Book Review: The Buddhist on Death Row – David Sheff

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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.


It has taken me many attempts to write this review of The Buddhist on Death Row. I found it so enlightening and moving that it feels like anything I write will not do the book justice.

The story of Jarvis Masters isn’t just about discovering Buddhism. It is a social commentary on race, equality, social mobility, and a host of other societal factors that means Masters, and many others like him, end up locked up in prisons like San Quentin rather than being provided with opportunities to change their lives. Masters himself was only 19 when he was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison. An adult in the eyes of the law, but barely adult in the eyes of anyone who remembers what it was like to be 19.

It might sound cliched, but Masters’ story is inspirational. He clearly still has his ups and downs, but harnesses meditation to not only to understand his own past and present, but to also help his fellow inmates. It is about being in the present, in the moment – because at that time, it’s the only place you can be.

You don’t have to be interested in Buddhism to read this book. Read it because it needs to be read. Put it on the list for your book club. Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

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Wishing you a wonderfully bookish week,


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