the staff complied willingly with our demands.
But we had fun in that unit, too. Close to our parole date I was put on an out-of-the-institution clean-up crew, which paid us $5.35 an hour — the first job I’d had! There were six Mexicans and three blacks on our crew and we would drive through the city of Whittier and trim the trees and clean up the parks. Then we’d have four-hour lunch breaks in the parks before going back to the institution.
I was paroled on July 9, 1992 when I was sixteen-and-a-half. I’d been locked up for three years. I didn’t know it then, but it would be two months exactly before I would be back in prison, this time for life.
It felt so good to be home again! My homeboy held a barbecue party for me. There were a lot of new faces but many old friends from my younger years, too, and I was welcomed back with open arms and many kisses. He told stories about when I was a kid, and joked that I must be dying for the touch of a girl right now!
It was such an intense two months. I had so much energy — for girls and partying, and for violence. And for the first time I began to open up my heart to another girl. (Someone told me that she thought my old girlfriend had moved to Puerto Rico with her aunt.) I first met this girl three years before, and I vividly remembered that meeting. I was struck by how she talked, dressed and presented herself, and I was so very attracted to her. She had what we call la estila de la ranchera: the style of the women on the ranches in Mexico, a style that I truly adored: great dignity, self-respect and loyalty. And she reminded me of my old girlfriend. I told myself then that “one day she’ll be mine.”
She was the sister of my homeboy and she now had a two-year-old son. Every day of that two months I made sure I spent time with her and her little boy. I felt so good to be with her. But I met many other girls when I went partying with my homeboys, and I couldn’t resist them. My mother had moved out of the neighborhood so I just went from one person’s house to another, going, going, going. Nothing could stop me.
I soon discovered that things were different on the streets. Most of the generation of my homeboys that I had grown up with were locked up, and everything was more dangerous now. Two of my homeboys had been killed just before I got out of CYA. But the event that truly shook me was the death of one of my homeboys. He was killed a week after his party for me. That very night he had warned me to be on my toes, because “people are dropping dead all over the place.”
He had been shot by a rival gang at our neighborhood park in the middle of the day. I had arrived there soon afterwards, and there were police everywhere. Many people were crying and his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child, was hysterical, cryin g out his name over and over again. I couldn’t believe that someone would drive into my neighborhood in broad daylight and shoot someone with hundreds of kids and people around. It made me feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood. And I felt very cold inside.
We got news at one of my homeboy’s houses soon afterwards that he had passed away in the hospital. We were filled with rage and a deep sorrow simultaneously. A great anger began to burn at the very core of my heart, and I thought to myself, “Don’t worry, I will personally make sure those who are responsible for this, and many others, will pay with their lives.” But we knew that we would have to wait till everything cooled down because the police would be waiting for us to retaliate.
I spent that evening with my new girl. Her little boy and I became friends at first sight, and it enabled me to put my anger and sorrow aside. She cooked us dinner and later she sang us some songs. Her voice captured my heart, and tears came to my eyes when I thought about how my homeboy would never get to hold in his arms the child that was still in his girlfriend’s belly.
My homeboy’s funeral was held soon after. I met with my homeboys outside the church and watched while people by the hundreds arrived. I greeted many of my older homeboys and homegirls and many other people I hadn’t seen for years. During Mass, me and my homeboys stayed outside the church and talked, and later we all lined up to pay respects at my homeboy’s open coffin. The sight of his mother and sister crying brought so much pain into my heart, and I felt as if C was saying to me to help him. I vowed that the people responsible for killing him would pay triple for what they did.
For those next weeks, I kept my word. I met up with one of my old homeboys who’d just been released from prison, and he introduced me to few of his friends who were itching to prove that they had more heart for my neighborhood than the rest of my homeboys running around the streets. They wanted to cause great problems for our rivals, and they wanted to make a little money.
We’d go steal a car and rob the person of their money, and then go shoot up a rival’s neighborhood. I thought to myself, “Won’t no one in my neighborhood have to worry about getting shot no more, because I’ll make sure I put so much lead in my rivals’ asses that they won’t even find the time to come to our side of town.” I went out of my way to keep the heat on my enemies. I felt that if I didn’t, they would end up killing another one of my homeboys or me.
On our shootings, we made sure someone was laid out on the ground, full of bullets. “They’re going to wish they never got caught up in their gang, for this is only a taste of what lies ahead,” I thought to myself. If they want to play the game they have to pay the price, because when you get into a gang, you know it’s either kill or be killed. Nothing could stop me. I felt invincible. And the thought of getting caught simply never occurred to me.
On September 9, 1992, exactly two months after my release, I was back in jail. “I never learn,” I thought to myself in my cell at Juvenile Hall. But I wasn’t too concerned because I knew the police had nothing to hold me on that linked me to the crime they were accusing me of. But they decided to keep me in jail until they found something, and a year later I was tried as an adult (I was sixteen) and convicted of three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to three life imprisonments, to be served in CYA until I was eighteen and then in a state prison. I heard the words of the judge, but they sounded very far away, as if he was whispering them. Almost like a dream.
They put me in the high power security unit of a county jail first, and it was just like I’d always pictured jail: tiny cells, bars, cockroaches and mice, terrible food and no sunshine. That place was the pits.
I did a lot of contemplating about prison now being my new home. I thought about how to survive in this new world and how to make the most of my life. It would only cause me heartache, I decided, to think about and cling to the outside world, which I would never get to experience again. What I had to do was get the respect and power I wanted inside, which would make up for my loss of happiness and freedom. I told myself, “You have been strong all your life and will continue to be strong till you die. You made your bed, now you’ll have to sleep on it. And the bed you sleep on depends on the bed you make from now on.”
When I turned eighteen they transferred me to Folsom, a state prison near Sacramento, and celled me up with another Mexican. It was similar to CYA, but the guys were a lot older, there were homosexuals dressed up as women, the guards in the towers on the yards had rifles with real bullets in them (in CYA the rifles had rubber bullets or sand cylinders), there were more drugs and there were more stabbings than fights.
Once I learned about how everything ran, I chose to hang out with just a few guys from time to time. We played handball, lifted weights, played soccer and baseball, boxed in the gym, talked about the streets and women and joked around. Most of the time I just kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.
Soon I learned that this yard had many older guys who liked to snitch and who didn’t follow the standards that my people had lived by ever since I was a kid. And what really disturbed me was that the rest of my people let them get away with it. So I began to associate with less and less guys.
I decided that if others were going to just stand around and ignore what was taking place in our presence, I would have to deal with it myself. I felt that I couldn’t allow people to shame the standards that hundreds of my people had died for. They were a disgrace. So the first opportunity I got, while I was working in the kitchen, I sliced the throat of an older guy who I knew was a snitch and punched him till officers pulled me off him.
In the hole, my new celly explained that it was good that I was off that yard. Most of those guys, he said, were outcasts who didn’t care about our standards, and all my people back here in the hole made sure that these standards were followed. And they taught the guys who didn’t follow them a brutal lesson. Everyone takes care of each other back here, he said, sharing books, food, stationary and cosmetics and watched each other’s backs like brothers. It was the way I knew things to be, and I felt at home. We treated others with respect, exercised together, played handball. We had everything under control back here.
And we studied together. Because I was confined to my cell for most of the day, I had plenty of time to study, and to think. I had started looking into the history and ancient languages of my people when I was at Juvenile Hall, and I continued here. As I learned about the struggles of my people in Mexico and in this country, I began to develop a strong desire to do something about it. And when I thought about how people with money and even a little power, as well as other races, treated my people like dirt or wild animals, a strong hatred began to build up inside me. I would think, “How could a country like the US, which talks about liberty for all, make a law like the one just passed in California that denies Mexican women and children medical help and education? This land isn’t even theirs! There should be a law making white people go back to Europe!”
I began to figure out ways to help my people financially and politically so that they could overcome their oppressors and eventually destroy them. I had many plans to make those with money and power in the US suffer severely for mistreating my people. I realized, though, that I needed to establish a positive image first, so I decided I should become a writer.
I would write poems and essays, and I remember in one essay I wrote abou t an “inner voice.” I’d never heard this phrase before; it just came to me, and the thoughts just flowed.
The prison decided that we had things too well organized in this security housing unit, so they sent many of us off to other prisons. I was transferred to Pelican Bay, which is the top security prison in California. It was built eight years ago, and, I believe, one of its main purposes is to keep the worst trouble makers from the rest of California’s prisons off the main lines of those prisons.
They celled me up with someone, who had traveled with me on the bus the long ride north from Sacramento. The program was pretty much like every other prison I’d been in, just a little tighter. There were only eight cells in each section of the security housing unit, four on the top and four on the bottom. They kept us in our cells for twenty-two-and-a-half hours a day and only let us out to go to the small enclosed yard (a little bigger than two cells, which are about ten feet long and eight feet wide), alone or with our celly, for an hour and a half each day. There are no windows, except for a plastic skylight in the yard. We were let out also to shower and shave, cut our hair, go to the law library for a couple of hours every few weeks, and to see visitors for two hours at the weekends. And we only had direct contact with our own celly, although we could communicate from cell to cell. The only possessions we were allowed to have were ten books at any one time, paper and ball-point pen, letters, photos and a TV. We could check books out of a library, also (we couldn’t visit it).
I had two more years in this environment, and because I had no contact with anyone except my celly, therefore no need to fight anyone, I had the time and the inclination to put all my energy into my studies. I began to study the histories of other countries, a little philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics, as well as astronomy, which was one of my favorite subjects in elementary school.
The more I read and heard about the suffering that my people had lived through and continued to live through in Mexico and this country – my celly had a TV — the more inspired I was to better myself in order to help them in the best way that I could manage while in prison. My wish to become a writer, for the benefit of my own people and the world in general, increased, so I devoted several hours a week to bettering my grammar and writing skills. And as I learned about different things in life, I would reflect on how I had lived my life.
And I started looking into Christianity with an open mind and heart. I wanted to see what there was that I could use from what I learned in Bible study courses to help me better myself and my way of living. But a lot of it didn’t make sense to me. If only Christians could be saved, what about all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus and all the rest who prayed to the same God? And I had other questions. I asked one of my homeboys who had become a Christian, but he didn’t have any answers that satisfied me.
One day a friend of mine lent me a book written by a Japanese Samurai master about Zen, and it really went to my heart. One thing he said had a strong effect on me: “Man yearns for what is true on earth, for only by finding truth will he put an end to his restlessness and find within himself the foundation he seeks.” And: “Buddhist practitioners aspire to place themselves in the same responsive relationship with the universe as did the Buddha and Jesus, so that they may experience it firsthand. The Buddha said, ‘Look within, thou art the Buddha.’ Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ “
It seemed very logical to me that the “looking in” that the Samurai master described served as one of the main factors in finding this truth. He also said that all living beings have an inherently pure Buddha-nature and were oneness with the entire universe; I found that very interesting.
It was the first time I had ever even heard about Buddhism, and I was eager to learn more. I asked my friend what Buddhism was, but he didn’t know, but he said that he had heard that Buddhists were very disciplined and dedicated people.
At first I thought to learn to use Zen as a discipline to refine my character and will in order to help me become steadfast in my efforts to help my people and crush their oppressors. But my ideas were starting to conflict, and I began for the first time to question whether my way of life, my gang activities, actually helped my people. This wasn’t easy because I had always had 110 percent devotion to my way of life, even if it cost me my life.
I needed to learn more about Buddhism. In the library, I came across a book by Lama Thubten Yeshe called Introduction to Tantra. I didn’t know what tantra was, but I found the subtitle very appealing: A Vision of Totality. I liked very much the idea of totality. What really affected me was the section on the three principles of the Buddhist path: renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness, especially bodhicitta. Lama Yeshe really shook my heart. I had never heard such a compassionate outlook so logically explained. It completely penetrated my heart and slapped me in the face simultaneously. I was forced to see that much of what I had done with my life was senseless; that my gangster way of life only brought more problems to my people, it didn’t help them at all, although that was always my intention.
Even though I had been totally into the gang lifestyle, I truly can say that my true state of mind, or being, had never changed ever since I began to walk and talk, maybe even before that. I’d always gained joy and happiness from doing for others and seeing them happy — but, of course, only the people I called friends.
It was so clear to me, after reading Lama Yeshe, that everyone wanted to be happy, and that if I truly wanted to make others happy I would have to stop labeling people friends and enemies, which is what my gang activities had been based on. I realized that I had to develop compassion for every living being, not just my friends.
Reading about Buddhism was like meeting myself. After reading Lama Yeshe’s book, I felt very clear minded and exalted, as if I could answer any question anyone wished to ask me. And I thought to myself, “Buddhism is what I’ve been looking for all my life.” How right my precious girl had been! She really knew my heart when she said that I was “searching for something that would help me make everything better for everyone without leaving anyone behind.” I decided that even though I was not Oriental, I would somehow find a way to walk the path of the Buddha. (I had no idea that Western people were Buddhists.)
That very same day I happened to watch on TV a program about a group of Tibetan monks who visited a juvenile camp like the one I served time at when I was younger. The monks showed the juveniles how to make sand mandalas in their own style but using traditional Tibetan methods. And they talked to them about universal compassion and did some chanting.
Apparently the visit of the monks completely changed the previously hostile atmosphere at the camp to an atmosphere of peace and compassion, and it stayed that way for many months. Everyone at the camp, inmates and staff, were amazed. Watching it, I experienced a deep euphoria.
I began to try to meditate when I went to yard and in my cell when my celly went to the yard. And I thought deeply about what I’d read in Lama Yeshe’s book and about how I viewed things myself. It became clear to me that if I truly wanted to help my people, there was no way I could remain true to the standards I had lived my life by until then. It seemed ridiculous to even think that the gang life brought even the tiniest benefit to my people; in fact, it was clear that it was a major cause for my people’s suffering and their inability to raise themselves out o f their situation.
So I had to make a choice, that was clear: I was either going to walk the path of the Buddha or continue to adhere to my old way of life, even though I could see that it only led to more suffering and bloodshed. I decided to do some research on Buddhism and its history. First I read The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau, which a white friend of mine lent me. It was very impressive, but it said nothing about Tibetan Buddhism.
Then I came across The Wisdom of the Buddha, by Jean Bossilier. This was what I wanted. The author was a non-Buddhist historian and scholar and his book was a history of Buddhism in general and Lord Buddha in particular. It started off with a brief overview of how ancient India was in the early sixth century BC, just before Lord Buddha was born; his last two past lives as a bodhisattva before being reborn in Tushita and into the world as Siddhartha; the life story of Lord Buddha with brief anthropological findings and small maps; and an overview of the history and development of the Hinayana and Mahayana, including Tantrayana, and how they branched out and developed in Tibet, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Ceylon, etc. I really enjoyed this book because it stuck to its facts and findings.
After reading this I was truly convinced of the authenticity of Buddhism and it served as sufficient grounds for me to make my choice to start my walk on the path of Lord Buddha. Then I had to decide what tradition of Mahayana Buddhism I wanted to study and practice.
What I had read on Zen Buddhism was very appealing and complete in itself, but the little that I had read on Tibetan Buddhism seemed to present Lord Buddha’s teachings in their most complete form, and Tibetan Buddhism seemed to emphasize the fully open and dedicated heart of bodhicitta. So, all there was left for me to do was seek out more books on Tibetan Buddhism to determine if this tradition was indeed the one I would follow for the rest of this life and those to come.
After watching the TV program about the monks, I had written to the FPMT, whose address was at the back of Lama Yeshe’s book, asking them for help in my studies and practice and a copy of their magazine, Mandala. In July last year, soon after I made the decision to find more books on Tibetan Buddhism, I received a reply from a nun in the FPMT, Thubten Kunsel, who happened to be a student of Lama Yeshe. She sent me copies of Mandala and a copy of Wisdom Energy by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She said she would be delighted to correspond with me and would even try and find a way to come visit me.
I took this as a very special sign of my connection with Tibetan Buddhism, and it completed my decision to fully dedicate the rest of this life and the ones to come, 110 percent, to walking the path of Lord Buddha and attaining complete enlightenment for the sake of all living beings.
It’s now eighteen months since I began devoting my days to study and practice, with the help of my precious friend Thubten Kunsel. Next, she sent me Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, How to Meditate and Reincarnation: the Boy Lama. Liberation, a detailed presentation of the lam-rim, was the greatest book I had ever read! Every time I read it I felt full of so much energy. And my meditation practices brought me great tranquillity and clarity of mind. I felt so very blessed and fortunate to have come into contact with a path as great as Buddhism.
At first I wanted to burst out and tell as many people as I could about this great and wonderful treasure I had found and that I knew so many people were not even aware of. But something told me that Dharma shouldn’t be presented in that way, so I decided to keep my thoughts to myself and let others know what type of books I had received and that they were welcome to read them.
My precious friend Thubten Kunsel explained to me how to do my daily practices, from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep at night, including prostrations. Her words were very clear and explicit. I was so grateful for her wonderful advice, and it benefited my mind very much. And I was very happy to start doing purification practices such as prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.
I truly felt deep regret for the all the harm I had done to so many people in my life because of my ignorance and my blindness to the beauty of life. And I deeply regretted the suffering I had brought upon the parents and families of the people I had harmed, who had enough pain and sufferings to live with already. I could almost feel their pain and sorrow.
I could feel especially the pain of my dear mother, who did her very best to provide and care for my brothers, sister and me, though she had to go without food and other material things herself many times, as well as teach us right from wrong. Who washed pots and pans and scrubbed filthy floors on her hands and knees in low-down bars for many hours at a time when I was young in order for us to have food to eat, clean clothes to wear and a place to sleep. Who loved me with all her heart and might and tried to make up for the love she felt I was unable to receive from my father and others. But whom I ignorantly caused to shed endless tears and to have many sleepless nights, worrying sick about whether I would make it home alive after running around the violent streets all day. Whose heart I broke by turning my back on her and taking her love for granted. A woman I owe my very life to.
Oh, how I pray that one day I may pay her back for the selfless and boundless love she has given me and truly show her how much love I have stored in my heart for her and truly free her heart from all the pain and suffering that it has undergone since beginningless time and open it up to the greatest bliss of enlightenment.
I knew there was nothing I could do to heal the deep wounds I had inflicted on the hearts of so many people, but I vowed that I would never again harm another living being, and that I would dedicate myself entirely to the welfare of all living beings.
In November last year I had the good fortune to meet Thubten Kunsel. It was a very special day for me that I’ll never forget, for it was the beginning, or should I say continuation, of a very precious friendship. At first I was a bit excited and nervous, because it was the first time I had met a Buddhist nun, or any Buddhist for that matter (and it was my first visit with anyone for more than three years). I wasn’t so sure about what words I should use or how I should act, but she made me feel very comfortable and warm inside. I was very happy.
After our visit — which was for just two hours and with glass between us — I was full of inspiration to continue studying and practicing Lord Buddha’s teachings with vigor. I would spend most of the day studying and meditating on my bunk, and when I went to the yard or my celly did I would do the prostration practice to the Thirty-five Buddhas, physically as well as mentally. From the beginning I liked to memorize my prayers and practices, as well as various parts of the books I was studying. And I made my first mala — using the Os from Cheerios cereal!
I would eagerly watch anything on TV about Buddhism. I saw several programs at this time, but one especially touched my heart and made me feel closely connected to other Buddhists. It was “Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha,” about a pilgrimage to holy places such as Lumbini, where Buddha was born, and Bodhgaya, where he got enlightened. It was a true blessing for me.
In December, my precious Thubten Kunsel added a meditation on Mother Tara to my practices, and she said that she had contacted Geshe Lama Konchog at Kopan Monastery in Nepal, who had been a close friend of Lama Yeshe, and asked him if there was anything I should do to help me get out of prison. He told her that I should recite The Praises to the Twenty-one Taras every day and that she should find someone to speak on my behalf — meaning a lawyer.
Although it doesn’t bring me the slightest uneasiness that I might never see the streets of North America again in this life, I had by now developed a strong aspiration to find a way to get out of prison, become a monk, study in a monastery and complete a geshe degree. Then, I felt, I could truly help establish the Dharma and monasticism in the West; I firmly believe monastic communities throughout the West are essential.
Reading about the difficulties that Western monks and nuns have had over the past twenty-five years of trying to help establish the Buddhadharma in the West really saddened my heart. But hearing about such adversities had a powerful effect on my mind, filling me with determination to do what I can to spread Lord Buddha’s precious Dharma and Sangha in this world. If I had been willing to die proudly for the name of a town that I didn’t even own (the neighborhood of my gang), how much more willing was I now to die for something that I really believed in with my entire being and that has brought so much meaning into my life. “There’s no half-stepping in this game!” we would say in the gang world. That’s definitely how I feel now about the Dharma!
At the end of the year I took Refuge with my precious Thubten Kunsel and took the five lay vows: no killing of any being, no lying, no stealing, no alcohol or drugs and no sexual misconduct. I received the name Lozang Tendar from the great Ribur Rinpoche, who, Thubten Kunsel said, chose the name on Lama Tsong Khapa day. After this I was filled with intense inspiration and my mind felt very clear. I had the strong desire to do more meditation and purification practices, but was limited by the fact that I shared the cell. But I continued to study Lord Buddha’s teachings — by now Thubten Kunsel had sent me more books — and I made many prayers to Buddha Tara. And I tried to practice mind transformation.
By then I had been thinking about when it would be appropriate to let my people in my surroundings know that I was a fully dedicated Buddhist, and that I had given up my old way of life. But first, I had wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of certain Buddhist principles in case they asked me any questions. In January, for the first time, I told my celly about my new ways of thinking.
We talked for several hours. I explained how I now felt that there was more to life than being caught up by materialistic things and achievements and self-centeredness and the pursuits of our gangster fantasy. I was surprised that he agreed with much of what I said. There was a such a warm feeling in my heart during our talk, and it felt as if the prison had faded away. He said that he, too, had been thinking deeply about these things, trying to find ways that he could better himself and work for our people. (Thubten Kunsel had told me that it was auspicious that my celly and I had moved into cell 108 — a special number for Buddhists — around the time I started writing to her. Our cell 108 certainly felt blessed now!)
My celly, too, is now devoted to the Dharma and is being helped in his studies and practice by Thubten Kunsel. He took Refuge with her and received the name Thubten Kyabdro from Lama Zopa Rinpoche. For myself, I took all this as a blessing from Mother Tara, that she had removed the obstacles to my being able to practice more fully. It was so good to be able to practice and talk openly about the Dharma with someone from a similar background.
On February 4 this year I turned twenty-one. My precious friend Thubten Kunsel sent me a picture of the Merit Field and some money, and I received a card with many birthday wishes from members of Tse Chen Ling, the FPMT San Francisco center. I was very happy.
I also received a long letter of advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that had started off on one card but ended up filling six! He told me that “prison” was just a concept: it’s “what you label and how you use the place. For another mind it is the same as a hermitage.” I understood this: I already felt fortunate that I had the conditions that allowed me to practice without interruption. I had nothing else to think about, no need to work or get money; people brought me my food, everything was taken care of.
As Rinpoche also said, “. . .you can use the Buddhism of the Mahayana tradition to see your bad circumstances as supportive circumstances to purify your negative karma and to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. You should realize actually that the situation you are in is the best situation, given to you by the police, the court people and the people who were also involved. Actually these people are helping you by having put you in this situation, supporting you to develop your mind in the path to enlightenment and to finish all the suffering and its causes.”
He said that this external prison was nothing compared with the inner prison that most people lived in: “a prison of ego self-centered mind; jealous mind and desire prison; and. . .a prison of anger.”
Rinpoche also told me to do 200,000 prostrations, which would give me “quick realizations and an open heart.” Plus 400,000 mandala offerings and 20,000 Vajrasattva mantras. And he advised me to study and meditate on the lam-rim, using Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, starting with guru devotion. I felt truly blessed to receive advice from such a great being.
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