Prison Couldn’t Change Me—But This Did

“Only God could change him.” This is what people said behind my back. I was a thief, a bandit, a drug addict, and a spoiled brat. But when they saw the change in me, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

This is the story of how I turned my life aroundeven when it seemed there was no hope.

For many people, going to jail would be a wake-up call that signalled they were on the wrong track in life. For me, it was a training ground to learn how to be a better criminal.

The first time I was sentenced to prison I was just 18 years old—I got caught stealing motorbikes from my neighbours.

My parents were extremely ashamed of what I had done, so even though the crime was relatively minor, my dad insisted I be put behind bars in the hope that it would teach me to choose the right path. They were heartbroken, but felt they had no other choice.

Dong Thap in his youth.

Rebellious From a Young Age

Looking back, my predominant qualities of greed and laziness started at a young age. My mom was often sick, so I was sent to live with my grandparents. My family was quite rich and well-known in the area, and it seemed like I was raised more by money than by parental love and guidance. I was defiant and felt entitled, and by grade 2 I had started sneaking out at night to play billiards. I would return having spent all my money. My grandmother would scold me but I didn’t care.

When I was in grade 5, my grandma sent me home to my parents because she could no longer handle my rebelliousness and wayward behavior. After that I was mostly alone, but I was given anything I wanted—except for the love and attention I truly craved.

My parents spent most of their time at work, so they made up for their absence by giving me money. Around that time I had more than 1 million Vietnamese dongs (VND), the equivalent to the average person’s salary for a month. Needless to say, I spent it all frivolously and it was gone in an instant.

By grade 8, I was living a life that other kids envied. I hung out playing games or lazing around day and night and I didn’t bother going to school. I manipulated my mom into giving me more money, sometimes up to 10 million VND. When she realized I was turning into a spoiled brat she stopped giving me what I wanted, so I began to steal money at home. When that was no longer enough I plotted bigger schemes.

I started stealing motorbikes from my neighbors and brought them to a nearby pawn shop to exchange for money. Both my parents were prestigious people, so it was easy for me to get away with it for a while. But as I became more brazen, I sold the stolen property for higher prices and got busted. I was sent to jail when I was barely 18.

(Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash.com)

In and Out of Prison

I was released from my first jail term after 9 months. The time I spent there didn’t move me to change my ways at all; on the contrary, I considered it an extraordinary experience. I changed for the worse. I learned to get what I wanted through force and manipulation. I preferred violence to get things done. I felt like the boss of my town, and when someone spoke to me in a disrespectful manner I would get back at him in a brutal way—even if he was a relative.

By age 19, I was sentenced to prison for the second time. While there I hung out with some of the most notorious gangs in Saigon and gained more experience. To me, a year in prison seemed like a year of valuable training. When I got out I become more professional in committing my crimes, and still kept in touch with the gangsters had I met behind bars.

I went from a rich kid to a true bandit. I was like a yakuza and collected “protection fees” or “greetings fees” from shop owners, street vendors, and at markets. I turned to marijuana as my drug of choice. It gave me life satisfaction and enabled me stay in an illusional world where I could forget everything I had done.

My dad was very distressed. He tried to get me back on track a few times but eventually decided to give up on me. Though my mom still loved me wholeheartedly, there was nothing she could do either.

At the age of 26 I officially threw away my youth by being sent to jail yet again—this time for 4 years. I was over 30 by the time I got out. The law might have restrained me but on the inside I was still the same beast. I sometimes felt pity for my parents and wished I had been different. Other times, I wished I could just drop dead so no one would suffer because of me.

After getting out of jail I was determined to start over. I asked my mom for 100 million VND to open a store and promised I would change for good. However, the business was not as successful as I expected, and most of my customers were my friends. I was impatient, and before long I shut down the business. I returned to my hometown and went back down the same destructive path I had been trying to escape. I knew I was hurting my mom, but what else could I do? Making a fresh start seemed out of my reach and impossible.

(Photo by Rainer Taepper on Unsplash)

Narrowly Escaping Suicide

Although I was a disgusting human being, deep down I still had a conscience and often felt torn apart inside over the suffering had I caused over the years. This led to suicidal thoughts. One day, with no hope left, I made my way to a nearby bridge. Without much hesitation, I jumped off. I just wanted the shame, hatred, and negativity of this life to be over.

 

Yet when death was right in front of me, my desire to live was stronger than ever. I swam frantically in the freezing water and screamed for help. I escaped death by a whisker. Through this experience I learned that I had so much left to do.

I went back home as I had nowhere else to go. My dad didn’t want to see me but my mom believed I deserved another chance. Her love was so strong that it truly touched me. Once again, I tried to change. She found me a wife, who cared for me and wanted to spend the rest of her life with me. However, I was a mess. I kept losing money on my business and I was still obsessed with the lifestyle I once had. My wife cried many tears because of me.

To make matters worse, my parents’ fortune was all gone because of me. My dad was so resentful that he became bad-tempered and was quite aggressive whenever he saw me. The atmosphere most of the time was heavy and tense. I couldn’t bear it, so finally I chose to leave home for two years. During that period I didn’t receive any phone calls or hear from my parents at all. It felt like they were relieved when I left, and I was very disappointed.

How I Learned To Change

Life hadn’t completely given up on me yet, however. I didn’t have much of an education, but I got a job at a factory in Binh Duong and started to earn money legitimately.

One day on the way home from work I noticed a man sitting cross-legged in a park, completely still, for quite a long time. I approached him and heard peaceful, harmonic music coming from his CD player. The music was unfamiliar, but it seemed to light up my soul and enliven my mind.

I sat next to him for about half an hour. When he finally moved I asked what he was doing. He explained that he was practicing Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, an ancient Buddhist qigong practice based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. He said practicing the five Falun Dafa exercises every day is beneficial for the body and the mind.

Dong Thap practicing the Falun Gong meditation.

I was excited to know about this self-cultivation method that he described, so I immediately borrowed some discs containing the Falun Dafa teachings from him. He told me to just keep them and didn’t ask for anything in return.

I went back to my apartment and put on the first disc. A feeling of warmth and intimacy surrounded me, and the words spoken by the Falun Dafa teacher in the lecture awakened a sense of goodness in me. The teacher spoke of humanity, compassion, and dignity, and I burst into tears with shame. I realized I did not do anything to contribute to my family or society, yet I felt hatred toward my parents for giving up on me.

The next day after I got home from work I played the second disc. I meditated and voiced out loud my desire to practice Falun Dafa diligently and improve myself through following the teachings. Every day I spent time listening to the lectures and I felt like my mind was being purified. After all nine lectures, I started doing the five exercises—four different standing movements and one seated in the cross-legged position.

Although the exercises are very gentle they are also very powerful, and at first I almost passed out after a few of the moves. My body ached for three days and I could hardly walk. Surprisingly, on the fourth day I could sit up straight, which I had been unable to do for a long time due to some health problems. I also felt completely energized. The exercises were miraculous, to the point where it seemed surreal. As I started to feel Falun Dafa’s healing strength, I tried to practice a bit more each day.

I attentively read “Zhuan Falun,” the main book of Falun Dafa, trying to understand the inner meanings and to let go of my destructive tendencies and other negative attachments. The exercises also improved my capacity to function better, and the result showed clearly day by day.

Dong Thap studies “Zhuan Falun,” the main teachings of Falun Dafa.

My Parents’ Dream Comes True

Through practicing Falun Dafa I gave up my bad habits and learned to listen to and be tolerant of others–in other words, I put the other person before myself, as laid out in the teachings. I changed my ways and pushed myself toward truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. I quit drinking and smoking. I relinquished negative thoughts and feelings, and returned home to sincerely apologize to my parents and my wife.

Dong Thap with his mother after reconciling.

At first my dad didn’t want to see me because he believed nothing could truly change me. I had asked for too many chances already. For my sake, my mom repeatedly begged him to forgive me. Eventually, he did forgive me but he didn’t trust me completely. I didn’t care though, because I knew I would prove to him that this time I had changed for good.

When my parents were prepared to give me yet another chance, I returned to Binh Duong to work. I tried my best to incorporate truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance into everything I did, and my business developed smoothly. I had also reconciled with my wife, and every day our relationship grew stronger. She soon gave birth to a baby boy. My wife understood well that Falun Dafa had saved me and brought me back to her, so she often reminded me to study the teachings.

Dong Thap with his wife and young son.

Some years later, when I had a made a good amount of money, I returned to my hometown to be a farmer. My parents could really see how I had turned my life around and they were over the moon with happiness. My neighbors often joked, “You’ve changed, I don’t recognize you anymore!” They asked how such a transformation could be possible, and I told them about Falun Dafa.

Inspired by the change in me, my parents and my neighbors began to learn the practice too. They formed exercise and study groups and have practiced together ever since. They all agree that they have experienced wonderful benefits from Falun Dafa—physically, mentally, and spiritually. In my hometown, the number of Falun Dafa practitioners has grown tremendously.

I have truly been through thick and thin. I used to be steeped in the criminal life and was not able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad. I thought no god could save me and that I would live a shameful life until the day I died. Luckily, fate did not give up on me. It led me to a stranger who helped me change my life by telling me about Falun Dafa. I honestly don’t know how I would have ended up if I hadn’t learned this ancient Chinese practice. It truly led me—an ex-con who couldn’t change his ways even after being jailed several times—to a fulfilling, responsible life and a happy ending.

*Editor’s note:

Falun Dafa is a cultivation practice of mind and body that teaches truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance as a way to improve health and moral character and attain spiritual wisdom.

For more information about the practice or to download “Zhuan Falun,” visit: www.falundafa.org All books, exercise music, resources, and instructions are available completely free of charge.

 
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