An Interview with Buddhist Author & Death Row Inmate Jarvis Jay Masters.
Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes.
Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was.
Born in 1962, in Long Beach, California, Jarvis was one of his mother Cynthia’s seven children.
All of Cynthia’s children were raised in foster care because she was addicted to drugs. Jarvis’s father had left the family and later he too became an addict. Before the age of five, Jarvis witnessed a great deal of violence and instability, of which he’s written.
In a series of foster placements, Jarvis was separated from his siblings. For several years, he stayed in his favorite home with an elderly couple he loved. But when they became too old to care for him, he was moved again, at the age of nine. After that, Jarvis ran away from several foster homes, always returning to the elderly people’s house. He was then sent to the county’s large locked facility for dependent children, and later to some more group homes. Once, he stayed with an aunt for a while in a poverty-stricken public housing project, but he got into trouble. At 12, he became a ward of the court because of delinquency, and was in and out of institutions after that. At his death penalty trial, several people who worked in such places testified that they recalled him as a smart and articulate youngster with a sense of humor and a lot of potential. But too many times, he was pushed—and he went—in the wrong direction.
At the age of 17, when he was an angry young man, he was released from the California Youth Authority and went on a crime spree, holding up stores and restaurants until he was captured and sent to San Quentin. He never shot anyone, but he did threaten his victims with a gun. He has been in San Quentin since the age of 19.
The Jarvis Jay Masters Interview
CG: So man, here you are on San Quentin’s Death Row, an obviously innocent man. I mean, it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that you’re innocent. And you’ve taken your bodhisattva vows under the horrendous circumstances you find yourself faced with on a daily basis. I’m trying to wrap my head around that experience. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for you. Like really making peace with where you’re at and knowing you shouldn’t be there.
I’m curious about what your mental and emotional experience is regarding all of this while you’re there?
JJM: There’s a place inside me where there’s so many things going on that I could go crazy. The years I’ve been in here. There’s so many people, the lives I haven’t been present for. There’s a lot of people who don’t realize or understand why I’m down there. I know you can relate to it with all you’ve been through.
CG: Yeah man, of course.
JJM: So the bodhisattva vows for me has been one of the things that gave me a direction and how I was going to use that to sustain myself through all these years. But it’s also looking around, I notice that in many ways I feel blessed. My sanity is here, my health is here, my sight. All the things that I have real good reason to feel blessed about. I just see so much violence and so much pain that it’s hard for me to not feel blessed in some way. But at the same time man, I’m here and I know what happened with this case. I know how it happened and what it was that made it happen. So how I deal with this? I just accept the fact that this is going to take a lot longer than I hoped, or ever thought it would. What else can I do, you know?
CG: Sure. Sure.
JJM: I’ve been here 31, 32 years man and when people ask me about that, my first response is, “this is way I’m looking at it, from the outside” probably the same way you’re used to looking at it from, right?
CG: Yeah man. Sometimes, when I just couldn’t take it anymore, there was no other way for me to look at it.
JJM: Sure, and the person in those situations that is normal, they’d hang themselves. So, I really think there’s something there that has not allowed me to accept the possibility that I won’t get out. The vows though, they keep me in communication with my practice and people who are related to that practice. They’re what sustain me, and what allows me to grow from that experience. But I’m not always like that. Hell man, I curse and do all the other stuff everyone else does. I know how funny it is to me and how strange it is to other people, but one of the things I’ve learned to get along with everybody is that you don’t have to react to the actions of everybody. There’s a lot of sick people out there. There’s cancer and all these other various sicknesses that their lives are going to be cut short from. I don’t have that, so, I don’t have that complaint. I don’t have those issues, I don’t have the guilt or nightmares that so many of the people I live around do, so I feel blessed in that way. I’ve got spiritual teachers and all kinds of people who are willing to help, there’s people who are there for me. But I’m still responsible to sustain myself at the same time.
CG: Sure, but knowing that you’re there, unjustly imprisoned, how do you hold compassion in your heart towards the prosecution and others who’ve kept you there?
JJM: Hey man, for me, I knew I was trying to find language so, I became Buddhist and I started working on myself. It’s not like you become Buddhist and immediately have amazing revelations or anything, at least it wasn’t like that for me. I’m not too into the formal practice. My thing is being out there working with people. But to answer that question, and a lot of people don’t like this answer, but for me they didn’t get it right. They made a mistake. They didn’t get it right and that’s why I live on this rock, and we need to fix this thing. I just think that somehow, we got to fix this thing and I need to humbly ask for help to fix it. In an environment like this, everyone here hates the DA, but it’s not about me holding ill feelings towards them, because they don’t care, so who’s going to care? I need to take care of myself and that’s where I’m at.
CG: So speaking about your case, Kathrin (Jarvis’s wife) was explaining to me that it’s reopened and that’s amazing. Is there even a hint of some kind of realistic possible earliest release date for you if everything happens the way it should?
JJM: I swear I thought it was yesterday, I thought it was last month. What the Dharma is teaching me is to try and prepare for the outcome. Work on the outcome. Don’t look this way or that way, work on being able to look at how I’ll go on with any decision and that’s a hard thing to do man. I’m always ready to get out of here. My practice is on staying centered, but I’m ready to get out of here. So any realistic dates? Man, I don’t know if this was part of your experience with jail or rehab, but they don’t know how to let people go.
CG: I’ve been fortunate to never done any serious time so I haven’t experienced it first hand, but I know exactly what you’re saying.
JJM: They apologize when there’s an outcry and this mistake is very obvious, or DNA was discovered, something that can’t hold you and they can’t blame themselves for, but they don’t know how to let you out. There’s no game plan for “He’s innocent so what do we do now?” So they don’t know how to do this in a way that they’re not embarrassed, or a way that shows that the judicial system didn’t work because they’re always going to believe that it works. So in order for you to get out, you have to disprove all of that and that’s a big hurdle. I had some of the most conservative, Supreme Court Justices put me in the position I’m in right now and they’re what’s wrong with this case. The more liberal judges have given me the chance for my case to be re-opened and completely overturned. What gets me the most is though is how long it’s taking. They say they’re gonna do it after Christmas or something but they don’t recognize they’re keeping an innocent human being locked up until after Christmas. They do it on their own schedule.
They don’t see the human being I am that they’re keeping in prison while they’re doing their own thing. They don’t see that they’re keeping my wife in prison at the same time, so they keep your family in prison but they don’t see that. It’s like, “Hey Chris I’ll be on vacation through Christmas and then I’m going to take a few weeks off” and that’s taking time out of my life and that’s what confuses me, that’s my real issue. Even the lawyers don’t understand how many days they take out of your life when they can do something but they keep putting it off, and that hurts. I have a family, I’m married and it hurts. I was telling my wife a couple of days ago, that I can take a roll of toilet paper, smash it down, put it on the floor and I can use it as a pillow and sleep on it all night, because I’m used to being down there. I can’t accept that condition as long as I have other people to care for though. That changed the whole system for me. Having people I have to care for, people who are waiting on me, things waiting for me on the outside.
CG: That literally makes my stomach turn hearing it. To say it’s a shame would be the understatement of the year. With all that I can only begin to imagine you’ve seen throughout your life, I wanted to ask you what one of the most shocking as well as one of the most beautiful experiences in your life has been. I know you’ve gone into detail about so many things, both wonderful and traumatic in both Finding Freedom and That Bird Has My Wings, but is there something particular that stands out to you above everything else?
JJM: Well, I remember when I went to my empowerment thinking about how similar it was to when someone is on their way to be executed. I mean, these two guards came to my cell and asked me, Are you ready? Do you have everything you need? Then they walked me down one of the tiers, and in that atmosphere, even though there was noise around me, it was silent. It was silent because I had prepared to see this teacher. I’d done my meditation and prayers that morning, the same thing one would do before they left to have their life taken from them. And I was scared, because I was going to have that empowerment, but a part of me experienced it as if I was going to be executed. I was scared, I’d done those practices, I had guards come get me to make me down the tier, and I knew so much about the process of life and death and how that works. So as I was walking down the tier, I was reciting the Red Tara Prayer and I’d never done anything like that before.
I was brought into the visiting area and the first thing I saw was a big glass window and a chair and I immediately thought, “This is so weird, it’s getting a little crazy right now. This is a trip.” So I sat in the chair and Rinpoche, my teacher asks me, How am I doing? Am I okay? Am I ready for this? And my response, which scared me the most was, “I’m okay. I’m ready for this.” Those words seemed to be filled with fear and shock as my mind was still relating them to the experience of execution. So I tried to play it off like I wasn’t thinking about any of that, but man, it was a trip. Once I started doing the empowerment, my mindset began to shift. I realized how blessed I was to have that glass window in front of me with people asking me serious questions, and Melody standing there with a pen and paper writing everything down. As the ceremony went on, Rinpoche asked me to close my eyes as he told me he was giving me things I could take with me, things that in a way were offering me my life back, things that will bring me to a place where I have a chance to be with the Dharma and not give it up. I thought to myself about the fact that this was all especially important because I’d just experienced the fear of execution, and the next thing I knew, I felt great.
So man, I remember thinking that was some funny shit to me at that time, like wow, this is like some voodoo stuff. It was a weird experience and I’m not going to pretend like I’d just seen Christ and been baptized, because it wasn’t like that. After it was over, I had the fear of not wanting to tell people about it, you know, telling people I’d become a Buddhist in the joint. So then, I had this really nice secret that didn’t interfere with anything. It just pushed me along without having to reflect on some idea that I didn’t become instantly enlightened. It felt good that I had this really big secret, that I was a Buddhist and that I could feel good about it. So that’s how I looked at that experience and then, I began to wonder what’s it all about, all of this? So this question easy to answer because I’ve always felt that fear and joy and I’ve seen them move so fast. Within an hour I felt an extreme of both those experiences and I said wow to one, and I said wow to another, and I didn’t feel connected to myself, but rather, I felt like it was okay, that they were both things I now had in my life.
CG: So it’s obvious you’ve more than made the best of your 31 years there. I mean, you impacted friggin’ Pema Chodron (laughing), a woman who’s also been an amazing teacher for so many people, myself included. I mean she even came out to visit you right?
JJM: Yeah, she usually comes out maybe twice a year to visit.
CG: Wow man, that’s amazing. I remember listening to one of her audio books years ago and she talked about you, and your book, and I was captivated. The funny thing is that even though I forgot to follow up on getting Finding Freedom at that time, the universe still collaborated and had a stranger give it to me in rehab, funny how things work out.
So speaking of Pema, I’m curious about how the two of you first connected?
JJM: Well for me, Pema is the type of gentle person who I love in so many ways. There are times I don’t see her as a teacher, times where I see her as a mother, you know? She laughs in a way that the common person laughs and I love that I have the opportunity to live in that space with her. She actually married Kathrin and I—she did our marriage ceremony—so I have that sort of close relationship with her. As for how we first met though, man, I don’t remember exactly. I think she was giving a teaching in Sonoma maybe, and someone gave her a copy of Finding Freedom so she read it and asked one of the people who work with her to write me and ever since then, we’ve been really close and she’s taught me a lot. She’s given me so much perspective and so many teachings. She’s just a beautiful person. I have to laugh a lot of the time at how blessed I am to know her as a person and not just a teacher. It’s great to know her when she’s eating a candy bar, because she does eat candy bars (laughing) and that’s cool for me. She’s definitely like a mom to me too man, especially when I’m not doing my practice. When she recognizes I’m not doing my practices, she comes down on me man, she can be strict and authoritative and she puts me back in my place. So she’s really serious in that area and I love how she gives me the caring discipline that she does. I wish I’d had that 30 years ago, but I have it now and I’m blessed by her, and so many other people. I’m starting to feel blessed by talking to you man and how you’re helping me, it means a lot.
CG: So in closing I wanted to ask, with all that you’ve been through, what are some of the greatest spiritual realizations or life lessons you’ve had thus far? And how have they shaped your understanding of what this human experience is all about.
JJM: That’s something we’ll probably figure out in the last breath we take, what this is all about. For me personally, I believe that there’s a reason for what we go through in our lives, for what we suffer, gain and benefit as we come to experience—form our own sense of awareness―an appreciation for life. So for me, every time I wish something else in my life had happened, I’ve benefited from it not happening. What I mean is, I don’t know how Finding Freedom could have been written if I’d been released when I originally was supposed to. There’s so many things that happen to people, that happen to me, and we can look back and say I’m glad I didn’t do this or, I’m glad I did that or even, I’m glad I’m able to think about this. Those are the things that if they were any different, you or I may have had some other experiences. I wouldn’t have met my teacher or written Finding Freedom and That Bird Has My Wings and many other things, had I not been put on death row. That’s a strange thing to me and I’ll forever try to understand it. It’s something that will haunt me for the rest of my life—asking myself how I’m making sense of it.
So far, my conclusion is, why do I need to make sense of it? What am I doing with my life now and how about making sense of that. A lot of regrets become benefits and a lot of benefits become regrets. I don’t think this conversation would have happened if something else would have happened. If I hadn’t written my books, we wouldn’t be talking. So how do I try to appreciate writing those books and finding our connection being what it is today? It’s hard for me to try and figure this stuff out man and I keep coming to the conclusion where I ask myself, when I figure it out, what am I gonna do with it? When I figure it out, what do I plan on saying about it?
It doesn’t matter and it does matter (laughing). So we spend all this time trying to make sense out of things but what about right now. What’s really important in your life that you’re trying to understand? That’s something that keeps my wheels rolling though. It’s like, hey man, I was able to talk to this guy because I’m here, I was able to talk to this person because I’m here, I’m able to write to someone because I’m here. I know it’ll be the same thing when I get out of here, too. I’ve had the experience of being in prison and being on death row so I’ll be able to talk to people, help others and speak in classrooms. So all our benefits are motivations that we’re really inclined to try and live throughout our lives.
Read my first article about Jarvis: “How a Buddhist on Death Row Helped Save My Life.”
For more information on Jarvis and his case, please visit www.freejarvis.org.
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger977 views