One wrong move led to a lifetime of regret. Undoing must wait until the next lifetime.
Due to fear and anger one may kill. Due to fear and hate one may cause war.
I have been delivering meditation teachings to inmates in a State of California prison and a County jail for more than a year. The State prison is housing inmates who have already been tried and sentenced, aged from 20’s-50’s. The County jail is mostly holding criminal suspects prior to their trials and waiting for their trials. Some have been waiting for two years yet still haven’t had trial. Out of the thousands of inmates, there are hundreds who are Vietnamese, aged from late-teens to 30’s. Most of them are young, gang-type, who committed serious crimes, and their spirits are lost in this fast track modern technology and complex society. For example, look at our “three-strikes” legislation, and how people are given sentences completely inconsistent with the crime.
This paper is about State prisoners. The State prisons are housing many different types of inmates who committed various crimes. On Sundays I delivered teachings to only 3 different groups of students in the State prison. Each class was held in a separate building for one group of prisoners. Each building has a Christian chapel for worshipping, but the Buddhists don’t have their own chapel due to insignificant number of Buddhists in imprisonment.
Building “1” houses the inmates who had been in prison for a long time, for violent crimes they committed long ago; It seems that the many older-aged prisoners in Building “1” are opinionated and it was difficult for them to learn to meditate and generate boundless compassion. They are frustrated and confused about the future.
Building “2”, houses the unique white collar, middle-class inmates who committed crimes with sophisticated and well-educated minds. For some of those with educated minds wanted to learn about Buddhism and meditation, and expected fast results.
Building "3" houses gang-type killers and robbers, some who felt they had been unfairly convicted. The following is to discuss about those students in building "3".
Due to their poverty and uneducated backgrounds as orphans, homeless, with parents divorced, with experiences of family abuse, and unwelcome in the school or in community etc., they have made their mistakes and were caught. They are poor and don’t have money to pay for a good education and cannot hire good defense attorneys. This group seems to have warm hearts and their spirits seem open to changes.
During the summer it was hot in the California Central Valley, usually in the 90’s Fahrenheit, and the vehicle I traveled in was not air conditioned, nor was the prison. The inmates I have been teaching in "building 3", mostly had received serious sentences for 3-years or more, and some had received 15-year to life sentences. (Have we ever wondered how many seconds did a person commit a crime to deserve 25 years, 60, 90 or a life sentence? It is same as a death penalty, but delayed execution.) For this group of inmates ages range from 20 to 37; all were males and all had committed crimes. Some are paranoid and disturbed due to their heavy sentences, and most inmates in this group are unskilled; none graduated from high school; some have very little education. Some are involved in killing crimes and are haunted with their nightmares often in their sleep.
The teachings provided them comfort and energy to live and to learn to love and to tolerate conditions. Tried to be a courageous teacher is difficult when sitting among inmates while leading them, and asked everyone to pray for parents in the Vu Lan (Vulabarna-“A red rose on your shirt if you still have a parent alive”) Day, and everyone must say repeatedly, out loud: "I love you, mother, father, or grandparent…" At the beginning, they were all shy to say “I love you, mother,” but slowly, everyone could say the magic sentence: “Mother, I love you, I am sorry, I have caused myself to be in this prison, and I have caused you pain.” They learned to chant love and compassion sutras, to sit still for 45 minutes, and I encouraged them to sit still every morning and evening, before bedtime to cure nightmares. And this was a big help to inmates who committed fewer or lesser crimes. These inmates who have been coming to the class really want to make a change in their lives and also want true compassion from family and society.
We should give this a thought. Most will get out of prison some day. When they are released, we will have to face the reality of living with them as neighbors, as friends, or as relatives. We cannot turn them away, because they are human beings. And we cannot incarcerate people in prison forever. We should accept them, and everything, just like the earth accepts impurity. It was, for me, a very sad experience, but I was there to let them know that while most people enjoy family and friendly gatherings, shopping, going to churches, and other such things, we, I’ m for World Peace Foundation, won’t forget about them. They will be in our prayers and thoughts.
Whether we directly or indirectly created the prisons as well as the impurity, we must accept the resulting consequences as reality. We created a society of superior and inferior. We built up power for someone and we also destroyed peoples’ creditability to make them powerless. In this modern society we created sophisticated laws with the intention to help prevent crimes and to educate people to understand the seriousness of penalty that will apply if they violate the laws. We made laws with the hope that the laws will protect us. But we realize now that the laws cannot always protect all of us. Due to fear we created prisons, but we still live in fear of everything every day, anyway. We need to educate ourselves better about our laws. We should be teaching our children at the earliest possible time, that we are not totally free as individuals, to do as we wish, but must conform to support our society.
Out of fear, we decided to lock all troublemakers in prison forever so we invented indefensible laws. And when we built more prisons, we wasted much energy and resources, ultimately making our lives even more miserable. After all, we have never been totally happy nor have we enjoyed complete peace of mind. The truth is, we should not build prisons but rather, we should build temples for prayers, for healing all souls.
In our modern civilization we become more fearful, yet, we are the ones who created the most fearful things and conditions to haunt ourselves. The person who invented the atomic bomb with intention to make the world be still and peaceful, the father of this deadly created weapon, who we called ingenious, miscalculated the risk that some crazy person will use it. In less than a century, the threat of atomic weapons pervades this tiny Earth. Science and technology have changed our lives like tornados. They lead us from subsonic into supersonic and have swept the reality from our domestic simple lives and dropped us to an unknown world. They have separated us from our touch with reality. We don’t know about the person next door, and we distance ourselves from our relatives. To express love now we send hugs and kisses through the Internet and don’t experience real warm touch or physical hugs. We spend much time on the Internet, but whatever we read or see is temporary, exaggerated or inflated, and could disappear totally, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, we believe in it and
live with it. We are creating alien beings amongst ourselves. Today’s children may not know their parents well during their lifetimes, when they are influenced by the superhighway or fast pace of the Internet. However, we are also very fearful of computer virus attacks and crazy salesmen who may send us horrible messages against our morals. We are not safe as long as we carry fragile and destructible human bodies while our minds possess ignorance due to distractions and limited learning.
Recounting from ancient times, have we ever been not fearful? We must live with what makes up a society, including thieves, homeless, terrorists, and corrupt people. Corruption is far worse than terrorism. They both can slowly destroy the morality of a healthy society. We can die from earthquakes, tornados, floods, and diseases anytime. Terrorism can make us fearful of violence but how many of us ever actually face the terrorist? Corruption we face in our daily life. Why are we fearful and resentful when the person has already paid his dues? Could we love them like our own children? What if one of our children committed a crime? We don’t turn him away. We surely welcome him and try to comfort and heal his soul.
For how long will this modern technology last? How long will the resources on this earth last for us to enjoy electricity and gas? The more prisons we build, the more crimes will happen. We need to fill up what we built. When the resources of this earth have run out, do we still have prisons? Will we still be able to feed all prisoners or what will happen to them? Over-expansion of prisons is not a solution. Having a curriculum education to teach laws and meditation on a compassion program to all youngsters brings hope for solution and a healthy future.
Teaching compassion meditation is very effective to this group category. They are young people with histories of hate and vengeance, and through meditation we can help them to let go of their anger, learn to forgive, to heal their souls, and to prepare to change their lives. One whom I first met was paranoid; he came to the teaching because his friends told him about meeting with a Buddhist Chaplain. He didn’t look at me, did not smile, had difficulty communicating, and didn’t want to cooperate. But after meeting and meditating on compassion and forgiveness a few times, he began to smile and has opened up. He started to say to his friends a very understanding and responsible phrase: "Everyone is responsible for his karma and his own actions, and we should not blame anyone but ourselves for our imprisonments. We did something stupid, so we face the consequences." Hearing what he said, I knew the teaching was making progress. Two inmates told me that they were not guilty. To me, I can only try my best to teach them to learn how to pray, how to meditate, and how to contemplate on compassion, letting go of anger and hatred with hope that they will feel compassionate for others in their hearts.
We encourage the legislature to make a law to require children to learn about the law and penalties against violations of the law. It would help the third group, which is the majority group in State prisons. We should put this law in a curriculum beginning 4th or 5th up to 10th grades. Those are the kids who dropped out the most, and the most likely to commit crimes.
We also encourage citizens to try open, to forgive and to practice boundless compassion and to have amnesty for those convicted criminals who can prove that they have changed and become good and normal people. Is there an amnesty that should include the reduction of sentences? For example, an amnesty that reduces sentences from life to a number of years, and from a high number of years to be reduced to a lesser number of years, and so on? It is wasteful for a young man to spend the rest of his life due to a momentary mistake without thought, during his youth. The person has already died in a sense, so we must forgive and let go of things for which we no longer feel a need for vengeance forever. Why waste so much money to build prisons and have to hire people and to train them to be cruel and harsh in order to control the inmates? By doing so, we train people to become more rough than the inmates in order to control the inmates? What will happen to these guards and their family, and their children after they work in such ways; will they still be normal and nice?
May we all be safe, content and peaceful
Dieu Lien-Vu Lan Huong
I Light for World Peace