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Quote of the Week: Jarvis Jay Masters

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I don’t have much typing speed today because my fingers are recovering from some dog bites, the result of an instinctive (and not so smart) move to try to break up two fighting dogs. As one friend said, peacemaking can be risky!

No one knows this better than Jarvis Masters, the Buddhist practitioner and San Quentin inmate from whom this week’s quote comes.

Jarvis has spent the past 29 years (since he was 19 years old) in San Quentin, one of California’s highest security prisons. For many of those years, he has been on Death Row, though he did not murder anyone. (You can read more about his story here.)

Jarvis began studying Buddhism while incarcerated and in 1989 took vows from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He also practiced writing during his time inside as well, and is the author of two books: Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row, and That Bird Has My Wings.

Jarvis is one of the best writers I know. I had the honor of corresponding with him when I edited The Mindfulness Bell and Turning Wheel and appreciated the kindness in his letters to me. His life has not been easy, but he’s put himself wholeheartedly into it, whether he is being a peacemaker with other inmates, joking with his guards, or sitting in his cell. He brings his Buddhist practice and mindfulness to every situation, surely one of the most challenging settings in which to be an ‘engaged Buddhist.’

This comes from Jarvis’ first book, Finding Freedom:

When I first entered the gates of San Quentin in the winter of 1981, I walked across the upper yard holding a box called a “fish-kit” filled with my prison-issued belongings. I saw the faces of hundreds who had already made the prison their home. I watched them stare at me with piercing eyes, their faces rugged and their beards of different shades-all dressed in prison blue jeans and worn, torn coats-some leaning against the chain fences, cigarettes hanging from their lips, others with dark glasses covering their eyes.

I will never forget when the steel cell door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the darkness trying to fix my eyes and readjust the thoughts that were telling me that this was not home-that this tiny space would not, could not be where I would spend more than a decade of my life. My mind kept saying, “No! Hell no!” I thought again of the many prisoners I had seen moments ago standing on the yard, so old and accustomed to their fates….

After the first days had passed, I decided to decorate my walls with photographs from the National Geographic magazines. The landscapes of Malaysia and other parts of the world had enormous beauty, and I gladly pasted photos of them everywhere. These small representations of life helped me to imagine the world beyond prison walls.

Over the years, I collected books and even acquired a television and radio-windows to the outside world. And I pasted many thousands of photographs on the wall. The one that has made my prison home most like a sanctuary to me is a small photograph of a Buddhist saint that a very dear friend sent to me. It has been in the center of my wall for a number of years.

I now begin every day with the practice of meditation, seated on the cold morning floor, cushioned only by my neatly folded blanket. Welcoming the morning light, I realize, like seeing through clouds, that home is wherever the heart can be found.


If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

3 responses »

  1. Thank you for this amazing quote. I was so deeply moved.
    He and anyone else in his prison sangha will be in my prayers.


  2. Hi Valerie,

    You’re so welcome. Yes, Jarvis is an amazing practitioner. If you get a chance, read one of his books, which are incredibly inspiring for those of us on the ‘outside.’


  3. G cartwright

    I have just finished reading of this amazing life. It was an education to me just what life was life for urban black people and how difficult it was to separate from your family, even though you know it is not good. Love is the only balance in our lives, but it came from bad places for Jarvis. The book I have just read is enough for the American Justice System to realise that this is a person who should be held up as someone who has been Blessed.



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