The following is from a letter by a man who served three prison terms for a total of over 20 years. When he was three years away from his final release date, Venerable Thubten Chodron asked him what would be different this time when he leaves prison.
One of the common approaches to “doing time” in a prison community is to “shut the world out.” This refers to shutting the “outside” world out and bringing all your focus into the world within the fences or walls. There is no world “out there” anymore, only the world inside the fences or walls. It seems, to a certain degree, that this is helpful. In the sense that we seek to be fully present in the currently arising instant. People in prison are less likely to construct a chain of thoughts related to their spouse’s loyalty, or to the many things which they’re missing out on. People do “hard time” when they keep projecting their thoughts “out there” beyond the prison perimeter.
Years pass, and prison simply becomes the place where we live. The punishment aspect fades away. We become accustomed to our environment, our world, and we even become comfortable. After five years of incarceration, whatever the courts hoped to accomplish has been accomplished, or it hasn’t. Further incarceration will not produce that which has not already been produced.
Some men will use the time to become “good cons” (perfected convicts). They will have tattoos, muscles, proper clothing styles, proper speech, proper outlook. They will “fit in.” Whereas prison was once threatening to them, they are now clones of those who most intimidated them in the beginning. It’s one kind of fear or another that drives most of these men to emulate the lifers or old cons. They see that these men have survived many years in a dangerous world. They hope to survive too. Too weak to stand on their own, they give their own identity up in favor of the convict code.
Not all men do this. Some of us are well-centered in who we are, even though we may be far from perfect. We have a strong sense of self. We are secure in our sense of sexual identity. We are aware always that although we are living in this hostile world for a while, it is not forever. We will one day return to the world we’ve always known, and we seek to remain someone who can be reinserted into that world. We don’t want to become consummate convicts.
The people who spend their imprisonment perfecting their convictness finally reach that place where they approach their release or parole date. They “get short.” They get nervous. They don’t think they will fit in in the outside world. Now they have tattoos all over them. They have convict hairstyles including mustache and beard styles indicative of incarceration. They have spent years trying to fit in as a convict. Now they are told to leave. They have to start all over again.
Some panic. They stab another prisoner or kill one, so they will get more time. They assault guards or get caught with drugs, whatever it takes to receive a new sentence or violate their parole or lose accumulated statutory good time so they can remain in prison.
Of course, despite their efforts, some of these men are forced to leave prison. They carry their mindset onto the streets, into the free world. In order to substantiate their toughness, their convictness, they have to perform antisocial, unlawful deeds so people around them won’t think they are weak.
Going back to prison isn’t a threat. They are comfortable in prison. The free world is more threatening now. They feel like orange pieces in an otherwise blue puzzle. There is no real effort to rehabilitate people who are incarcerated. It’s become a “warehousing” effort. The administrators and custody officers will all admit it. It’s all about the warehousing and punishment of people who the courts determined to be a threat to the community. Some are and some aren’t.
Rehabilitation is a personal road within the prison system. Even the system tends to discourage self-rehabilitation because the recidivist rate determines the longevity of the system itself. No customers, no money.
Nonetheless, prison is an excellent opportunity for someone who genuinely seeks self-transformation. Prison is the intercession in the habitually destructive pattern of a person’s life. It’s the “time out” that allows us to look at who we are and what we’ve done. We can check our motivations and decide what we really want to do with the remainder of this rebirth. We are taken out of our world, stripped of our supports and possessions, and placed in a world where we have no identity to uphold. We begin as a number. We have no friends or family, or history.
In a most bizarre turn of events, we are completely free. Nobody knows us. We aren’t expected to act in any specific way. Those around us haven’t become accustomed to our behaving any particular way.
We are also free of the drugs and alcohol which many of us used to enhance our unsatisfactory existence, creating further suffering and dissatisfaction.
Of course some cannot capitalize on this new start, this freedom. They use drugs in prison. They get drunk. They continue their same cycles of use and abuse. There is no break, no intercession. So when they are released from prison, they are still bound by the habitual behavior that imprisoned them before. There’s no difference in what they do or why they do it. Also, they now know prison, so it isn’t a deterrent to them. They know how to do time.
Those of us who want to live outside prisons are motivated to discover the causes within ourselves for all our suffering so we can eliminate them. We don’t want to live in prison. We don’t want to hurt others or ourselves. We don’t want to be separated from family, teachers, or other things we enjoy. Some of us have wives and children we love. We know we’ve hurt them as well as ourselves, and we want to repair the hurt.
Some of us discover a path while in prison. We are drawn to Christianity, our tribal heritage, Islam, Krishna, or Buddhadharma. There are those who see these paths merely as vehicles to provide earlier release from prison. They can pretend to be religious. They can use this façade in order to manipulate people in the free world.
But there are also some of us who do sincerely admit our previous negative habitual behavior. We confess our fault, our sins, and we regret the suffering we have caused. We internalize, to the best of our ability, the transformative teachings. We make our primary daily focus the work of transformation. The rest of our conventional daily world is left to fall as it may around the core of our religious practice.
I was sent to prison three times. The first time I was released early and sent to a drug program because I had “a drug problem, not a criminal one,” to quote the court. Unfortunately I had no desire to transcend that problem, so I left the program unchanged. The root causes were not addressed or surmounted.
I went west “on the run” and soon found myself surrounded by a gang of criminals, fugitives, and drug users who saw me as their leader and epicenter. I found myself in a position where as leader, I had to act quickly in a dangerous situation, choosing to take a life rather than knowing how to wound or flee the scene.
I spent that period of incarceration in a brutal prison system in New Mexico. People died there every week. I still had not overcome my desire to use drugs and alcohol. I still felt it was justified to use violence to resolve confrontations. I affected no change within myself. I was released by a parole board that felt I was justified in killing the person. So, unchanged, I reentered the free world.
This time I met some people who were drug- and alcohol-free. I learned from them for a while. I seemed to be changing. People who had known me for years gained newfound hope. I was released early from parole.
But I had not penetrated myself deeply. It was superficial change. It created a coating that appeared deceptively to others, but inside I still festered. Other people told me drugs and alcohol were bad, but I still saw them as sources of pleasure, although they were socially unacceptable. Intellectually I put them aside, but I still wanted them.
Eventually I found myself alone in the presence of alcohol, and I drank it. The old responses were still there. Then the drugs were available and I took them, and those old responses were still there too. I hung out less and less with those who were sober and straight and associated with those who took refuge in drugs and alcohol.
I really perpetrated a horrible hoax on myself this time. I felt I was using in moderation. I thought I was using just as decadent Western society condoned. And again I made errors in judgment, returning a third time to prison, this time for being in the proximity of my son’s .22 rifle.
There was no new criminal conduct. The judge said he was sorry that the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by Congress compelled him to sentence me to fifteen years in prison. He said, “I don’t see that you were involved in any criminal behavior, nor do I have any reason to believe you intended to be. But you are caught by definition of the Law.”
I thought, “How unjust! The judge even believes I’m being unjustly sentenced. I wasn’t doing anything wrong! I let my son bring his rifle on a family camping trip!”
This was the me talking that rationalized and justified everything I’d ever done, no matter how hurtful. The truth is the judge was wrong. I belonged in prison. Maybe not on the basis of having let my son possess his own rifle, but certainly because I seemed incapable of interceding on my own behalf. I couldn’t break the cycle of my habitual behavior.
I’ve been in prison over ten years now. I have three years yet to serve before I am eligible for release. What will be different this time? What have I done differently during the last ten years of incarceration?
Whereas I couldn’t see it before, I can now accept that I am the solitary source of all the suffering in my countless lives. I’m actually thankful that I was arrested and placed in here. I had strong obstacles to overcome, and this has been a strong therapy. As I threw myself sincerely into the work of cleaning myself out, and as the mud of my delusions settled, I found that the medicine had always been close to me, since I was a child. For me the medicine is Buddhadharma.
With complete fear of spending the future eons in the hell realms because of my negative actions, and with complete confidence in the unsatisfactory nature of all cyclic sources of apparent pleasure, and with complete faith and confidence in the Buddhas, their teachings, and the living community of teachers and practitioners, I renounced my harmful behavior and prayed for the grace of all the enlightened ones to save me upon compassionate wings of mercy. I prayed and prayed, and tried to live as kindly and ethically as I could.
Finally I wrote letters out into the world, seeking the personal guidance of qualified teachers, so that I would continue to cleanse myself and so that I would be guided properly in the study and practice of Buddhism. I wanted to be assured that, should I continue to delude myself in any way, that there would be an honest compassionate teacher here to bring me to reality, to bring me face to face with myself again and again.
I felt as though I’d been the emperor in his new (invisible) clothes, a fool to all as he paraded in his self-centered egoism. I wanted to be able to really see myself. I wanted to avoid doing harmful things. I wanted to bring some value to this rebirth, to use it wisely instead of continuing to squander it.
Buddhist practice is the difference in my world. Within the techniques I found the applications that affected real change in my thinking and actions. The teachings on transforming all felicity and adversity into the spiritual path helped me see that there is no “down time,” no post-meditation time in the sense of there being a lapse in the opportunity to practice. Every instant of arising consciousness provides us the chance to practice, to learn, to apply.
Buddhist practice has made all the difference in my life. If there is a single reason why I will not return to prison, it’s because I’ve studied and practiced the Dharma. Please understand that I’m now serving a mandatory minimum sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. This means I receive no consideration for early release based on good conduct, religious conversion or activity. I will serve the full 13 years, of which I have already completed 10, whether I am a devoted Buddhist practitioner or a violent drug addict. I say this so you will know my words are real.
Now that I have years of sobriety and celibacy within my living experience, I feel protective, like a marathon runner who has made an investment in their ability to run 26 miles. To stop and have to start training all over again is unacceptable. Tomorrow I want to run 27 miles. The next day I was to run more. I want to learn more every day. I want to become a gentler human being every day.
The difference in me is the motivation to do no harm to others or myself and to help others as much as I can. When I don’t know how to help, I want at least to do them no harm.
I now live in a daily environment where drugs, alcohol, theft, pornography, sex, assault, lies, manipulation, and deceit are considered normal and acceptable behavior. Whatever I have access to out there in the free world, I have access to here. Participating in these behaviors and activities is admired and encouraged here. But I want nothing to do with them. I encourage others not to embrace them. They are sources of suffering.
I don’t want to be a “good convict.” I don’t want to live my life in this prison. I want to study and practice the Dharma, attend teachings, participate in retreats, be of service to others.
I wonder what advice I could possibly give to others who will leave prison one day so that they don’t come back.
Realize that we create every suffering we experience. When we hurt others, we created future suffering for ourselves. Live ethically. Leave the intoxicants alone and learn to accept whatever arises as a blessing and opportunity. Discover which methods of mind training help unveil the nature of mind and its tendencies. Be kind to all living beings. Quit blaming other people for the unsatisfactory aspect of your life. Avoid hate and anger, harsh words, and jealousy as though they were flaming swords dipped in poison. Eventually they will manifest exactly like this.
No matter what happens, I must always accept it as the result of my previous actions. If I can accept things in this manner, I will be at peace in my life.
If we hang out with negative friends once we are released, we will find ourselves doing negative things too. We all know we have to associate with positive people. We have to be honest at all times, especially when we feel an urge to be dishonest in order to avoid unpleasantness. When we live honestly it helps eliminate thoughts and behavior that will create the need to be deceitful later.
The more we remain fully present in the here and now, the less we daydream of things we don’t have. We are able to accept our life and be appreciative. We will not rehash past events that cause us to feel guilt, pride, lust, anger, or other disruptive feelings. Being fully present, honest, kind, sober, and associating with like-minded people will be what makes the difference this time when I walk away from prison.
I know that every instant of my life, I live under the loving gaze of all the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, yidams and protectors. All that I do, say, or think is witnessed. Even when, due to my own obscurations I see myself as alone in a room, I am actually in their presence, so I live my life accordingly. This way I do not fall into finding reasons to be dishonest. I am able to talk about everything I do.
As convicted or imprisoned people, we should remember that we are not different from what we were or will be, that we are a constantly developing work in progress. If we learn to see the unperturbed center within ourselves which remains constant despite exterior fluctuations, if we can learn to find the ocean supporting the waves, and then see that the ocean exists within the waves as well, then we can become that “piece of wood” when we would have acted impulsively or mindlessly before. Step back, look at what is happening, and think before you act.
Remember that this is simply an instant of experience in a long chain of instants of experience, and like all things it will swiftly pass. All that will be left to continue into the future instant are the conditional factors we impart and carry over. Mental factors which we contribute are all that remain.
When we experience so-called death, or when we walk out of prison, or when we arrive at any newly arisen moment, our experience is flavored by the last moment of our experience. If I used drugs up to that instant, or if I felt violence was sometimes justified, or if I was sexually promiscuous, then I will have the tendency to carry these things with me, beyond death or prison.
As incarcerated people, we learn through experience. We learn to see people as they are. Our survival depends on it. We can look at a person, listen to their conversation, and determine, often despite their façade and lies, whether they are going to return to prison or not. We see who will go out and use drugs or other intoxicants, who will sexually abuse children or adults. We learn to read people, but how can the process be explained? It’s a slow acquisition , the ability surfaces unnoticed. It is just suddenly apparent. I imagine we could draw an analogy with the way our view is gradually perfected through study and practice. It usually isn’t an earth-shattering moment of supernova, but a gradual falling away of the muddy earth of our obstacles as the new tender stalks of an ethical compassionate being emerge.
We aren’t given a second chance when we are allowed to walk out of prison. We are given a second chance when we walk into prison. We have to be motivated to do the work ourselves. We must be sincere, patient, ethical and enthusiastic. At some point we realize, if we are truly devoted to transformation, that it doesn’t matter where we are anymore. Prison is not a bad place to be. It can be a plush monastery. We receive shelter, food, clothing, access to Buddhist teachers and texts, we are free of many distractions, and we are surrounded by many mother sentient beings who teach us and afford us opportunities to actually put the far-reaching attitudes into practice. Those of us who take advantage of this second chance afforded by imprisonment will not contribute to the recidivist rate. We live in ethical conduct transcending the mundane moral code and law of the land. We don’t concern ourselves with convincing people that we’ve changed, it is obvious in our actions. We don’t to talk a good game anymore. We are a living example of the fruits of practice. Approach each moment as our moment of release. Look at the content of our heart-mind. Are we kind? Are we honest? Are we sober? Are we gentle? Are we free of bias?
When we see a cow grazing in a field, we don’t expect anything of it but cow-ness. We don’t condemn its being a cow, nor do we feel we need to change its nature. We don’t want to hurt it. Are we as kind to human beings?
Learning about karma and its effect and dependent origination helps us see how our sources of suffering are in our mental continuum. We locate the job site, but we still need tools. The tools for transforming the mind are in the Buddhist toolbox. Of course, to use them properly, we need an apprenticeship with a skilled teacher.
Buddhist practice has made me so much kinder to others. My language has mellowed. I am more generous, and not only with those I like, but also to those unknown to me and those who aren’t particularly friendly. Now, if attacked by random, I will not hurt the person back. I would try to fall or I would cover up and try to sustain as little damage as possible while I try to say key things to disrupt the attacker’s train of thought, hoping to persuade him to stop. Then I will try to find out what prompted the attack. Hopefully I will be able to show the person that I am not his enemy and that I only what is best for him.
It’s not so much that I’ve decided to be clean this time I’m released. It’s more that I made the decision to be clean several years ago and am clean now. In one way it could be a pitfall for people in prison to plan what they are going to do when released. There is always a gap between the plan and what will happen. Maybe it’s better to focus on who we are able to be now and to put our energy into that. This will bridge all the gaps. We always meet our future in the present.
I am clean. Geographical location doesn’t affect that cleanness. I will be clean when I’m released because I am clean now. That future will become now too. I did experience some temptations during the past year which were very real and very possible to enter into. They spun me for a while, but I did remain true to my precepts and my motivation. I’m glad I can say that. I know my life will contain repeated tests along the way. I’m prepared.
I intend to live clean when I am released because I am living that way now. I prepare for success in the future by being a success now, because every future is only realized in the present. If I continue to take care of now, there will always be success.
For me the Buddhist path is a one-way path going straight ahead. Enlightenment, too, will be realized here in the present, so I will remain vigilant, awake, fully present here and now. This is where the work is done. The future will come here to meet me. The experience of release from prison will meet me here. My enlightenment will greet me here. Post-release periods, post-meditation periods—what are they? What exists after now?
If I want to live ethically, I practice it now. If I want to benefit others later, I practice it now. When later arrives, it will be now and I will be practicing ethical discipline and kindness then, now, also, still. We don’t race ahead into some mythical future constructed of our conceptual thoughts, and we don’t lie back down into the mythical dreams of the past. We remain here and now, fully present, face to face with ourselves.