The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Boy explores the transformation of Jarvis Jay Masters who has become one of America’s most inspiring Buddhist practitioners while locked in a cell on death row.
Jarvis Jay Masters’s early life was a horror story whose outline we know too well. Born in Long Beach, California, his house was filled with crack, alcohol, physical abuse, and men who paid his mother for sex. He and his siblings were split up and sent to foster care when he was five, and he progressed quickly to juvenile detention, car theft, armed robbery, and ultimately San Quentin. While in prison, he was set up for the murder of a guard—a conviction which landed him on death row, where he’s been since 1990.
At the time of his murder trial, he was held in solitary confinement, torn by rage and anxiety, felled by headaches, seizures, and panic attacks. A criminal investigator repeatedly offered to teach him breathing exercises which he repeatedly refused. Until desperation moved him to ask her how to do “that meditation shit.” With uncanny clarity, David Sheff describes Masters’s gradual but profound transformation from a man dedicated to hurting others to one who has prevented violence on the prison yard, counseled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners—and even guards—find meaning in their lives.
Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the principles that Buddhism espouses—compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment—and he gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide, including many of the faith’s most renowned practitioners. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he is a renowned Buddhist thinker who shows us how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.
Sheff (Beautiful Boy) draws from research and personal correspondence to tell the stirring story of Jarvis Jay Masters, a convicted murderer awaiting execution on California's death row who converted to Buddhism and has found a kind of freedom despite the death sentence looming over him. Masters was 19 years old when he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to California's San Quentin State Prison in 1981. Nine years later, he was convicted of the murder of a prison guard and sentenced to death. After being advised by a criminal investigator working on his case to perform breathing exercises to help with anxiety, Masters became interested in Buddhism. He discovered that practicing the faith allowed him to change the ways he related to himself and to others, and Sheff captures the difficult, powerful realizations Masters gained as a result of his practice ("Buddhism is about how we're all the same, in this world together, struggling. Life is hard for everyone we're all suffering together"), leading him to become a comforting, beneficial presence to his fellow inmates. In an epilogue, Sheff asks readers to consider how one's perspective can turn a situation of "sadness, pain, and regret" into "light and joy and love." This Buddhist Dead Man Walking will pull at the heartstrings of any reader. (May}