Letter to a fellow prisoner 

Letter to a fellow prisoner

*The following is a letter I wrote to a friend currently serving time at a local prison in reply to his questions. I think his problems mirror mine, and that of many of us. How many among us are not prisoners?

Dear friend,

Thank you for your letter. You asked me how I am doing, and I shall answer that I'm doing the same as you are - learning to let go.

You asked what is the true meaning of life and that though you know you suffer because of attachment, you do not have the strength to let go. How does one live a simple life?

I recently came across a sutta, the Sunakkhatta Sutta (which means the teaching given to a person called Sunakkhatta), which is useful to reflect on. I'll try to summarise the main points in this sutta.

One day, Sunakkhatta went to the Buddha and asked, "I've heard that many of your disciples claimed to be enlightened. Are all of them enlightened or did they merely overestimate themselves?"

The Buddha replied that there were two groups: one group had rightly declared themselves enlightened, but the other group had overestimated themselves. After explaining the different stages of spiritual progress and how they are not likely to find pleasure in sensual desires again, he gave this analogy to compare those who merely thought they are enlightened with those who really were.

a) Those who falsely thought they are enlightened

A man has been wounded by a poisoned arrow and a surgeon comes to remove the arrow with a knife after using a probe to find it. Then he helps to expel the poison, leaving a little bit of the poison. The surgeon then informs the wounded man, "The arrow has been removed, so has the poison. But there is stlll a little bit of poison left which will not harm you. You will need to eat carefully, wash your wound so that pus and blood do not cover the opening. Don't walk around in the open so that dust and dirt will not infect the wound. Take care of your wound and make sure it heals."

This man then thinks that since the arrow has been removed and the poison has been expelled, whatever little poison left cannot possibly harm him. So he eats unsuitable food, neglects to wash his wound and walks around in the open so that eventually dust and dirt covered the opening of the wound. Because he did not take good care of the wound, the wound swelled and with the swelling he would die or suffer badly.

In the same way, a monk who falsely thinks he is enlightened might go after things which are unsuitable for enlightenment... eventually his mind would be full of desire and he dies or suffers badly. In this case, it is his holy life that dies because he has gone back to the mundane life and bad suffering comes because he has done a negative action which brings bad kamma.

b) Those who are intent towards enlightenment

This man has been wounded and treated by a surgeon in the same way as the first. The surgeon gives the same advice. This man then eats only suitable food, washes his wound from time to time and he does not walk around in the open. Taking good care of his wound, the little bit of poison is expelled, the wound would heal so he does not die or get bad suffering.

In the same way, the monk who is really interested and determined on enlightenment does not go after things unsuitable for enlightenment. Eventually his mind abandons lust and he does not die or suffer badly.

The Buddha went on to explain, "Sunakkhatta, this analogy has a meaning:

'wound' stands for ignorance
'arrow' stands for craving/ desire
'probe' (used by doctor) stands for mindfulness
'knife' (surgeon uses) stands for noble wisdom
'surgeon' is the Buddha, the fully enlightened one

So when a monk restrains the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; and understands that attachment is the root of suffering and he has let go of attachment, freed from the destruction caused by attachment, he will not think or act on any kind of attachment.

It's just like there is a cup of drink which has good colour, smell and taste but it's mixed with poison. If someone who wanted to live, not to die, who wanted pleasure and not pain comes - would that man drink this cup, knowing that he would die or suffer greatly?

No, he wouldn't.

Again, if there is a poisonous snake and a man came who wanted to live, not to die; wanted pleasure, not pain - would he give his hand or thumb to the snake, knowing that if he got bitten, he would die or suffer greatly?

Of course not.

So in the same way, a monk who practices restraint in the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; who understands that attachment is the root of suffering and lets go of attachment, is freed from the destruction caused by attachment, will not think or act on any kind of attachment again."

[End of quote]

I find this sutta very illuminating. I can identify with the fact that I had the final responsibility for my own 'healing' and that my 'eating habits', 'places I go' and how often I 'clean my wounds' are what would 'cure' me after receiving the Buddha's treatment.

I rejoice that you can see that we are sick and need medicine. This is a very important understanding: to understand and see that life is suffering. I remember reading about people born with a nerve disorder, where they are not able to feel pain. So when they are injured or bleeding, they don't know because there's no pain. So their life is in constant danger because they can die from not knowing something is wrong. In the same way, there are many people who don't know or feel suffering. Their favourite slogan might be 'life is short, play hard' or 'just do it' (as they like it). On the surface, they are happy but I think you know as well as I do, that the dissasstifaction will still get to them.

So how can we protect ourselves from degenerating or deterioriating? The analogy in the sutta is very good. I also strive to be like the second type of person.

I think 'eat suitably' refers to the kind of things we allow our body and mind to be fed with. Eating too much causes hyperactivity where we have so much energy that we must find some activity to do. If you can't find any and become bored, your mind starts wandering to unwholesome thoughts. Some people become heavy and lethargic when they eat too much. They become lazy, sleep a lot and become unmotivated in things. What a waste of time!

Nowadays, it is scary to think about the kind of 'food' our senses are fed with. Visuals (television, posters, movies) are filled with images of violence, sex, desire - always shouting at us to develop attachments to them, if we want to be happy. These messages run through our minds so subtly we may not even realise they are there!

"Buy me, use me and look cool!"
"Have me because it shows you have got taste."
"Use me, I'll make you happy" etc etc

The Buddha's advice is clear: 'eat' suitably. Know moderation in our habits and avoid those which cause more suffering. Reflect carefully on this.

Last week, one of the inmates from the Kaki Bukit Centre who's due to be released in September told me that he'd started flipping the catalogues of IKEA to plan what furniture to buy when he goes out. That session, I shared about sensual desires and how they drive our untrained mind. He realised his mind was worrying itself too much, too early. Why worry about these insignificant things when the more important question of whether he can get himself a job (thus income) is yet to be answered?

You can start training yourself in contentment. Reflect that prison has trained you well to survive on bare necessities: how big a bed do you need when you've survived the hard floor for so long? How much food do you need other than what sustains your body? How much entertainment do you need when you've survived without movies, radio, disco?

Appreciate that you are a survivor. Not everyone can survive in such conditions but you have! Don't let things you've overcome before, come back to bother you. It's when you open your mind to say, "I've suffered enough in prison. Now it's time to find back all my pleasures quickly" - that you open the floodgates of suffering.

I've experienced it the same way, especially after I come back from retreats. In the beginning, retreats were my once-a-year 'purification' treatments. During retreat I detox bad habits, put on my good behaviour - but once I go home, it's hooray! Food, entertainment, wasting time on unimportant things just because I'm just out from retreat.

Maybe a useful thought can be: I'm a chronic or long-term patient. I have to take care of my mind and body carefully. Otherwise, I'll end up like person number one.

Second, don't go to unsuitable places. I'm sure you know which places have 'poisonous snakes' (bad characters) who will just tempt you or pull you into unwholesome activities again.

The last one is the most important: to keep 'cleaning our wounds' from time to time. Our treatment doesn't end until we are free from all defilements, We have to keep practicing, reflecting and acting upon what the Buddha taught. We know our minds best and only we can correct, train, purify and strengthen our mind.

I used to get terribly frustrated seeing mysef make the same mistakes over and over again. I thought maybe I need to take more precepts, so I did. I thought, maybe I need to learn more Dhamma, so I did. Then maybe I need to meditate more... go for more retreats... change my lifestyle... find a teacher... all of which I did. But I was still not peaceful because I was looking for a guarantee, a support from outside to assure me that I'll definitely 'recover'. In other words, I was looking for a person or solution to take care of me. For me.

I wasn't confident I could do it myself because I've failed before. I couldn't convince myself that I've got enough wisdom and mind control to do this on my own. But in the end, I realised...

Who is taking precepts?
Who is meditating?
Who is going for retreats?
Who is changing lifestyle?

I've been the one directing my mind to these activities! It's not because Buddha came in a dream to command me to do these. I willingly did all of these because inside me, there is wisdom of knowing and understanding the demerits of suffering. That's exactly what you are doing now.

When I finally found my teacher, I thought, "There! I'm saved finally!" Then I realised that even sitting beside my teacher, my unwholesome thoughts, negative thoughts can still arise. I still need to be mindful, I still need to put in my own efforts. I can jolly well become my teacher's shadow, following her everywhere! But nothing changes inside, if I don't put in my own effort to try.

So I learnt that at the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that we are our own rescuers, support, doctor. The effort that will bring us to the end of suffering comes from ourselves and this effort needs to be consistent and indefinitely long-term for every moment, every hour, every minute and second of our life.

Being patient with ourself, forgiving and encouraging is very important. The length of the healing journey is very much in our own hands.

You've started off well, do keep it consistent. Allay your doubts with understanding - read and reflect more about the Dhamma. Encourage yourself with the example of the Buddha and all other practicing persons you know.

I've written a very long reply to your letter because I know I won't be able to walk long with you. I'll be going for my own 'healing' journey next year and correspondence would be difficult.

I'm happy always to hear your thoughts and Dhamma questions. It encourages and inspires me to share more. Keep it up!

Please reflect deeply on the Buddha's teaching and act on it the best you can. This is a path which brings wholesome fruits! Please take care.

With metta
28 July 2005

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