The Buddhist on Death Row: Lessons on Freeing the Mind
Getting to know David Sheff
In time with the release of his new book, we chatted up bestselling author David Sheff on the transformation of Buddhist-practicing death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters.
The New York Times No. 1 bestselling author of Beautiful Boy, David Sheff is back with a new must-read: The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place—out today—following the riveting transformation of death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters from a horrific young life to a practicing Buddhist prisoner. In time with the book's release, we chatted up Sheff on his approach, Masters' failed appeal journey to date—until now, and his first real shot at his potential exoneration.
You could have just interviewed Masters and written the book based on your talks with him, but you also took pains to interview a number of other people to check on his stories. Why did you feel you needed to do that? What made you overcome your original wariness or skepticism about his story of transformation?
Journalists are duty bound to be skeptical; part of the job is requiring proof—corroborating stories. Jarvis’ friends and supporters said he was innocent, but I needed to see for myself. In addition, the stories of Jarvis’ actions in prison—helping inmates and guards—are amazing, but I couldn’t know if they were true. Later, when I got to know him, I came to realize he’s genuine and truthful, but I didn’t know at first. I quickly became convinced when I heard from others.
For example, a death-row inmate told me stories about Jarvis intervening when a prisoner was targeted to be killed because he was gay. When Jarvis intervened, another inmate challenged him, but Jarvis responded: “See, the way it works in here, the wolves are going to prey on the sheep. That boy’s a sheep. We have to protect the sheep.” Not only did he potentially save the inmate’s life, but he helped the one who was going to kill him realize power can come from something other than violence. He gave the man a higher purpose—saving rather than taking a life.
When you told Masters others who have come into contact with him consider him a teacher, or even an enlightened being, he seemed very reluctant to accept those labels. Could you talk about that?
Jarvis’ journey was never about him trying to become a Buddhist or any other kind of teacher or an enlightened being. As he told me, “I don’t even know what enlightenment means.” Those descriptions come from the outside—others’ perceptions and experiences. Jarvis’ journey began as one of survival.
First it was about physically surviving, then about spiritually surviving. It’s not something he did for others; it was about learning to live a meaningful life. That ultimately became a life of service to others. His journey is one of introspection, learning compassion, and finding purpose in a life that had none—that’s the way he described it. His humbleness is genuine. He’d say he’s just doing the best he can. If he viewed himself as some kind of enlightened being, he probably wouldn’t be one.
Masters has endured great suffering in his life, but before coming to prison, he also caused suffering through crimes such as armed robberies. How do you think he has come to terms with that? Has he helped convince you that people who have committed violent crimes can achieve rehabilitation?
Part of Jarvis’ journey involved acknowledging the harm he’d done. It was a painful, terrifying process. He cried when he talked about the victims of his robberies—them and their families. He knows he traumatized people. Admitting that—accepting it—was the first step. The most important part was feeling it. It was like—as he described it—sitting in a fire.
What comes after we accept the suffering we’ve caused? We can try to atone. Jarvis was talking about it with his teacher, Ani Pema Chodron. He asked how he could make amends to his victims when he didn’t even know their names. She responded he could do what he could to help others in their names; dwelling in regret and shame wouldn’t help them. The only thing he could do is devote himself to helping others. Since then, he’s done just that. He still feels terribly about the people who were harmed, but part of it is living with our actions—accepting them. You don’t want to block or deny them.
He learned that people can change, but it’s hard. He says he went from a person who never thought about anyone other than himself—he’d been hurt throughout his childhood and had to do whatever he could to survive—to one who saw the suffering of others. That was the beginning of change. He fully believes in redemption.
Has writing this book changed your views about the criminal justice system in America? If you had the power to change it, what are some of the things you would advocate?
I wasn’t naïve about the so-called criminal justice system. I know it is often a system of injustice. It’s racist. It targets the most vulnerable people. Jarvis’ story is another of countess others that show how people become victims of a system that purports to protect society.
The way to change the system is to continue the movement inspired by the horrific killing of George Floyd. Many people don’t understand what’s meant by “defunding” the police. To me it means creating a system that is about helping people. That’s how we create a justice system. People need mental health care, social services, jobs, housing, food. Now we lock people away and destroy their lives and the lives of their families. Instead, we can help and empower them.
You note that you are not a Buddhist. Has your contact with Masters and the other practitioners in this story changed your view of what Buddhism is?
I learned Buddhism can help anyone whether they are a believer or not. At its core—at least the way I understand it—Buddhism is about doing our best to live in the moment, appreciating that our minds cause much of our suffering, and it’s mostly the recognition of suffering around us. When we see others’ suffering, we’re compelling to do what we can to prevent and alleviate it.
The Buddhist stories can be taken as literal or allegorical. We can all learn from them—the lessons are profound. They can free us of the thought patterns that harm us—that control us and prevent us from getting and doing better. I saw what Jarvis saw: that Buddhism can meet you wherever you are. Even its most fundamental concepts are flexible and adaptable. At first, Jarvis envisioned the Buddha as a deity sitting on a mountaintop, and he wanted the Buddha to save him, but the lesson of Buddhism is that we can only save ourselves. To me, that’s a profound lesson, one I can fully grasp, especially when we see how we can save ourselves: Ultimately, we save ourselves when we embrace our humanity and do what we can to help others.
Has your experience in getting to know Masters and writing his story changed your own approach to life in any ways?
My years getting to know Jarvis had a great impact on my life. I’m better about viewing each moment as precious. I’m definitely not perfect, but I can pull myself out of the traps I fall into: worry, self-doubt, fear. Jarvis and his teachers talk about the suffering we endure that we cause ourselves, that’s in our heads.
We can free ourselves when we can free our minds. Meditation is one way. I believe therapy can be another. Mostly, I see humanity differently. I see how we’re all connected by our suffering. When we see that—truly see it—I think it opens us to compassion. We’re more open and feel more. That can hurt sometimes, but pain—like joy—comes with being fully alive.
Masters has achieved considerable recognition as a writer while in prison. Has working with him given you any insights that have affected or influenced you as a writer yourself?
Jarvis’ experience with writing mirrors my own. I’ve always been a writer, but it took years for me to realize the power of writing as a kind of self-exploration, therapy, a way to find the truth about ourselves, others, and life. Writing helped Jarvis get through some of the worst times in his life, and it helped me survive some of my greatest challenges.
I’ve written about the hardest times in my life. Writing helped me understand them, face them, and ultimately learn from them—and, I hope, become a more conscious and conscientious person. “More” is the operative word. I still struggle all the time, but writing is a tool that helps me be better and do better.
Despite considerable evidence that Masters’ original murder prosecution was flawed in a number of ways, and despite the work of a number of lawyers and investigators and activists on his behalf—not to mention the appeals of numerous prominent friends who seem completely convinced that he has become rehabilitated—the criminal justice review boards in California have always turned down his appeals. Do you have a sense of why that is? At this point, what do you think are his chances of eventual release?
Jarvis’ case is different from almost all others on death row because the crime that he was convicted of took place within the prison. There’s no physical evidence (for example, no DNA) to prove he wasn’t involved. The state even “lost” the knife Jarvis was accused of making.
In addition, the state is vested in his case in a way it’s not in most other cases. I’ve read volumes of transcripts of his trials and witnessed a few hearings. The evidence has never been properly considered. His original trial was a travesty. Now that Jarvis’ case is moving out of the state of California into the federal appellate courts, he has the first real opportunity for exoneration. His lawyers can show, and I believe they will show, he was framed for murder and has been robbed of most his life by the so-called criminal justice system. I envision a time he’ll walk out of San Quentin a free man.