by Rev. Diane Wilde, BP3 Founder

I am a Buddhist prison chaplain. My sanghas are in prison, and the people I minister are primarily Maximum Security, Level 4 prisoners, located in Northern California. I have found it to be a prime place to practice Dharma, both for myself and for the sangha members I have had the good fortune to count as my spiritual friends, and even as my teachers.

Recently I have been providing spiritual advice to one particular prisoner whose story I want to offer here. His name is Eddie. He has given me permission to relate his circumstances and his own experience with the Dharma, with the harm he caused and his subsequent efforts to address his actions. Eddie is his real name, but I won’t use his last name out of respect for his victim’s family.

Eddie is Filipino and at 16 years old was an active gang member in his Los Angeles neighborhood. He apparently had a difficult home situation, as is the case with most of the men I have met who are in prison for a variety of crimes. Since I spend most of my time at Level 4 prisons, crimes are usually violent offenses such as murder and rape. Inmates come from families which too frequently are comprised of an absent father and a mother who is overwhelmed with supporting her large brood. Sometimes there are no family members involved at all. Young men are left to raise themselves. It’s an old story that we hear time and time again. When there is little supervision or guidance, young people look to neighborhood gangs for validation of themselves. They yearn to be a “somebody”–someone who is respected, connected with a community and cared for in some way. They want to be part of a group where they feel ‘safe.’ Eddie was a product of that environment. Unfortunately, it all backfires.

I don’t know the circumstances of why he murdered his victim. He doesn’t go into detail, and I never ask more then a prisoner wishes to share. But he did say that as a gang member, he killed a rival gang member. He was 16. He was caught soon afterwards, went to trial and received a life sentence.

I also don’t know exactly when Eddie realized the full scope of what he had done. At some point while incarcerated he shed the self that was a gang member. Perhaps that happened at his first court appearance. Probably not. No one committing crimes that will send them to prison for life seems to understand the enormity of what they have done until they actually walk down a prison corridor and hear for the first time the clanking of heavy steel doors as they are escorted to their cells. Eddie never told me when exactly he “woke up” to the immense harm he caused when he did the gang’s bidding. Perhaps it was a lengthy self-realization process or perhaps he woke up suddenly, as from a nightmare.

What I do know is that he absorbed deeply the enormity of his actions. With that realization, he made an agreement with himself… he would absolve himself of this crime. He would live the life his victim would have lived. His victim was a Buddhist practitioner, so Eddie read all he could on Buddhism and tried practicing it on his own. When he came to the prison where I hold Buddhist services, he eagerly joined our group, although it was two years before he asked if he could speak to me privately about his concern for his own karma and his wish for forgiveness.

Eddie is now 36 years old. He is not only a faithful Buddhist practitioner, coming regularly to our sangha, he also has a prison job. Men in prison have to either work at a job in prison (they actually ‘run’ the prison with their labor), or have to be enrolled at school. Working earns them perhaps $1 a day… I’m not sure. It varies according to the job, with firefighters earning the most. It’s not much. I believe Eddie is a kitchen worker. Eddie gives the small amount he earns at his job to the temple his victim attended. He even wrote a letter to the temple explaining why he was offering dana, going into great detail about who he is and who his victim was. He once gave me a copy of the letter he sent along with his first donation. I pondered, “How can this be the same person who took a life? How did he, on his own, transpose into this caring person who is committed to a life of integrity?” The prison environment certainly does not support this sort of self-reflection… in fact, it can be dangerous. It’s still a mystery to me.

Eddie until very recently accepted that he would spend his life in prison. However, a new law took effect on January 1, 2014–California SB 260. The law reads, in part: “When a defendant who was under 18 years of age at the time of the commission of a crime has served at least 15 years of his or her sentence, existing law allows the defendant to submit a petition for recall and resentencing, and authorizes the court, in its discretion, to recall the sentence and to resentence the defendant, provided that the new sentence is not greater than the initial sentence.” In other words, juveniles who commit crimes and are given life sentences will now be considered for parole. Eddie falls into this category.

When I met with Eddie privately, he excitedly claimed he never thought he would be released, but now there is an excellent chance he could be. “Funny”, he mused, “When I decided to dedicate my life to my victim, I wanted to live his life for him. That’s why I became a Buddhist. And this practice has also been the best thing I could do for myself. I’m so much happier and I feel so free!” There is only one obstacle that causes him mental consternation… the family of the victim will not forgive him. He asked me what could he do to eliminate the endless mental rumination regarding their unwillingness to understand that he is no longer the boy who murdered their loved one. He knows they will appear at his parole hearing and request that the board never release him. I told Eddie on that front that he should not be concerned… his own rehabilitative actions will speak for him. I will, too.

But Eddie’s concern for being forgiven is not unusual. Other men and women often express the same sentiment. Many have committed to following the Buddhist Five Training Precepts as a guide for living a virtuous life. They are committed to the training of: 1) Not killing or harming living beings; 2) Taking only what is freely given; 3) Abstaining from sexual misconduct; 4) Speaking truthfully; and 5) Abstaining from intoxicants that lead to headlessness. We emphasize the precepts in prison as they are a valuable method for monitoring behavior that could cause harm to oneself and others. Yet–the precepts do not address forgiveness, which so many incarcerated people are desperate to receive.

In Buddhism, there is no all-seeing deity who can forgive, and since we are all owners of our own karma, no one can forgive another of their actions.

I met with Eddie one evening a few months ago to discuss his yearning for forgiveness, and did my best to explain the Buddhist teachings on the subject. I told him at a retreat I attended, I had asked Buddhist scholar/monk Bhikkhu Analayo and my teacher Gil Fronsdal this question. They both stated unequivocally that forgiveness is a Christian doctrine. In Buddhism, there is no all-seeing deity who can forgive, and since we are all owners of our own karma, no one can forgive another of their actions. We cannot change others’ karma or how they respond to any situation. This is the reason for the emphasis on the present moment–it is where we have a choice in directing our own karma. One Zen teacher was asked, “What is Enlightenment?” He replied, “An appropriate response.”

Eddie had done all he could to mitigate the harm he had caused. He could never undo his crime, but he long ago rid himself of the person that had committed the crime. The good news in Buddhism is that “we are not defined by the worst thing we have ever done.” As long as we acknowledge the harm caused and the emotions that perpetuated the act, and if we substitute those emotions with skillful mind states, vow to never repeat that action and, if appropriate, express remorse to our victim… then we have corrected our course. Eddie had done all of this.

His victim’s family has their own karma with which to contend. They had a horrible act perpetuated upon them. Their suffering must be immense. If they wish to see Eddie as a murderer who will never change, and believe that to honor their loved one they must withhold the possibility of forgiveness, then that is what they will do. But if they could see that Eddie is a man today who is incapable of committing such a violent act, perhaps this knowledge would ameliorate to a degree their own suffering. I will never know and Eddie probably will never know either. He must now live with this unknowing–the result of the murderous actions of a confused young man whose identity was extinguished many years ago.

For more on forgiveness, see previous blog post here.