September 21, 2017
Jarvis Becomes a Buddhist

Red Tara Comes to San Quentin: Taking Buddhist Vows in Prison

Jarvis Masters is a prisoner on Death Row in San Quentin. His story, "Joe Bob Listens," appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Turning Wheel. In 1989 he took his vows as a Tibetan Buddhist from the Tibetan teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, in prison. The following story of Jarvis's "empowerment ceremony" is told in different parts. The introductory section is by Melody Ermachild, a Buddhist herself and a member of his legal team, who arranged for the Rinpoche's visit. This is followed by Jarvis's narration of the visit, and inserted into it is Melody's transcription of what the Rinpoche said during the ceremony itself.

Introduction to Jarvis Masters' Empowerment Ceremony by Melody Ermachild

When I got a call telling me that Chagdud Rinpoche would be able to come to San Quentin Prison to perform an empowerment ceremony for Jarvis Masters, one of my inmate clients, I rushed up to the prison to let him know that it would be the next day, so he could prepare himself.

Jarvis's first reaction was fear. He wanted me to call and cancel the plan. He felt unworthy. I said that if he did not deserve the ceremony, if he was not a worthy person, no Tibetan Lamas would be coming around to see him. Just relax, I said. Just allow this good thing to happen. It will benefit you. Maybe the fact that you feel unworthy is a good thing, since the ceremony involves a lot of confession of wrongdoing. I think it's good you're scared, anyone would be. It shows you are taking it seriously. This is not happening on your schedule. You are just here. The Rinpoche is an old old man, he is ill, he is often not even in America. He happens to be nearby and ready to come to you tomorrow, so tomorrow is the day. So many things can still go wrong. If it happens at all it will be a miracle.

The associate warden had already denied the request for the ceremony to take place inside a locked room, where the Lama would have been able to touch Jarvis. Unlike Catholic and Jewish baptisms, this Buddhist ceremony is not recognized by the Department of Corrections. The ceremony would have to take place through a glass window. The Rinpoche would not be able to bring into the prison any of the sacred objects with which he usually does the ceremony. On my way out, I asked the friendly older man who guards the visiting room if he would please give us the far telephone the next day in order to afford us some privacy. I told him that a real Tibetan Lama was coming to the prison. He said he had seen the movie, The Golden Child. "Is it going to be sort of like that?" he joked. "Is Eddie Murphy coming too?"

I arrived at the prison to find the Rinpoche and his interpreter, Tsering Everest, waiting on a hard bench in the crowded hallway outside the door to the visiting office. The hallway was jammed with waiting visitors, smoking, talking loudly, babies crying. The Rinpoche sat quietly, touching the beads of his rosary with his brown wrinkled fingers, his bright eyes taking in everything around him. He was quite a sight, in his floor-length burgundy skirt and his grey topknot and grey frizzled beard. As the noon hour time for the door to be opened grew closer, the crowd, which had been waiting since early morning, grew more tense. The Rinpoche himself had waited two hours. Right in front of him, two young women began to berate an older man in a loud dispute over their place in line. They cursed in vulgar street language, while the Rinpoche watched quietly.

With several people in line listening to him, the Rinpoche told a story of a Chinese prison in Tibet. He said the Chinese made thousands of Tibetans dig deep holes. The hole was the prison of the person digging it. In the hole they were fed, in the hole they slept, exposed to rain or cold. In the hole they died, and the hole became their grave. Sixty thousand people, the Rinpoche said, were so imprisoned in Tibet.

At last we were processed. The Rinpoche removed his shoes and jacket for searching and passed through the metal detectors. I ran ahead to start the process of having Jarvis brought out. By the time Jarvis appeared in the dim light on the other side of the scratched and dirty glass, the hall was already filled with wives and children visiting inmates at the other windows. Loud voices echoed in the hallway, cigarette smoke wafted over us. This was the setting for the ceremony.

The Rinpoche's interpreter picked up the phone on our side of the glass. Jarvis leaned towards the glass, his phone pressed to his ear, a dim light barely illuminating his face from above. His smiling and slightly worried eyes were clearly visible.

"Is your mind clear?" the Rinpoche asked.

The Empowerment Ceremony by Jarvis Masters

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. Then 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. It 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 or 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 aspirations." 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 the Rinpoche once before. I had been deeply touched by that 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 of 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's in your heart that counts the most. Quietly listen for it." This 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, another one of his close students, who was there to translate for him. Melody, a friend and a 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 and assured all of 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.

* * * * * * * *

Excerpts from the Empowerment Ceremony as transcribed by Melody Ermachild

Rinpoche: It doesn't matter we can't touch. The power of the ceremony is in your hearing the words. I ask you to look at things in a very broad way. Don't blame others for your difficulties. . . . You'll notice that an angry prisoner is really sad because he is making bad karma. All of that is behind you now. From right now, go forward. Before all beings make a promise: I won't be angry, I won't hurt anyone with my actions. That's my priority every day, even if it costs my life. If you keep this promise you don't create any more future unhappiness for yourself. In your own words compose your promise and say it three times, before God, Angels, Buddhism, and everyone. This provides for your safety. Like if you don't drink poison you don't get a bellyache. . .

Jarvis: From this day forward I will not hurt or harm other people even if it costs my life.

Rinpoche: The second vow: From this day forward I will try to end the suffering of all human beings and other beings. . . .We relate to our bodies since babyhood as solid. This is part of our karma, but not the whole truth. The empowerment changes our minds about our bodies. Now it is alive - now it is dead and gone. There is space in between the molecules. That's the body too. Vast openness, vast emptiness. There is continuity between the body and dream; the body and death and rebirth. Underneath there is sameness. Emptiness is the basis for everything - in it is wisdom, which doesn't get born and die but is forever true. Like the sky. . . We label words good or bad, but it's all just wind on our vocal chords. The sound of the sky is the sound of emptiness. All sound is an expression of emptiness and so is your body. All are one - a ray of sunlight is part of the fun.

If it's hard to understand, think about dreaming. This life is only a dream. . . .Everything is in how I think of it. For example, a prison - you can think it's bad, but a person who lives in a beautiful house kills himself. Everyone sits somewhere, whether beautiful or miserable. . . . Hell is not elsewhere. Hell is one's own nightmare - hell is the result of hatred within one. There are two ways to change the mind. One is to think, think, think. One is to let go of thinking and just settle. The essence of all lives on earth is the same. They all taste the same. The concepts of the mind are what give us the idea that some lives are miserable and others are wonderful. Like movies, which are really only light on cellophane. Realize all this is really the movie of your mind. Try to understand that the nature of our body is deathless and your nature is true, faultless, and pure. The essence of mind is open, present. Thoughts are just firings of your brain. Like this window glass - if you look at it you won't see anything. If you look at thoughts you won't see perfection.

Jarvis: Helping others could cost me my life today or tomorrow in here. Can I qualify my vow by common sense? Can I use my intelligence not to cause my own death?

Rinpoche: If you help one person today and it costs your life, that's only one person. But if you train your mind to help the best way, you'll help many--100, 1000, countless people. There are three ways to be: harmless, helpful, pure. Eventually you will understand your own pure nature. Before you understand it you will feel heaven and hell. It's like being surrounded by 100 mirrors - if we are dirty and ugly we will see others that way; if we are beautiful others will be also. It's all a function of mind. The way to practice is to see everyone as pure whether they hurt or help you - even animals, the guards, see their perfection. Hear every sound as perfection, as Tara talking. Everyone who is born will die. . . . Every moment is a chance to be harmless, pure, and helpful. Tara: you are her, completely perfect. . . . .

At the end of every day confess your bad thoughts and actions and recommit yourself. Every time you do something good, instantly give it all away. Every mistake - confess it, let it go. It's like swimming, just keep going.

Jarvis: I feel pure when I am with you, but it's easy to forget.

Rinpoche: Ask for support from Tara. . . . From Tara come blessings. From her body, liquid and light pour into you. She is with you, right over your head. She washes you, cleanses you, fills you with bliss. . .

Jarvis: [asks about a monk he saw on television who immolated himself because of the Gulf War.] What does it mean?

Rinpoche: He was showing his love, to stop war. For him it was good. For you it might not be - you might not be ready. His body to him is like a suit of clothes. We are not all like that.

Today as you've made these promises, you've become like family to us. We'll help you. You're in our prayers always. We'll always think of you.

Jarvis: I really feel that. Thank you, Rinpoche.

* * * * * * *

Our visit lasted close to two hours. After the ceremony ended, it became very difficult to hear on my side of the phone. There was a tremendous amount of conversation going on around me. All those other inmates speaking through a chain of phones to their visitors made me struggle to hear the voice of my own visitor. "Wow," I wondered, "was it this loud during all those minutes of my empowerment?" It felt as though I had just taken ear plugs out of my ears - as though I had just re-entered the door of prison reality again.

At the end of my visit, I spoke to Melody, who had been sitting close to the window all during the empowerment ceremony. I thanked her for being there and asked her to thank the Rinpoche and Tsering later for all the blessing they had brought to me. I told her that I had already done this, but had stopped short of speaking fully because I felt tears of gratitude in my eyes, and didn't want to be seen crying. Melody understood and said she would. She hung up the phone and departed, waving goodbye with the Rinpoche and Tsering. I waved back.

As I waited for my escort to take me back to my housing unit, an inmate called over to me and asked if I was a practicing Buddhist. I paused. Just as I began to answer, a prison guard came and stood between the inmate and me to listen in. When I looked at this guard, his eyes wandered away. "Sure I am," I said to the prisoner. "Aren't we all, in some way or another? Life," I said, as I looked at the guard, "life, I think, may just put a piece of Buddha in us all."

The guard turned to me with a surprisingly nice smile, and then walked off. I was amazed! I turned to the window where the Rinpoche's chair still was, and felt a powerful sense that he was still there. I bowed three bows to the empty chair.