Enjoy Life Liberated from the Inner Prison

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This book presents Lama Zopa Rinpoche's advice to prison inmates drawn from more than 100 letters he has written to prisoners over the years. It has been skillfully edited into a coherent whole emphasizing essential lamrim topics by Ven. Robina Courtin.

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18: Practice Giving and Taking

You could practice taking upon yourself all the negative karma others have created to be in prison, all their suffering of being in prison.

There is a very special meditation on bodhicitta called tonglen, giving and taking. You meditate on taking upon yourself other sentient beings’ sufferings and the causes of suffering, thus destroying the ego, and then giving them your happiness, your merits.

As we have discussed, it is so beneficial for you to use your situation of being in prison to develop bodhicitta, to train your mind in bodhicitta. You could practice taking upon yourself all the negative karma others have created to be in prison, all their suffering of being in prison, and even the unpleasant place of the prison itself.

You generate compassion for all the people who have the karma to be in prison; you take all of that suffering and all the delusions and karma that caused it, including even the imprint of the subtle obscurations in the mind—you take all that upon yourself and give it to your self-cherishing ego.

As you meditate like this, you will purify so many eons of negative karma and defilements: in that second, like an atomic bomb exploding, it all becomes totally non-existent.

You purify so much negative karma and create so much merit

Earlier, I mentioned a woman who healed her own cancer by practicing compassion. Here is another example. A man who had AIDS was advised by his guru to do tonglen. The student practiced this meditation. When he went to the hospital for a check-up, they could no longer find any sign of the AIDS virus.

When I heard about this, I thought he must have practiced the meditation for a while, but he told me that he’d practiced it for just four minutes each day for four days. He felt unsurpassable compassion for others, especially for those who had AIDS. He experienced such compassion that he cried. He didn’t have the slightest concern for himself, only compassion and concern for others.

This meditation is like fuel for a rocket. What healed his AIDS so quickly was his powerful practice of bodhicitta, letting go of his self and cherishing others. This purified the negative karma and delusions that had resulted in his AIDS.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (ch. 1, vv. 13–14), the great saint bodhisattva Shantideva says:

  By relying upon a hero (a powerful person), great fear can be ceased,
But by relying upon bodhicitta one can be liberated quickly from a very heavy, powerful negative action [the results of which] are inexhaustible.
So mindful people depend on this bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta burns great heavy evil deeds in one instant,
Just like the conflagration at the end of the world burns rocky mountains, even impenetrable things, instantly.

You create limitless skies of merit by taking all this suffering and its causes upon yourself.

It is the same when you give away your body, with loving kindness, to numberless beings: you collect numberless merits. When you give all your wealth, you create numberless merits. When you give away your happiness, which includes enlightenment, you create numberless merits. When you give away all your merits of the past, present and future, you collect numberless merits.

Each time you do the meditation of taking and each time you do the meditation of giving, you get closer to liberation and enlightenment, closer to being able to enlighten all sentient beings.

The meditation

Generate compassion by thinking of how living beings constantly experience suffering even though they have no wish to do so, because they are ignorant of its causes or because, although they know the causes of suffering, they are too lazy to abandon them.

Think: “How wonderful it would be if all living beings could be free from all suffering and the causes of suffering, karma and delusions.”

Think: “I myself will free them from all their suffering and its causes.” 

1. Take upon yourself the suffering of others
Take the suffering of all humans

As you breathe in, focus first on all the numberless other people who are in prison. Then think of all the other problems experienced by all living beings, as well as their causes. As you slowly breathe in, imagine you take in all this suffering and its causes through your nostrils in the form of black smoke. Like plucking a thorn out of their flesh, you imagine immediately removing all the suffering from the numberless living beings.

Take the suffering environments of sentient beings

Take from others all the undesirable environments that they experience. In particular think of all the prisons throughout the world. Breathe in through your nostrils in the form of dark smoke all the undesirable places that sentient beings experience.

For example, imagine that you are breathing in the red-hot burning ground of the hot hells, the ice of the cold hells, the inhospitable environments of the hungry ghosts and animals, the dirty places of human beings, as well as all the prisons.

Destroy self-cherishing and ignorance

The dark smoke comes in through your nostrils and down to your heart, where it sinks into your self-cherishing and completely destroys it. You receive all that suffering as dark smoke onto that wrong concept, onto the self-cherishing thought, the great demon, the enemy, the self-cherishing thought and, like a bomb, destroys it.

Then think you receive all this suffering and obscurations onto yourself, into your own heart, onto your root of samsara, which is the ignorance that is holding the I as real, while it is not.

(Self-cherishing is based on the ignorance that holds to the concept of a truly existent I. Even though no truly existent I exists, we cherish this false I and regard it as most precious and most important among all beings.)

At the same time as your self-cherishing becomes completely nonexistent, the false I that ignorance holds to be truly existent also becomes completely empty, as it is empty in reality.

Meditate on emptiness

Meditate for as long as possible on this emptiness, the ultimate nature of the self. The real I becomes nonexistent—just as it is, in reality, not there at all. This purifies the actual cause of suffering, the ignorance itself.

2. Give everything to sentient beings
Generate loving-kindness

Next, generate loving kindness by thinking that even though living beings want to be happy, they lack happiness because they are ignorant of its causes or lazy in creating them. And even if they achieve some temporary happiness, they still lack the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment.

Think: “How wonderful it would be if all living beings had happiness and the causes of happiness.”

Think: “I myself will give them happiness and its causes.”

Give everything you have to sentient beings

Visualize your body as a wish-granting jewel, which can grant all the wishes of living beings. Then give everything you have to every living being. Give all your good karma of the three times and all the happiness that results from it up to enlightenment. Give your possessions, your family and friends, and give your body, visualized as a wish-granting jewel.

Also make offerings to all the enlightened beings.

Human beings receive everything they need

Now imagine that all living beings receive everything that they want, including all the realizations of the path to enlightenment.

Those who want a friend, find a friend.

Those who want a guru, find a perfect guru.

Those who want a job, find a job.

Those who want a doctor, find a qualified doctor.

Those who want medicine, find medicine. For those with incurable diseases, you become the medicine that cures them.

And all those in prison find freedom from prison.

Since the main human problem is difficulty in finding the means of living, imagine that each human being is showered with millions of dollars from your body, which is a wish-granting jewel.

You can also think that the environment becomes a pure land—the pure land of Amitabha Buddha or of the Buddha of Compassion.

You grant all human beings everything they wish for, including a pure land with perfect enjoyments. All these enjoyments cause them only to generate the path to enlightenment within their mind, and they all become enlightened.

Transform the environments of hell beings and hungry ghosts into pure lands

Now imagine completely transforming the environment of the hell beings into a pure realm, which is as beautiful as possible, with perfect enjoyments and no suffering at all. All the iron houses of the hell beings, which are one with fire, become jewel palaces and mandalas. All the hell beings receive everything they want and then become enlightened.

Do the same for the hungry ghosts. Transform their environment into a pure realm and give them thousands of different foods that all taste like nectar. The hungry ghosts receive everything they need, but the ultimate point is that they all become enlightened.

Give the animals protection

Since animals mainly need protection, imagine protecting them from being attacked by other animals. They receive everything they want, and everything they receive becomes the cause for them to actualize the stages of the path and become enlightened.

Finally, rejoice

After everyone has become enlightened in this way, rejoice by thinking, “How wonderful it is that I have enlightened every single living being.”

  • Giving and taking purifies so much negative karma.
  • Giving and taking can purify illness.
  • With compassion, take upon yourself the suffering of others.
  • In particular, with compassion, take upon yourself the suffering of everyone in prison.
  • With love for others, give them all your happiness, all your merits.
  • With love for others, give them everything they need.
  • The practice of giving and taking causes bodhicitta.