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I am a Buddhist

I am a Buddhist

Sunset behind an open meadow.

D. S. was in his twenties when he was given a life sentence for driving the car when some friends committed a crime. He has asked Sravasti Abbey’s prison project for books on Buddhism and is an avid reader of Buddhist philosophy as well as lamrim. His letters frequently contain lots of questions, showing that he thinks deeply about what he reads. What follows is from a letter he wrote to Venerable Chodron.

I’m writing to be more open with you. I confess that in previous times I have conducted myself inappropriately, unconscious of the effects my harm would have on others. For this I am ashamed. To not make use of the fortunes and richnesses I have acquired by having a precious human life is to waste a perfect opportunity. I have seen where life would lead me without the Dharma, and I wholeheartedly choose the path which holds the Three Jewels as its refuge.

I want you to know that I will work to never again engage in conscious nonvirtue of any kind. I shall continue to seek your guidance and the protection and guidance from the supreme protectors and compassionate ones. Nobody asked me to be a Buddhist. If I’ve chosen to be one, I should qualify myself accordingly and exert great effort to transform my life, otherwise it would be truly disrespectful.

I keep in mind that I can be gone in a flash and would much rather go with memories of engaging in meritorious practice than with memories of meaningless activities. I have been such a fool that at times in my past I have been lost in recalling impure memories. I’ve even taken part in chatting about iniquities I was involved in at one time just to relate to fellow prisoners.

Prisoners often stress the importance of survival inside these walls, but if to survive means to have to harm or destroy others so that I can live, then perhaps it is better that I not survive. My true-grasping mind yearns to survive as well, but seeing its falsity I have grown disillusioned with its inherent self-view. I can recall feeling hot, angry, and puffed up when someone I disliked challenged that strong sense of “I” and I was ready to justify a fight over something so ridiculous.

Whether I am disrespected, criticized, or beaten up, the time has come to choose nonviolence and compassion over retaliation. As I grow in my practice, I contemplate other things such as relationships with women. In my experience, there has been a mixture of pure love and very strong attachment in these relationships. Partners can provoke each other to grasp at that strong sense of “I” thereby influencing one to accumulate much negative karma, leading one further from the goal of awakening. Also, I feel that couples who are burning with ignorance and passion only further their afflictions and potentialities for unfavorable rebirths. What are your thoughts on this?

On a different note, in the world, some people are labeled bad people, some people are labeled good people, but I’ve heard it said that no one has the power or right to place people in categories of bad or good. Is it correct to acknowledge and learn from the harmful actions of someone rather than label them a horrible person?

I will await your input on my letter. I wanted to show you what I have learned from what you have provided. I want to continue learning from the most subtle view of emptiness and dependent arising, plus what I can learn from the lower schools as well.

The Mahayana teachings mean a lot to me and I greatly fear their degeneration when I hear that prevalence of Buddhist teachings in the East today is less than it was a hundred years ago. Disappearance of the teachings leads one to a stronger conviction in our practice.

Wishing you all good things in the Dharma,
D. S.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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