A Buddhist On Death Row | By Jarvis Jay Masters | Issue 266 | The Sun Magazine

A Buddhist On Death Row

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Sometimes we have to suffer the worst in life for our souls to be carved deep. The reward is spirituality, though it carries a high price. I think this is what combat in the jungles of Vietnam did for me.

I was impressed by your conclusion that it is not enough just to be a Buddhist who meditates; we must also act compassionately on our beliefs. In my prayer group, we speak of this as the spring and the stream. Spirituality is a spring, but unless it flows out to others as a stream, it will produce no more than a stagnant pool.

John J. Musewicz Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

I suspect that if you and I put our lives side by side for comparison, people would say I was the exemplary one. I was always the good boy who did the right thing. And yet, spiritually, my life is as much in need of transformation as yours. And maybe my spiritual work is just as difficult, because I must deal with pride at a deep level, while your humility and compassion are palpable. Although I’m living the American dream, my life is a sham spiritually. Your example gives me hope and encouragement.

Ward Bauman El Granada, California

In “A Buddhist on Death Row” [February 1998] Jarvis Masters presents an accurate picture of life in a state prison. I’m happy for him that he has found a way to cope, attain some peace, and improve himself. It might interest some to know that there are other ways besides meditation to achieve the same ends. Some methods are prayer, good works, learning, and loving God and others.

For me, though, it has been a simple act of choice, a rational decision to be happy rather than sad, forgiving rather than angry. It isn’t always easy. Even on the outside there are trials, there is suffering, there is the need to make the right decisions.

Masters is on a good path. All rays lead back to the sun. I wish him well.

Carl Berk Clinton Correctional Facility
Dannemora, New York

It is difficult for me to realize that the harsh life you describe is not just printed words on paper but your daily reality. As easy as my life is by comparison, I, too, feel that my practice is all I have. I think what I’m trying to learn is that pain and pleasure are really the same thing — that all is illusory and temporary.

Vince Frates Salt Lake City, Utah

I was grateful to read about your inner journey, and about how you find the strength to keep looking for the light. Just before I read your article, I was thinking that I would like to spend some time in a Buddhist monastery this summer, to be in the company of spiritual people, in silence and calm. (Though I don’t define myself as a Buddhist, I have a keen feeling of oneness with its philosophy.) When I read about your life, and your daily struggle to maintain your spirit, I realized how ridiculous it is for me to think I need to go someplace to find silence and calm. I should be learning to find them within.

Laura May New York, New York

I am an old woman, but not too old to do two things. I promise to pray for you daily, for your peace of mind, that you may be sure that the work you are doing with your meditation and your writing will have an effect. I shall also immediately write my congressman urging him to outlaw the death penalty.

Arlene E. Swanson Minneapolis, Minnesota

I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to The Sun for publishing the excerpt from my book, Finding Freedom [“A Buddhist on Death Row,” February 1998], and to all the readers who reached out to me with so much hope, prayer, and encouragement. I received a tremendous number of letters from people all over the world. Their words brought joy into my life and offered me the rare chance to connect with other human beings. I was especially pleased that my writing found its way into the classrooms of teenage children, whose letters touched my heart. I never thought my simple voice could have such an effect on so many people.

Editor’s note:
Jarvis Jay Masters was kind enough to share with us some of the letters he received. The following are just a few.

Jarvis Jay Masters San Quentin Prison
San Quentin, California
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