I’m no stranger to giving talks in prison. Over recent years as a Tzu Chi volunteer, I’ve talked to inmates at various prisons. Each time, I tell the best stories I’ve gathered and I deliver them the best I can, hoping that I can at least give my listeners something to think about. Every time I leave a prison after a talk, I know as the prison doors close behind me that I will probably never cross paths with these people again. In my heart, I silently give them my best wishes.
Last year I received a special assignment. Instead of just one talk, I was asked to give a monthly 35-minute class at Taichung Prison, in central Taiwan, for half a year. It’s not hard for me to give a one-time talk, but this time I’d have to talk to the same group of people every month for half a year. It would be quite a challenge to make sure that they wouldn’t get tired of listening to me while at the same time giving them something that would truly benefit them. The inmates in my target audience were all serving very long sentences—ten to twenty years. They all had to endure thousands of days behind bars. Even when they were eventually released, the pressure that came with the label “ex-convict” would weigh heavily on them. What could I do for these people who had had such a rough journey in life?
To change your conduct, you must first change your mindset. To change your mindset, you must consciously decide to think differently. After deliberate thinking, a concrete picture gradually formed in my mind about what I wanted to say to the inmates: I decided to help them realize what the Buddha said: “The mind, the Buddha, and living beings—there is no difference among these three.”
I wanted to help the inmates recover their innate pure nature.
Lesson One - Awakening
Who are you? Do you like yourself? What kind of past did you have? What kind of future do you want? How do you face each new day? Aside from looking at yourself closely in a mirror, have you ever looked carefully at others? If you have never thought about questions like these, then “awakening” is an essential first lesson.
In my first lesson, I played an episode from the Da Ai TV program Children of Our Planet, which features stories of children who have faced adversity in their lives with optimism and admirable courage.
The episode I played was entitled “Ways to Embrace Imperfections.” The hero of that episode, Lin Yan-liang, has cerebral palsy and cannot walk well. In order to walk better, he has endured extensive physical therapy since he was very young. His father, a very positive person, gives him foot massages every day to enhance the effects of the physical therapy. The massages hurt and sometimes cause Yan-liang to yell with pain. Nevertheless, he takes the pain with a sense of humor. Despite his condition, he is strong and optimistic.
Yan-liang once complained to another disabled child that he really envies able-bodied people who can run and jump so easily: “Why do we have such bad luck? Others can walk, but we can’t.”
“Well, it’s the way things are,” the other child answered. “We were born this way and we just have to accept it. But don’t lose heart. When God closes one door, he opens another. So we mustn’t easily call it quits, right?”
Suffering abounds in this world. Have you discovered that? But there is always a way out. I told the inmates: “The door of freedom may be closed to you now, but the door of awakening is waiting for you to open it. Are you ready?”
Lesson Two - Emptiness
I talked about emptiness in my second lesson. Of all the life’s truths that the Buddha taught—suffering, emptiness, impermanence, and non-self—the concept of emptiness is the hardest to understand. And yet it also offers the greatest consolation.
Everything in this world is transient and in constant flux. Every life goes through birth, aging, illness, and death; every thought arises, stays, transforms, and disappears; every physical object also experiences a life cycle of creation, existence, deterioration, and dissolution. Everything we take pains to accumulate in our lives—wealth or material possessions—might be gone overnight. Your mood might be remarkably high today because things have gone well for you, but it can also plunge to an abysmal low in an instant, triggered by the slightest mishap.
If you understand emptiness, if you realize that the phenomena you experience have no inherent, solid nature by themselves, you will be released spiritually and find immense power.
I once read a story on the Internet. A man was put behind bars for wrongdoing. When the door to his cell clanged shut and the sound of iron grating against iron boomed out, his heart sank as low as it possibly could. He felt nothing but despair.
Later when he was let out for exercise, he came to a stone wall mottled with weather and age. On it were etched these words: “This too shall pass.” He gazed at those words for a long time, and he came to a realization: From that time onward, whenever he felt disappointment or pain, he told himself, “This too shall pass.” Those four words helped him through the darkest moments in his life.
Eventually he was released from jail. Every time he ran into difficulties or setbacks he told himself, “This too shall pass,” and that gave him courage to face life’s numerous challenges. In time his life took a turn for the better and things began going his way, but even when his circumstances were all in his favor, he reminded himself, “This too shall pass.” This realization deepened his appreciation for all that was good and beautiful in his life and made him cherish them even more.
When he was older he fell ill. Again he told himself, “This too shall pass.” That made his heart lighter and his days of illness easier to endure. Before he passed away, he didn’t forget to tell himself, “This too shall pass.” He died in peace, knowing that he had left the best gift in the form of those four words to his family. He knew that their grief at his passing would eventually pass too.
“Everything changes,” I said to the inmates in my audience. “A dim, unenlightened past doesn’t mean a dim, unenlightened future. The suffering you are going through now will not last forever either. Do you understand the wisdom of that?”
I then told them the story of Xie Kun-shan. He lost both arms and one leg in an accident at work. Then later in his life he lost sight in his right eye after it was accidentally injured by a staple. Despite his obvious obstacles, he showed tremendous tenacity and perseverance and became a famous mouth painter. Named one of the Ten Outstanding Youths in Taiwan in 1996, he provides an inspiring example for everyone, physically challenged or not.
One time he met with Master Cheng Yen, who praised him for having very sound limbs. He was bewildered. He thought, “I have only one leg and a short stump of an arm. Why did the Master say I have sound limbs?” His bewilderment was dispelled when the Master added: “Those who use their hands to do right things and good deeds and their legs to walk the right path have sound limbs and so are able-bodied.”
I told the inmates, “One day when you’ve become a free man and we meet, please raise your hand and say to me, ‘I have sound limbs.’ Then I’ll know that you’ve joined the ranks of people who do good.”
Lesson Three - The Karmic Law of Cause and Effect
I live in the city. The only place I can grow some plants is on our balcony. One day, I suddenly noticed some vines growing out of a pot there. They looked like loofah vines, but a closer inspection left me unsure. “What on earth is it?” I wondered. My question was answered some time later when a round, smooth honeydew melon gradually began to grow. When the fruit had ripened, I picked it and served it to my family. The melon was not very big, but it was sweet and delicious.
Around that time I happened to be rehearsing for a musical adaptation of the Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance, which teaches, among other things, the law of karma. The little incident with the melon really got me thinking.
Who sowed the seed that brought forth that melon? It was me. I had buried in the soil some seeds from a melon my family and I had eaten. Who aided the growth of the seed? Me again. I had watered it every day. Who reaped the fruit? Of course, it was me again. Finally, it was me who enjoyed its delightful flavor.
A deep faith in the law of karma is fundamental to one’s cultivation as a practitioner of Buddhism. The Surangama Sutra says:
“You owe me a life; I must repay you my debt.” As a result of such causes and conditions, we pass through hundreds of thousands of eons in sustained cycles of birth and death. “You love my mind; I adore your beauty.” As a result of such causes and conditions we pass through hundreds of thousands of eons in constant mutual entanglement.
If we cannot realize the workings of karma—that all that has gone before leads to this moment—we cannot understand why we suffer now; we cannot come to terms with our suffering and thus be freed from our afflictions. So, in my third lesson, I spoke about the law of karma. Life has different ways of leading us toward enlightenment. Will we be able to grasp the root of our suffering and then with tremendous courage transform our lives?
Lesson Four - Rebirth
If a movie scene is not filmed to the satisfaction of the director, he can re-shoot it. But can you do the same in real life? If you don’t like the way your life has gone, can you start all over? The black marks on your record might make you feel like a failure in life, but is a blessed life out of reach for a convict? Actually, your life can change completely with a single shift of your mindset.
I had noticed how the expressions in the inmates’ eyes had changed since the start of my classes: empty stares had given way to looks of concentration. I knew it was time to tell them my life story.
My earliest memory goes back to when I was six. It had to do with a door. One day my mom took my three siblings and me out. After some traveling, we arrived at a large door and waited there quietly. I don’t know how long we waited there. Then the door slowly opened and out came my father, whom I didn’t know very well. Later we went to Shimen Reservoir and had a picnic there. Mom took out some new clothes from a bag for my father to change into.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that that large door was the entrance to a prison. My dad once spent time in prison!
Because of my background, I know that life is no bed of roses for an ex-convict. I know the pressure they are under. My dad had a tough time after he was released, but he never gave up. When one path turned out to be a dead end, he changed to another path. We moved a lot when I was young, with the result that I went to a different elementary school every year. The frequent moves helped my siblings and me develop an ability to quickly put things in place. We can unpack and put everything in order in just one day.
I think my father had a special gift. Our life was materially deprived, but with him around we never felt we lacked anything. When our family sat down for dinner, there was often only one dish in the middle of the big dining table. Even so, laughter rang out constantly during the course of the meal. No matter how hard life was, we felt blessed. Every once in a while, he would even conjure up a fairy tale book or a world classic for us. My love of reading can definitely be attributed to my father.
A positive outlook is another gift he gave me. He loved to design machinery, but he failed more times than he succeeded. Nonetheless, after every failure I’d see him hard at work again at his drawing table the very next day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. He was nothing if not persistent.
Another trait my father had was that he always seemed able to laugh at himself. One time he was transporting some machinery parts on his motor scooter. The heavy load caused the scooter to fall over and he couldn’t get it back up. Instead of getting frustrated or angry, he laughed at it. He later related the incident to us, and we all burst into hearty laughter along with him.
His life didn’t start getting on track until he was past 50. He was already close to 60 years of age by the time he bought his first house. Though it was empty of furniture, he was a picture of bliss, happily ensconced in the new house. We kids knew that his life had not been a smooth ride, so we did our best to not give him any reason to worry about us. The same year he bought the house, I was admitted into Taiwan University [the most prestigious university in Taiwan], and my younger sister, Ling-li gained entrance into a top high school. I could tell that our dad was very proud of us; although he didn’t say much about it, the happy tears in his eyes gave him away. To this day, I can’t forget that scene.
I told the inmates in my fourth class, “My father was a former prisoner, but he was also my hero.”
Are you a father too? Strive to be your kids’ hero.
Lessons Five and Six - A Living Example, Transformation
How do you show an inmate that a good, blessed life is definitely within their reach? Gao Zhao-liang, a Tzu Chi volunteer who used to do drugs, provides a good example for every inmate who wants to start over. An ex-con, Gao received a presidential award in 2015 for his efforts to help keep people away from illicit drugs. [See his story in the Winter 2016 issue of the Tzu Chi Quarterly.] I invited him to be a guest speaker in my fifth class in the prison.
If you want to become a better person, when do you start? In my sixth lesson, I shared a story told by Li Wen-yi, a member of the Tzu Chi Teachers Association. Li said he once had a student who had joined a gang. He kept urging the student to leave the gang, and though the student promised him he would, he never made good on his promise. Li did not give up on him though. He had faith the student would change.
Later Li received a phone call from him. “Mr. Li, can you come see me?” the student said. “I listened to you and told the leader of our gang I wanted to leave. He said he would let me go on one of two conditions: Either I gave him NT$200,000 [US$6,660] or he could have one of my fingers chopped off.” The student didn’t have NT$200,000, so he chose to have a finger chopped off. Li’s heart ached for the kid, but at the same time he knew how much courage it had taken him to break free from the gang.
Do you have the courage that that kid had to start over? How much longer are you going to wait to truly change?
In my sixth lesson, I also told a Zen story.
One day, a Japanese general went to visit Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku. He wanted to know if heaven and hell really existed. Master Hakuin asked his visitor, “Who are you?” “I’m a general,” came the reply.
“Who was so senseless as to appoint you a general? You look more like a beggar to me,” the Master taunted.
The general was so angered by those words that he pulled his sword from its sheath and shook it at the Master. The latter just said calmly, “The door to hell has just been opened.”
The general immediately realized that he was acting very improperly, so he began apologizing over and over to the Master. At his apologies, the Master said to him, “The door to heaven has just been opened.”
It only takes a change of mindset to transform hell into heaven. If you want to change, it also takes just a shift of your mind. My last lesson was about transformation. Now is the best moment to start if you really want to change. Take good care of your heart and mind. Even if you are facing the most adverse circumstances, you can still aspire to be and do good. Act on your thoughts of goodness; then your wonderful future will be in sight.
My home in Zhanghua, central Taiwan, is less than a ten-minute drive from a Tzu Chi office. I had noticed how the office always bustled with people every time an event was held there. One time, my mom was in the car with me when I drove past the office. As we passed, she said to me that Tzu Chi was a good group. I remembered thinking that a man like me, who was constantly on the wrong side of the law, would probably never have anything to do with the foundation. A hooligan like me wasn’t good enough to be associated with the group.
But life is unpredictable and can totally surprise you. When I was down and out, it was Tzu Chi that opened a new vista in life for me.
During the second half of 2016, Tzu Chi volunteers visited us every month in prison. They taught classes and conveyed their care and support for us. Their visits helped me reflect on many things and brought a sense of peace to my often unsettled mind. If I write to my mom about this, she will feel very comforted.
Sister Min-li, who conducted six classes, never looked at us with guarded eyes. All I could feel was sincere care from her. I used to think that people would be quick to judge wrongdoers like us and be leery of us, and that just led me to rebel even more. But after attending her classes, I realized I was wrong in thinking this way.
Now when I’m caught up in negative thinking, I snap myself out of it by reminding myself of things that Sister Min-li taught us in class. Beyond pondering the wisdom of her words, I also try to take concrete steps that will lead me down the path to a better future.
Sister Min-li’s efforts will not go to waste. I believe many other inmates feel the same as me. I am something of an introvert, and I like to keep things to myself. But I really wanted to do something to thank the volunteers, so I joined other inmates in staging a surprise musical performance for the volunteers. I mindfully rehearsed the hand gestures and movements so that I could present my best side to the volunteers. Our performance might not have been perfect, but it was full of our immense gratitude.
—Tsao, inmate at Taichung Prison
A New Dawn
Thank you all for unselfishly giving to us, a group of people who live on the fringe of society. Every month for half a year you traveled here to see us and guide us to be better people. You opened your arms to us as if you were our own parents.
My mom passed away last year. It was a huge blow to me. I felt so guilty and remorseful I couldn’t emerge from my inner darkness. And every time my old grandma traveled all the way from Pingtung to see me, my sense of guilt deepened.
But your visits brought a glimmer of light to me. Because of you I realize that there are people who still care about us. There are many people out there for us to love and to whom we can reach out. I decided that instead of dwelling on a deplorable past, it would be better to start over and change myself.
Your company helped me realize the importance of love, whether it be from family or religion. Love carries us over the bumpiest life paths. I will nurture love in my heart and when I am released from prison and return to my hometown, I will strive to be a man of value and pay your love forward.
—Zheng, inmate at Taichung Prison
Article extracted from Tzu Chi Quarterly, Summer 2017