We have spent a lifetime developing responses to pain and difficulty. Changing these old habits is like trying to reverse the momentum of a boulder tumbling down a mountainside. It requires great effort, skill, patience, perseverance, and no small amount of courage. —Lama Shenpen
each of his teachers had given him permission to interpret Buddhism in whatever way worked for him. He’d seen how Buddhism meets you wherever you are and lets you take what you can from it at that moment. In fact, it was unlike other faiths in that there weren’t rules, and even its most fundamental precepts were infinitely flexible. But in spite of all that, he still envisioned the Buddha as a kind of deity sitting on a mountaintop, having transcended suffering. He wanted Buddha to lift him up out of San Quentin onto that mountaintop, high above his suffering—to save him. That’s the Buddha he had to kill—the illusion that anything outside ourselves can save us. What he learned is that Buddha can’t save us. Jesus can’t. Allah can’t. Only we can save ourselves.
Then he said, “I thought this Buddhist shit was supposed to protect you.” Pema looked at him and sighed. “Jarvis,” she said, “there’s no protection from pain and grief. It’s a fantasy to think we can be protected. You wouldn’t want to not feel grief when someone dies. What kind of person would that make you? A very coldhearted person.”
We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.
Rinpoche led Jarvis forward in other ways. He’d given him permission to take from Buddhism what helped him and reject his own and others’ preconceptions about what a Buddhist should be. He showed Jarvis that Buddhism is replete with paradoxes and contradictions because life itself is. And he pointed him toward the central paradox of the faith: that the more one accepts suffering, the less one suffers.
Jarvis grasped how well when he was on the yard one day and an inmate who’d heard about his conversion asked, “How can you be a Buddhist in this shithole?” Without thinking, Jarvis responded, “The question for me is ‘How can you be in this shithole without being a Buddhist?’ ”
“People think as a Buddhist you want to transcend the everyday, transcend the past, transcend the pain. But the goal isn’t dangling above the messiness of life, it’s sitting in it; you don’t want to transcend the past but be there fully. When you fully connect with your past… that’s when it begins to lose its ability to harm you—to control you. What you do is go to the events; you don’t judge them as good or bad, and you sit with them even if they scare you.” She added, “Especially if they scare you.”
She offered a poignant example: “Let’s say your child is very ill. All you want to do is run away from the bad feelings. It feels as if they will kill you—that’s how afraid you are. You do anything not to feel them. But unless you feel them, they don’t go away. And here’s the thing: if you sit with those feelings, it doesn’t feel good, but it feels honest and true. When you stop running, you can be with your child who’s ill, which is where you want to be for yourself and for him.”
We chip away a piece at a time. To free ourselves, we have to keep going, to go deeper.
The better he became at meditation, the more it helped him face trauma he’d experienced and learn and explore. Sometimes terrible memories and fears—of execution, of guards—arose, but he used meditation to push them aside—to try to transcend the pain he’d carried with him his whole life. But now Pema challenged him to go back to the worst memories and fears again—to intentionally meditate on them. She said not to push them away, not to try to transcend them, not to run from them, but to go toward them.
Pema responded, “Maybe you didn’t let your practice slide because you’re in a bad place, but you’re in a bad place because you let your practice slide.”