by Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Here, Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes to a prisoner at Pelican Bay, the top security prison in California. This appears in the November/December, 1997 issue of Mandala.

January 23, 1997
My Dear [name withheld by request],
I am very happy to hear you are so devoted to Buddhism. This is the most important thing that has happened in your life. Learning and practicing Buddhism makes your life very rich and gives it the greatest meaning.
Please study Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. It seems you are very intelligent, and that is excellent. But understanding is not enough. One needs to practice and transform the mind into the path.
I know you are in prison, but actually it's just the concept: what you label and how you use the place. For another mind it is the same as a hermitage. In Tibet people lived in very small mud hermitages with only a small hole for passing in food. They didn't come out for many years. So, as far as being locked in is concerned, it's a question of how you label and how you use it.
In your case you can use the Buddhism of the Mahayana tradition to see your bad circumstances as supportive circumstances to purify your negative karma and to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. One should realize actually that the situation you are in is the best situation, given to you by the police, the court people and the people who were also involved. Actually these people are helping you by having put you in this situation, supporting you to develop your mind in the path to enlightenment and to finish all the suffering and its causes.
I would like to tell you a story. When I first went to Australia, in my mandala offering set there were some grains from Nepal. The customs people in Australia are very strict, and they asked me who packed my bags, etc. They opened my mandala and found the grains. They talked with the police and said they would put my name in the computer, and then, with pointing fingers, they said, "Next time you don't bring the grains." When they wrote my name down I thought, I don't mind if I go to prison, as long as I can practice Dharma. This is what I thought as I stood in front of the police.
We think people who are outside prison are not prisoners, but we are. Actually, people who are outside, even people who are traveling the whole world and who are regarded as successful, billionaires who think they have everything, all the desire objects: actually, they are living in prison, the prison of their inner life. Externally, outside, mundane people think they are most successful, but their inner life is crying, so miserable and unhappy, not finding satisfaction, because they have already tried many things and haven't found satisfaction and are even more unhappy than people who have very little.
You might say, generally speaking, that ordinary people – people who are not practicing Dharma, people who do not have realizations including kings and presidents, are actually living in prison: a prison of family obligations, not having the freedom to be alone to practice; a prison of ego self-centered mind; jealous mind and desire prison; and living in a prison of anger.
One big fundamental prison is not seeing that everything that exists is merely labeled by the mind, relating to the base. Therefore nothing exists from its own side. Everything is empty. Everything exists but is empty; while it is empty it exists in mere name. So this is the truth. But this truth is not being seen; this truth is always there but you are not able to see. This is the same for the I, self. For common people the truth doesn't exist; for them, the truth, which is there and is always functioning, doesn't exist.
I, action and object: they appear as being not merely labeled by the mind. In fact, this is false object, false I and false action. But the world truly believes one hundred percent that that which is false actually exits, that it is true; that which is false is believed as the truth, you can now see.
So, being trapped in the prison of big hallucinated ignorance, unknowing mind; trapped in this hallucination—this is another prison. This is the root of all sufferings. The suffering world came from this, was created by this wrong concept, ignorance. The suffering world.
Trapped in the prison of wrong concepts: believing impermanent phenomena as permanent, believing samsaric temporal pleasures as happiness: this is another big prison we are trapped in. Like the body, which is only a container of dirty things, believing it is clean: this is another hallucination prison. There are so many wrong concepts and views, prisons we are caught in. These prisons are from time without beginning. Beginningless prisons.
So now, here, you have met the Dharma, and if you practice meditation, especially lam-rim, you will he liberating yourslef from all these prisons.
The outside world people think that only prisoners know prison, but the outside people don't know all the other beginingless prisons they are in. This is the fundamental suffering which keeps them in the suffering realm. This external prison—the jail—is nothing compared to those inner prisons. You are so fortunate; for you this place is not a prison but a liberating place. By developing the mind in the path, liberating yourself from all the sufferings an causes, delusion and karma, you are now ending this.
Thank you very much.

My suggestion to you is some practice for you to do in prison.
200,000 prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas. This is an extremely powerful purification practice that will give you quick realizations and open your heart.
Even when you finish 200,000 prostrations it is still good to continue to do 100 prostrations in the morning and 100 in the evening.
At the moment you can do every day the meditation in my book Daily Meditation Practice. Before the dedication prayers, expand your lam-rim meditation. When you are familiar with the whole lam-rim, then start to train your mind in guru devotion, perfect human rebirth, karma and impermanence and death; how to renounce this life.
Later you can do 400,000 mandala offerings; but first do the prostrations, then slowly start mandalas as you study it. Then you can do 30,000 Vajrasattva mantras.
I don't want to explain much here; you can get transcripts of teachings on these, which you can read.
You must know that many lamas and people were put in prison by the Communist Chinese in Tibet, but many achieved realizations in prison, which became so beneficial to there minds. The Dharma they learned before, they were able to put into practice in the prison. Some didn't even eat food but their bodies were so shining and glowing because of meditation, mind food. Even there was food but food was hardly anything, very little, just flour in water, just the name "food" given. I heard that the food was given in the same bucket used for the toilet.
Therefore you should enjoy if you practice Dharma in prison. Develop the mind, transform the situation into happiness, then it becomes a beautiful island, pure land, heaven.
With much love and prayer.