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Saturday, 21 July 2018 00:00

Book Study Club in Prison

Written by  Ong Seng Yeow,Kluang / Translated by Lee Hung Jiew

Volunteer Ong Seng Yeow facilitated the Book Study Club at Simpang Renggam Prison, reading “Earth Treasury Sutra – Interpretation by Master Cheng Yen”. [Photograph provided by Simpang Renggam Prison]

Can a Book Study Club be successfully launched in a prison? Will the inmates read and understand the Sutra? Prior to starting the Study Club in the prison, a Tzu Chi volunteer from Kluang read up the scriptures and prepared an 11-session reading plan, to share the Sutra content with the inmates in an easy-to-comprehend way.

Since volunteers from Tzu Chi, Kluang, initiated an effort to send love behind bars 10 years ago, they have been visiting the Simpang Renggam Prison and organizing activities by way of tea parties.

In early June 2017, volunteers from Tzu Chi KL & Selangor’s Entrepreneurs’ Group, were at the prison (a detention and rehabilitation camp) to give a simple sharing session with the inmates. One of the volunteers, Lim Haw Sek, brought up the idea of presenting each prisoner the “Earth Treasury Sutra – Interpretation by Master Cheng Yen”, as a meaningful gift. In order for the spirit and value of its contents be effectively revealed and understood, it was suggested that a corresponding Book Study Club on the Sutra be initiated.

After more than a month of deliberation with the prison authorities and ordering of the books, each of the 23 inmates who signed up for the Book Study Club were finally presented with a hard copy of the book and the Study Club was ready to start!

Could such a club studying the “Earth Treasury Sutra” be successful in a prison? Would the inmates read the book at their own initiative? Could they understand the contents? These were pertinent questions as after all, it was not your normal casual reading material, but one with over 700 pages of profound teachings and scripture.

Volunteer Ong Seng Yeow, the appointed moderator for the Club, did a survey beforehand and learnt that among the 23 participants, some of them were atheists and some were self-acclaimed Buddhists with no background nor prior learning on the religion. Without any knowledge or understanding of Buddhism terminologies, the study of the Sutra would be new frontiers for all of them.

He realized the enormity of the task and quickly got down to preparation and planning. The book was thoroughly read twice, with other related books referenced to and extra information researched for online. Eventually, he drafted and finalized his 11-sessions reading and study plan.

Sufferings in Hell present in current world

During the first session, Seng Yeow told the attendees that the objective of the Study Club was for all (i.e. both the moderator and participants) to learn and grow together. They were classmates and companions on this path of spiritual cultivation. In order to conduct the book study in a favourable and conducive atmosphere, everyone would sit straight with their palms together, and chant the sutra for ten minutes. This was followed by a video and recitation of the verses of the sutra to be studied. To enhance the participants’ interest and to explain the meaning of the relevant sutra verses and terminologies, Seng Yeow would also include some related videos, Buddhist songs and stories in his sharing.

Over the course of the year, eight persons eventually completed the full 11 sessions as participation were affected by differing periods of release and incarceration.

During the final session, the participants were able to give valuable and candid feedback on their learning experience. All of them found that the Sutra were intense and not easy to comprehend. As it turned out, none of them had prepared by reading the relevant section of the book before they came for each session. Everyone confessed that had it not for the book study sessions, the book would have been left untouched. One of the points which stood out for all of them was the great vow of the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva, that “Before the Hell is empty, I will not become a Buddha.” This was profound.

A participant, Su, shared that the horror scenes of Hell described in the book were evident in the current world. For example, at a slaughterhouse or a serious natural disaster area, sentient beings were seen to suffer greatly from injuries or death. Having understood the karmic law of cause and effect, he knew that he needed to repent for all his wrongdoings, do more good deeds and sincerely learn Buddha’s teachings.

Before the Book Study Club, none of the participants had attended any chanting sessions for the deceased at a wake, and they lacked proper concept or understanding of the ritual. Now they understood that on the demise of a family or friend, apart from doing good deeds and dedicating the merits to the deceased, they could also chant for them. Although only one-third of the participants planned to do that, Seng Yeow considered that to be a reasonably good achievement.

A good affinity

In the “Earth Treasury Sutra”, there are many stories about karmic cause and effect, and filial piety. A participant, Xia, felt strongly about the story of Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother, who had done numerous wrongdoings and was in great suffering as a result. On the anniversary of his mother’s death, Maudgalyayana sincerely made offerings to the arhats and dedicated the merits to his mother. He also vowed to deliver sentient beings from suffering. Xia was surprised to learn that Maudgalyayana was the Earth Treasury Bodhisattva in his past life. Out of compassion, he had returned to the living world many times to save more sentient beings.

Another participant, Zhuo, asked the volunteer for a copy of the book so that he can chant the sutra in prison. His sister attends Tzu Chi’s activities in Negeri Sembilan, and he planned to find out more about the organization after he is released at the end of the year.

It had been a worthy cause to hold the Book Study Club. The inmates were able to enhance their knowledge of the Dharma, and hopefully inspire them to apply the teachings in their daily lives. This experience will encourage us to further expand on this initiative at the same and other rehabilitation centres.


To most of the inmates, “Earth Treasury Sutra – Interpretation by Master Cheng Yen” was their first contact of Buddhism literature. [Photograph provided by Simpang Renggam Prison]  

To most of the inmates, “Earth Treasury Sutra – Interpretation by Master Cheng Yen” was their first contact of Buddhism literature. [Photograph provided by Simpang Renggam Prison]