Jarvis Jay Masters has developed an admirable Dharma practice during more than twenty-two years of incarceration at San Quentin State Prison in California. Originally sentenced for armed robbery at the age of nineteen, he was subsequently implicated as an accessory in the death of a San Quentin prison guard and in 1990 moved to death row to await execution. His previous collection of essays, Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (1997), offered snapshots of prison culture that illustrated how Masters approached the daily challenges of prison life with humor, humility and equanimity. In this, his latest book, he tells of the violence and trauma he encountered at home during his early childhood, followed by an adolescence spent in abusive foster homes and brutal youth institutions, only to enter adulthood by incarceration in prison. He lays bare the intertwined joys and sorrows of his youth. Writing of his mother, he shows how the love they shared coexisted with her heroin addiction.
Whenever Mama was at home, we’d often see her come out of the bathroom sweating, gently touching her face with her hands, as if she were sleepy. Then she’d lie down on top of the bare mattress. The heroin in Mama’s veins gave [my sister] Birdy the chance to do what she loved to do. Softly raising Mama’s head and bringing it down into her lap, she’d comb her hair, while the rest of us sat on the bed and watched quietly. We would just wait, watching, as if we all knew there was so much more happening than just us being there with our mother.
Reading this account, readers are challenged to hear Masters’s truth, even when it contradicts what we think we know about parents and institutions labeled “abusive” and “neglectful.”
Even though our day-to-day challenges are probably not as extreme as Masters’s, we may yet recognize ourselves in his experiences and feel inspired by his exemplary mindfulness, compassion and understanding. In one episode, he is moved into a filthy prison cell, reeking from mounds of garbage and molding wet laundry. Masters traces his chain of reactions, from initial shock, to fighting back the urge to vomit, and then to the gradual realization that the guards had moved him here on purpose:
“They knew I wouldn’t spin out and go into a fit of rage, threatening staff, kicking the cell bars, and demanding they move me to another cell, as any of the other inmates would have responded had they been suddenly thrown into a garbage bin like this, and as I myself would have responded many years ago.” His initial anger gives way to tenderness for the inmate who had preceded him in the cell as he realizes that “something was awfully wrong with whoever lived like this. . . . [I]t seemed sadder by the second.”
He spends the next three days scrubbing the walls and floor of the cell, during which
“I never stopped wondering about the person who had been in this cell, which told a horrific tale of someone’s inner life.”
In Dharma talks, teachers often relate a story to illustrate a particular point. Masters’s life journey could be such a story. “Many events recalled in these pages could have kept me angry my entire life,” he writes in the preface, but the man we meet in these pages radiates compassionate understanding. The Buddha once remarked that having admirable companions is “the whole of the holy life.” We are fortunate to have Jarvis Jay Masters as such a companion.