Transformation in Prison

A talk given by Shramanerika Jin Zhen on June 24, 2010

Several weeks ago, DM Sure told an inspirational story of transformation that took place in a maximum security prison in Taiwan, and the role of the prison warden in effecting this change. He told his chargers that if they used their free time to bow to Earth Store Bodhisattva, he would give them extra credit by inviting the DRBA sangha members to transmit the Three Refuges to them.

Surprisingly, quite a number chose to do so and he delivered on his promise despite the many red tape. DM Sure observed that after the transmission, the prisoners looked different; they appeared brighter as if the darkness that surrounded them were lifted. After the ceremony, the warden gave a short, but moving speech. He told the inmates that physically, they would probably never leave the prison walls, but that is of no real consequence because mentally, they are already free. And tonight, I would like to share a couple of stories of how the mind is instrumental in making a difference, and coincidentally, both stories occur within the same setting – the prison.

The first story is a book I read a long time ago; I have forgotten the title. However, it is based on a true story. It is a maximum security prison and most inmates are there for life. Prison life means uniformity and conformity to a strict regimented lifestyle, identical dress code, and 24/7 surveillance. However, despite its stringent measures, there are lots of undercurrents in the prison and this is no surprise because its residents are masters in the art of breaking rules. Naturally, there are all kinds of punishments in place when rules are broken. For not so serious violations, one may lose one’s lunch, or one’s reading facility, or one’s free time,  which is really precious because that is the only time you get to be outdoors, see the sky, and breathe fresh air, just like those inmates in the Taiwan prison.

The most dreaded punishment is to be in isolation, where they send you to what they refer to as the Dungeon. The Dungeon is a black hole measuring 5’ by 8’ and it is completely enclosed. There are only two openings: a tiny window for food to be pushed in, and the steel door. The floor is bare and the only furniture in the room is a cot and a chamber pot to answer nature’s calls. The steel door can be opened at any time when the wardens feel you need to take a shower. They may open it at 2am and there you are - sleeping soundly and the next thing you know you are blasted with a strong jet of icy cold water and this can take quite a few minutes. This can happen several times a day. The chamber pot is not emptied. So you are surrounded by darkness, you inhale the putrid fumes of your own waste, you shiver from cold, hunger, and fear, and you have no actual rest because of the unexpected showers. How do you deal with it? There is a rule that no one is to stay in the Dungeon for more than three consecutive weeks because one can really go crazy and the authorities don’t want to be slapped with a lawsuit. Big, tough, hardened criminals pretty much crawl out of the Dungeon when their stay is over; their spirit broken, and their body like jelly.

The story is about this man who was sent to this prison for murder, but he is actually a decent guy. As the new kid who has just arrived, some seniors wanted to be “friendly” and laid out a welcoming party for him as a ritual of initiation for all freshmen. Being of average built, there is no way he can fight off these much bigger and meaner prisoners. So every now and again, they would find opportunities to have their way with him. As a straight guy, this is so very disgusting and humiliating. Once, when he was outdoors, he found a piece of wood and he managed to sneak it back to his cell where he carefully sharpened it and kept it on him.

The next time one of them came for him he was ready. In the fight that ensued, he wounded his attacker and consequently, because he had a weapon and caused injury, he was sent to the Dungeon. However, unlike others, he kept himself occupied: he did his Tai chi exercises; and mentally he forced himself to recall things he had learned - from the Bible, from literature, from history, and he meditated. The wardens somehow forgot about him due to some restructuring of the prison administration, and he stayed there for three months before someone discovered the error. They did not know what to expect, but they definitely did not expect to see him walk out; thinner but fitter than when he went in, and there was a calmness and quietness in him that surprised and frightened the wardens and all the other inmates. To cut to the chase, he was later released because of the unlawful detention. This man knew how to engage his mind effectively, and so he was in control of his situation.

The second story happened in Changi Prison. This man had been on the wrong side of the law from young, and he had been in and out of prison so many times that prison is like his second home. However, the nature of his crimes became increasingly more serious with the passage of time. He stole, he robbed, he pimped, and he sold drugs. Eventually, he started to take drugs. This last time he was sentenced to hang for drug trafficking. About a week before his sentence was carried out, some friends visited him and one of them exhorted him to recite the Buddha’s name and become vegetarian. He was very receptive to the suggestions.

Three days prior to his hanging, this friend visited him again. He greeted him with a huge smile and said “A mi to fo.” He told him he had been reciting the Buddha’s name non-stop and he felt very peaceful, but he also felt very remorseful for all the evil deeds he had committed. He asked his friend to record the story of his life and publish it. The basic message he wanted to send out was do no evil because there is no end to it. Cherish life and be upright, law abiding citizens. His friend said “OK” but on three conditions: one, he had to die with a smile on his face; two, his tongue must not stick out; and three, there is no secretion from any of his orifices. He said “No problem.” On the day of his execution, his friend paid him a last visit. He looked completely calm and serene, and kept counting his recitation beads. His friend asked him if he was afraid, and he smiled and said “No”. After his execution, true enough, he fulfilled all three conditions his friend laid down. Why is he able to do so?

According to the Sutra on the Infinite Lifespan, “the causes and conditions for rebirth in the lowest level of the lowest grade of lotus are sentient living beings who commit evils and all kinds of immorality. Owing to such evil karma, such a person will fall into the evil realms and suffer agonies for kalpas. But, when he is about to die, if he encounters a good and wise teacher who teaches him the wonderful Dharma and urges him to be mindful of the Buddha, then the evil karma which he has committed during 80 kotis of kalpas is extinguished. When he dies, he sees a golden lotus, and in an instant he is born within a lotus bud in the land of Ultimate Bliss.” I believe this man sincerely repented of his past misdeeds, brought forth a mind of profound faith and really rejoiced at hearing the Buddha’s name. I believe he also applied effort at reciting the Buddha’s name to an intense level and that is why he was able to obtain such a response when he died.

Here is a man who has done all kinds of evil and immoral deeds, but he was able to completely turn around and change. The Venerable Master said what is to be feared is not evil because great evil can turn to great good. What is to be feared is not wanting to change, then one will keep spinning on the wheel of birth and death. The Avatamsaka Sutra says that everything is made from the mind. So the mind is the place where we must apply effort. If we know how to skillfully apply our mind, then everything is OK.


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