Hello, my name is Shirley Tam and I am the secretary of the International Bodhisattva Sangha (IBS). My primary area of focus at present within the organization is the state prison visitation program. I was born in Mainland China and went to Hong Kong at the age of 5, where I finished my high school education at Queen Elizabeth High School. After working with the Hong Kong Telephone Company Limited for nine years, I immigrated to the United States (a.k.a. the land of opportunities) with my husband and three children in October of 1977. We settled down in San Diego, California in January 1978 after spending two months in San Francisco. I was employed by Pacific Bell in October 1978 and retired in June 2002.
I have been a Buddhist ever since I was a kid. I was greatly influenced and inspired by my father who had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for most of his life. I have great faith in the teachings of the Buddha’s such as being kind and compassionate to all sentient beings and trying our best to help and to avoid doing harm to others. When I left Hong Kong for the United States, the one and only one request by my father had deeply embedded in my mind. He requested that I spread Buddhism in the United States. Even though at that moment I had no idea what will happen with my new life in a foreign country with three small children, I promised my father immediately without any hesitation. I told myself that I will fulfill his only request regardless of how difficult it might turn out to be.
According to the Buddha, “The seed will germinate when the right conditions arrive.” During the time my youngest son Raymond (who is a Buddhist and has also participated in the prison visitation program) was in junior high school, he befriended a fellow schoolmate from Taiwan who also happened to be a devout Buddhist. His name was Shun Chuang, who later became better known as Venerable Huei Guang (the founder of IBS) in the Buddhist community. It was through my son that I had the good fortune to have become very well acquainted with Ven. Huei Guang. Ven. Huei Guang and Raymond went to the same high school and graduated from UCSD together. During their school years, Ven. Huei Guang was very close to our family and spent lots of time at my home. He was the one who started me on the path to studying Buddhism with fervor and diligence.
As a Buddhist practitioner, I started doing some voluntary work such as cleaning state parks, visiting senior retirement homes, collecting old eyeglasses for third world countries and clothing and stationery for the children in Tijuana, taking students to field trips, visiting children museums, drawing maps for school, serving lunches and dinners for the homeless at St. Vincent DePaul, and visiting hospitals and prisons. After I retired from Pacific Bell, I decided to do something more meaningful in my life by performing deeds in hopes of making a notable contribution to society. Thus I joined my husband Danny (CFO of IBS), who has been active in the prison visitation program for the last 15 years.
Prior to officially becoming a volunteer chaplain, I had visited the prison on several occasions to help the inmates take the Refuge and the Five Percepts. Over the years, I have been corresponding with some of the inmates. The prison that we visit most frequently is the Calipatria State Prison. There is a story behind the prison visitation program. It was actually originated by Ven. Huei Guang. When he was a student at UCSD, he taught a Buddhism class at a temple and one of his students happened to be a DJ at a local radio station. After Ven. Huei Guang became ordained in Taiwan to become a monk and upon his return to the United States, that student conducted an interview with him on air. Some of the discussions included the path by which he cultivated his Buddhahood and what led to his final decision to join the monastic. During the interview, some of the inmates at the Calipatria State Prison were listening to the program. After the interview, the inmates wrote to the temple and expressed a desire to learn more about Buddhism. That is how the whole prison visitation program began in 1995, which has been henceforth spearheaded by Danny.
Subsequent to the inmates receiving guidance and teachings to cultivate their Buddha nature, the Sangha has been growing rapidly ever since. Particularly after the transfers and relocations of some of the inmates, the dharma began to spread to other prisons where the inmates were able to disseminate what they have learned. Our visitation program began to expand at a remarkable rate. In addition to teaching Buddhism at the Calipatria State Prison, we also visited other relatively nearby prisons such as the Pleasant Valley State Prison and the Chuckawalla State Prison.
Due to the expansion of the prison program, IBS decided to provide the inmates with more and better teachings in order to help them with their reformation endeavors. IBS invited Ven. Xian Zhong, who is Ven. Huei Guang’s very first disciple, from India to teach yoga and meditation in addition to Buddhism. Ven. Xian Zhong had learned and practiced yoga plus meditation at Nepal and India for over ten years. Ever since his arrival in October 2007, he wasted no time and started to teach in the prison programs beginning in January of 2008. Ven. Xian Zhong had held several two-day meditation retreats in the different prisons which turned out to be very successful. It was prominently recognized by the warden, correction officers, chaplains and the inmates. It was an unprecedented first meditation retreat program ever approved by the warden in the state of California to run for two days consecutively. It required quite a lot of arrangements and coordination on the part of the prison system due to the huge turnout and considering that the retreat had extended well into the evening. Besides teaching in the prison programs, Ven. Xian Zhong also teaches yoga and meditation classes at different locations in San Diego, California. Furthermore, he provides Dharma lectures, performing chanting ceremonies, and conducting house blessings. He regularly visits cancer patients and the senior citizens to help them learn more about Buddhism.
Ven. Huei Guang, our President and Abbot of IBS, mainly stays at our main temple in Taiwan. He is frequently preoccupied with teaching at the temples in Mainland China and Taiwan. He visits the United States annually to meet with the members and to give ceremonies for the Refuge and the Five Percepts for the inmates. He also gives Dharma lectures and organizes fund-raising events for the prison visitation programs.
The future implementation plans for IBS are categorized in the following scopes:
1. RETREAT PROGRAM
2. STUDY AND LECTURE
3. RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES
4. RELIGIOUS LITERATURE
5. MONASTIC TRAINING PROGRAM
8. PUBLIC SERVICES
On a related note to the prison program, the excerpt below is an article written recently by Senator Jim Webb which provides some dismal statistics on the state of the prison system.
WHY WE MUST FIX THE PRISON SYSTEM
“America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a nation of disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.
Today, one out of every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world’s reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. For the State of California alone, it had spent almost $10 billion on corrections for the year of 2008.”
A final thought …
When we think only of sincerely helping all others,
we will find that we receive all that we wish for.
Please join IBS to make the prison visitation program a successful one.
Everyone in this world does deserve a second chance.