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Lions Roar : Nov 2007
61 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2007 instability, and neglect. When he was five, he and his siblings were taken away from their mother, separated from each other, and sent to foster homes. Jarvis stayed in a loving home with an elderly couple for sev- eral years, but by the time he was nine his foster parents had become too old to take care of him. After that, Jarvis was sent to—and often ran away from—a series of foster homes, group homes, and locked facilities for dependent children. He stayed with an aunt for a while in a public housing project, but he got into trouble there. From the age of twelve on, he was in and out of institutions. As an angry young man of seventeen, he was re- leased from the California Youth Authority and went on a crime spree, holding up stores and restaurants until he was captured and sent to San Quentin. He never shot anyone, but he did threaten his victims with a gun. When Jarvis arrived at San Quentin in 1981, he did what many young men do on entering prison. Looking for a sense of belonging and protection, he became involved with a prison gang. In 1985, Sergeant Hal Burchfield was murdered by mem- bers of the gang. A prisoner reached through the bars of his cell on the second tier and stabbed Sergeant Burchfield with a spear made from a piece of a bed frame and rolled-up paper. At the time, Jarvis was locked in his cell on the fourth tier. Although many inmates were suspected of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield, only three were tried, Jarvis among them. One was accused of being the “spear man,” another—an older man—of ordering the killing, and Jarvis of sharpening the metal that was allegedly passed along and later used to make the spear. After a long trial, all three were convicted. The main evi- dence against Jarvis was the testimony of other prisoners, some of whom were rewarded by the prosecutor’s office for testifying, and most of whom have since recanted. The other two defen- dants were sentenced to life without parole. Jarvis, partly because of his violent background, was sentenced to death. His appeals are now pending before the California Supreme Court, which in February of this year gave a favorable response to Jarvis’s habeas corpus petition, requiring the Attorney General to show cause why Jarvis should not receive a new trial. (For more information, see www.freejarvis.org.) It was in the course of preparations for his death penalty trial in 1990 that Jarvis was introduced to Buddhist vows by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Chagdud Tulku came down from Oregon to the prison to conduct an empowerment ceremony and contin- ued to visit Jarvis regularly until his death. Jarvis’s root teacher will always be Chagdud Tulku, who died in 2002, but he is now a student of Pema Chödrön, whom he calls his “dharma mom.” Practice has been central to his being able to survive prison. “I’m in trouble!” he says. “I practice because I’m in trouble, and prac- tice is a must for me to be a self-disciplined person. I already know what happens when I don’t practice—it ain’t too cool.” Jarvis tells me that prison has its pros and cons as an envi- ronment for Buddhist practice. “It’s challenging to meditate in prison,” he says, “but it’s also the perfect place. People think they have to get a nice new cushion to be able to meditate. I would be that way, too, if I had the choice. But I’m fortunate not to have a new cushion. I feel the hard floor. This is where life is. Not know- ing what’s going to happen tomorrow has its way of making time more precious. When you’ve been sentenced to death, you know you don’t have much time. You’re forced to look at what is, right now. What can you do now to be of benefit to others? To do it without a reason, that’s the hard part.” Jarvis tries to keep it simple when talking to fellow prison- ers and the guards about his Buddhist practice. One day a guard kept staring at Jarvis while he was meditating, so he told him in a joking voice, “Get off my front lawn. You’re trespassing.” Then the guard asked him, “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to get out of here,” Jarvis replied. Since the guard was more than likely looking forward to the end of the shift, this was an answer he could easily relate to, and he moved on. When I ask him whether fellow prisoners give him a hard time for being a Buddhist, he says, “I try to keep it light. If other pris- oners see me meditating and they ask what I’m doing, I say, ‘Try- ing to stay sane. You think I’m going to let you drive me crazy? What do you do?’” While he finds it possible to make light of his situation and con- verse easily with others, the intensity of his environment and the pain there are never far from his sight. “I’ve seen too many people go crazy in here,” he says. “I figure you’ve got three choices. You’re Jarvis Jay Masters NOV 58-63.indd 61 NOV 58-63.indd 61 8/29/07 2:17:18 PM 8/29/07 2:17:18 PM