Viking: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

For 30 years, Jarvis Jay Masters has been a resident of San Quentin State Prison's death row, some two decades of them in solitary confinement. As one of 700 inmates currently in that grim status, his story would not be remarkable, but for the fact that during his long imprisonment he's become an esteemed Buddhist teacher, and a confidant of the well-known writer and teacher Pema Chödrön.

In The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place, journalist David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) renders Masters's story in highly sympathetic fashion, tracing his transformation and describing the efforts of Chödrön and a growing cadre of supporters to overturn what they believe is his unjust death sentence.

Though he seems to share a belief in Masters's innocence, Sheff is less concerned with the machinations of his subject's multiple (and so far unsuccessful) legal appeals than he is with the way Buddhist practices have helped him to cope with his dire circumstances. Through his deep engagement with these teachings, he explains, Masters has come to understand that "when his mind was free, he was free," and that many who live their lives outside the walls of a prison are themselves in chains.

For all its hardship and heartbreak, The Buddhist on Death Row is an inspiring story of one man's ability to surmount suffering by applying the power of his mind. Anyone who's been tempted to explore meditation and mindfulness but who hasn't taken the first step should find encouragement in Jarvis Masters's far more difficult journey. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer