Duc Ta writes on the Dharma Life

As most of you know, I am a friend and supporter of Duc Ta who is still unjustly incarcerated. I just saw that Duc Ta has published still another essay–this one about dharma and Buddhism. It was posted by the Under 35 Project of Shambala Publications. I’m copying it here. Along with a photo of Hector Aristizabal and me visiting Duc in prison.

What It is Like to Live the Dharma Life

By Duc Hong Ta | October 27, 2011

Like everyone else who finds themselves in prison, you either find religion or you find the devil’s playground. At age 16, I found both.

Being Chinese American, I was raised Buddhist. Everyone in my family for generations was a Buddhist. I remember being dragged from temple to temple for this holiday and that holiday. Sometimes they would take me straight to a temple right after I was suspended from school for fighting. Maybe they thought it would remove the bad spirits thought to possess me that made me fight people. I prayed to three different shrines twice a day. I held the incense in my palm bowing three times before placing it in one of those ash filled cups. I knew I was a Buddhist. I told people I was a Buddhist. But I didn’t live the way of my faith. Did I really know my faith like I was demonstrating with my daily prayers and bowing to the Buddha? I didn’t have a single clue.

Life wasn’t the greatest for me growing up. There were sweet moments here and there, but the bitterness of my father’s temper and abuse out weighed everything else. As in any typical Asian immigrant family, if one screwed up, you most likely got your butt whooped. Just the way it went, especially with the Chinese folks. Seems to be part of their tradition and culture. You can’t disrespect the elders and bring shame to the family name. With my bad temperament and ego, I grew up fighting and being beaten by my father on a regular basis. I asked myself that if my father was such a devoted Buddhist, how could he treat me like this? Yet, everything I did involved those same ingredients that were used raising me.

I had my father’s bad temper and tendency to violent outbursts. I rebelled against everyone and anything. No one could tell me anything and eventually I found myself in a situation where shots were fired out of my car at two other people while I was driving. By the grace of Buddha, no one was hit or physically injured though I can’t say the same for the damage done emotionally and mentally to all involved. I was arrested and booked in the local juvenile facility and what I thought would be just a weekend trip ended up being a 35-year to life sentence at the age of 16. My entire life spun out of control and crumbled. I couldn’t comprehend the seriousness of it all. I had no criminal record or run in with the law prior to this and I was just a kid. It was a death sentence to me. My life was over. Before I knew what hit me, I was being shipped off to one of California’s state prisons for hardened criminals. I thought I was tough but I knew I wasn’t as tough as the men awaiting the arrival of this new fish. Those guys were going to tear me apart and have their way with me. I couldn’t let that happen. I followed the advice from some guy at county jail, telling me I better assert my dominance as soon as I got off that bus. And that’s just what I did.

At least for the first seven years of my prison sentence. Although I practiced meditation and read countless books on Buddhism, violence was the problem and the solution to everything I encountered. I saw endless counts of violence that have been etched into my skull and will haunt me for the rest of my life. The first book I ever read in my life was The Way of the Warrior by Thich Nhat Hanh when I was first locked up in juvenile hall. I never forgot what I read, that there was another way to be a warrior than the one I thought I had to be. But I had become a product of my environment, a product built by violence and for violence. While I’ve done things I’m not proud of, things I thought were necessary at the time to survive, I never completely forgot my faith. It was always behind me even when I didn’t know it, as if it knew I would one day turn around and there it would be in all its beauty with open arms. It wasn’t until a very dark and difficult time several years ago that I read Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche that my world completely changed.

I took a deep look into myself as a human being and looked at the things I was doing. I was only in my mid-twenties but I looked much older. I was letting the system win by chipping pieces of my soul away and I was falling faster than I knew. No longer did I want to be a contributor of violence and negativity to my life and the world I lived in any more. Deep down I knew with all of my heart that I was not a person of violence. It was a choice that I thought I had to make from being so afraid and immature. I made a vow to myself that I was going to live a life of love, compassion and kindness. Like Buddha who lived amongst the poor and suffering I would find solace and goodness in the people around me. I saw that life was about suffering and I needed to learn how to understand my own in order to cope with my ordeal. I made the choice not to let the hate and anger of this place take me, instead I practice dealing with the negativity and violence around me with love, compassion and kindness. By doing that, I learned that one can resolve anything without striking another and that love can truly overcome anything, even the meanest and toughest of them all.

Living the Dharma life gave me a new life. I was resurrected from the dead and my soul is thriving to live the life I was meant to live. I am a better son, a better brother, a better friend, but most importantly a better person. Through consistent meditation and practice of Buddhism, I no longer feel the emotion of hate towards others nor does the thought of physical violence ever approach my mind when I am confronted by anyone that is hostile. If anything, my heart breaks when I see violence being done to another, physically or verbally. I have dedicated my life while still in prison to be of service to those in need. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I feel beaten and worn down. But Patience and Compassion are key elements to my practice. I find myself failing from time to time. But to me failure simply means that method didn’t work and now you know not to do that again and to find a better way. After all I am a Buddhist practitioner not a Buddhist monk. I am going to be tested and I will fail but I will just breathe and pick myself up and move forward. We’re not perfect and we never will be, but we can learn to be a better person simply by practicing.

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