Does Good-Heartedness Always Get Its Reward?

In order to help an ex-convict to reestablish himself in society, my brother hired him to work at his factory. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he stole some expensive machinery from the factory and sold it for money to buy drugs. Out of kindness, my brother decided not to press charges against him, but I couldn’t help but feel sad. Why was my brother’s good-heartedness repaid with such ingratitude?

In April 2012, a group of fellow Tzu Chi volunteers and I began holding ten workshops a year at a rehabilitation institution in Mingde Minimum-Security Prison in Tainan, southern Taiwan. The primary functions of this institution are the imprisonment and rehabilitation of men convicted of narcotics charges. My work was to record our workshops.

To be honest, I was apprehensive about working with the inmates. I, like many people, had stereotypical images of prisoners. Despite my reservations, I decided to accept the challenge anyway.

The first time we met with the inmates, I found them intimidating. Many were quite burly or heavily tattooed. The atmosphere in the prison was a far cry from that of a typical Tzu Chi event. I remember having my doubts. Would we really be able to make a difference?

However, my uneasiness faded more and more with each workshop as I came to know the inmates and their stories better. I knew that everyone has innate goodness and is capable of being kind and good, and these inmates were no exception.

At first, when we asked the inmates to step onto the stage to share what they had learned from the workshops, or to share any comments they might have, they would just look at each other. None of them was willing to step forward. It was only after repeated encouragement from Chen Long-jie (陳龍杰), the warden of the rehabilitation institution, and our volunteers that some of the inmates finally let down their guard and opened up. Some voiced their regret at having done drugs and whittling away a good part of their lives in prison. Some expressed worry that they would have nowhere to go after they regained their freedom because their families had turned their backs on them. On the other hand, some were excited about the prospect of embarking on a new life after they finished their sentences. These people would talk animatedly about their plans for the future, such as, “I’ll learn to speak and act like a Tzu Chi volunteer and practice the Buddha’s teachings. I’ll also join anti-drug campaigns and contribute my bit.”

Each workshop may not have looked very different in substance and form—the Buddha’s and Master Cheng Yen’s teachings were shared, talks were given by Tzu Chi volunteers who were themselves ex-convicts, etc.—but almost every time I noticed some reactions on the part of the inmates that told me they had been touched by what the lecturer had said. In those moments, joy would arise in me and I would happily write down my observations.

After we had carried out a few visits to the prison, a magical sense of optimism spread through me. I eagerly shared what I had experienced at each workshop with my family. I began to believe that we might be able to change an inmate’s life by giving him a little more love and nudging him toward a better path in life.

Tzu Chi volunteers have conducted workshops at a rehabilitation institution in Mingde Prison for six years. Warden Chen Long-jie (first row, fifth from left) participates in almost every workshop from beginning to end.

 The biggest battlefield: your heart

In 2013, the year after we started the workshops, my brother hired an ex-convict, Zhan (not his real name), through a government employment agency. It was the first time my brother had employed a former prisoner. To help Zhan get acclimated to his new job, employees did their best to teach him the ropes. The factory also provided him with opportunities to receive off-the-job education to supplement his training at work. The hope was that when he acquired a marketable skill, he would be able to face his reentry into society with more confidence and further settle into a stable life with his family.

Unfortunately, a drug user Zhan once knew got in touch with him again and, unable to resist the temptation, Zhan fell back into the trap of drugs.

Just before the arrival of 2014, some expensive equipment at my brother’s factory was stolen. The police were called in to investigate, and they found out that the culprits were Zhan and an organized theft ring. He had committed the crime to raise money to buy drugs. Out of kindness, my brother decided not to press charges. Even so, Zhan was arrested, tried, and sent to prison. This unfortunate incident cast doubt on the practice of hiring ex-convicts at my brother’s factory.

Despite my exposure to the Buddha’s teachings, I couldn’t accept the incident with calm and poise. I was wracked with doubts: Why was my brother’s good-heartedness repaid with such ingratitude? I had been doing what I could to contribute to the workshops, but now I felt my enthusiasm dwindle. I even began to have reservations about our service motto, “Go wherever you are needed.”

My heart plummeted as low as it could get. Master Cheng Yen says, “When you know something is right, just do it.” But is that really so?

An inmate copied the Heart Sutra in calligraphy and gave it to Tzu Chi volunteer Cai Tian-sheng (蔡天勝, right), an ex-convict, to thank him for visiting Mingde Prison and guiding inmates there to the path of spiritual awakening.

Glimmers of hope

I eventually regained some of my enthusiasm at a workshop we held at Mingde Prison on April 14, 2015.

For three years, Xiong had sat in the front of our class on Buddhism. He took copious notes and often went on stage to share his thoughts. One day, he eagerly said to us: “May I have a few minutes of your time? I’ll be out of this prison next month. This will be the last time I can speak up here as an inmate.”

His request granted, he went on stage and pulled a large pile of letters from a bulging manila envelope. He told us that they had all been written to him by Tzu Chi volunteers. He didn’t know any of them, but still they wrote to him. He used to hate it when Tzu Chi people came to the prison to preach to the inmates, so he wrote to Master Cheng Yen and told her so. He never expected that he’d get a reply, but a nun at the Jing Si Abode (the Buddhist convent founded by Master Cheng Yen) wrote back to him. The rest, as they say, was history.

Xiong said he once read an article about a little girl who wrote to Bill Gates to ask him for money to buy mosquito nets for destitute families in Africa to save them from contracting malaria. Gates donated a huge sum to the United Nations Foundation for mosquito nets. Xiong said, “I’m like that innocent child. The difference is that her letter might have led her to save 300 children, while mine led me to the path of self-awakening, and to make a pledge to not just cultivate and improve myself but to contribute to the welfare of others as well.”

Xiong added that he had learned the importance of repentance at our workshops and had benefited a lot from what our volunteers and other inmates had shared. He had no illusion that he would accomplish anything great after he was released, but he planned to cherish simple things, such as the simple happiness of dining every day with his family. “Life’s value lies in such simple happiness,” he said.

With tears in my eyes, I silently wished him the best in putting his good thoughts into practice after he left the prison.

When dream becomes reality

Me being the way I am, it was impossible for me to put that bad memory about Zhan behind me just because of what Xiong had shared in the workshop. I continued to have doubts. During that time, when I reread my notes of what inmates had shared in the workshops, I’d ask myself, “Did they really mean what they said?”

I remained doubtful until one day I heard Warden Chen announce that for two years in a row—2015 and 2016—the rehabilitation institution at Mingde Prison had scored the lowest return rate (within six months of release) of all prisons in Taiwan. He attributed it largely to the efforts of the Tzu Chi volunteers. He said that many prison inmates had been inspired by our volunteers, from whom they had learned precious life lessons, Buddhist wisdom, and Master Cheng Yen’s teachings of “gratitude, respect, and love.” That’s the main reason why the institution had the lowest return rate. This piece of good news went a long way toward dispelling my doubts about expending so much effort and manpower on our prison activities.

My heart was further buoyed by the updates we had received on how some former inmates were doing after they had been released from the prison.

Xing, having learned great cooking skills at the prison, is now a chef at a restaurant. Zhong runs a clothes shop with his family in southern Taiwan. Lang performs glove puppet shows and runs a stall at a night market on the side; in his free time, he volunteers at a Buddhist center.

Gan also runs a night market stall. Not only that, he has completed training and become a certified Tzu Chi volunteer. Cheng works in a Tzu Chi volunteer’s factory, and he often participates in Tzu Chi activities. Long is a delivery truck driver, and he also volunteers for Tzu Chi. Xiong runs a restaurant with his mom, and he takes part in Tzu Chi events too.

These updates on former inmates, on how they had successfully reestablished themselves in society and even taken up charitable work, assured me that we have achieved our goals in our workshops.


Tzu Chi volunteers conduct prison workshops to help inmates take a step in the right direction.

Never give up

Master Cheng Yen hopes we can be the “gatekeepers” for prisons and help people stay away from wrong paths so that there will more happy families in our society. It was to fulfill her expectations that we started our work at Mingde Prison. To achieve better results, we have tried to make our activities more varied and engaging. For example, we have recently added a new activity in which inmates can write to a group of Tzu Chi volunteers who are engaged in anti-drug work.

Just because someone once did wrong, it does not mean that he will continue to be bad. What I have seen at the prison over the last six years has proved that beyond doubt. Even if someone cannot turn over a new leaf now, he might still do so one day. We will continue to believe. We also hope that more people will join us in our work of helping inmates and spreading seeds of hope and goodness.


March 2018