David Sheff

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The Buddhist on Death Row

book | Non-Fiction | Mar 2020
US & Canada → Simon & Schuster (Ed. Eamon Dolan)
UK → HarperCollins (Ed. Kate Fox)

How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

The number one 
New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Boy explores the transformation of Jarvis Jay Masters who became one of America’s most respected Buddhist practitioners during his two decades in solitary confinement in San Quentin.

Jarvis Jay Masters’s early life was a horror story. Born in Long Beach, California, his house was filled with crack, alcohol, physical abuse, and men who paid his mother for sex. He and his siblings were split up and sent to foster care when he was six, causing him to progress quickly to juvenile detention, car theft, armed robbery, and ultimately San Quentin. While in prison, he was set up for the murder of a prison guard, a crime which landed him on death row, where he’s been since 1986.

At the time of his murder trial, he was also in solitary confinement and spent twenty-two years in a 5-foot-by-11-foot cell. This is where
The Buddhist on Death Row takes off. With uncanny clarity, David Sheff describes Masters’s path to enlightenment - from being sullen and violent to discovering how easy and how hard it is to just sit and breathe, how those minutes spawn heightened perception and deepened compassion, the right way to remember one’s pain, and much more. Sheff does a brilliant job of portraying Masters’s gradual but profound transformation from a man who was once dedicated to hurting others to instead stopping brawls in the prison yard, talking prisoners out of suicide, and counseling high school kids by mail.

Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the principles that Buddhism espouses - compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment - and he gains the attention of prominent Buddhist practitioners, including Pema Chodron, the most popular Buddhist cleric after the Dalai Lama. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he is a renowned Buddhist thinker who shows us how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.


Audio Rights


The audio rights are handled by Simon & Schuster.

Film Rights


Contact Amanda Urban for more information

Helen Manders manages the translation rights for The Buddhist on Death Row

Translation Rights Sold

Droemer Verlag
Flux Forlag
Editora Sextante

This book shows vividly how, even in the face of the greatest adversity, compassion and a warm-hearted concern for others bring peace and inner strength.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I’m grateful to be Jarvis Masters’ teacher in part because he has taught me so much. I have rarely encountered anyone who expresses the essence of Buddhism in a clearer, more moving way than he does, and I deeply admire how David Sheff has captured that hard-won wisdom in this book.

Pema Chödrön

This profound, gorgeous book displays the miraculous human capacity to find redemption, and even joy, no matter who or where we are.

Sr. Helen Prejean
Author of 'Dead Man Walking'

This is a beautiful, profoundly spiritual book, and a page-turner... I'm going to give it to everyone I know. 

Anne Lamott
Author of New York Times bestsellers 'Almost Everything' and 'Bird by Bird'

Applying the same mix of empathy and journalistic integrity demonstrated in Beautiful Boy (2009), Sheff conveys Masters’ transformative jailhouse exchanges with Buddhist masters, family members, and special friends with poignancy and profound emotional power.


An inspiring book about how meaning can be found even in—perhaps especially in—adversity.

Andrew Solomon
Author of New York Times Bestseller 'Far From the Tree'

I’m a friend of Jarvis Masters, so I know the truth of this book, but I want to hail its power. I believe it will encourage many people to examine their own lives and their unrealized potential for awareness, generosity, commitment, and courage.

Rebecca Solnit
Author of Men Explain Things to Me

A deeply useful book. A reminder that we can be free, regardless of where we are placed

Alice Walker

Sheff captures the difficult, powerful realizations Masters gained as a result of his practice, leading him to become a comforting, beneficial presence to his fellow inmates. In an epilogue, Sheff asks readers to consider how one’s perspective can turn a situation of “sadness, pain, and regret” into “light and joy and love.”

Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Amanda Urban
+1 212 556 5600
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Gordon Wise
+44 (0) 20 7393 4420
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Translation Rights
Helen Manders
+44 (0)20 7393 4425
Email Helen Manders