Read an Excerpt From 'The Buddhist on Death Row'
David Sheff's moving new book describes a convicted man's transformation
Jarvis Jay Masters, now 58, was a rage-filled 19-year-old when he arrived at San Quentin State Prison. Treated with callous brutality and set up for the murder of a guard, he ended up in solitary confinement on death row.
David Sheff, the author of the 2008 best seller Beautiful Boy, writes in his new book The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place, about how Masters was so desperate for release from his anxiety and hopelessness that he tried something he normally would have scorned: learning Buddhist principles and practice, beginning with the not-so-simple ability to breathe and sit quietly with his thoughts.
After years of effort, Masters eventually found meaning, strength and hope within his prison walls. “When his mind was free,” Sheff notes, “he was free.” He remains at San Quentin on death row, despite his many supporters’ efforts toward his release (there's a Free Jarvis campaign online), and is recovering from COVID-19.
Below is an excerpt from Sheff's book, which describes Masters’ initial struggle to accept what was a radically new way of thinking.
Chapter 4: Condemned
The guards were quiet on the ride from the courthouse, but noise erupted when the van entered the prison. Jarvis heard car horns and guards cheering. Through the mesh-covered windows he saw COs giving one another the thumbs-up. They were celebrating his death sentence.
Jarvis was led from the van to his cell. Late that night he heard footsteps and then pounding. He looked up into the blinding beams of flashlights held by guards, one of whom told him to step up to the bars. Jarvis thought they were there to kill him. Mob justice. A lynching. Shielding his eyes with his hands, trembling, he rose and stumbled forward.
"We have to read this,” a guard snapped. “You have to sign it.”
They weren't there to kill him, after all, but to carry out the mandatory reading of the execution order. Jarvis signed the piece of paper that condemned him to die.
The next morning, breakfast was delivered as usual, and the day progressed as if nothing had changed. Also as usual, the mail was delivered in the evening. Jarvis examined a large envelope from someone named Lisa Leghorn, who in a note explained that she was an assistant and interpreter to Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, the Buddhist lama Jarvis had written to months before. Leghorn wrote that Rinpoche was glad that Jarvis had reached out to him, and she referred to a small book in the package entitled Life in Relation to Death, which contained a transcript of a talk by the lama. “Read it,” she said. “See if it speaks to you."
Jarvis picked the book up and was instantly transfixed. On the first page, the lama described death as a subject people often ignore or think about frivolously, as if it were no big deal. Then the author wrote, “This is a nice theory until one is dying. Then experience and theory differ.” He continued, “Then one is powerless and everything familiar is lost. One is overwhelmed by a great turbulence of fear, disorientation, and confusion. For this reason it is essential to prepare well in advance for the moment when the mind and body separate.”
Jarvis closed the book and breathed deeply. A familiar, choking emotion welled up in him: anguish. But he read on. The teacher said that all people should prepare for death, and one approach was to picture the ways they might die. He listed an airplane crash, an automobile accident, a terminal illness, and being stabbed by a mugger. He didn't mention the gas chamber.
Another approach was called “meditative contemplations.” Jarvis read through them quickly until he got to one that made him shudder. People should ask themselves two questions every night before bed: “If I die tonight in my sleep … What have I done with my life? Have I been of benefit or have I caused harm?”
Jarvis needed no time to ponder his answer. He knew that he'd benefited no one and he'd caused immeasurable harm.
He read all night. Dawn was breaking as he turned the final page, but he was wide awake. He didn't believe in omens, but he reeled at the thought that during his first day on death row, the mail had brought him a guide to dying.
“We all live in a prison, and we all hold the key,” Chagdud Tulku wrote. More patronizing bullshit, Jarvis thought. You do not live in prison. I live in prison. You may have a key, but the keys to my cell are hanging off my jailers’ belts."
Jarvis penned a response to Chagdud Tulku and the translator, thanking them for the package and explaining what had happened since he'd first written, that he'd been given the death penalty. He told them he had been trying to get his mind around the sentence. He admitted that he was afraid.
Prison mail was slow, and it took a month for him to hear back from the lama, who said he understood Jarvis's confusion and fear but assured him that he was fortunate; his situation was a gift. “You can use your circumstances for your betterment and to benefit others,” he said. The thought appalled Jarvis. Being on death row was no gift.
The lama wrote that all people have been sentenced to death — in that way, Jarvis wasn't unique. That idea angered Jarvis, too. Yes, he thought, everyone is going to die, but not everyone is living a hundred yards from the site of their execution.
"We all live in a prison, and we all hold the key,” Chagdud Tulku wrote. More patronizing bullshit, Jarvis thought. You do not live in prison. I live in prison. You may have a key, but the keys to my cell are hanging off my jailers’ belts.
Jarvis's anger diminished when the lama offered concrete instructions: “Stick with meditation, because it allows us to gain insight into our own mind and its projections. Fear is in your mind. Regret is in your mind.” That advice recalled Melody's teacher's description of fear as “just a thought,” which had helped him in the past.
The key, the teacher said, was practice. Jarvis should meditate at least twice a day, even when it was difficult. He said he should allow himself to feel doubt, confusion, anger and fear. “It's normal for you to feel that way.” Finally, the lama said, “If you need help we're here for you. You are like family now.”
A new family. When Jarvis read that word, the last remnants of his anger melted away.
Jarvis tried to follow the lama's instructions, but his despair only worsened over the following months. His friends and lawyers visited and tried to bolster him. The lawyers said that the trial had been a travesty, and they assured him he'd win on appeal. Kelly Hayden, a legal assistant who'd become a friend, visited and commiserated with him. She believed that his conviction and sentence were racist, and she said so. She said, “Don't take it personally.” They exchanged horrified looks and burst out laughing. It was a brief moment of levity.
Those first days, Jarvis obsessed about the death sentence and became preoccupied with the message inherent in the judge's words before she'd condemned him: “If people don't want children, they shouldn't have them. Apparently, his mother didn't know how not to have them.” He turned those words over in his mind: If my mother shouldn't have had me, I should never have been born; the world would have been a better place without me.
Those words affirmed his worst feelings about himself, a message reinforced since he was a child. The judge had seen into his soul. He had been born useless. Those who saw him as evil were right.
Carlette [his sister] came, but there was little either of them could say. She sobbed and left.
He tried to reread Life in Relation to Death, but he couldn't bear it. In a letter to Chagdud Tulku, Jarvis admitted that he was falling into “the darkest place” and didn't know if he'd ever be able to pull himself out. The lama had said that he and Lisa were there for him if he needed help. Jarvis needed help badly now, and he asked for it.
In her response, Lisa suggested that they talk in person, and he readily agreed. A month later, when her application was approved, she came to San Quentin.
Jarvis had expected a Tibetan like the lama in the photograph, but Lisa looked like a flower child or gypsy. She wasn't a cold and detached Buddhist scholar; she was open and kind and funny.
After some small talk, Lisa said that she and Rinpoche understood his despair and the difficulty of meditating in that state. “Yes, it's hard, but it can save you. Meditation is hardest when we're most afraid, because it forces us to face our fears when all we want to do is run from them. But it's the only way out of our misery.
"It's hard to see that where you are,” she acknowledged, “but it's like walking from one mountain to another. If you think about how far you have to go, you'll freeze up and never take the first step. Just take the step.”
"I would,” Jarvis said. “I can't. I try.”
He broached something that had been gnawing at him: “In these books I see pictures of Buddhists sitting in robes on mountain peaks, chanting in these gardens with white flowers and blue skies.
Maybe that works there, but how in the world am I going to sit in this hellhole praying to some stone fat man? I live with rapists and killers. Everyone talks about enlightenment, living in the light. But I live in hell.”
Lisa responded with a parable about a woman named Kisa Gotami who had lived at the time of the Buddha. Her son died, and she was overcome with grief. Carrying his lifeless body, she set off in search of the Buddha. After many days, she found him and pled with him to bring her child back to life. The Buddha said he'd make a medicine that would revive him, but it required a special ingredient, mustard seeds that came from a home that hadn't been touched by suffering. He sent Kisa Gotami to find some.
She went from village to village and house to house, knocking on door after door. People pitied her and were happy to help, but the seeds they offered were useless, because every person she met had suffered.
She went to more villages and visited more homes, but none had escaped suffering. She was desperate when she reached the thousandth door. She knocked, and a woman answered. Once again she begged for mustard seeds. The woman had some, but then Kisa Gotami asked if she'd experienced suffering in her life. The woman looked up at her. Her life had been filled with suffering.
Kisa Gotami wept. She wasn't crying for herself but for everyone she'd met. She understood at last what the Buddha had wanted her to see, that no one escapes suffering and no one escapes death. She had experienced what she needed to in order to get past her grief.
She felt compassion for others. In Lisa's telling, the instant Kisa Gotami felt that, she grasped the universality of suffering and the impermanence of life. She understood that her son had joined the vast pool of souls who have lived and died. She understood that in her suffering she was like all humans. She accepted her son's death, and she was freed from her pain. She became awakened and attained the state of enlightenment as a person who grasped the true nature of existence.
Jarvis was quiet. He'd heard and read other Buddhist stories, but this one touched him differently for some reason.
A moment later, a guard rapped on the door, ending the visit.
“Meditation is hardest when we're most afraid, because it forces us to face our fears when all we want to do is run from them. But it's the only way out of our misery."
That night, Jarvis lay on his cot listening to the prison's unceasing noise: sobs like crying wind, coughing, hacking, and the footsteps of guards. After having been unable to meditate for months, he moved to the floor, crossed his legs, and sat erect. He inhaled as deeply as he ever had.
In a dreamlike state, he saw a man sitting in meditation, his body engulfed in flames. He focused on the meditator and recognized him. The man was himself. As if he were watching through a telephoto lens, he panned back from inside his cell to the tier.
Somehow he saw inside the other cells, each containing a man who was also on fire. He zoomed out more and saw San Quentin from the sky. From that vantage, he saw several thousand burning bodies. Still higher, from the clouds, he saw houses across the Bay Area burning. Then he saw California, which was also engulfed in flames.
Higher. The country. Then the continent, and then the Western Hemisphere. Next he was watching from space. From that height he saw the whole planet floating in blackness. The water was blue. The landmasses were brown and green. On those expanses, wherever there were humans, fires burned.
Jarvis returned to the prison, to the thousands of men in cages unfit for animals. He thought of Kisa Gotami and realized that suffering was all around him — everywhere humans were. When he opened his eyes, he was shaking, and tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Copyright 2020 by David Sheff. From the forthcoming book THE BUDDHIST ON DEATH ROW: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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