By Sister Chan Khong in December 1995
Dear David, I wish to be your friend because I know that you are a good person caught in a difficult situation. When we are in a bad situation, we tend to believe that we are the only one who is unfortunate. In fact, everyone has difficulties . Only we may never hear about them. Please remember that being caught in a bad situation is normal. Everyone has to face this. The question is, how can we cope with our difficult situation in beauty and peace? When caught in a bad situation, I too was as unhappy as you are. But I have learned how to be unhappy for only several minutes or a few hours. During that time, I use the art of mindful living to be resurrected and to look deeper in order to see many positive things. Then I discover that, thanks to a bad situation, I have many good opportunities.
There is a bodhisattva, an enlightened person, named Ksitigarbha, who goes to living beings in the worst situations and tries his best to cheer them up, to give them inspiration to live, to smile, and to help them get out of their bad situations. Ksitigarbha vows that, "If there is still one living being caught in a hellish situation, I will stay there with him or her until he or she is set free." I am sure that Ksitigarbha is there with you, like a gentle guard who listens carefully to what you say and kindly helps you in your time of need. Ksitigarbha could be a prisoner himself, but not like other prisoners. While the others live without responsibility, without care, the prisoner Ksitigarbha is the one who lives mindfully, beautifully peaceful and loving with everyone in the jail. Ksitigarbha could be a social worker—one who really loves, cares, and works overtime out of love, not for salary. Ksitigarbha could be a lawyer, devoted to his client's cause, really wishing to help, to relieve the suffering of the victims, not for money, but for being helpful and relieving suffering. Ksitigarbha could be yourself when you are peaceful, light, serene, and full of love and care for those around you.
All situations, even desperate ones, change. If we know how to handle our moments in prison with mindfulness, with a very deep look, with the loving heart and the compassionate eyes of Ksitigarbha, we will treasure every moment. People suffer because they do not know that everything changes. The weather is sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes foggy, sometimes snowy. We must learn the art of enjoying the sunshine when it is sunny, the rain when it is rainy, the fog when it is foggy. We must learn the art of mindfully enjoying our time. When we play tennis, we play with 100% of our being; when we are with our beloved ones, we enjoy our beloved ones 100%; when we are in jail, we enjoy our time in jail 100%. You must know that this time in jail is an invaluable time for learning if you can be mindful, and look deeply at everything that is happening.
In the past, Thay had an American student who was a devoted peace activist. One day, Thay gave him a tangerine. He ate the tangerine, but his mind was involved with many projects. While eating, he told Thay about them. Suddenly Thay said, "Jim, eat your tangerine!" Jim realized he was not eating his tangerine, but only his projects. He bowed to Thay and then ate slowly, mindfully, enjoying the fragrance and taste of the fruit. My dear David, please live mindfully every moment of your life in jail. Eat and enjoy what you are eating. Don't let your mind carry you away to sorrow, frustration, and anger.
When you go home, you will enjoy deeply the presence of your beloved mother, father, and sisters, and enjoy every moment being with them. And you will enjoy your own liberty. Many people only regret the absence of their beloved ones when they pass away or are forced to live far away. Often, we live with our beloved ones, but we are carried away by our career, fame, money, and interests. We never have time to really be with him or her, to look into her eyes, her feelings, joys, and pains. We rarely have time to enjoy their wonderful presence.
Later, Jim was imprisoned for burning his draft card. Thay sent him a short note, exactly as he did for you recently, "Jim, your tangerine is still there. I hope you can enjoy your tangerine properly." After being released, Jim flew to France to thank Thay. He told us, "Thanks to your words, which woke me up, I lived my days in jail deeply. I was no longer frustrated, angered at everything like in the past." So, dear David, being released today is good, but being released next month is also good, and if they release you next year, it is fine too. Being in jail every day you have a chance to sit still, to look deeply into your feelings, your past experiences, and the roots of your past experiences that led you to this place, so that you can see your future clearly. You can also see and help many people around you. When you are released, you will know how to enjoy the presence of your wonderful family, and your liberty. Then you will certainly be able to go to a retreat with Thay to learn the art of mindful living. But for now, please enjoy your tangerine.
Dharma teacher Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been Thich Nhat Hanh 's colleague since 1959. She wrote this letter to a prisoner in California.