Summary and book reviews of The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff

The Buddhist on Death Row

How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

by David Sheff

The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff X
The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff
  • Critics' Opinion:

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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 15, 2021, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Book Summary

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Boy explores the transformation of Jarvis Jay Masters who has become one of America's most inspiring Buddhist practitioners while locked in a cell on death row.

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 to ask her how to do "that meditation shit." 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, counseled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners—and even guards—find meaning in their lives.

Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the principles that Buddhism espouses—compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment—and he gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide, including many of the faith's most renowned practitioners. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he is a renowned Buddhist thinker who shows us how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.

BORN USELESS

In the spring of 1986, Melody Ermachild ventured inside the imposing brick-and-stone edifice of San Quentin State Prison to meet her new client, Jarvis Jay Masters, a twenty-four-year-old African American kid from Harbor City, California. Masters had arrived at San Quentin five years earlier after being convicted of thirteen counts of armed robbery and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He'd subsequently been charged with conspiring to kill a prison guard and making the knife used in the murder. He had been moved to the Adjustment Center—solitary confinement—and was now on trial. If he was found guilty, he could be put to death.

Masters wore a navy blue knit cap pulled down to his eyes. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, and barely acknowledged her. She explained that she was a criminal investigator hired by his legal team to write a social history of his life. If he was convicted, they hoped her report would help his lawyers ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Carefully mining Masters' pilgrimage through Buddhism, Sheff effectively reveals the religion as a tranquil partner to the incarcerated man in his struggles through legal and personal challenges: trying to prove his innocence, reconciling his violent past. Page after page, chapter after chapter, the reader is asked to reconsider, not prison, but the prisoner. To reconsider his soul. His divinity. His selflessness. A Buddhist on Death Row is a prison story notably absent of blame, victimization and absolution. Perhaps that is why Masters' humanity feels heroic, particularly when he extends himself to those who are non-believers...continued

Full Review Members Only (615 words).

(Reviewed by Valerie Morales).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An indelible portrait of an incarcerated man finding new life and purpose behind bars.

Library Journal
This readable account of an unlikely journey to Buddhism and finding freedom on death row should inspire readers on their own transformational journeys.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Sheff draws from research and personal correspondence to tell the stirring story of Jarvis Jay Masters...This Buddhist Dead Man Walking will pull at the heartstrings of any reader.

Author Blurb His Holiness the Dalai Lama
This book shows vividly how, even in the face of the greatest adversity, compassion and a warm-hearted concern for others bring peace and inner strength.

Author Blurb Andrew Solomon, author of New York Times bestseller Far From the Tree
An inspiring book about how meaning can be found even in—perhaps especially in—adversity. It's a study of Buddhism, of criminal justice, of the ways people connect with each other, and it's written with deep feeling and verve.

Author Blurb Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
This profound, gorgeous book displays the miraculous human capacity to find redemption, and even joy, no matter who or where we are. Jarvis Masters' story proves that we are all united by our suffering and by our potential to help others who suffer.

Author Blurb Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me
I'm a friend of Jarvis Masters, so I know the truth of this book, but I want to hail its power. I believe it will encourage many people to examine their own lives and their unrealized potential for awareness, generosity, commitment, and courage.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Trauma and Abuse in Foster Care

Jarvis Jay Masters was five years old when he was taken from his overwhelmed mother and placed with foster parents Mamie and Dennis Procks. They bestowed upon him the kind of luxuries middle class children take for granted. He had his own room, his own toys and clean clothes. His sheets were even ironed. More importantly, he wasn't neglected, abused or refused love. But when Mamie Procks became ill and could no longer care for him, he was moved. Again and again and again. While the Procks had extended love and mercy, kindness and laughter, goodness and warmth, his other foster families denied him food and beat him for small infractions. He ended up in juvenile lockup, where he was forced to fight, burned with cigarettes and sadistically ...

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