Book Review: The Buddhist on Death Row

by David SheffSimon & Schuster
reviewed by Gabriel Cohen
The Buddhist on Death Row Cover

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When Jarvis Jay Masters first heard a Buddhist lama tell him, “We’re all in prison, and we all have the key,” his reaction was anger. Masters really was in prison, doomed to spend decades in solitary confinement on San Quentin’s death row for a murder he says he did not help commit, and he could never pass through a door without a jailer unlocking it for him. But when a visiting criminal investigator taught him some meditation exercises and he found them helpful in alleviating his distress, he set out on an inner journey that would eventually convince him of the power of Buddhism’s fundamental message: that all beings experience pains and troubles, but we can learn to reduce how much suffering we derive from them.

Over time, Masters would become a student and friend of Buddhist masters such as Pema Chodron and Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He would discover that the route to easing the anguish of his present dire circumstances—and of his past childhood abuse and neglect—was not through avoiding or repressing his feelings, but learning to sit with them. He would write and publish books about his experiences and insights, and become a force for helping many others, both inside and outside the prison.

Like any good journalist, David Sheff, author of the New York Times bestseller Beautiful Boy, was somewhat wary when he was first introduced to Masters by a prison reform activist eight years ago. But he would come to visit the prisoner more than 150 times and spend count- less hours recording and confirming the man’s life story, which he relates in clear, straightforward prose. Perhaps this stirring book will help achieve what 30 years of legal appeals have failed to do: Convince an overly punitive prison system to unlock the doors that still bar this unlikely, deeply penitent sage and let him feel fresh grass beneath his feet again and contemplate the open sky.

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