Ven. Yin Kit Sik sits on the floor of the converted three-car garage “mini meditation hall” that is the temporary Po Lam meditation centre. The Buddhist nun uses teaching and meditation to help prisoners change themselves and cope with the worlds inside them and around them.

Bringing clarity and purity to prisoners

Buddhist nun changing prison cells to meditation cells for those behind bars

Mark recently got out of prison after serving four and half years, with a good part of that time in Agassiz’s Mountain Institution.

He is out now, has moved to the interior, has a bank account and a driver’s license, and is trying to start a new life.

It’s not easy for people in Mark’s situation: those who have committed a crime and have done their time, but now have to reintegrate in a society that is not always keen to accept them.

But Mark is equipped with something not many former prisoners—or those who have never served, for that matter—have.

He has meditation and mindfulness.

“Spirituality is within yourself,” Mark says from his new residence in the B.C. mountains. “It’s what is going on within me. If I’m in touch with that I’m more focused, I’m clear-headed, I’m motivated I’m willing I’m honest with myself, and the humility starts to slowly settle in and it gets better from there.”

When he gets into a bad situation, Mark says he now knows how to deal with his mounting anxiety that could make things worse. It’s something that would have been difficult just a few years ago.

And it’s all due to the guidance of one smiling Buddhist nun who is hidden in plain sight just off of Highway 1 in Chilliwack.

The Venerable Yin Kit Sik, also known as Sister Jessie, estimates she has helped more than 500 prisoners in the Lower Mainland with her discussions and teachings of vipassana meditation.

“My purpose of going in there is to help them bring clarity and purity to their own minds,” says Ven. Yin Kit. “I cannot do it, I am the medium. I can only teach, but [those] guys have to do it.”

And though prison might not seem like the ideal place to practise meditation, the 60-year-old nun says it’s potentially a better spot than most.

Because it’s so routine and regimented there are fewer distractions than in the “mundane” world. So if a prisoner can find time, he can dedicate that time to the practice and help himself change.

“A prison is a prison, but it’s more mental than physical,” Ven. Yin Kit says. “Change your prison cell to become a meditation cell.”

Looking at the ideal future of the prisoners—where Mark is now, released—she sees that prison time as an opportunity to build the central core of their tree, not just the bark.

“It’s rainy and stormy outside, you have to gear yourself up right now, right here,” Ven. Yin Kit says. “You’re here anyway. Where are you going to go?”

Taking up her ropes in 1992, after renouncing the mundane life (for her, a high income and status with a podiatry career), Ven. Yin Kit left Hong Kong to come to Canada at the insistence of her teacher just two months into her nunhood.

She and her recently passed Dhamma sister came together to teach in the Fraser Valley after taking possession of their property in Chilliwack in early 1995.

Ten years later they started visiting prisons with volunteers, and for four years now they have been a destination for escorted temporary absences (ETA) where prisoners can visit the Po Lam meditation centre where she teaches.

“We have seen tremendous changes in many, many people,” Ven. Yin Kit says. “Indescribable. Some are really difficult to put into words.”

One very angry man in prison who was of another faith resisted the meditation teachings because of an obstacle Ven. Yin Kit says she runs into often: fear of conversion.

“I’m not here to convert you from a religious point of view, from a faith point of view,” she tells any new students. “But I’m here to convert you from an angrier to a happier person, from a stingy person to a more generous person, from a hateful person to a very loving person, from a selfish person to a selfless person.”

This is a true conversion, according to Ven. Yin Kit, not one of faith.

The angry student eventually practiced her teachings, keeping his religion and changing so noticeably that his wife also adopted the practices.

“Some prisoners want to find a sense of peace, but that’s not the true meaning of meditation,” she says. “The true meaning of mediation is seeing how you can change to become a better person. We all need to do that not just an inmate.”

An outspoken critic of the prison system, Ven. Yin Kit says we don’t need more cells, we need more rehabilitation programs for the mind.

She would like prisons to adopt more meditations. And ideally as a initiation program, new  detainees would be thrown into a 10-day vipassana meditation immediately.

Her organization has tried to bring this kind of practice into the prison, but “it’s just obstacles, obstacles, obstacles.”

“Personally I feel that the Buddhist teaching is an education: Educating the mind, educating the people,” Ven. Yin Kit says. “If they have this tool in them, everywhere they go they can help themselves.”

That means they don’t have to rely on drugs, other people—anything else.

“And that is the best dependence, depending on yourself,” she says.

It’s an aspect of the teachings that Mark uses in so many facets of his own life.

Back on the outside, looking for a job isn’t the only difficult part of life.

Though the buddhist practices helped him recognize and admit to himself that he committed a crime of sexual assault, Mark can’t reconcile with the victim because she started using drugs again and disappeared years ago.

Being sober for 11 years and clean from cocaine and crack for over five years, he says his meditation and mindfulness keep him on track and away from the temptations of slipping back into using.

As he looks forward to a new life with many of his own internal and external obstacles, the 45-year-old credits Ven. Yin Kit for equipping him with the toolset to create change and hope.

“What she did for me helped ten times more than what [the mandatory] program ever did,” Mark says.

Ven. Yin Kit will speak at TEDx Chilliwack Saturday about her experiences in the prisons and how the system could change to cultivate mental health.

 

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