A Roshi on the Row
Kobutsu Malone takes Shodo Harada Roshi on an unprecedented visit to Arkansas death row, where two condemned men now practice Zen. One of them, Damien Echols — subject of the hbo documentary “Paradise Lost”— is believed by many to be innocent.
This story begins, in a way, with the execution of Jusan Frankie Parker. Actually, it begins long before he was executed, in his more than eight years of intense practice while he was on death row of the Arkansas Department of Corrections in the prison known as Tucker-Max. This story is about the legacy of this remarkable human being, himself a killer, who by his own efforts transcended his karma through the practice of zazen while awaiting the executioner’s needle.
Frankie Parker affected many lives from his cell, both inside and outside of prison. Our present story involves two condemned prisoners who were inspired by him, and the abbot of a three-hundred-year-old Japanese Rinzai Zen Monastery .
I first met Damien Echols and Jack Jones on August 9, 1996, the day after Frankie Parker was executed. That morning, I had gone to the mortuary to perform a chanting ceremony over Frankie’s body and remove his mala and rakusu before his body was placed in the oven for cremation. I was really shaken when I lifted his head up to remove the rakusu; his head was stone-cold and lifeless, the same head I had held in a loving parting embrace the night before. Immediately after his body was placed in the oven, I did three prostrations on the floor of the mortuary. I will always remember the gritty feeling on my knees and hands from the ash and bone fragments of previous cremations.
Back at Tucker-Max, I was taken into the warden’s office and given Frankie’s ordination robe. Warden Morgan was accommodating and he gave me permission to visit with the men on death row and reassure them that Frankie had died in a brave and dignified manner. Being “on the row” was a new experience for me. I moved from cell to cell, visiting with each man, shaking hands, exchanging a few words. Many of them were very pleased to see me and expressed their condolences. Some cried openly. Passing Frankie’s empty cell, I could see for the first time where he had lived, where he had written us, where he had practiced.
Frankie had specifically asked me to see Damien Echols, Jack Jones and a few others. Damien’s is a famous death penalty case, involving an horrific crime and a controversial trial. He was convicted of leading two other teenagers in the brutal murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The case has been the subject of two documentary films, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills “and this fall’s “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, which raise profound doubts about the guilt of those convicted and the fairness of the trials.
I found Damien standing in the middle of the cell, his long black hair cascading over his shoulders. I immediately felt his intensity and presence, and I was struck by how young he was, very close in age to my own son. Damien appeared distracted, obviously upset over Frankie’s death, but he was cordial and pleased to see me.
Meeting Jack Jones was a moment of real import. He had committed a rape and murder, but his deep sense of connection to Frankie was obvious. Although I did not hear from Damien for some time, Jack and I developed an on-going correspondence over the following months, and periodically I would send him some Buddhist books and literature. Jack shared them with Damien and over time Damien developed an interest in Buddhism. When I visited Tucker-Max last year, I was amazed at how Damien had changed and how open he had become to the dharma. Our correspondence increased and we have had an intense relationship ever since.
I spoke to many people about Frankie Parker and the experience of witnessing his murder in the Arkansas “death chamber.” My friend Kyogen Carlson, abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, talked about Frankie to the Venerable Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogen-Ji monastery in Okayama, Japan. Harada Roshi was deeply moved by Frankie’s story and he repeated it often in lectures and formal teishos.
It was through this connection that Harada Roshi invited me to Sogen-Ji to teach and also offer some lectures on the death penalty for the Japanese people. In return for this profound honor, I invited Harada Roshi to visit the Arkansas death row to serve as the preceptor for a Jukai lay ordination ceremony for Jack Jones and Damien Echols. For almost six months I corresponded with Harada Roshi about his visit to the Arkansas death row, or pilgrimage as he referred to it. There were countless difficulties to overcome but arrangements were successfully made with the prison authorities. On September 19, Harada Roshi was given unprecedented access to the Arkansas death row.
The day of the visit, Harada Roshi’s flight was due in at the Memphis airport at 11:45 AM. We wouldn’t have much time to rent a car and then drive the 156 miles to Tucker, Arkansas, the former plantation town which is home to the Tucker-Max Unit. I packed my “traveling zendo” kit, a black detail case that I’d dragged into dozens of penitentiaries over the years. It contained a Buddha image, bell and clappers, altar cloths, incense burner with makeshift polyethylene cover fastened with a rubber band, incense, charcoal and other supplies used for performing various ceremonies.
I downed coffee with my compadre Dakota Rowland, not a Buddhist but someone with truly remarkable intuitive insight. She, a revolutionary social justice worker and prison abolitionist. I, Irish-American renegade Zen priest with a checkered past. Both of us broke. We were unable to rent a vehicle due to lack of funds or a credit card, so we had to take the airport shuttle and rely on our friends from Japan to take care of the vehicle rental.
We arrived at the gate with about twenty minutes to spare and I was feeling nervous. I had never met Harada Roshi and had very little information about him, only a few descriptions from some friends who had studied with him. Universally, they had told me that Harada Roshi was a very powerful teacher, known as a “master’s master.”
Finally Harada Roshi walked through the ramp door, and my apprehension evaporated instantly at the sight of him. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and bowed deeply as he approached. Finishing my bow, I looked straight at him and found him smiling with great intensity. I could feel a tremendous warmth emanating from him. He shook my hand American-style, said “Hello,” and told me how pleased he was to see me. I sensed immediately a deep karmic connection with him. We were all smiling and felt good about being together, preparing to travel into the “belly of the beast.”
Leaving Memphis in our rented van, the first town we encountered in Arkansas was West Memphis, where the three eight-year-old boys had been murdered in a wooded area just a few yards from the I-40. As we approached the area known as the “Robin Hood Hills” woods, I pointed it out to our guests.
Dakota had a lot to say about the history of slavery and oppression that permeated the South and spoke on these topics as the miles of Mississippi Delta farmland rolled by. This conversation led naturally to the blatant racism of the present prison system, the spread of “private” prisons run by big corporations, the death penalty, and the horrific incarceration rate in America. Harada Roshi spoke about the death penalty in Japan, the secrecy surrounding its application, and the isolation of death row prisoners.
As we entered the town of Tucker, we encountered a sign informing us that we were entering a penitentiary area and should not pick up hitchhikers. As we came into view of the Tucker-Max facility, we were assaulted by the sight of modern slavery—rows of prisoners clad in “prison whites” toiling with hoes at the roadside, overseen by armed guards on horses.
We were met at the reception building by Chaplain Norman McFall. Each one of us had to walk through a full-body metal detector and the items in my “Zendo kit” were examined and checked off against the master list I had provided months before. All was in order and we were pleased that there was no objection to bringing in our disposable cameras.
Tucker-Max is a relatively modern prison, with air conditioning in the cell blocks and general areas. This is a far cry from many other prison facilities in the South, in which the heat sometimes reaches a hundred and twenty degrees in the upper tiers. As our group walked down the ten-meter-wide main corridor toward the “Five Pod,” death row, we were scrutinized by prisoners and guards alike. How strange we must have appeared—Roshi, Chisan, the female Zen priest serving as his translator, and I in monastic garb, and Dakota in a bright, flowered, short-sleeved shirt. Dakota was concentrating on acknowledging as many prisoners as possible. Just by smiling, waving and making eye contact, she was reaching out in solidarity to them. Their response was in-kind and appreciative. Whether it’s through a formal Buddhist ceremony or just a smile, the indomitable human spirit shines through.
We arrived at the death row pod. We were now in “the belly of the belly of the beast”—three tiers of steel cages designed without compromise to hold human beings in isolation from the community and each other. I turned to Roshi and told him that every man in this unit had been condemned to death. I pointed out Jusan Frankie Parker’s cell, where he had lived and practiced for so many years. We saw Jack first, standing at his cell door, wearing his wagesa refuge sash and smiling. Looking around, we spotted Damien on the second tier at the far end of the unit.
The guards began their preparations, handcuffing Jack and Damien before opening their cell doors. The prisoners were brought out to the pod floor, where leg irons were applied to their ankles and double-security lock boxes were placed over their already double-locked handcuffs. I was pleased to be able to introduce both men to Harada Roshi, Dakota and Chisan. Damien and Jack bowed deeply to us all and were profoundly moved. They had both been looking forward to this day for many, many months.
We were allowed to enter a very small chapel room situated just off the floor level of death row. Damien and Jack had brought their Sutra books with them for the ceremony; I made a brief introductory statement and our meeting began. Jack presented Harada Roshi with a beautiful hand-made box covered in Japanese-style pen and ink drawings. Damien presented a hand-made box to me and gave both Roshi and me rosaries as gifts.
I asked them, “What do you think, how do you feel?” Jack replied to Roshi, “I am very, very nervous. I don’t know what to say to you because I am just so nervous.”
Damien, addressing Roshi, said, “I have been waiting so long to talk to you. I am so sorry because I wanted to ask this and that, a hundred questions, and now that I am with you my head is a complete blank. I am so sorry, please excuse me.”
Jack then asked Roshi, “What do you think of this place?” Roshi responded, “This place has an incredible sharpness. There is a very concentrated atmosphere here.” Jack said, “Yes, this is a very concentrated place. Every single day in here, every instant, is this whole world.”
Roshi responded, “Yes, I have thirty students, and for all of them, the most important point is each and every moment being the only moment there is.” To which Jack answered, “Yes, for us there is no time whatsoever here. I read many books but there is nothing in those books which compares to the depth that is in this one moment. It is because of my certain death that I have been able to realize this. If it were not for the fact that I am in these circumstances, this would never have become clear to me. Every day I do zazen and it is the most important part of my day. Every day I do zazen on my bed facing the wall.”
Just prior to leaving the small chapel room, I asked Chaplain McFall if it would be possible for Harada Roshi to take a look in Jack’s cell so that he could see how he lived. The Chaplain asked the ranking guard and we were granted permission to visit Jack’s cell, which was close to the chapel room at ground level.
As we walked over to the cell, I jokingly mentioned to Roshi that we had arranged for him to have an extended visit, and gestured for him to enter first. He responded to my joke with his broad smile. We entered Jack’s cell and looked around. It was a small space with a narrow vertical slit window which admitted some natural light. There was a narrow bunk bed with a thin mattress and a writing desk with built-in chair next to it. The front wall of the cell had a small stainless steel toilet/sink appliance. It enabled the commode to be used with the prisoner facing into the cell but still enabled anyone outside the cell to observe the prisoner at all times. There was no corner of the cell which could not be seen from the barred cell door.
Jack had a small shrine set up on his desk and mounted on a piece of cardboard over his desk were photographs of his two boys and pictures of a woman he writes to in Holland. We all looked at the photos and Jack explained who they were. It was, I am sure, a truly unusual event to be taking place on death row. Two large guards stood by at the door of the cell, keeping an eye on everything that was taking place. Finishing our tour of death row, we returned through the security sally port to the main hall. My black bag “Zendo kit” had been placed in the visiting room for the Jukai ceremony. We were admitted through a barred gate and Damien and Jack were escorted in. There were windows on both sides of the long visiting room and there were people we had not seen before behind them, watching us as we entered.
I chose one of the visit cubicles directly on the spot where Frankie had received Jukai four and a half years earlier, and began setting up an altar for the ceremony. I had purchased a supply of extra fine jinko, an extremely expensive and rare natural wood incense. Our altar consisted of a carved wooden Buddha, a ceramic incense burner, a ceramic water offering bowl, a candlestick and white candle, a small hand bell and a larger inkin meditation bell, and two shiki-shi calligraphic pieces done by Harada Roshi as gifts for Jack and Damien. Harada Roshi had also brought from Japan two beautifully made rakusus, inscribed with their new dharma names. I had made rings for the vestments from pieces of spaltered maple harvested from the forest surrounding Dai Bosatsu Zendo, my home temple in Livingston Manor, New York.
I gave a Jukai exhortation written by the Venerable Eido Roshi based on the Dharmapada. (It was a dog-eared copy of the Dharmapada, thrown with contempt on the floor of an isolation cell in “the hole,” that with its first reading changed Frankie Parker’s life so profoundly.) Jack, Damien, Roshi and I offered incense and we chanted the Purification, the Three Fundamental Precepts, the Three Refuges, and the Ten Precepts.
Harada Roshi explained the dharma names he was giving to the two men and presented each with a black rakusu. Damien received the name Koson, meaning “Searching for the Light.” Jack received the name Dainin, meaning “Great Patient Forbearance.” We chanted The Four Great Vows for All in Japanese and in English, I made a closing remark, and our ceremony was complete.
As the others gathered around Roshi afterward and talked, I took Damien and Jack aside for a few personal words. This was the first opportunity I had had in more than eight months to see them in private. We walked to the end of the corridor, being certain to remain in the sight of the four guards, and I chatted with each one for a few minutes. I asked them to write an account of the encounter while it was fresh in their minds.
Chaplain McFall had many questions for Roshi. He asked why we shaved our heads. Roshi responded, “To remind us that we really want nothing.” I couldn’t resist rubbing my own head and commenting, “How come I still want a Harley Davidson?” We all laughed.
It was hard saying goodbye. Jack and Damien both bowed deeply and embraced Harada Roshi as we parted.
On the way out of the unit we were delayed waiting for a security gate to open. We noticed the prison shoeshine shop and saw a black prisoner intently shining an officer’s boot. I said to him, “Shining the man’s boots, huh?” He said, “Yep!” and I said to him, “Be sure to give them a spit and polish shine—heavy on the spit.” We all cracked up over this, no harm was done, the boots got shined, and three people experienced a brief moment of solidarity. We left the facility, the hoe squads long brought in and locked down. We headed for a meal, and got back on the road to Memphis. Our trip back was quieter. Roshi took notes in the back; I drove the miles of darkened interstate. The next morning at the airport, Harada Roshi said to me that he would come back. I felt relieved, because I knew he had been affected by what he had seen and that through this man true dharma would flow into “the belly of the beast.”
The remarkable teaching of this experience was that there is an alternative to death row. Death rows and prisons do not exist in a vacuum. When we ourselves do not live in a state of sustainable harmony with each other and our surroundings, we perpetuate oppression. Harada Roshi’s pilgrimage to death row is an invitation to all of us to “Wake up!”, to look deeply and see things clearly, to walk on the path of the awakened state of mind in solidarity with our sisters and brothers.
Words cannot convey the intense personal pain, degradation, torment and torture that are experienced daily in our prisons. Inevitably, some of you reading these words will at some point find yourselves in prison, experiencing the horror firsthand. Any one of us could find ourselves accused, convicted and sent to prison at any time. So let’s rid ourselves of any notion that it’s “them” in prison, and “us” out here. Ain’t like that.
Kobutsu Malone, Zenji, is a Rinzai Zen priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage. He is a co-founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation, which fosters meditative practice in prisons and develops monastic alternative sentencing/post-release programs. The Engaged Zen Foundation can be contacted at Post Office Box 700, Ramsey, NJ 07446.