I’m back in prison

Mar 27, 2023

 

QUESTION

Dear Ven. Robina,

 

Hello Venerable. I hope this letter finds you well and happy in life.

 

After close to a year and a half now, I’ve managed to push past my shame and embarrassment and reach out to you. Last we spoke it was 2015. I have found myself back in prison after over twelve years of freedom.

 

You offered me guidance and support in dealing with my daughter’s diagnosis of a terminal illness. I was released in 2016 with a renewed sense of focus but was so unprepared for the road ahead. All the years spent studying the Dharma looked to be superficial as I crumbled under the heartache of watching my little girl die.

 

Drugs and alcohol became my refuge. Eventually I found myself back in the courts, and with the extensive history I have, and what draws out to be a life of criminality, my sentence was extra harsh. I was given thirteen years before the possibility of parole.

 

So here I sit in the same place we met, alone as I grow to accept the first death I’ve ever faced. My daughter passed away October 2021. Despite the agony in that, I’ve come to see the seed of Dharma study all those years ago (over twenty years now) wasn’t all that superficial after all. Those seeds had taken root, and for the first time in my life I feel a solid level of content. I’m actually living a spiritual life. I’ve managed to embrace this time as an opportunity most people will never receive. A decade plus to dedicate my life to meditation and the sincere study of the Dharma.

 

My ex-wife and our other child are doing well. My son is sixteen now! I was just speaking to him last month about how special his birth was – that you called and blessed him with prayers hours after he was born. What a beautiful memory. And he has grown to be such a loving and compassionate young man. You would be very pleased. 

 

I am in no relationship and have all but renounced the thought of one now or in the future. I truly feel like this time is a blessing. I can’t say I live like a monastic, but I am working towards that. Even if formal vows are not a possibility, I make my own. I always did have a wish to be a monk. At the time though, I was in a committed relationship. Things are different now. My lack of physical freedom has given me a level of freedom never possible before now.

 

Of course some days are not all that easy, and I still struggle with certain emotions. But my practice today is stronger than I could have ever imagined. Regardless of the years that have passed, or my struggles with regret and feeling ashamed, you are my dearest lama, and I hope you will still guide me. Will you please still guide me along the path, Venerable?

 

Despite all the various empowerments I’ve received—from Vajrakalaya, to Guhyasamaja from Lama Zopa, or even the Chöd empowerment from Lama Wangdu—I’ve been spending my time these days studying lojong, particularly Peacock in the Poison Grove by Geshe Sopa and Advice from a Spiritual Friend by Geshe Rabten.

 

With the years that have gone by and the decisions I’ve made along the way, I have broken every vow I’ve ever made, aside from actual murder. So of course this weighs heavy on my heart and I do spend time with Vajrasattva practice.

 

But more and more, I find myself really focusing on deepening my understanding of emptiness, and working to grasp the depth of this ignorance that sees a solid independent identity – what that really means. And I have so many questions in this area, Venerable, that some nights I lay awake going over it all in my head. I’d like to share some of these questions with you, in hopes that you can help me to see more clearly.

 

It feels like attacking this ego-ignorance is the most direct path to a sincere freedom. Intellectually, I understand. I see the lack of inherent self. I see the fact of dependent arising. It all makes perfect sense to me. But then I’m stuck with this feeling of “so what?” How does this understanding change anything? While at the same time, I have faith in the teachings. I know that this understanding eventually progresses on to a deeper realization, but what questions help that progression?

 

It’s actually funny in some ways. I have twelve more years here, free from the distractions and responsibilities of the world, yet I feel like I’m scrambling, like I don’t have enough time, or that I’ve somehow wasted this opportunity. Most often I’m able to laugh at myself, but there are times when this turns to frustration. I realize that can be counterproductive, but it is difficult to escape.

 

In all sincerity, I want to gain ground to establish deeper understanding and realization, so I can give that gift to others. I do my best to live by example in here, but it’s just not enough. I want to give more. I want to help change lives. Especially in a place so filled with aggression and hopelessness. Sometimes the sadness in that is overwhelming.

 

In trying to see this ego issue more clearly, I’m left wondering just how grasping at a solid independent self really influences my emotions. Because I believe in this “self,” I feel sadness or guilt, shame or anger even. How? I’m missing that level of clarity or insight. How does this ignorance allow for me to feel sad? How does it play a role in my struggles with attachment to freedom from prison? Or the guilt or shame I feel over my past mistakes, the decisions that actually hurt people or changed their lives in a negative way?

 

I know in my heart that there is an answer to these questions found in understanding emptiness beyond my current level and maybe it’s a matter of me being impatient. I can see an argument both ways. Hopefully that makes sense. My manual through this ego-struggle has been The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent-Arising by Ven. Lobsang Gyatso. The amount of clarity I managed to glean from this commentary has been life-changing. But the subject material is so much more meaty than any text alone can truly explain.

 

So I find myself stuck, maybe even overextending myself on content. Is my study of these various texts too broad, Venerable? I worry I might be adding to my confusion and frustration. While at the same time, I am just so hungry to go deeper.

 

The thought of liberation doesn’t sound so foreign or maybe even unrealistic. I know it is in my future, regardless of the lifetimes it takes. I see now practice is preparation. It’s a wonderful feeling. I thank you, Venerable, for planting the seeds all those years ago.

 

And as your student, Venerable, I am sorry for the decisions I’ve made along the way. You invested time and love into my spiritual practice, and I know I have disappointed you. I ask for your forgiveness, Venerable, and also that you will continue on with me. My commitment has never been more sincere. In some ways, it’s too bad it took a long prison sentence to give me this clarity. In others, a long prison sentence provides the perfect conditions. My time is completely committed to the practice of Dharma. Please forgive me, Venerable, and lead me the rest of the way.

 

You are in my prayers daily. Thank you for all you have given me, Venerable. You truly have given me everything.

 

With love, N

 

P.S. Venerable, how do I renew/purify my broken commitments? What vows can I take in here? Pratimoksha vows? Are novice vows (in the future) a possibility, or should I just focus on the precepts? What can I do to obtain the most merit in this situation? Thank you, Venerable.

 

ANSWER

Dearest N, 

 

I am so happy to hear from you! And especially glad that you’re turning all your rubbish experiences into something good: well done!

 

So sad about the death of your beloved child. But glad you have a son in your life: so special.

 

I’ll be sending you a few things to read. Not sure of the rules there; see if I can find out.

 

One thing I’ll be sending is the printout of a PDF I put together for people who’ve taken a highest yoga tantra empowerment. It lists your various commitments and vows in relation to 1. Refuge and the five lay vows; 2. Bodhisattva vows; and 3. Tantric vows and commitments. Plus lots of practices and teachings.

 

There’s plenty in there for you to study and think about. 

 

It includes a practice called Samayavajra, very short and sweet, put together by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, which is particularly powerful for purifying our broken samaya, or commitments. 

 

Of course, your Vajrasattva practice done in the context of the four opponent powers is also perfect for this. And needs to be done every day, no matter what.

 

As for understanding emptiness. Yes, it takes time to see the relevance of it, even though, as you say, you understand it theoretically. All this proves is that the habit of grasping at and believing in an intrinsic I is pretty ancient!

 

The simple point is this: because this ignorance, marigpa, and all the delusions, starting with attachment, that are underpinned by this ignorance, are mistakes, misconceptions, misinterpretation of reality – simply because of that we suffer. It’s like you’ve always believed that a $5 note is $500; it even appears to you as $500. Because of this misconception you rush off in anticipation of getting five hundred dollars’ worth of things and when you get only five dollars’ worth, you’re disappointed. You suffer because you’re not in touch with the reality. You’ve made up a lie. I mean, this is a simple simple example, but it’s the essence of it. 

 

And, bad enough, as Lama Zopa says, that the world out there and our own self appear to us wrongly, the worst thing, the thing that keeps us paralyzed in samsara, is that we believe in what appears.

 

This is literally why we suffer, why we’re in samsara, why we are self-centered, why we harm others: it all stems from the misconceptions in our mind. 

 

So can you imagine being free of these misconceptions? You’d have no attachment, anger, depression, anxiety and, of course, no longer any sense of a separate self. You’d have incredible compassion, love and the rest. And the bonus? Your mind would be utterly blissful all the time. Bliss is the natural state of our mind when it’s unencumbered by the delusions.

 

But to realize emptiness we need masses and masses of purification and merit. 

 

So keep practicing, N. Keep purifying. Protect your vows and commitments like you would your life. 

 

Read and study the vows and commitments in the document I’ll send you. 

 

And, of course, recite your Six-Session Guru Yoga every day and do any other commitments that your holy lamas have asked you to keep.

 

For your own sake, please tell me exactly what initiations you have taken and what commitments in relation to those practices you have.

 

And please lay out for me exactly what your daily practice is right now, all the components.

 

Much love and much courage!

Robina

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