Prison is an Opportunity to Practice

Prison is an Opportunity to Practice

Date Posted:
November 2009

A man in his early twenties wrote to Rinpoche from prison. He had been in and out of jails since he was thirteen years old, and was now imprisoned for attempted murder. He had since become a sincere Buddhist and studied hard in jail, where he was sentenced to remain for life.

My dear one,
I am very happy to hear you are so devoted to Buddhism. This is the most important thing that could have happened in your life. It makes your life very rich, and learning and practicing Buddhism gives it great meaning.

Please study the entire Buddhist path, as it is described in the book Liberation in the Palm of your Hand. It sounds like you are very intelligent, so that is excellent. But understanding is not enough. One needs to practice and transform the mind into the path.

I know you are in prison, but actually it’s just a concept, what you label it and how you use the space. For another mind, your prison cell is the same as a hermitage. In Tibet, people lived in very small mud hermitages with only a small hole to pass in food. They didn’t come out for many years. So, it’s a question of labeling and how you use the place.

So, in your case, you can use Mahayana Buddhism to see that your bad circumstances can be supportive circumstances for purifying your negative karma, and to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings.

One should realize, actually, that the situation you are in is the best situation given to you by the police, the court, and the other people involved in putting you there. These people are helping you by putting you in this situation, supporting you in developing your mind on the path to enlightenment and ending all sufferings and their causes.

We think people who are not in prison are not prisoners, but they are. Actually, people outside, even those who are travelling the whole world and are regarded as successful, billionaires who have all the objects of desire, may actually be living in prison in their inner life. Externally, mundane people outside prison think they are most successful, but their inner life is sad, miserable, and unhappy, because they have already tried many things and haven’t found satisfaction and are even more unhappy than people who have very little. You might say, generally speaking, that ordinary people (not practicing Dharma, not having realizations) including people from the court, police, kings, and presidents are actually living in prison: the prison of family obligations, of not having the freedom to be alone to practice, the prison of ego, self-centeredness, and a jealous mind. They are living in the prisons of desire and anger.

One big, fundamental prison is that everything that exists is merely labeled by the mind, relating to the base on which it is labeled. Therefore, nothing exists from its own side. Everything is empty; everything exists, but is empty. While it is empty, it exists in mere name. This is the truth, but this truth is not seen. This truth is always there but you are not able to see it. It is the same for the “I.”

For most people, this truth, which is there and always functioning, doesn’t exist, including the I, actions, and objects that appear as existing, not as merely labeled by the mind. These are actually false objects, a false I, and false actions. But what is false, the world one hundred percent truly believes exists and is true. What is false is believed to be the truth. So, being trapped in the prison of hallucinated ignorance, of the unknowing mind, is another prison. This is the root of all sufferings. The suffering world came from this and was created by this wrong concept: ignorance.

Trapped in the prison of wrong concepts, believing impermanent phenomena to be permanent, believing temporal samsaric pleasures are happiness, this is another big prison we are trapped in. Like believing the body, which is only a container of dirty things, to be clean—this is another hallucinated prison. There are so many wrong concepts and views, prisons we are caught in. These prisons are from time without beginning – beginningless prisons.

Now you have met the Dharma, and, if you practice meditation, especially the lam-rim, you will be liberating yourself from all these prisons.

People in the outside world think that prisoners only know prison, but they don’t realize all the other beginningless prisons that they are in. This is the fundamental suffering which keeps them in the prison realm. This external prison, your jail, is nothing compared to those inner prisons. So, you are so fortunate that, for you, this is not a prison but a liberating place. By developing your mind on the path, liberating yourself from all the sufferings and their causes—delusion and karma—you are now ending this.

Thank you very much.

My suggestion for you is to do some practice in prison. You can perform 200,000 prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. This is an extremely powerful purification practice that will bring you quick realizations and open your heart. Even when you finish 200,000 prostrations, it is still good to continue to do 100 prostrations in the morning and 100 in the evening.

At the moment, you can practice daily meditation using my book Daily Meditation Practice. Before the dedication in the book, expand your lam-rim meditation. If you are familiar with the whole lam-rim, then start to train your mind in guru devotion, perfect human rebirth, karma and impermanence, and death. This will help you to renounce this life.

Later, you can do 400,000 mandala offerings, but first perform the prostrations. Then, slowly start offerings as you study. Then you can recite 30,000 Vajrasattva mantras. I won’t explain much here, but you can get transcripts about this, which you can read.

Please know that many lamas and people were put in prison by the communist Chinese in Tibet, but many achieved realizations in prison and it became so beneficial for their minds. They were able to put into practice the Dharma they had learned in the prison. Some didn’t even eat food, but their bodies were shining and glowing because of meditation: mind food. Even when they had food, it was hardly anything. It was very little, just flour and water, just the name “food” was given. I also heard the food was put in the same bucket that was used for the toilet.

So, you can use this opportunity to practice, and then prison can become a place of happiness, and there is so much to rejoice in. For Christians, it becomes like heaven, and for Buddhists, it becomes like a pure land.

With much love and prayer...