A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in Baguio City Jail

By Sister Mai Nghiem mb65-ALetter1Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is 5 a.m. and I’m sitting on the roof of the Baguio Buddha Temple, looking out at your city and thinking of you. Are you up yet? What are you doing at this time? I wish we would’ve had more time to talk yesterday. Perhaps another time.

Thank you for our time together yesterday. It was my first time going into a jail, and before I entered, my mind was fi with questions and apprehension. I asked myself, “What do I know about their lives? How can I help? Who am I to help?”

As we spent time together, and as you shared your questions and difficulties, I realized something so simple that it may sound naive and a bit silly, something we all know in our heads, but which feels so different in our hearts. I entered the jail with the idea that “you’re you and I’m me,” the idea that you’re a young Filipino staying in the Baguio City Jail and I’m a young French nun staying in a temple in Hong Kong.

Thanks to your openness and your sharing through words, looks, and smiles, I emerged from the Baguio City Jail as quite a different person. I realized, “You’re me and I’m you.” The pain in your heart is also my pain and the smile in your eyes is also my joy. I realized that we have the same mind, that we are experiencing the same joys and suffering as well as the same need for understanding and love.

I realized that we’re who we are now because of our environment, our education, and the influences and impacts of the people in our lives. We’re who we are now because of the seeds we’ve watered in our lives, whether anger, fear, hatred, love, joy, despair, or forgiveness. If my father hadn’t helped me to change the environment I was engaging in as a teenager (an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, empty sex, and partying), I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all of you yesterday.

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I’d like to tell you a story. Our teacher did a retreat many years ago in America for war veterans. One of the participants was very fearful. He avoided the other participants, choosing to stay alone. After a few days, a group of brothers and sisters sat with him so he could share what was happening in his heart. And he told his story.

He was a soldier in Vietnam whose unit was killed by the Viet Cong. In revenge, he placed explosives in sandwiches, left them at the gate of a village, and hid nearby. After a while, a group of children came along, found the sandwiches, and happily ate them. As they ate, they began crying, their bodies twisting in pain as they called out for their parents. The American soldier knew there was nothing to be done. He knew the children would die.

When the soldier returned to the United States, images of the dying children haunted his mind. He couldn’t sleep or find any peace of mind. He became a very anxious and angry person and was unable to be in the same room with children.

So much guilt was in him and he could not forget. His mother was the only person with whom he spoke about what he had done. She tried to comfort him by saying, “This is what happens in war.” But her words didn’t help to release his pain.

When the soldier finished telling his story, our teacher said to him, “Yes, you killed a group of children. This is a fact. But how many children can you save today? How many children are dying right in this moment because of lack of food and medicine? Do not stay in your guilt and regret. Go out and help save children now.” And that is what the ex-soldier did. He started devoting his time and energy to saving children, and at the same time, he was healing himself.

When we experience a difficult situation, we are very lucky. Why? The difficult situation gives us a chance to understand deeply and to help other people who are experiencing the same kind of suffering.

If we have watered the seeds of anger, hatred, violence, and fear every day, and can see how these seeds, growing stronger and stronger, have brought so much damage and suffering to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to others, then we can make an aspiration in our heart. Whether we are in prison or not, we can take the time we have to reflect, to look deeply at our situation and into the situations of our children and our youth to see what we can do to create a better environment, a better place for our children to grow up so that violence, hatred, fear, and anger are not our daily bread. We can nourish ourselves and one another with joy, beauty, love, and understanding. And that doesn’t require money.

We can sit together, and as intelligent people, we will find ways to become community builders, creating a safe, healthy, and peaceful environment for our families and future generations. We have to use our time wisely. If we are in prison, we have plenty of time now to sit and look at ourselves, to sit together and share our difficulties and our insights of how to get out of these difficult situations. And we can always ask for help. There are many people around us who are ready to listen and to help.

I have much trust that you will be able to help many, many people through your own experience.

My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for being here, thank you for being who you are, thank you for being so beautiful. I promise I will use my time to breathe for you and to walk for you, because I know that my peace is your peace, and my joy is your joy.

Please pray for me as well, so that I may have your determination and your strength to face obstacles along my way. May God and all your ancestors be with you always, protecting you on your path.

Your sister, Mai

Sister Mai Nghiem (Sister Plum Blossom) ordained in 2002. She is living now in the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, helping with Applied Ethics and Wake Up programmes. She went with the monastic Sangha to the Philippines in October 2013, a yearly trip. The Baguio City Jail visit was an event organized by a Sangha member there.

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