Transforming fierce fire into serene lotus
IBS Prison Program in San Diego California USA
Interview with Ven. Xian Zhong
By disciple Lih Hwa
15 Questions to Ven. Xian Zhong by disciple Lih Hwa
Q1. Venerable Xian Zhong, it was said that during last month’s visit to the prison to spread the Dharma, more than 100 inmates received the five precepts. This is absolutely auspicious; would you elaborate the reason and the cause of initiating such a program?
Ven. Xian Zhong:
While my Master was a student at UCSD, and before renouncing his life as a layman, he taught a Buddhism class at a temple that focused on disseminating the Dharma to westerners. One of his students at the temple was a radio station host. In 1994, after my Master became ordained as a monk in Taiwan, and upon his return to the United States, this student wanted to interview him on her show because she realized that many listeners have problems with drug addiction and she wanted to have an open discussion on how to change bad habits from a Buddhist perspective. During the broadcast, some inmates at the Calipatria State Prison were listening to the radio program. After the interview, the inmates wrote to the temple and expressed a desire to learn more about Buddhism and ultimately requested regular teachings to be provided at Calipatria State Prison. Since my Master still needed to complete his training in Taiwan, he was not able to visit the prison at that time. However, he requested Mr. and Mrs. Tam facilitate the spreading of the Dharma in the prison. Thus the beginning of the prison program ensued, which has persevered for the past 17 years.
Q2.Venerable, how did you become involved in the prison visitation program?
Ven.: I came to the US at the end of 2007. In January of 2008, I joined Mr. And Mrs. Tam and began visiting Calipatria State Prison, which is about 3 hours away from San Diego. Later we expanded the program to include a second prison, Pleasant Valley State Prison, which is approximately 5 1/2 hours away. In 2009, we added Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, which is roughly 4 hours away, near the Arizona border. Later, we added Centinela State Prison. This prison is the shortest distance from us, 2 hours away. Currently, our prison visitation program includes these 4 prisons.
Q3. Venerable, you started with one prison. How did the program progress to its present condition?
Ven.: Prison inmates can be transferred between prisons within California. There was one inmate at the Calipatria State Prison, a dedicated student, who felt really enriched by the program. When he was transferred to Pleasant Valley State Prison, he formed a Buddhist group and shared what he had learned.
Subsequently, he requested our support be extended there. This is how we expanded to four locations.
Q4. Are there any other prison requests?
Ven.: Yes, we have requests from 5 different prisons in Northern California, including Chino State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, Lancaster State Prison, and two others. Recently, Chino State Prison completed the required screening process, thus allowing us to begin visitation there.
Q5. What do you teach while visiting the prison?
Ven.: In the beginning, you could say there are no Buddhists in the prisons. There are Christians, Catholics, Muslims and even atheists. But they understand that the wisdom of Buddhism can be applied to help them in daily living. In our teachings, we don’t emphasize becoming a Buddhist, but simply reinforce the ultimate truth that Buddhism outlines. Buddha taught us the truth in life — how to be compassionate and prevent negative deeds, how to engage others as we interact. In the beginning, we do not emphasize that this is what the Buddha says or that it is written in the scriptures. We use simple communication and relate it to their lives. For example, I would say something like: you don’t need to believe in the Buddha because you have never met the Buddha. But you need to believe that if you scold people, they will become angry; if they scold you, you will become upset. Through this way, I use the truth of cause and effect in life to teach them how to become a better person. Therefore, we never pressure them to become a Buddhist, but only share with them how to reduce stress, be content and live in peace with themselves and others. This is quite different from other religions, which emphasize that people need to become a believer to be rescued. As people who have lost direction in life, inmates who encounter this path find it easier to accept and learn.
Q6. Venerable, from my understanding, you also teach the prisoners to meditate and to do prostrations. Would you provide us with an overview?
Ven.: Meditation is very viable for prisoners. I have taught them how to do prostrations, but there is limited space in their cells. Each cell is about 8′ x 6′, and is shared with another prisoner in bunk bed style with a bathroom. Because there is not much room to do prostrations, meditation is their preferred practice. I’ve learned Vipassana practices, so I extended this teaching to them. There are inmates who are unable to practice sitting meditation, so I have taught them other techniques. For example, they are able to practice walking meditation outside where they have more room.
Q7: Venerable, what circumstances lead you to initiate the library at the prisons?
Ven.: In 2008 when I first started to visit the prisons, my English skills and understanding of American culture were limited. During the visits, I searched for ways to communicate that would benefit them even more. By 2009, through the exchange of culture and thoughts with those incarcerated, I learned more about the inmates I visited and discovered that some of them truly engaged in the path of Buddhism and reflected on the teaching in their daily lives. At present, we are only able to visit them once a month. Sometimes, after driving for four hours to the prison we find that the prison is unexpectedly on lockdown. On those occasions, we have to drive back to San Diego without any of the prisoners benefitting from our visit. This is the reality of dealing with prisons.
I have been searching for solutions to overcome such circumstances. Fortunately, during one visit I inadvertently discovered the inmates have access to the library. As I toured the library, I was able to find texts, CDs and DVDs on other religions, but not any Buddhist texts. I immediately made a vow to collect Buddhist texts, CDs, and DVDs in English to add to the library.
Q8: Venerable, how is the library plan going so far?
Ven.: I am hoping the current four prisons can begin establishing Buddhist libraries so inmates may have access to the texts. Typically a prison has A, B, C, and D yards, so each yard will need its own library. All texts require approval, so the process is lengthy. We have set up libraries at Calipatria State Prison and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison with a library for each yard, and at Centinela State Prison. At the present, we have a total of 9 libraries. We are awaiting approval at the other five prisons.
Q9. Venerable, how are these books collected?
Ven.: I am very thankful to have received donations from organizations as well as individuals. Besides receiving books in America, there are some books mailed from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. I would like to express special gratitude to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Ven. Master Hsuan Hua Monastery in San Francisco), the Amitabha Society in Los Angeles, the Dharma Mountain Center in Los Angeles, the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego, the Atlanta Buddhist Association, and the Pureland Buddhist Association in New Jersey for their support of libraries as well as the visitation program. Thank you for the personal contributions from Kelly Kim, Yvonne Tseng, Alice Hu, Eveline Lee (Singapore) Mr. Aravind Yeoh (Malaysia), Amy Chiang, Bert Liu, Pat Lim (Canada) and Rame Chiu for supporting the cause.
Q10: Venerable, from what you stated, the books are mostly from the Theravadan and Chinese Mahayana traditions. Are there any Tantric texts?
Ven.: Our current inventory is short on Tantric texts. I personally studied Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, but I hope the library can include complete sets of all studies. The backgrounds and philosophies of the inmates are diverse. Some will
enjoy meditation, while others will benefit more from Tantric practices. If I am unable to teach them a particular practice, it is my hope that the library will include texts from different teachings so they may receive guidance from the book.
Q11: Venerable, would you discuss the impact of the visitation program thus far?
Ven.: I will answer from two different perspectives. First, those that have participated in our program, have changed their behavior after awhile, creating more peace in their lives. They have become polite and respectful, and have refrained from fighting. At times, the security level for these inmates has eased, for example from a Level 4 to a Level 3. This allows them to be transfered to a lower security prison. When reaching the lowest level, there is hope of being released back to society.
From another perspective, as I have mentioned before, we do not ask them for their faith. However, after a few months practicing what we have taught them, and with the availability of books, they want to become a true Buddhist and seek refuge. Since 2008, we have annually provided the opportunity for 20 to 30 individuals to take refuge. My Master Hueiguan comes from Taiwan and presides over the refuge ceremony each May. This year is especially auspicious; since the establishment of the prison libraries, we will have a total of 106 inmates taking refuge and the five precepts. Also, five of the inmates have been released.
Q12: Venerable, from what you said, it is truly an event to have the condition to take refuge and receive the precepts. With the cell space so very limited, how do you teach them to practice?
Ven.: I often encourage them to treat their cell as a place of practice. The reality is that the prison amenities are not so bad. Whether it is food or clothing, the living conditions are decent. We spend Christmas dinner with them and the food is quite plentiful. I often tell them that the daily routine of an inmate is not so much different from a monk; it just requires a change of perspective. Prison requires group activity and routine, starting the day at 6:00 am, eating breakfast at 6:30. Everyone wears the same clothes, and eats the same food. From dawn to nightfall, activities are similar to the lives of the renounced.
Similarly with their cell, I encourage them to think they are in a retreat practicing. They need to be thankful for the condition that is provided to them. They have food, lodging, clothing, water and utilities. To be grateful is practicing. They are very thankful that I have shared my perspectives and it enables them to change their outlook, thus leading to a more peaceful existence while incarcerated. They have not had a monk sharing their lives with them, encouraging them and supporting them in their practice. This enables them to potentially change their perception and if they can adjust, it is beneficial for them.
Q13. Venerable, how many inmates currently participate in the program?
Ven.: We engage with approximately 500 individuals in four different prisons. Including mail correspondence increases the total to 1,000, a lot more people. Because the inmate suffers, he is more apt to connect with the teachings of Buddha. During the first turn of the dharma wheel, the Four Nobel Truths are presented: 1. Life means suffering, 2. The origin of suffering is attachment, 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable, 4. The path, which leads to the cessation of suffering.
Suffering is our best teacher. Understanding suffering will enable one to seek a path away from suffering; you will search for different paths to achieve it, and Buddhism outlines suffering and the cessation of suffering in great detail and sequence. If there is an opportunity to understand Buddhism, they will follow the path to enable them to relieve their suffering. Some are very dedicated in their studies. Some wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to begin their practice.
Q14. Venerable, what vision do you have for the prison visitation program?
Ven.: I know there are some people who get released from prison who will soon return. Why would this happen? Because they have been locked up for so long, once out into society, they do not have the proper tools to adjust. Nor do they know how to face society, and not being accepted within society ultimately leads them to make the same mistakes and become incarcerated again. Some inmates have been in prison since their 20’s, locked up for 30 years, and when released, discover that society and the world around them have changed drastically. They really don’t have any idea how to adjust to this changed world. Our vision for the future, when IBS is capable and all conditions are available, is to establish interim
housing, similar to a bridge, allowing the released inmates to stay for a period of time. They would learn a trade and receive assistance in locating a job and would be helped to establish a path back into society as contributing members. This is what my Master always envisioned. I’ve heard that the Christians have a similar program, where they will pick them up from the prison after release, place them in the Church commune, and then refer them to McDonalds or Starbucks to work. In the beginning, the church provides the service of getting them adjusted; afterwards they will live on their own. We also would like to provide such services.
Q15. Venerable, in the Flower Ornament Sutra, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva says: “I would rejoice in all merits even as infinitesimal as a single dust- mote.” Since the prisons are usually located in remote areas, a majority of people cannot participate in the Prison Program. What do you recommend as a method of contributing?
Ven. XZ : We have a great need for individuals to correspond with the inmates. If someone would like to assist us with this area of our work, please contact us. Similarly, we welcome any contributions to our library – English Buddhist books, CDs, DVDs, or cash donations. Contact information is as follows:
“Cultivate all good deeds with the mind of non-attachment.”
Conclusion by disciple Lih Hwa
Venerable, thank you so much for sharing the IBS’s Prison Program ideals, visions, and methodology with us. It is truly profound that you can take the path few have
travelled to benefit sentient beings. I sincerely wish for the path of spreading the Dharma to be vast and successful and, with bountiful conditions, for your vision to be realized. Amitofo.
Conclusion by disciple Ven. Xian Zhong
Lih Wha, Thank you for your good wishes. Currently, there are many Buddhist organizations in our society doing great deeds. Preaching in the prison is more limited. I thank you for the opportunity to share what IBS is doing in this field. The essence of samsara is suffering, not just in prison, but in our daily lives as well. Buddha came to this world, and showed us the path; this is very auspicious. As long as we realize the truth and see it for what it is, we are on the path to cessation of suffering. A Buddhist on the bodhisattva path works to help others. Because of the karmic connections, you are there to help deliver them to the other side of samsara. IBS providing the prison program service is not particularly special. I believe the connection with the inmates and with Buddhism provides a condition. I sincerely wish for not only the inmates, but all sentient beings, to quickly enter nirvana. Amitofo.