library/resources/

meta & highlights
book goodreads
The Buddhist on Death Row
by David Sheff completed: 08 Oct 2020

We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.

view meta | in 1 collections | 31 highlights | 0 responses

(in the middle of importing highlights)

referenced in

journal winnielim.org
finding freedom in prison
0 responses

highlights (31)

  • In 2006, my friend Pamela Krasney, an activist devoted to prison reform and other social justice causes, told me about a death row inmate who, she claimed, had been wrongly convicted of murder. He was unlike anyone she’d ever known—more conscious, wise, and empathetic “in spite of his past.” She corrected herself. “Because of his past.”

    0 responses
  • She admired his ability to bear weight that would crush most people and the joy he exuded in a joyless place. His interpretations of Buddhist teachings inspired her, and his insights helped her achieve a deeper understanding of Buddhist concepts she thought she knew.

    0 responses
  • The journey forward isn’t linear but cyclical, and it’s hard. I learned something else that was even more profound: that the process and goal are different from what many of us expect. Instead of working to change our true nature, we must find it. Instead of running from suffering, we must embrace it.

    0 responses
  • “When those thoughts come, gently push them away.” Jarvis tried that technique. He had a literal image of pushing the bad thoughts away. “I don’t need you,” he said as he swept one aside. “I don’t need you,” when another came. He made it through five minutes. Then ten. He tried it the next morning and the next.

    0 responses
  • “When you begin to panic, picture the upsetting events and feel the uncomfortable feelings from a safe distance. Instead of being inside them, you can watch them come. If you watch them come, you can watch them go.” The teacher had said to remember that “fear is a thought, and thoughts can’t hurt you. Thoughts can’t kill you.”

    0 responses
  • Paper was at a premium; in order to get as many words on each page as possible, he developed a tiny, even script that looked almost like typing. Sometimes he wrote all night. He never imagined there was something he could be good at, a talent, and being inspired to do something constructive—being inspired at all—was a new feeling. Writing gave him a different kind of power than came from knives or guns—subtler but no less palpable.

    0 responses
  • “You meet a whole new person when you start writing about yourself,” he wrote Melody.

    0 responses
  • Jarvis noticed sounds he’d lived with but never heard: the scrape of a food cart’s wheels along the corridor, the jangling rhythm of keys and handcuffs clanging off the belts of guards who passed his cell, the scurry of a mouse, and the babel of radio stations tuned to country, metal, and blues, wailing preachers and NPR. That heightened awareness filtered into his meditation. He noticed his surroundings: feelings, noises, smells. But even more intensely, he felt a new world of sensation inside his body. He discovered the tightness in his belly, the alternating tautness and slack of his lungs, the stress that throbbed in his temples, the pulsing weight of anxiety in his chest. When he described those sensations to Melody, she said he was discovering mindfulness, a form of meditation. “You become fully present in the moment. Experience it. When your mind wanders, return to your body, what you sense outside and inside you, and breathe.”

    0 responses
  • Jarvis’s self-imposed training began each day with two hours of meditation followed by exercise. He recorded his progress on a calendar he’d drawn. Four hundred sit-ups, five hundred push-ups, five hundred or more burpees, and again. Next he walked up and down the length of his cell 520 times, which was a mile.

    0 responses
  • She marveled at his story. Beyond the solid writing, she saw it as a remarkable testament to how far he’d come since they’d met. Then he’d had no self-awareness, never mind the ability to see others. He cared about no one and nothing but himself. Now he recognized others’ suffering, responded with compassion, and connected others’ pain with his own. Melody had a thought that made her smile. On his own and without knowing it, Jarvis had arrived at the heart of Buddhism.

    0 responses
  • On the first page, the lama described death as a subject people often ignore or think about frivolously, as if it were no big deal. Then the author wrote, “This is a nice theory until one is dying. Then experience and theory differ.” He continued, “Then one is powerless and everything familiar is lost. One is overwhelmed by a great turbulence of fear, disorientation, and confusion. For this reason it is essential to prepare well in advance for the moment when the mind and body separate.”

    0 responses
  • Once Jarvis said, “People always talk about their perfect meditation cushions, and sometimes I think it would be nice to have one, but maybe people without a cushion are luckier.” She asked him to explain. “I’ve never had a cushion in my life,” he said. “I’ve been on the cold, hard floor. It’s not comfortable, but it’s like the lady in the story, the one who knocked on a thousand doors. One hundred fifty years of pain in San Quentin has been absorbed into these floors. You talk about experiencing the suffering of all people. This is where it is, and I feel it all.”

    0 responses
  • The lama spoke again. “You may not understand now, but it is your karma to be here,” he said. “I said you are fortunate. As hard as it is to accept, this is where you have to be now. You may not see it, but you are fortunate to be in a place where you can know humanity’s suffering and learn to see the perfection of all beings and yourself. Learn to see their perfection.”

    0 responses
  • After that Jarvis was placed in nine foster homes and three boys’ homes, including some in which he was starved, beaten, and kept in squalor. At thirteen, he was moved from the foster care system into the division of juvenile justice, where the brutal treatment escalated. When he was arrested for petty crimes—stealing a bicycle, joyriding—he was placed in youth detention centers, where he was subjected to more beatings, burned, locked in closets, and made to pummel other boys. If he refused, counselors beat him harder.

    0 responses
  • Lisa had once likened his cell in San Quentin to a monk’s cell in a state-sponsored retreat. She was joking, but he reflected on it again now. “It’s true,” he said. “It’s been a place to contemplate and study, to sit with all these new ideas and turn them around in my head and practice integrating them into my life. I never would have done any of that. I wouldn’t have looked at my past, that scary shit—I’d still be running from it.”

    0 responses
  • the truth is, the sentence saved my life. I’d be dead. Literally dead.” “Why would you be dead?” she asked. “If I wasn’t in that monk’s cell all those years, I would have been on that same path, and it led to one place. I’d have been killed or”—he paused and rubbed his eyes—“or have killed someone. I couldn’t have kept going if I did that.

    0 responses
  • “My old self died. The person who was desensitized, numb, dead.” He looked upward. “And from that death… it’s like I became someone new. I’m becoming someone new.” Lisa countered, “You’re becoming who you really are. You’re discovering your true nature.”

    0 responses
  • By then Jarvis had learned that Buddhism was filled with paradoxes and contradictions that messed with his mind. Sometimes it seemed as if those paradoxes were beyond his comprehension, but the mind is much more capacious than we think. He reveled in a fresh paradox: the death sentence that could kill him had given him life.

    0 responses
  • When he told Lisa about the night of the execution, Jarvis said he finally understood the power of meditation. There wasn’t much in his life he could control, but he recalled Melody once saying, “Jarvis, you can control your mind.” He hadn’t fully understood what that meant, but now he did. He could control his mind. He understood what Rinpoche had given him: a lifeline. He held on, and it got him through the ache and fear caused by Harris’s death. But even meditation itself produced wildly varying results. Sometimes he arose from the lotus position feeling a kind of serenity he’d never known. Other times he emerged feeling fragile and tender. Still other times he became lost in dark caves and emerged feeling depleted, feverish, and scared.

    0 responses
  • I don’t think too many prisoners would live under the boots of their misery if they knew that the amount of work is the same to make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. And when we do, we can free ourselves without leaving our cells.

    0 responses
  • Like Chagdud Tulku, she practiced Vajrayana Buddhism, and she appreciated the way Jarvis hadn’t simply adopted that tradition but had adapted it to who and where he was.

    0 responses
  • 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.”

    0 responses
  • 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.

    0 responses
  • We chip away a piece at a time. To free ourselves, we have to keep going, to go deeper.

    0 responses
  • “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.”

    0 responses
  • 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?’ ”

    0 responses
  • 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.

    0 responses
  • We’re all doing time. We’re all in prison. We’re all on death row. And we can all free ourselves.

    0 responses
  • 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.”

    0 responses
  • 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.

    0 responses
  • 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

    0 responses