The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff
Good books make the reader think; great books make the reader rethink – and that is exactly what The Buddhist on Death Row does. The multifaceted biography, written by David Sheff (of Beautiful Boy) weaves together Buddhist teachings, an exposé on criminal injustice and, centrally, a deeply profound profile of a deeply profound man.
Sheff tells the story of Jarvis Jay Masters, imprisoned for a string of armed robberies and, as Masters claims, falsely convicted of conspiring to kill a prison guard and sent to death row. According to judges, prison guards and, at times, Masters himself, he is a man society wishes did not exist. As he grapples with his guilt, confinement and ever-approaching mortality, he turns to Buddhism and writing as tools to help him make meaning out of his life.
The book moves mostly chronologically through Jarvis’s life, though Shef is an expert at moving fluidly through time as though he is pushing back curtains to new views. As the reader builds a connection with the inmate, they also grow with him, reckoning with Buddhist principles that are as applicable to the reader as they are to someone on death row.
The Buddhist on Death Row is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Rather than searching for the absolutes, Sheff finds the beauty in unanswerable questions and paradoxes. As Jarvis learns to stop searching for the black-and-white, so, too, does the reader: how does one balance compassion and self-care? How can we accept our universal death sentences, in addition to the unique suffering and joy that each of our lives brings? Neither Sheff nor Jarvis, nor the string of Buddhist instructors whose complex teachings can inspire all, can provide a solution, but all parties raise thought-provoking reasoning.
“I may be sentenced to death, and I’m sitting here breathing,” explains Jarvis to Sheff. Though Jarvis once found that thought discouraging, he grows to realise the simple profundity of that statement. This man’s story shows that progress is never linear, that mindfulness and purposeful presence can have life-changing effects, and that one can always help oneself and others, no matter where they are. The Buddhist on Death Row is a masterful, exquisitely written and beautifully composed book that is sure to leave readers rethinking their own approach to life.
Photo: Bart Nagel
The Buddhist on Death Row is published by HarperCollins at the paperback price of £9.99, and is available in the UK on 26th May 2022. For further information visit here. To support Jarvis and learn more about his case, visit here.