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Former inmates of Ferndale Minimum Security Institution in Canada, Segen Speer-Senner and Gareth Robinson (Miki & Robbie,) have created a peaceful garden and shrine in the prison grounds, beside a small stream and just across from the American Indian spiritual grounds. Deer, bears and small mammals visit the area – and occasionally chew the vegetation. Statues of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokiteshvara in the aspect of Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva and Maitreya Buddha have been placed in the shrine. The project has been generously supported by prison administration.
One prisoner, who is now back out in the community, built the platform and used it after working hours to do many hours of Vajrasattva recitations. Buddhist and non-Buddhist inmates helped Miki and Robbie to erect a shelter and translucent roof on the platform. Bright paint makes the belvedere clearly visible from a distance, and prayer flags abound.
Reg Dyck, a devout Mennonite at the Ferndale Horticultural Department, who supervised the men’s gardening, gave advice and generously donated trees, perennials, flowers and labor. A footpath of about eighty-eight paces allows one to circumambulate the holy statues and the gardens.
Eighteen months ago, Miki and Robbie, who are serving life sentences, were transferred to nearby Mission Institution, but Miki, who was able to email Mandala thanks to the kindness of prison chaplain Reverend David Price, says that, “The shrine is in good hands, and being carefully maintained. Our precious Ani-la Ann [Ven. Ann McNeil, director of Kachoe Zung Juk Ling Abbey in British Columbia, who regularly visits both prisons,] reports that kind non-Buddhist inmates at Ferndale have taken over the upkeep when we left. Buddhist inmates who transferred from here have kept it in good order, planted more flowers, and repainted the gazebo.” …
Mandala welcomes reader letters, comments and suggestions. Please feel free to email the editor or write us at FPMT Mandala, 1632 SE 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97214, USA.
September 22, 2013
Dear Mandala editor,
In Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Mandala October-December 2013 article [“The Freedom of Not Being Born as an Animal”], he writes that animals are stupid and dumb, foolish and “overwhelmed by stupidity and dullness.” And ignorant as well.
I understand being born as an animal entails tremendous suffering because as Lama Zopa also notes animals are helpless and cannot truly make decisions for themselves. However, I think that Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House, has the more correct concept of animals, which I have included in this email. Beston writes, “We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
I am saddened by reading the words written in the article by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and in over 10 years of studying the lam-rim, Dharma writings, and books, I can honestly say this is the very first time I did not feel what I was reading was true, at least not in my heart.
Thank you for reading this,
Lisa Herdan Mallinson
The teaching referred to in this letter is excerpted from The Perfect Human Rebirth: Freedom and Richness on the Path to Enlightenment, the latest book in the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive’s FPMT Lineage Series.
September 26, 2013
Hello, my name is Norith-chin. I have been in prison for 22 years in California and I am a Buddhist. I am just writing to you to let you know that I received Mandala October-December 2013.
I appreciated and [send] thank yous to you and to all the staff members of FPMT. I really like your Mandala. I also thank LPP [Liberation Prison Project volunteers] that I have been writing to for so many years.
Thank you for your kind heart.
May the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha live forever.
We never know how our words and actions will ripple out into the world. But if we hold a strong motivation to be of benefit, we might help or inspire someone. Mandala recently received a letter from Colin, a prisoner in California, who was profoundly touched by “I Will Be Paralyzed and Happy,” a piece written by Bob Brintz, a man paralyzed by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Bob’s ability to keep a happy mind demonstrates the amazing potential we all have to change our way of thinking.
My name is Colin and I am a Buddhist inmate, currently serving time at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, California. Recently, I found your latest issue of Mandala magazine [July-September 2013] sitting on a bookshelf in our facility chapel. Inside, I found the article by Bob Brintz titled “I Will Be Paralyzed and Happy.” I found so much power, depth and hope in this man’s words. I felt that I needed to write you right away and share my thoughts.
Bob’s situation sounds so painful and scary. And yet, he sounds so full of love and peace. This man is truly a Noble Warrior and he inspires me to change my old ways and strive harder to be a more virtuous and compassionate person. His words have softened my heart and opened my mind to a greater degree.
Praise be to Bob for generously giving all of us gifts of insight, hope and inspiration.
Colin found this story due to a collaboration between Mandala and the Liberation Prison Project that sends nearly 500 copies of the magazine to prisoners around the world.
In January Choden Rinpoche, one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s gurus, visited two Australian prisons: Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney on January 7 and Karnet Prison Farm just outside Perth in Western Australia on January 30.
On a whim, the nurse at Karnet had phoned Rinpoche and asked if he would visit the prison, said Liberation Prison Project (LPP) teacher in Western Australia, Ven. Drolma, who visits Karnet once a month.
“I didn’t think it would work because he was booked to the hilt in Perth,” she said. “So I was shocked when he said he would come.”
At Karnet Rinpoche was accompanied by LPP Australia’s chaplain coordinator Ven. Aileen Barry, administrative assistant Margaret White, and Ven. Drolma. In Sydney, the resident teacher of the FPMT center Vajrayana Institute, Geshe Samten, and translator Ven. Yeshe joined Ven. Aileen and Margaret at the prison.
“As soon as he came in the whole wing just stopped and went dead quiet,” said Les Akers at Long Bay. “The aura he gave out was so strong but humble at the same time.” …
Student and assistant warden in the California prison system Bill Wilson shares on FPMT retreat center Vajrapani Institute’s V-Voice Blog the story of how a mentor profoundly changed his life, an experience that coincidentally brought him to the Dharma:
“I believed I was a good man, and tried to help others as best I could, but as I watched Dave interact with inmates I realized I was only partly fulfilling my duties as a law enforcement official and a member of my community. He wasn’t just professional and courteous, he tried to make a positive imprint on every inmate (and staff member) he had contact with. It didn’t matter the crime they committed, the color of their skin, their gang affiliation or their intellect, he reached out with loving kindness, compassion and empathy to men who were commonly marginalized. Yes, we fed and clothed them, and at times tried to provide them with inspiration, but until I watched Dave in action, I didn’t know we usually ignored the most crucial truth: that the inmates continued to be human beings.
“… My journey with Dave and our men opened another door, perhaps the most important … I met volunteer Jon Landaw, who introduced me to Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi. As we talked about our men, I mentioned that I was amazed by the incredible changes I had witnessed and how I hoped to be able to make similar changes in my own life. The next thing I knew I was at the Vajrapani Institute experiencing my first formal meditation training ‘Mindfulness and Reality: Introduction to Meditation’ …”
Bill’s complete story, plus other interesting news articles and announcements from Vajrapani Institute, including video and photos from Big Love 2013 with Tenzin Ösel Hita, is available online.
Located in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California, Vajrapani Institute offers meditation retreat cabins, Tibetan Buddhist group courses and retreats, and facility rentals for spiritual groups of all traditions.
If you like what you read on Mandala, consider becoming a Friend of FPMT, which supports our work. Friends of FPMT at the Basic level and higher receive the print magazine Mandala, delivered quarterly to their homes.
FPMT Around the World
In coordination with the Liberation Prison Project (LPP), Mandala magazine is mailed to about 500 prisoners every issue. For the January-March 2013 issue, 533 LPP students in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, New Zealand, Scotland, Thailand and the United States have been sent a print copy. Without access to computers and the internet, prisoners rely on the mail to receive Dharma instruction and to keep up-to-date with the activities of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the FPMT. From LPP student letters, we know that each issue of Mandala is closely read and shared.
We are able to send Mandala magazine to prisoners due to the support of the Liberation Prison Project, Merit Box grants and contributions to our Mandala Magazine for Prisoners Fund and the more than 70 Friends of FPMT who donate their print subscriptions to prisoners. We deeply appreciate the generosity of all who have offered donations to these different funds and projects.
If you would like to help ensure the future funding of Mandala magazine for prisoners, please consider making a donation to the Mandala Magazine for Prisoner Fund today. These funds go directly toward covering the costs of printing and shipping magazines to LPP students. To learn more about how you can help prisoners receive Mandala – including how to donate your Friends of FPMT print subscription – and to read about the history of Mandala‘s 16 years of offering support to prisoners, please visit our “Supporting Prisoners” page.
December 200 – February 2001
Prison visitor Aryadaka is a member of the Western Buddhist Order, founded in England over 30 years ago by Sangharakshita, an Englishman who spent 16 years as a Buddhist monk in the East. Some Order members are full-time meditators living a monastic life; others either live with their families and have ordinary jobs, work full-time in a ‘right livelihood’ business, or are supported to work at their local center. The Order has about 800 members in 20 countries.
I have wanted to work with prison inmates since I was incarcerated in Scandinavia for two years in 1974. That’s when I began my practice. Prison is an incredibly fertile ground for the Dharma to take root. Since I was able to start working with prisoners, I have met all sorts of people – from murderers to people in for what they call non-violent crimes. Usually I don’t get to know the nature of their crimes, except for those in the sexual offenders’ unit and even then I don’t know nor do I ask the nature of the offense. I do know that most inmates have committed their crimes while on drugs or alcohol…
I have been receiving Mandala as a gift through my teachers and Dharma friends at the Liberation Prison Project. I want to say that each issue is a joy to read and study, and I thank everyone who contributes to Mandala in any way. My practice has grown through the precious jewel that is Mandala.
– Patrick Sluyter, Martin Correctional Institution, Florida
Donations to the Mandala Magazine for Prisoners Fund enable Liberation Prison Project students to read Mandala.
The History of Mandala and Prisoners
In 1996, a young Mexican-American ex-gangster serving three life sentences at a California maximum-security prison wrote a letter to Mandala magazine. He had read Introduction to Tantra (Wisdom Publications), a book by Lama Yeshe, and was moved by Lama’s talk about compassion. He wrote to Mandala, part of FPMT International Office, wanting to learn more.
“I’m writing in hope to be able to receive the Foundation’s journal on a regular basis,” he said. “If possible, I would like to personally get involved in the Buddhist way of life.”
Ven. Robina Courtin, at that time editor of Mandala, responded to the young man’s request and sent him some books and copies of Mandala. From this letter the Liberation Prison Project (LPP) was born, and since 1996, LPP has helped thousands of prisoners around the world study Buddha’s teachings and develop a sincere practice of Buddhism.
Over the years, LPP has offered hundreds of free subscriptions of Mandala to prisoners. In 2009, a kind benefactor offered 500 subscriptions for three years. From 2010 to 2012, LPP and Mandala have been able to offer free subscriptions due to an International Merit Box grant. However, these funds no longer cover all of our LPP subscriptions and many more devoted prisoners would like to receive Mandala in order to stay connected to the FPMT organization and its authentic teachings, qualified teachers and international news.
More on Dharma in Prisons from the Mandala Archive:
From Mandala November-December 1997
The November-December 1997 issue of Mandala features stories from several prisoners (some on the United State’s death row) and how they integrated Buddhist teachings into their lives. Their insights reveal as much about life outside of prison as inside.
From Mandala September-November 2003
In this interview, Liberation Prison Project founder Ven. Robina Courtin gives some clear definitions of fundamental Buddhist concepts and discusses some intersections between Buddhist thought and prison work.
From Mandala July-Septmber 2011
Read the story of the Mandala Magazine for Prisoners Fund logo.
From Mandala July-Septmber 2012
Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes to Liberation Prison Project student P513, congratulating him on successful intensive practice.
From Mandala October-December 2012
An overview of Liberation Prison Project activities run by FPMT centers in Italy, Mexico and New Zealand as well as an essay by LPP student Mario Easevoli.
In April of 2011, Mandala received the sad news that Liberation Prison Project student, Robert Page, had taken his own life (obituary page 52 of July-Sept 2011). Robert was a talented musician and artist who studied with Liberation Prison Project during a ten year prison sentence and after his release five years ago. While incarcerated, Robert created this beautiful image of a double dorje and offered it to Liberation Prison Project. The image was used, as well as other prisoner art, for a series of journals and notebooks produced by Liberation Prison Project to raise funds for the project.
TAKING CARE OF OTHERS
By Molly Fitzgerald
“… and whenever I speak to people, I do so with the feelings that I am a member of their own family. Although we may be meeting for the first time, I accept everyone as a friend. In truth, we already know one another, profoundly, as human beings who share the same basic goals: We all seek happiness and do not want suffering.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama
My name is Molly Fitzgerald and I focus on applying the above principle not only in my personal life, but also in my professional life. I work in what many people would consider to be one of the most difficult environments to be employed in: a large inner city probation department where my clients consist of sex offenders, thieves, drug and alcohol addicts, the mentally ill, and violent offenders. These are people that if you saw them walking down the street towards you, you just might want to consider crossing to the other side.
Most would consider the work that I do very challenging, yet applying such principles helps me survive and thrive in this setting and gives my work meaning.
Not only do I apply the principles of kindness, respect, and tolerance (part of the 16 Guidelines for Life), as I engage with probationers, I have also created a method of teaching these principles to my clients in a way that results in them reporting a big difference in their lives.
This all came about in November of 2009, when my job description drastically changed, and I found myself with a caseload of 140 probationers. It was at that initial transition when I first encountered Larry, who was a man that struggled with drug addiction, anger and a failing marriage. Sensing how lost he was in his life, I spontaneously asked if he had some time to spare because I wanted to share with him a few things that I had picked up along life’s journey. Larry agreed. He later stated, as his probation was coming to a close, “My life will never be the same. It is better than I could have ever imagined it to be.”
THE SPONTANEOUS TEACHING
Note: Throughout the description of my process, I use parentheses to connect Buddhist terminology and concepts with the terminology and concepts I would actually share with probationers in non-religious work environment.
Though this teaching came spontaneously with Larry, I’ve learned that not everyone is ready to listen (as is seen in the metaphor of the four cups) and I’ve learned to ascertain who is ready and who isn’t. When I feel it’s appropriate, an individual session with a probationer starts off with a clean sheet of paper on the desk between us, and I start with a seemingly simple and straightforward question: “What is the nature of your mind?” The majority of people look back at me as if I were asking them a trick question, and expecting that, I gently lead them to a seemingly simple answer: The mind’s nature is to think … 24/7, and this is true for all people no matter who they are or where they come from. I immediately follow this up with an explanation of the three types of thoughts and emotions (positive, negative, neutral), the three bodily sensations (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), the three levels of consciousness (conscious, preconscious, subconscious) and how we spend our entire lives unconsciously (ignorantly) seeking to satisfy these mental and emotional states and body sensations (desires, grasping, attachment) with little-to-no awareness of their interdependence and consequences.
After some discussion of how all this interplays (dependent co-arising or interdependence), I question them about where they think that they spend the majority of their time in their minds: “Is it the past, the present or the future?” This is a section that I explain in depth and repeatedly return to on the paper throughout our discussion. Actually, for many, this is usually an “ah-ha moment” because up until now, they have never given it any real thought.
Next, I lead into how they are feeling in the present moment: anger, anxiety, etc. Then we look at their habitual ways (unconscious motivated behavior) for handling stress, anxiety, anger, boredom, depression, etc. (afflictive emotions), and what is it they are trying to accomplish when they steal, use drugs or pornography, or whatever their habits are. This is followed by discussing how in the present they experience being triggered, or in the words of Lama Yeshe, “the buzz of irritation,” and what triggers actually are (unconscious, compulsive, unresolved, afflictive emotions based on causes and conditions) and how they are tied to the strong and unacknowledged ego (self-cherishing), the true enemy of us all. Once again, another “ah-ha moment” is experienced due to the realization that it’s their own self-cherishing thoughts (mainly unconscious) that have controlled them and not only caused suffering for themselves, but for others as well. This is, for many, a pivotal moment which leads to being willing to at least consider taking responsibility for their own thoughts, words and actions, and their consequences.
Generally, at this point, I flip the paper over and ask if they have ever heard of the four powers (regret, remorse, remedy and restraint). I haven’t met anyone yet who has, but it is still a great question to ask each and every time. It is then when I talk about remedy and hand out the 16 Guidelines as a perfect way to apply a remedy in their lives. Together we explore how they could choose one or more of the guidelines each day and then look at how to apply it. Many times the remedial process begins as they leave my office, for example, they might allow others to get onto the elevator before they do or they open the door for others.
Let’s say that they choose kindness as a remedy for the day. They start their day with awareness of their motivation for kindness, and they plan acts of kindness for the day, allowing for spontaneous opportunities to occur throughout the day. After each act of kindness, they dedicate it to make up for the wrongs that they have done (if they can stay aware) or they do so at the end of the day when they do their day’s review (Virtuous acts are the key ingredients to happiness: motivation, action and dedication). Everyone so far greatly appreciates this opportunity to make amends, and because of this response, I frequently suggest that they also dedicate it to all the people they have harmed, especially to their victims (people with whom they have a negative relationship), to the people they love (people with whom they have a positive relationship) and also to all of those people who have committed similar crimes (people with whom they have a neutral relationship), but are not fortunate enough to have found this wonderful method (the whole process is a form of tonglen).
On many occasions I have received a call by the end of that day from a probationer informing me what a joyful day they experienced after leaving my office. They tell me that they eagerly sought out ways to do good deeds for others and that the 16 Guidelines really do work. For example, Rod, a probationer once told me, “I really like opening doors for people now. Before I use to try to get ahead of them and not look back. Now, everyone goes before me.”
At this point, I recap what they’ve just learned, and then add another method to harness their mind’s awareness. I suggest that the next time that they are triggered and/or think of what we’ve talked about, to ask themselves these three questions:
1.) Where am I now? (Is your mind in past, present or future?) and if triggered, take a couple of breaths.
2.) What about my thoughts and emotions? Are they positive, negative or neutral?
3.) So, how’s that working for me?
These three questions allow for them to immediately become aware of where their mind is, its emotional state, and to sort out whether or not that is leading to the causes of happiness. The probationers appreciate having a method that is easy to apply under any circumstance that they find themselves in, and when asked if they think that there is any wisdom in using these three questions, the response is a unanimous “yes” each and every time. I often hear that at one time they thought that they were crazy, and that there was no hope for them. But with this method, they can slow things down and give themselves another chance to choose either happiness or more misery.
I also have them look at consequences, for example, that drug use can lead to a criminal record. No one wants this for themselves, but here they sit in front of me, exactly where they claim they don’t want to be. So, I have them think about cause and effect, and that leads us to exploring the consequences for everything we think, say and do. When they learn that 95 percent of what they think, say and do is based on the previous day, and day before, and the day before that, etc., they begin to understand, and tentatively start taking responsibility for where they are and for how they got there. So, if they want to predict the future, they have to own and become aware of, in the present moment, what they are thinking about, saying and doing, because they are learning that they are creating their own world.
The probationers particularly delight in my own personal stories of struggle. They love to hear the stories of my husband asking me, when he notices an afflictive emotion ruling me, “So, what’s the buzz, Mols baby?” Or, “So, where are you now?” They let out a chuckle when I tell them that when I get caught in that all-too-familiar and seductive negative emotion, and my husband points it out it out to me, well, that I don’t always respond very well. I inform them that I too apply the three questions when triggered or when just musing throughout the day, and that I find the four powers very useful, and that I especially enjoy applying the 16 Guidelines in coming up with a remedy. That is how I create virtuous acts which lead me and others to happiness, and isn’t that what we all want after all?
There really is so much more that I could add, but I think that this gives you an idea of how Buddhism can be applied in a line of work such as mine without ever mentioning the word Buddhism. I tell my probationers that I want them to learn how to become aware and mindful of their mind and how it works, otherwise it works them. I tell them that their mind is like a powerful horse and if they don’t find and pick up the reins of the horse to control and guide it, well, the horse will go anywhere it wants, do anything it wants with no consideration for its rider.
Molly Fitzgerald has worked extensively in the criminal justice system in Ohio, USA, researching and publishing on issues surrounding child sexual abuse, sex offenders, drug abuse, literacy and skills development in the criminal justice system, and negative emotions. Molly also has had a lifelong interest in the fine arts, particularly painting.
- Tagged: 16 guidelines for life, criminal justice, four opponent powers, mandala, negative emotions, prisoners
Q: In Chasing Buddha you said, “I found what I lost” when you found Buddhism. Do you feel that we are born inherently knowing what we want in this life, and that it’s a matter of getting through the experiences and obstacles of life to realize one’s path, or is it more a case of needing those experiences and obstacles to tap into that energy, the talent, the passion that brings us to where we are now?
A: Yes, when I met Buddhism I felt like I had found something I had lost, because, from a karmic point of view, it was something I’d had before, in previous lives. When I heard it again, it was like coming home. You could have a familiarity with anything, whether it is called killing or stealing or being a footballer. Whatever you have familiarity with is what you’re strongly attracted to again.
I’m not sure that it’s a question of “needing” our experiences; rather, it’s that we simply have them as a result of our past actions, karma. Based on Buddha’s view that we all possess the potential for perfection, it’s our job to work through our experiences, based on the laws of morality: cleaning up the negative and growing the positive.
Q: Do you believe in reincarnation in a literal sense, in the sense that you are preserved as a soul and continue to develop as a sort of separate entity? Or are you speaking more generally as a pool of consciousness splits off and evolves and then goes back into a vast pool and then reemerges with some change?
A: None of that is a Buddhist way to express things. Firstly, it’s not a question of belief. The Buddhist path is very much a way of discovering for oneself the truth of the teachings, or indeed not the truth. The Dalai Lama says that if we discover that what Buddha says is wrong, we should reject Buddha. Buddha himself said, “Don’t believe a single word I am telling you.” We need to check it carefully, making sense of it, and finally testing it by practicing. We’ll then discover that it’s either true or it’s not.
Second, according to Buddha, the being that is inside the womb is not a soul. Buddha would use the words “mind” or “consciousness,” which refer to the entire spectrum of our inner experiences. There is the grosser level – the conceptual, the sensory, and the emotions – but Buddhism would also assert that we have much subtler levels of conscious awareness. And so at the time of conception, what goes into the egg and sperm of the parents and what causes the beginning of Robina, basically, is a previous moment of this very mind that we call “Robina” now, which is necessarily very subtle, and which manifests at the grosser level as the person develops. Each living being has its own personal river of mental moments, if you like. At the first moment of conception we are not a blank slate that our parents and society begin to fill up. We bring with us all our own tendencies and imprints, interests and characteristics, things that we have thought and said and done before.
What causes Robina to be the kind of person she becomes is her past karma – not God or Buddha or parents. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action”. Whatever we say or whatever we do or think leaves an imprint or impression or a seed in our mind that ripens in the future as our experiences. We are the fruit of what we have done before. You could say that karma is the “creative principle” in Buddhism. So, yes, reincarnation is a literal thing …
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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