Sometimes when I think things are going my way, they aren’t. And when I fail to notice this it’s usually because I’m not paying sufficient attention. It’s much better to keep watch over events as they unfold than to form doubtful impressions of them. That way I’m given a chance to notice that things aren’t necessarily the way I think they are. The fact is that life refuses to be shaped into conformity with my own hopeful version of events. There’s humility, gentleness, even wisdom that comes with the discovery of personal limits. I know all this, and yet I sometimes forget that my happy imaginings exercise no necessary influence over the way events actually unfold. That’s when I’m most likely to think I have things under control, failing to notice indications that suggest otherwise.
For three years now, I’ve served as Senior Buddhist Chaplain at High Desert State Prison, a maximum-security prison in Susanville, California. The Buddhist inmates at the prison had been without a teacher for more than four years at the time, and so I was asked if I would please come. I had my plans pretty well mapped out at the time and didn’t really want to undertake another responsibility. Furthermore, High Desert State Prison is on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Range, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the west side town of Chico where I live. I said I’d think it over.
The decision was taken out of my hands the day I first laid eyes on the prison complex and met the first of my potential students, most of whom are serving life sentences. After passing through the outer perimeter of the prison with its lethal web of electrically charged wiring and after negotiating a seemingly endless series of electronically controlled gates that opened and shut behind me, I finally arrived on a catwalk outside cell C5–218 where I peered through a thin slit of a window at the face of a nineteen-year-old Asian boy who was serving a sentence for first-degree murder and wouldn’t even be considered for parole until he was in his mid-fifties. I told him who I was and what I’d come for. At first he seemed confused by the information, wondering what my appearance at his cell meant for him. But then, he suddenly brightened, a smile breaking out on his face, and he asked, ”Are you my teacher?” And without a thought for the consequences, I said, “Yes, I’m your teacher,” “Are we going to have Buddhist services?” “We’ll have services,” I told him. And so for all my plans to the contrary, life had turned me in a direction the difficulties and blessings of which I could never have foretold.