I was fortunate enough to join a portion of the 2006 Delegation to Asia. Of all the myriad of wonderful experiences, the most memorable and powerful one was accompanying the Dharma Masters to visit three prisons in Hualien, Taiwan. Over a period of two days, we went to a detention center, a minimum security prison, and a maximum security prison.
The relationship between DRBA and Hualien prisons started more than 20 years ago when one of our Dharma brothers, Lee Zhi Hong, consulted the Venerable Master Hua about bringing the Proper Dharma into the prisons to help the inmates there. The Venerable Master replied, “Wherever there is suffering, it is the place we should go.”
This reply planted the seed for propagating the Buddhadharma in prisons, by DRBA’s Dharma Masters. Since then, Mr. Lee has been working tirelessly with the classmates in the prisons, bringing them hope and encouragement through the Venerable Master’s wise and compassionate teachings. (Note: the inmates are referred to as “classmates” because they are encouraged to learn a new way of life and acquire new skills so they can be productive members of the society).
Due to the logistics of visiting a prison, only twenty-five members of the delegation could go. When a Dharma Master said that I could go, I was apprehensive. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good Dharma protector and support the Dharma Masters as they turn the Dharma Wheel for the classmates in jail. On the other hand, I grew up in a greenhouse, constantly sheltered from the evils of the world by my parents. The only jail I had ever seen was on T.V. I was scared, because I had no reference point for what going inside a jail would be like.
However, when I was repenting that evening, all of a sudden I saw Earth Store Bodhisattva in my mind’s eye. Instantly, I was deeply ashamed. I thought, “Earth Store Bodhisattva goes into the deepest of hells to relieve inconceivable suffering and has vowed not to be a Buddha until the hells are empty. Here I am, being afraid to accompany the Dharma Masters to visit the jails. What kind of disciple of the Buddha am I?” After realizing this and praying to Guanyin Bodhisattva for courage, amazingly my fear turned into Dharma joy, for I learned to open my mind to the lessons that I was about to receive.
The first prison we visited was a Detention Center. After going through the reception area, armed prison guards unlocked the first iron gate. We then squeezed into the space between the first and second iron gates. The first iron gate had to be relocked behind us before the second iron gate was unlocked. Meanwhile, we were assailed by strong odors of unwashed bodies and human waste. As we went from one locked gate to the next, verses from
Earth Store Sutra kept on popping into my head. Finally we reached the sixth gate, and when that solid iron gate was opened, we walked into a courtyard and were greeted by the totally unexpected sound of the classmates chanting Earth Store Bodhisattva’s name. Their voices were strong, earnest and majestic; I felt the chants resonating around the stone courtyard.They somehow opened some locked doors in my heart, and tears started to roll down my face. At that instant, I had a glimpse of how reciting a Buddha’s name even once can relieve the suffering in hell; and how the infinite light of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a light of hope and compassion, can break the darkness of living beings’ endless nights.
I also realized how lucky we are to be able to study the Buddhadharma in pleasant environments with good teachers to guide us and supportive Dharma friends to help us, instead of having to wait until we take so many wrong turns that we end up in jail before we can open our hearts to the Buddha’s teaching.
As we entered the small Buddha Hall in the Detention Center, I had my second surprise of the day. I was amazed to see that the classmates look just like you and me, talk just like you and me, and walk just like you and me. The only distinguishing feature was that the classmates had to wear uniforms. Before I started to study the Buddhadharma, I was very opinionated and judgmental. Now I’ve improved a little bit because I have learned from the Venerable Master Hua to return the light and examine my own mind. Instead of blaming and judging the classmates for the crimes they had committed, I now wondered what circumstances had caused them to end up in jail. If my Dad were a drug addict and my Mom an alcoholic, and if I never knew where my next meal was coming from, would I end up in jail, too? In sharp contrast to some of the classmates’ experiences, my parents gave up everything they had in their homeland, Taiwan, and immigrated to the States so their two young daughters could have better opportunities. So how can I possibly judge the classmates using my ignorant arrogance?
My gratitude toward my parents increased manifold as I observed how the classmates reacted to the Dharma Masters’ kind and encouraging words. It didn’t matter whether we were in a Detention Center, a minimum security prison, or a maximum security prison, I felt that some of the classmates were regarding the Dharma Masters as incredibly caring and kind parents. Sometimes all it takes to turn towards goodness is knowing that somebody truly cares and believes in you. As I listened to the Dharma talks, I was so grateful that my parents had brought me near the Triple Jewel. Without them, I would still be struggling blindly in the sea of suffering. Thanks to the lessons I was learning by being with the classmates, I resolved to do all I can to help my parents from all my past lives, to be reborn in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss, as a way to repay their kindness. It is amazing what visiting a prison can inspire a person to do!
On the second day of our visit, we went to a maximum security prison because seventy-three of the classmates there wished to take refuge with the Triple Jewel. Shortly before the Dharma assembly started, a small group of classmates from the audience also decided to take refuge with the Triple Jewel. According to one of the delegation members, there were over ninety people who took refuge. We lay delegation members were full of Dharma joy as we watched the classmates participate in the ceremony. I recall that in one Dharma talk, a Dharma Master pointed out how if we do one good deed, we can influence the people around us to also do good deeds. Similarly, if we do one bad deed, we can also influence the people around us to do bad deeds. On that day, we surely were experiencing how the good deed of a group of people can inspire others to do the same.
As the refuge ceremony reached the repentance section, I saw many classmates crying as they recited the repentance verses. As I cried along with them, the Venerable Master’s teaching of “everything is created by the mind alone” popped into my head. I thought the classmates’ tears were like the Dharma rain washing away the layers of dirt covering their self-nature, their Buddha nature. Although physically these classmates are still in prison, I believe that their minds have been freed. I also reminded myself that just because I am not physically in jail, I should not imprison my own mind with all my afflictions.
Several days after our visit, my belief in the life-changing ability of the Dharma was confirmed once more when I was told that in the maximum security prison that we visited, the female classmates had changed the name of their wing to “Lotus Vihara,” and the male classmates had changed the name of their wing to “Realizing Past Faults Vihara.” This good news brought another of the Venerable Master’s teachings to mind, “Whatever your past mistakes, if you are able to change, your future can still be bright.” May the radiant light of the Dharma guide all of us back to our self-nature!