By David Guy
“If the only prayer you every say in your entire life is thank you,
it will be enough.”
At the homeless shelter where I volunteer, we begin each Friday’s religious service—it’s supposed to be a class about meditation and Centering Prayer, but feels more like a prayer meeting—by saying what we’re grateful for. We take quite a bit of time. I’m humbled by things those folks mention, and the way I take many of them for granted (like a bed to sleep on. A roof over my head. They haven’t always had those things). But last time I talked about a man whose story put them into that same position.
At the Chapel Hill Zen Center we do prison outreach, and four of us meditate with a couple of prisoners on Death Row in Raleigh. We cover every Monday, so each of us goes once a week. I’ve been doing that for eight years. One of the men we sit with—he goes by JT—seems remarkably mature spiritually. He never misses a meeting, greets me with a certain calm and humility, speaks sometimes of the help he gives younger inmates. He’s like a father figure to them.
I know JT did something terrible to get on Death Row. (I know what he did, actually and don’t believe it worthy of the Death Penalty, but I don’t believe in the Death Penalty period. I find it barbaric, not worthy of a civilized nation.) But as one of the people at the shelter said when I told them this story, it’s possible to have a transformative experience, one which turns your whole life around. More than one mentioned St. Paul, and pointed out that he did some time himself.
One possible transformative experience was that JT was scheduled to be executed when the current legal conundrum which has stalled the death penalty in North Carolina came about (my hope is that it continues indefinitely). He had said good-bye to his family and friends. He was ready to go. Then he wasn’t executed. That was right before I met him.
He’s practiced some form of Buddhism for much of his life. When he was young and living in Berkeley, he used to walk past a bookstore every day smoking a joint, stopped to stare at the books in the window, and one day the proprietor walked out and handed him a book about Nichiren Buddhism. He found a group, and it had a profound effect on him, especially that feeling of masses of people chanting, vast togetherness; and that’s probably the brand of Buddhism he would continue with if he could. But the Zen Group is what we’ve got, so he sits with us.
He also—like the other guy who sits—practices yoga from time to time, in conditions that aren’t ideal; the floors in Death Row are all cement. The prison is isolated in Raleigh, and it’s huge, looks more like a General Motors Plant (except for the fences and barbed wire all around, and towers where, presumably, guards are standing with high powered rifles).
Inside there is an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, long hallways where there is no light from outside, just florescent lights that glare off the cement. Death Row itself is isolated in the center of that facility. Its inmates rarely get out of that section (the two men I see live on different levels, and don’t even see each other). If they have visitors, they speak to them through a thick glass; they have no physical contact with loved ones until the night they die. They go to the dining hall with other Death Row inmates. They live among themselves and see almost no one from outside their group. Their jump suits are red; everyone else’s are white.
One day JT was doing a headstand on that cement floor, fell and hurt his shoulder. He really banged it up. You looked at him and saw how much it hurt. He held it up on one side and winced, afraid to let it relax.
Central Prison has medical care, and may be good with an obvious problem, like a broken leg, or a heart attack. But when the problem is more subtle, and people aren’t sure what’s wrong, they don’t do as well. JT was obviously in dreadful pain on three or four visits that I made—those visits were a month apart—but they couldn’t figure out what to do, other than giving him a painkiller.
The fourth time I saw him after the injury, it was painful just to look at him. I said that, and he shrugged it off.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to it. I’m just glad to be here. Glad to be alive.”
That statement pulled me up short. I couldn’t help thinking of the people I’d seen that morning at Whole Foods—that market that was so abundant with beautiful nutritious food—who seemed terminally angry that they had to lower themselves to shop at all, or perhaps that things didn’t meet their towering expectations: I don’t know what it was, but person after person looked petulant and pissed off. Not—though they should have been, if anyone in the world was—happy to be alive.
Finally the authorities did some diagnostic treatment and determined JT needed surgery. He was taken to a doctor in Durham for some pre-op, would return later for the surgery.
“That was great,” he said after the pre-op. “I haven’t seen the streets of Durham for years. Brightleaf Square and all that. It’s beautiful.”
He took delight in the streets of Durham. Just seeing them, just being there. That was what I told the homeless people. We see those streets every day, but don’t notice their beauty. They might seem commonplace, even hostile. We take them for granted.
JT lives in a place where, essentially, there are no windows. There are narrow slits of thick class ten feet up on the wall, to let in a little light (though I never notice it. Maybe I’m there at the wrong time). But he doesn’t see the outside. He never sees it.
The thing he mentioned to one of my friends from the Zen Center was the real kicker. His surgery was scheduled for the afternoon, and he hoped that, when the truck brought him back, he would be awake, and coming in the evening. That seemed likely, and he hoped it was true.
“I’ve only seen two sunsets in the last thirty years,” he said. “I’m hoping to see another.”