by Jarvis Masters from Turning Wheel Magazine
When I was offered the chance to receive a spiritual empowerment by a Buddhist Tibetan Lama, the first feeling I remember was one of being undeserving. The came fear at the thought of this ceremony being done where I was, in a violent state prison – San Quentin.I was only a beginner in Buddhism. Through corresponding with people on the outside I had learned how to practice Buddhist meditation. I was, for me, a quiet practice that I kept to myself. To the extent that I could, I kept it secret from my fellow prisoners and the prison guards.
After eight years of incarceration, I felt a real fear of calling myself a Buddhist and of being seen by my fellow prisoners in a lotus position,praying or meditating. I was especially afraid of being seen receiving an empowerment. While my heart cherished this opportunity, other voices inside me questioned the ceremony. Could this be just a phase that I was going through? Would I later betray myself and the sacredness of this empowerment?
Was I a Buddhist? Would I take vows that would eventually call upon me to sacrifice my life? How would I resist all the violence of the prison? In prison, no one believes that conversion to religion is real. Most prisoners think that anyone who catches a sudden belief in a religion is playing a game of conning their way out of the system.I had spent almost a year overcoming these doubts, one by one, through my practice and through the teachings of Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, the Lama from whom I would receive my empowerment. Yet somehow they had all reappeared on the morning of the ceremony. Sitting on the floor of my cell trying to meditate, I was scared. The prison echoed the voices of hundreds of prisoners, cursing and arguing all at once.
I just sat still, repeating the prayer of the Red Tara. “Illustrious Tara, please be aware of me, remove my obstacles and quickly grant my excellent aspiration.” With each repetition I would search within my Tara prayer for the divine strength to dispel all my worries, to prepare me to openly accept my empowerment, to help me embrace this day of my first proclamation of Buddhism. But despite this prayer, I wanted to keep my practice secret, so it would remain pure in my heart when I sat in meditation. I wanted to protect the most tranquil hour of my prison life. I had only met Rinpoche once before. I had been deeply touched by the first unexpected visit of his to San Quentin to see me. The rules of the prison allowed us to speak only by phone in a small visiting booth, through a glass window. During the visit, I had felt the warmth in the Rinpoche’s heart just by looking at him, and a trust in the Rinpoche’s words. I Hoped that through his showing me how to practice in prison, I would one day be able to openly receive my empowerment.
Now I felt fortunate to be sitting on the floor on my cell awaiting this opportunity. I remembered what someone had said to me long ago: “All you need is a pure heart. It’s what in you heart that counts the most. Quietly listen for it.” That is what I was doing.
It was noon on the day of the ceremony when my name was called out. A guard handcuffed me and escorted me to the visiting building of the prison. I repeated to myself the prayer of Tara as I went, right up to the moment my eyes met the Rinpoche’s, for the second time in my life.
I sat down facing the Rinpoche with a glass window between us. With him was Tsering, on of his close students, who was there to translate for him. Melody, a friend and Buddhist herself, was also there to celebrate this experience with me. We greeted each other warmly and joyfully as other prisoners’ visitors looked on.I picked up the phone. Tsering already held the phone on their side of the booth. With a bright loving smile on her face, she asked how I was doing.I smiled back a reassured them that I was doing fine. We were all smiling. Tsering then turned to Lama Rinpoche to receive his words. She looked back at me. “The Rinpoche is asking if your mind is clear.” “Yes,” I replied.
Jarvis Masters writes from Death Row at San Quentin Prison. He can be contacted at C-35169, Tamal, CA 94974