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.
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, counselled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners -and even guards – find meaning in their lives.
Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the Buddhist principles – compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment -and gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he shows us all how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.
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