By Raymond Tam
My very first visit to the Calipatria State Prison in 1995 was not only a pleasant but also a forever memorable and valuable experience. When my father asked me to accompany him to the prison a few weeks prior to the trip, I admitted that I was at first a bit reluctant. Teaching the Dharma to a group of convicted criminals would not only be difficult but also seemingly absurd and fruitless. How could people like that comprehend and practice the teachings of the Buddha if they did not even possess a prudent sense of morality? Did they even have a basic foundation to grasp the concepts and accept the precious truths that lay within the Dharma? Did they request our presence just to break the daily routine and monotony of everyday prison life?
If a person was clearly on the path of depravity or is not noticeably zealous in the cause of good, then one doubted whether he would be capable of basic decency. However, since I had always prayed that all sentient beings, especially those who had strayed far from the truth, could be as fortunate as I to have had the opportunity to hear the Dharma which had had a profound effect on my life, I decided that I should do something to gain my wish rather than the mere act of requesting it. This visit would indeed provide me with that opportunity to fulfill a long awaited wish of mine.
When I arrived that day, the dreary and inhospitable-like atmosphere of the surrounding caused me to have second thoughts in my mind. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. The smell of manure coming from the nearby fields and the sight of high-voltage fences and barbed wires monitored by armed guards looking through the elevated towers were quite intimidating and, to say the least, not a very welcoming sight. Then I asked myself, “How else would a prison look like?” and thus I persisted and continued on.
My reassurance did not get any better upon entering the complex. Once inside, the officers explained to us about the rules, regulations, and warnings such as the possibility of theft within the prison. In regards to the hostage policy, which stated that if an inmate were to have us at knife point and demanded to be released, under no circumstances were the officers to comply, made the situation seemed even worse. Even what appeared to be a trivial matter at first became an issue. I was not allowed entry and had to change my pants due to its resemblance to that of the inmates. My father sacrificed his pants for me and had to endure the embarrassment of wearing thermos underneath his black Buddhist robe. I was even less assured of my safety within the compound when I first laid eyes on our chaplain guide who was a frail and feeble looking individual himself. The best outlook I could conjure up at that point was that hopefully everything would go smoothly and that our mission would be a success.
The feeling of tension reached its climax when we first came into contact with the prisoners face to face. But to my utmost surprise, most of them appeared exceedingly friendly and courteous. They all put their hands together to their heart and bowed to us with a hint of reverence as apparent in the expression on their faces, which were endowed with a genuine compassionate smile. This display of hospitality eased my initial feelings of tension and distress dramatically. As the day progressed, the congregational event went extremely well. The inmates received the Dharma with utmost attentiveness, serenity, and veneration, which seemed to have had a pervasive effect on them.
By the end of the day, I felt so much at ease with them that I would not be hesitant one moment to invite them to come to my house and spend a night with my family. Deep within my heart, I truly felt their strong sense of good nature regardless of the past sins they had committed. At the very least, they were willing to sincerely reform after acknowledging their past misdeeds. In a sense, they were just unfortunate not to have had the opportunity to listen to the Dharma earlier in their lives, which would have provided them with the profound means to conduct their livelihoods and lead them along a more virtuous path. I felt as though they were actually my brothers – as though we were “one.”
A very valuable lesson that I learned from this whole experience was that we should not perceive things with a closed mind and be prematurely judgmental. My very first notion of the inmates was a somewhat typical stereotype of them having minimal or no sense of morality. I learned that we should not dwell on their negative qualities, but rather we should extend our hands to them and exhibit empathy for those who had trodden the wrong path. We should not abandon those who are genuine in their endeavors to attain a better life while manifesting repentance and remorse. Otherwise, despondency would make them feel their frustration all the more acutely and might ultimately result in their further downfall in life. We should observe neither with judgment nor with any preconceived assumptions. That way, our compassion would be limitless containing no boundaries. As Master Hsing Yun clearly asserted, we should be “perfectly willing” to help those who ask for our help.
What imbued upon me the most that day was the sincere and genuine sentiment displayed by the inmates in the realization for having the fortuitous opportunity in receiving the teachings of the Buddha. It was readily apparent in their earnestness and expression. Their display of appreciation and gratitude for our presence was profoundly felt. Indeed, the riches contained in sacred knowledge are also the principal ingredient of that eloquence which in good company has the charm of a gift. Put to use, the riches contained in sacred knowledge would provide them a clear means to success, and those who take heed of them would pursue a virtuous life along a path free from begetting sins. Following such a path, they would behave in strict conformity with the sacred precepts and would surmount the difficulties of life with ease. My utmost hope would be that their being exposed to the Dharma would calm their minds, reaffirm their yearning for salvation, and enlarge their wisdom so that the gloom of ignorance would vanish. In a hostile environment where they languished in captivity and where cultivation of good was difficult to achieve, I prayed that the Dharma could eradicate any thoughts of bewilderment and confusion in their minds so that the teachings of the Buddha could clearly be seen in its true light.
The prisoners had realized that they had committed immoral deeds and were deeply regretful. They truly wished to give up such a worthless existence for which they have forfeited goodness, happiness, and a chance to make notable contributions to society. They realized that their salvation laid in the teachings of the Buddha for which they must have had planted the seed in their previous existence to have the opportunity to listen to the Dharma and, of all places, in confinement. Ignorance was their enemy and also all beings that exist on this earth. I had deep commiseration for those inmates who had a long sentence ahead of them and had barely reached adulthood with many more years to serve ahead of them. I hoped their lives would be much better in the future and subsequently in their future lives to come. May the Dharma be in their hearts forever even during difficult times in imprisonment where life seemed so bleak and hopeless. This experience for me was truly uplifting and fulfilling and I hoped to see my “brothers” again in upcoming visits.