Jarvis Jay Masters, an innocent man on California’s Death Row, met his first Buddhist teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, in 1991, in a non-contact visiting booth at San Quentin State Prison, separated by an inch of grimy plexiglass and speaking to each other through a telephone. In those unusual circumstances, Chagdud Rinpoche transmitted the Three Refuges and Bodhisattva Precepts to a man who had already demonstrated his dedication to repentance, to renewal, and to practice.
Rinpoche told Jarvis to help all people as much as he could. And he repeated a very difficult teaching: “You are fortunate and death row is a gift. As hard as it is to accept, you have to be here for the time being.” Jarvis wrestled with this teaching for a time. But on reflection he told a Dharma friend: “There’s no doubt what would have happened. I would have stayed on my destructive course and might have been dead by now. The truth is, that sentence saved my life.”
The Jarvis Masters I know, my friend for more than 20 years, lives on San Quentin’s East Block, known as Death Row, since his death sentence was pronounced 32 years ago. In total, Masters has spent 41 of his 60 years in San Quentin—with a terrible irony, living on the scene of the very crime for which he was wrongly convicted.
Perhaps, as Chagdud Rinpoche said, death row is a difficult kind of gift. That time has passed slowly for an innocent man. Throughout these many years in San Quentin, Masters has reached out to the wider world, to young people at risk, to educators, to other prisoners, to advocates for prison reform and racial justice, and to fellow Buddhist practitioners around the world. His voice is thoughtful, passionate, and clear.
Behind bars, Masters has become an award-winning author of two books and numerous stories, poems, and op-ed pieces. His first book, Finding Freedom: How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart, was issued in a new edition by Shambhala in 2020. That same year, best-selling author David Sheff published a biography of Masters: The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place (Simon & Schuster).
Oprah Winfrey selected his memoir That Bird Has My Wings as her Book Club pick for September 2022. To hear Jarvis and Oprah speak about his case, his writing, and his work, listen to this 47-minute interview:
After more than three decades in a windowless 2.7 x 1.2-meter cell, Masters continues to fight for justice, working to prove his innocence and secure his exoneration. His story is heartbreaking, but the ending has not yet been written—the part where he walks out from the prison walls and offers his gifts in freedom. This is what Masters, his friends, and supporters are working for. The time has come for justice and freedom for Jarvis Masters.
Masters is fortunate to have a first-rate legal team from Kirkland and Ellis, who are representing him pro bono in US federal court for his federal appeal on issues of prosecutorial misconduct, questionable evidence, false testimony, and actual innocence. At this point, his lawyers and the California Attorney General’s Office have filed their respective briefs, and a United States District Court judge is currently weighing the arguments before ruling on his case.
I have great faith in Jarvis Masters, in his innocence, and in the wisdom and compassion that he has to offer our world. I consider him to be one of my teachers, demonstrating the power of Buddhist practice even as life and death hang in the balance. Over all the years I have know him, Masters has demonstrated his essential sanity in the face of life on the line. I wish you could know him as I do and share my commitment to freedom and justice for Jarvis, and for all those unjustly locked away in the prisons and suffering fields of this saha world.
Click here for updates and information about Jarvis Masters’ life,
his case, and the state of his federal appeal
Hozan Alan Senauke
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