The Return Journey

Compiled by Shawn Chang (張牧軒)
Rosalind Chang (張薰云)
Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)

The Return Journey

Compiled by Shawn Chang (張牧軒)
Rosalind Chang (張薰云)
Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)

A former drug addict, Gao Zhao-liang now uses his transformation journey to encourage others that anyone can change for the better. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

Whenever I visit a prison to share my spiritual journey and rebirth with inmates, I can see eyes filled with uncertainty about the future and that often remind me of my former self and wayward past. It is a look deprived of freedom and devoid of hope. Now I have left my old life behind and returned to the path of goodness. I hope more inmates can have faith in themselves and join Tzu Chi to discover the meaning of life.

Greetings, dear friends,

In the past, I befriended unwholesome friends and went astray. I lost all direction in life and struggled with drug addiction for decades. During that period of time, I became withdrawn and isolated. The only thing that mattered to me was drugs, rather than my family and friends. I was trapped in my abyss and could not escape. Not only did I break the hearts of my family, I was also sent to the prison many times.

When I was still frequently going in and out of prison, my father passed away due to acute leukemia. I myself ran into a major car accident due to my hazy consciousness after taking heroin, and was rushed into the intensive care ward. I struggled between life and death, realizing I was no longer in control of my own life. I suffered a fractured trachea, and underwent tracheotomy and intubation. Looking back, that accident always reminds me that our lives can end at any moment, and we should seize the time we have to do good deeds and be filial to our parents.

Six years ago, while in prison, I learned about Tzu Chi through the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine and the program Wisdom at Dawn on Da Ai Radio. I also learned about the law of karma, and how dire the karmic retributions of our wrongdoings can be. Before leaving prison, I vowed to myself that I would find a new direction in life so that I could live a more meaningful life. I decided to join Tzu Chi and become a volunteer who gives of himself without asking for anything in return.

However, reintegrating back into society was not easy.

After being released from prison, thankfully, I had the guidance and support of Tzu Chi volunteers such as Mr. Cai Tian-sheng (蔡天勝) and many others. I started to actively participate in community activities and rid myself of my bad habits. I quit drinking and smoking and began to observe the ten precepts of Tzu Chi. I also started to visit prisons and share my story with inmates as a Tzu Chi volunteer.

Cai Tian-sheng (right), also an ex-convict, is like a mentor to Gao Zhao-liang and guided Gao onto the path of Tzu Chi. (Photo by Zou Zhong-hong)

Looking at the soulless and hopeless eyes in front of me, I can fully understand how it feels to be stripped of freedom. Even though we are walls apart now, we are connected through our affinities with Tzu Chi. I hope I can act as an example of a former prisoner who has successfully built a new life and has reintegrated back into society. I hope all of you can regain faith in yourselves and discover the true meaning of life.

I joined Tzu Chi as soon as I was released from prison. It was a challenging process, but I was glad I pulled through. Initially, my family and friends were not optimistic and did not trust me. I can still remember when I just got of jail, brother Cai invited me to participate in Tzu Chi's Auspicious Month event. As I did not have any money on me, I had to borrow 200 NT dollars (6.7 USD) from my mother so I could take the train to the event venue. Even though she handed me the money, I could tell from my mother's doubtful eyes that she was skeptical about what I would do with the money.

I was disheartened by the mistrust. However, I was determined to start my life anew and join Tzu Chi. That was the first Tzu Chi activity I took part in, and the event was solemn, dignified and heart-warming. I was deeply touched by the kindness of Tzu Chi brothers and sisters. Right then, I decided to leave home and find a job in Taichung. I found a job that would provide meals and accommodation in Taichung's Longjing district, returning to my past profession of building sofas.

During one of Gao Zhao-liang's prison sharing session, some inmates were listening while holding Buddhist beads, others were wiping away their tears in secret, but everyone was listening to his story in complete silence. (Photo by Hong Min-yao)

Before leaving home, my mother gave me 3,000 NT dollars (100 USD) secretly and reminded me to spend it wisely, for it was meant to cover my living expenses for the month. It was only after arriving at the sofa factory did I find out that they did not actually have the accommodation they promised me, which was extremely disappointing. However, I told myself that this job was already hard to come by, and it was a chance for me to start a new life, so I had to stick through it no matter what.

Therefore, I started living in the factory where cockroaches and rats ran rampant. At night, I slept on a simple makeshift wooden bed that I had built myself and had to endure constant mosquito bites. Two weeks later, the boss's wife felt sorry for me and rented a small studio room for me to live in. Finally, I had a place of my own in Taichung.

I was glad I did not give up back then. Dear friends, please do not feel sorry or sad for me because we will all go through trials and setbacks when we try to reintegrate into society. Please have faith in yourselves, as all of us have unlimited potential!

After getting off work, you could often see me riding the old scooter my mother gave me on the busy Taichung Port Road, wearing my gray volunteer uniform. It took me one and a half hours to travel back and forth to the gathering place for Tzu Chi volunteers for activities. I often reminded myself that I should not slack off just because of the long commute, as I could never let the brothers and sisters at Tzu Chi and my family down.

In the beginning, I was distrusted, jeered at and looked down upon by others. However, after two years of hard work, I was able to repay all my debts. Moreover, I was certified as a Tzu Cheng member and was invited to share my life story at the Ministry of Justice, various prisons and also schools. My transformation gradually earned the trust and approval of others.

Dear friends, everyone makes mistakes, the important thing is to learn from them. I believe that as long as we repent sincerely and keep doing good deeds, all of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel and build a new life.

Guo Zhao-liang now runs a bag store and a lemonade stand with his wife in his hometown. If a student walks in and says he is an "anti-drug warrior", he can have a cup of refreshing lemonade with aiyu jelly on the house. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

As I frequently share my story at various prisons, I often receive letters from my audiences. They told me how they broke the law and after being jailed, ended up ruining the lives of their families. They not only caused emotional torments for their beloved family members, but also threw them into the abyss of helplessness and misery. For our loved ones, the vicious cycle of poverty and illness was all caused by our moment of selfishness with acts of physical violence, drug use or other wayward deeds. Looking back, they all felt deep remorse for what they had done.

I have once received a letter from an inmate in Tainan, in which he mentioned that his father was suffering from malignant tumor and had not much time left, and he desperately wanted to see his father one last time. My father also passed away on the hospital bed while I was in prison, so I can relate to the helplessness inmates feel. Time waits for no one, so we really should seize time to do good deeds or be filial to our parents while we still can!

Not long after joining Tzu Chi, I was fortunate to be able to meet Dharma Master Cheng Yen (證嚴上人) in person. I immediately prostrated before her and made my vow, saying, "I want to follow Master on the Bodhisattva path life after life, and I will guide my inmate friends onto the path of Tzu Chi." Master gently responded, "Go guide them, but don't be led astray by them." I will always keep Master's advice in mind and never forget my aspirations.

Even now, Guo Zhao-liang still has nightmares of him being thrown back in jail. As the lure of drugs is always out there, he is ever mindful not to let his loved ones down. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

Some inmate friends' letters are filled with their gratitude towards Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen and their determination to walk the Bodhisattva path. I can feel that many inmates have begun to change and the positive influence of Tzu Chi is spreading among them. As the saying goes, "Remain firm to our initial aspiration, then we can surely attain Buddhahood." My fellow Tzu Chi volunteers and I will cherish and support such aspirations of yours, I'm sure they will transform you and let you break free from your past and create a new life.

May everyone return home soon, join Tzu Chi, and cultivate to be a person of integrity and break free from the shackles of your past. Help ourselves and then others to also become enlightened. May you become liberated Bodhisattvas who help others selflessly. Let's work together to purify people's hearts and create a harmonious society.

Letters from an Inmate

Jan 3, 2014

Brother Zhao-liang,

Thank you for taking the time to reply me. As I write this letter, the warmth in my heart is strong enough to ward off the cold weather outside. I feel blessed to have a brother on this spiritual journey.

A friend came to visit when I entered the factory today. He was released from prison two months ago. I remember he used to laugh at me, saying, "You are way too into Tzu Chi! When I come to visit you after I get out, I will send you two kilograms of beef!" I always answered him with a smile, "I will throw it in the garbage can if you really do send it to me."

He was involved in a car accident just days after his release from prison, with broken ribs puncturing his lungs. He was hospitalized at a Tzu Chi hospital for more than a week. In the following month or so, I wrote four letters to him, asking him to take care and rest well. I also urged him not to return to the old ways of abusing drugs out of feeling depressed. Otherwise, we would not be friends anymore.

Today, he talked to me about Tzu Chi, with a different attitude than before. He said, "I must thank Tzu Chi volunteers for their help after my car accident. They paid for my medical expenses because they knew I had just gotten out of jail…" I could feel his heartfelt gratitude. He then told me, "You know what? There is a Tzu Chi recycling station in my hometown too! Although I still can't do any heavy-lifting right now, sorting plastic bottles isn't a problem. Now, I help out at the station every day." Hearing this, I happily replied, "Great! We can walk the path of Tzu Chi together from now on."

Holding the two kilograms of bean snacks he gave me while we spoke, I was filled with relief and joy. Brother Zhao-liang, I'm sure you feel the same way too, right?

Regards,
Your friend, A-zhong (阿忠)

 

February 18, 2014

Brother Zhao-liang,

Having sent you a letter just yesterday, tonight I am writing to you again because I was just informed that my application for parole was denied.

Brother Zhao-liang, please do not feel bad for me. I am a murderer who took away someone's life. I told myself, "Maybe the heavens saw my remorse and wanted me to pay back all my karmic debts in this lifetime. This way, I would not have to pay them in installments in my future lives."

Brother Zhao-liang, you may laugh when I tell you this, but even though I have not done anything for Tzu Chi yet, I am hoping I can do a lot of Tzu Chi's work and give of myself wholeheartedly in my future. I have already missed out on the opportunity to do Tzu Chi's work for thirty years.

Back in 1984, after the Chinese New Year, my father enrolled me in a cram school in Hualien so I could prepare for the high school exam. One day, when I was about to walk into the school, a couple in their fifties riding a scooter stopped and asked me, "How do we get to the construction site of Tzu Chi Hospital?" I only knew the location vaguely, so I told them, "Just keep going down this road and ask someone else when you reach the end of it."

Time truly flies, and 30 years have gone by. Whenever I think about that encounter, I always wonder why I did not get the hint from heavens back then, and have instead wasted 30 years of my life walking down a wayward path!

An inmate has nothing but plenty of time. I'm more than willing to use my time to create karmic affinities with Tzu Chi. Finally, I would like to share a quote from the Master that I read in a copy of Tzu Chi Monthly magazine a few days ago: "Refraining from doing bad things is not enough. You need to take the initiative to do good deeds and benefit other people."

Regards,
Your friend, A-zhong

After the end of every prison sharing session, Gao Zhao-liang always shakes hand with the inmates one by one to pass on sincere warmth and encouragement. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

A former drug addict, Gao Zhao-liang now uses his transformation journey to encourage others that anyone can change for the better. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

Whenever I visit a prison to share my spiritual journey and rebirth with inmates, I can see eyes filled with uncertainty about the future and that often remind me of my former self and wayward past. It is a look deprived of freedom and devoid of hope. Now I have left my old life behind and returned to the path of goodness. I hope more inmates can have faith in themselves and join Tzu Chi to discover the meaning of life.

Greetings, dear friends,

In the past, I befriended unwholesome friends and went astray. I lost all direction in life and struggled with drug addiction for decades. During that period of time, I became withdrawn and isolated. The only thing that mattered to me was drugs, rather than my family and friends. I was trapped in my abyss and could not escape. Not only did I break the hearts of my family, I was also sent to the prison many times.

When I was still frequently going in and out of prison, my father passed away due to acute leukemia. I myself ran into a major car accident due to my hazy consciousness after taking heroin, and was rushed into the intensive care ward. I struggled between life and death, realizing I was no longer in control of my own life. I suffered a fractured trachea, and underwent tracheotomy and intubation. Looking back, that accident always reminds me that our lives can end at any moment, and we should seize the time we have to do good deeds and be filial to our parents.

Six years ago, while in prison, I learned about Tzu Chi through the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine and the program Wisdom at Dawn on Da Ai Radio. I also learned about the law of karma, and how dire the karmic retributions of our wrongdoings can be. Before leaving prison, I vowed to myself that I would find a new direction in life so that I could live a more meaningful life. I decided to join Tzu Chi and become a volunteer who gives of himself without asking for anything in return.

However, reintegrating back into society was not easy.

After being released from prison, thankfully, I had the guidance and support of Tzu Chi volunteers such as Mr. Cai Tian-sheng (蔡天勝) and many others. I started to actively participate in community activities and rid myself of my bad habits. I quit drinking and smoking and began to observe the ten precepts of Tzu Chi. I also started to visit prisons and share my story with inmates as a Tzu Chi volunteer.

Cai Tian-sheng (right), also an ex-convict, is like a mentor to Gao Zhao-liang and guided Gao onto the path of Tzu Chi. (Photo by Zou Zhong-hong)

Looking at the soulless and hopeless eyes in front of me, I can fully understand how it feels to be stripped of freedom. Even though we are walls apart now, we are connected through our affinities with Tzu Chi. I hope I can act as an example of a former prisoner who has successfully built a new life and has reintegrated back into society. I hope all of you can regain faith in yourselves and discover the true meaning of life.

I joined Tzu Chi as soon as I was released from prison. It was a challenging process, but I was glad I pulled through. Initially, my family and friends were not optimistic and did not trust me. I can still remember when I just got of jail, brother Cai invited me to participate in Tzu Chi's Auspicious Month event. As I did not have any money on me, I had to borrow 200 NT dollars (6.7 USD) from my mother so I could take the train to the event venue. Even though she handed me the money, I could tell from my mother's doubtful eyes that she was skeptical about what I would do with the money.

I was disheartened by the mistrust. However, I was determined to start my life anew and join Tzu Chi. That was the first Tzu Chi activity I took part in, and the event was solemn, dignified and heart-warming. I was deeply touched by the kindness of Tzu Chi brothers and sisters. Right then, I decided to leave home and find a job in Taichung. I found a job that would provide meals and accommodation in Taichung's Longjing district, returning to my past profession of building sofas.

During one of Gao Zhao-liang's prison sharing session, some inmates were listening while holding Buddhist beads, others were wiping away their tears in secret, but everyone was listening to his story in complete silence. (Photo by Hong Min-yao)

Before leaving home, my mother gave me 3,000 NT dollars (100 USD) secretly and reminded me to spend it wisely, for it was meant to cover my living expenses for the month. It was only after arriving at the sofa factory did I find out that they did not actually have the accommodation they promised me, which was extremely disappointing. However, I told myself that this job was already hard to come by, and it was a chance for me to start a new life, so I had to stick through it no matter what.

Therefore, I started living in the factory where cockroaches and rats ran rampant. At night, I slept on a simple makeshift wooden bed that I had built myself and had to endure constant mosquito bites. Two weeks later, the boss's wife felt sorry for me and rented a small studio room for me to live in. Finally, I had a place of my own in Taichung.

I was glad I did not give up back then. Dear friends, please do not feel sorry or sad for me because we will all go through trials and setbacks when we try to reintegrate into society. Please have faith in yourselves, as all of us have unlimited potential!

After getting off work, you could often see me riding the old scooter my mother gave me on the busy Taichung Port Road, wearing my gray volunteer uniform. It took me one and a half hours to travel back and forth to the gathering place for Tzu Chi volunteers for activities. I often reminded myself that I should not slack off just because of the long commute, as I could never let the brothers and sisters at Tzu Chi and my family down.

In the beginning, I was distrusted, jeered at and looked down upon by others. However, after two years of hard work, I was able to repay all my debts. Moreover, I was certified as a Tzu Cheng member and was invited to share my life story at the Ministry of Justice, various prisons and also schools. My transformation gradually earned the trust and approval of others.

Dear friends, everyone makes mistakes, the important thing is to learn from them. I believe that as long as we repent sincerely and keep doing good deeds, all of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel and build a new life.

Guo Zhao-liang now runs a bag store and a lemonade stand with his wife in his hometown. If a student walks in and says he is an "anti-drug warrior", he can have a cup of refreshing lemonade with aiyu jelly on the house. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

As I frequently share my story at various prisons, I often receive letters from my audiences. They told me how they broke the law and after being jailed, ended up ruining the lives of their families. They not only caused emotional torments for their beloved family members, but also threw them into the abyss of helplessness and misery. For our loved ones, the vicious cycle of poverty and illness was all caused by our moment of selfishness with acts of physical violence, drug use or other wayward deeds. Looking back, they all felt deep remorse for what they had done.

I have once received a letter from an inmate in Tainan, in which he mentioned that his father was suffering from malignant tumor and had not much time left, and he desperately wanted to see his father one last time. My father also passed away on the hospital bed while I was in prison, so I can relate to the helplessness inmates feel. Time waits for no one, so we really should seize time to do good deeds or be filial to our parents while we still can!

Not long after joining Tzu Chi, I was fortunate to be able to meet Dharma Master Cheng Yen (證嚴上人) in person. I immediately prostrated before her and made my vow, saying, "I want to follow Master on the Bodhisattva path life after life, and I will guide my inmate friends onto the path of Tzu Chi." Master gently responded, "Go guide them, but don't be led astray by them." I will always keep Master's advice in mind and never forget my aspirations.

Even now, Guo Zhao-liang still has nightmares of him being thrown back in jail. As the lure of drugs is always out there, he is ever mindful not to let his loved ones down. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

Some inmate friends' letters are filled with their gratitude towards Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen and their determination to walk the Bodhisattva path. I can feel that many inmates have begun to change and the positive influence of Tzu Chi is spreading among them. As the saying goes, "Remain firm to our initial aspiration, then we can surely attain Buddhahood." My fellow Tzu Chi volunteers and I will cherish and support such aspirations of yours, I'm sure they will transform you and let you break free from your past and create a new life.

May everyone return home soon, join Tzu Chi, and cultivate to be a person of integrity and break free from the shackles of your past. Help ourselves and then others to also become enlightened. May you become liberated Bodhisattvas who help others selflessly. Let's work together to purify people's hearts and create a harmonious society.

 

Letters from an Inmate

Jan 3, 2014

Brother Zhao-liang,

Thank you for taking the time to reply me. As I write this letter, the warmth in my heart is strong enough to ward off the cold weather outside. I feel blessed to have a brother on this spiritual journey.

A friend came to visit when I entered the factory today. He was released from prison two months ago. I remember he used to laugh at me, saying, "You are way too into Tzu Chi! When I come to visit you after I get out, I will send you two kilograms of beef!" I always answered him with a smile, "I will throw it in the garbage can if you really do send it to me."

He was involved in a car accident just days after his release from prison, with broken ribs puncturing his lungs. He was hospitalized at a Tzu Chi hospital for more than a week. In the following month or so, I wrote four letters to him, asking him to take care and rest well. I also urged him not to return to the old ways of abusing drugs out of feeling depressed. Otherwise, we would not be friends anymore.

Today, he talked to me about Tzu Chi, with a different attitude than before. He said, "I must thank Tzu Chi volunteers for their help after my car accident. They paid for my medical expenses because they knew I had just gotten out of jail…" I could feel his heartfelt gratitude. He then told me, "You know what? There is a Tzu Chi recycling station in my hometown too! Although I still can't do any heavy-lifting right now, sorting plastic bottles isn't a problem. Now, I help out at the station every day." Hearing this, I happily replied, "Great! We can walk the path of Tzu Chi together from now on."

Holding the two kilograms of bean snacks he gave me while we spoke, I was filled with relief and joy. Brother Zhao-liang, I'm sure you feel the same way too, right?

Regards,
Your friend, A-zhong (阿忠)

 

February 18, 2014

Brother Zhao-liang,

Having sent you a letter just yesterday, tonight I am writing to you again because I was just informed that my application for parole was denied.

Brother Zhao-liang, please do not feel bad for me. I am a murderer who took away someone's life. I told myself, "Maybe the heavens saw my remorse and wanted me to pay back all my karmic debts in this lifetime. This way, I would not have to pay them in installments in my future lives."

Brother Zhao-liang, you may laugh when I tell you this, but even though I have not done anything for Tzu Chi yet, I am hoping I can do a lot of Tzu Chi's work and give of myself wholeheartedly in my future. I have already missed out on the opportunity to do Tzu Chi's work for thirty years.

Back in 1984, after the Chinese New Year, my father enrolled me in a cram school in Hualien so I could prepare for the high school exam. One day, when I was about to walk into the school, a couple in their fifties riding a scooter stopped and asked me, "How do we get to the construction site of Tzu Chi Hospital?" I only knew the location vaguely, so I told them, "Just keep going down this road and ask someone else when you reach the end of it."

Time truly flies, and 30 years have gone by. Whenever I think about that encounter, I always wonder why I did not get the hint from heavens back then, and have instead wasted 30 years of my life walking down a wayward path!

An inmate has nothing but plenty of time. I'm more than willing to use my time to create karmic affinities with Tzu Chi. Finally, I would like to share a quote from the Master that I read in a copy of Tzu Chi Monthly magazine a few days ago: "Refraining from doing bad things is not enough. You need to take the initiative to do good deeds and benefit other people."

Regards,
Your friend, A-zhong

After the end of every prison sharing session, Gao Zhao-liang always shakes hand with the inmates one by one to pass on sincere warmth and encouragement. (Photo by Huang Hsiao-che)

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