Awakin Calls » Maria Jain » Transcript
Maria Jain: Buddhas on Death Row
Guest: Maria Jain
Moderator: Pavi Mehta
Host: Amit Dungarani
Amit: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, depending on the part of the world that you're calling in from. My name is Amit Dungarani and I'm really excited to be your host for this week's Global Awakin Call. Now, every story is a beginning of a conversation, whether it's with ourselves or with others. Across time and culture, stories have been agents of personal transformation, in part because they have the power to change our hearts and minds. The purpose of our weekly calls is to share stories from the lives of incredible change makers from around the world. Through thoughtfully guided conversations with them, our special guest speakers share their personal stories and inspire us through their actions, their experiences and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant seeds for a more compassionate and service-oriented society, while serving to foster our own inner transformation.
Today we have a very special guest speaker. Her name is Maria Jain. Maria is a seeker, a traveler, writer, entrepreneur, advocate--most aptly for this call, she is a storyteller. She is a global citizen having lived, worked, and traveled in various parts of the world, including the US, Liberia, Finland, where she currently lives, and what she calls her second home, India. However, Maria would say her biggest journey has been the one she has taken within herself. Cultivating in silence, practicing in every day life here and now. And it's with this beautiful mindset and spirit that's led her to meet so many incredible people and had a number of life-altering experiences, including one of the most transformative ones with the unlikeliest of individuals, an individual on death row. Now I'm not going to play the role of spoiler here, but I'm sure many of you were compelled to hear this call with Maria's exploration of the Prison Pen Pal initiative that led to her most recent art exhibition called, Buddhas on Death Row.
And I know all of us are very excited to hear as almost 70 people from around the world have RSVP'd to listen in to today's call, so we're very grateful to have Maria here. And staying on that note of gratitude, behind each of these calls is an entire team of service space volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space, so we're thankful to them and to all of you as listeners for helping co-create this space.
So our theme or title for this week's call is Buddhas on Death Row, and as I mentioned earlier, Maria is a traveler and a storyteller whose biggest journey has been the one she has done on the inside. And companionship and correspondence specifically with someone on death row. So we're asking our callers to take a minute to reflect on experiences where you've traveled far and wide, and discovered that the greatest distance worth searching was whether it was that or within yourself. And so Pavi, I just thought that we could start by you sharing some thoughts of your own and then introduce us to Maria and take us away.
Pavi: Absolutely, thank you so much, Amit, and thank you, Maria for being here. I was thinking about that distance traveled and the greatest distance being traveling within yourself. The majority of this last year my husband and I have been in relative isolation because of an immune condition that he has, and as he's on his path to recovery he's had to withdraw from a lot of our outside interactions. In the process of his recovery, just recently we decided to gently stretch the boundaries and take part in the service space retreat that was happening in a beautiful location here in the Bay Area. It was incredible to travel this external distance outside of our home and yet to find that that experience of being at the retreat really brought us back to ourselves.
And someone, Shari, at the retreat shared this beautiful story that I think speaks to the theme of this call. She was talking about this African tribe where when a woman is pregnant, the women of the village will gather around her and they will go into the jungle and spend the day in prayer to discover the song of the unborn child. Then they come back to the community and when the child is born, it is born to the sound of its song. And at every stage in that child's life--at his marriage, at the time of her learning of her pregnancy, or the time of that child's death--the song will be sung to them. And when someone does something wrong, rather than hold court and decide on punishment, the community gathers around that person and sings their song to them with the understanding that anyone who has gone off the path isn't a bad person, they've just forgotten who they are. They've just forgotten what part of the community they play. And so they sing their song to them, they bring them back to their song.
And Shari was talking about how in this life we so often are singing someone else's song or we are forgetting the words to our own song or we're just kind of half-hearted mumbling the song or not really putting our heart into it. And there is such a power in the experience at the retreat that in some way, shape, or form in our life, the power of having someone sing your song to you when you've forgotten it, or singing someone else's song to them and having it reconnect back to your own. So much of the work that Maria has been doing with Buddhas on Death Row I think holds that essence of what it means to discover our song and to sing each other's song.
I was introduced to Maria on Christmas Eve 2013. I first wrote to her then. A mutual friend had introduced her [inaudible] a A Painter of the Desert, an article that she had written about Chip Thomas, a doctor in Navajo nation with the heart of a street artist who had served that community in many ways over the past three decades. And I was so impressed by the piece that I reached out for permission to syndicate the story on DailyGood. And Maria's response arrived on Christmas day and every interaction with her since then always felt a little bit like Christmas. There are some people in our world and in our lives that have a gift the carrying contradictions with grace, people who can hold suffering and joy with both hands and not drop either, people who can convey a brand of bubbling enthusiasm along with a sense of inner stillness, people who carry the charming innocence of a beginner's mind alongside old soul wisdom, and fragility alongside tremendous strength. People who travel the globe and manage to show up everywhere with the spirit of a local. Maria is one of those paradoxical people and it's impossible to meet her and not be struck by the bright spark of her being.
I was introduced to Maria by email three years ago and we crossed paths in person for the first time two days ago. I feel like the first time I truly met her was this May over Skype. When a young Finnish women with bright red glasses, and a deep love for this intricate web of being called life. First talked about a man named Moyo, his difficult story and the lotus of a remarkable friendship that was just beginning to bloom out of the mud that is death row. Listening to her speak--not the words necessarily, but the energy behind them, made me lean forward and pay attention. Maria, as you heard has played many significant roles in her life, across diverse areas and fields.
As an international development worker with the United Nations, focused on improving the lives of women in a gender-based environment, as a social entrepreneur with her partner, founding an online store where India's ancient craft traditions meet the global market. As a writer traveling the world for stories that open heart and mind. She's lived all over the world along with her homeland, Finland. But really, her homeland is and always has been in her heart. And Maria's ultimate role will always be that of being a noble friend. Buddhas on Death Row may have started out as a project between a man on death row in the United states and a woman in Helsinki.
But over these past months, it's turned into a jeweled practice of living in the home of one's heart and learning what it means to build bridges of friendship from the inside out. In the last three and a half months I've witness Maria and Moyo pouring a phenomenal degree of intention, time, energy, and soulfulness into an effort that in the vast expanse of this world may only be a grain of sand of goodness. But that little grain too is a channel, and it is granted with the same forces that run the universe. And it has moved the lives of thousands in quiet ways, mine included. My heart is delighted by this opportunity to have Maria on our call and to have her share her spirit and stories today. Thank you for being with us Maria, and thank you for being.
Maria: Thank you. I must say that I have this huge smile on my face and very moist eye corners right now. I just feel like saying, making it visible to all of you who have joined us, it's tremendous to be in this conversation together. Where I sit right now I'm surrounded by letters from Moyo and letters that he has prepared and we have prepared together for this call. His artwork is here with me, a beautiful painting entitled "Consciousness Unconfined" and I think that really sets the spirit for this coming together. Also to unconfine our consciousness a little more. So it's truly a gift and I think we are also making an Awakin Call record in terms of sign-ups from Finland. I just want to send greetings to home as well.
Pavi: Well, let's plunge right in because there's lots of ground to cover. And thank you for prefacing Moyo, who's definitely very much a part of this call. I'm so glad you have his letters and artwork with you to draw on. I think it would be very wonderful to begin at the beginning of this journey and how it is that a woman in Helsinki came across a friend in death row in the United States and what began this journey for you?
Maria: Yes, it's been wonderful to return to the beginning of this whole thing through this question that comes from so many people. In the spring of 2014, I was sitting at home, surfing the internet. I had actually watched a documentary regarding the civil rights movement, and after that just one link kind of led to another and suddenly I find myself on this website called Write a Prisoner. I had never known that something like that existed, but it's an American organization whose mission it is to connect people in prison with pen friends on the outside. Really it was that mission that, when I explored it, the thought of creating positive, meaningful connections that resonated with me.
On that site, one of the first ads that I came across what that of Moyo. And I just decided to write to him because that ad just deeply resonated. Some of the common denominators were the practice of meditation, of yoga, which was something that I had relatively recently started practicing in my own life, as well as an interest in art and using our creative force. From there it started and I wrote my first letter to Moyo in May 2014 and he accepted my letter and wrote back. Since then, long letters, postcards, very think envelopes containing fifteen pages of writing. They have been traveling across the Atlantic.
Pavi: Can you describe that first experience? Obviously there was something on the website and Moyo's profile and in what he shared that resonated. And when you wrote that first letter and received the first letter, what was your experience of that? Can you talk a little bit about that first letter?
Maria: The first letter that I wrote, I wrote it outside. I was walking with my dog and we went to the park and I sat there on this cliff, and I just started writing from there, just describing how it was to be there. I remember that I started wondering aloud on the paper about the rock and the ages that the rock has been there witnessing seasons come and go, people come and go, and how that long amount of time for that rock is what a short time for us, human beings. I was thinking a little bit about that, describing a little bit about Finland, sharing something about myself. I remember saying, what should I tell about myself? Should I talk about my likes or dislikes? And later in my own journey I've learned that the average human is maybe too attached to our own likes and dislikes.
But that's kind of where it started and when Moyo wrote back there was just this curiosity. And we are the same age so he has shared how he always pays attention to people's age, whether it's a pen friend or a magazine of a book that he's reading, just connecting with people who are the same age and pondering on the different journeys and trajectories that we all have. And from there we would write every month ad hoc. The frequency of letters was even on a weekly basis, sometimes even on a daily basis. And especially now since we started working on Buddhas on Death Row--that was actually exactly a year ago--when the idea for this project turned out to be a practice.
When that emerged, I've been writing on a daily basis and it's been intense. Amidst all this I feel I need to say it's been amazing to be supported by a life partner who's been taking care of me--preparing food when I've sometimes forgotten to eat. It's been that intense.
Pavi: Well, just to give our listeners an idea, because I think we live in an age where communication, we take the feel of it for granted. The fact that we can reach out and touch someone with a phone call, with an email and have it be instant. The speed of your communication with Moyo has been very different and so--I've always been fascinated that the star light we see is not present light. The light that reaches us is this old, old light. In letter writing the voice that reaches you is a voice from the past. There is this asynchronous quality to the communication. That Moyo doesn't have access to email or phone calls or anything is of course, that feels like there's something to speak to in there, whether that kind of restriction is helpful or not. With the constraints that you had, can you talk a little bit about the form of communication that you had?
Maria: Yes. That's been something very important, something that I have learned a lot about. When I think about the modern communication that we have, shooting messages around very quickly, responding quickly. Sometimes it's akin to being very reactive. Messages coming to you all the time is also a distraction. I've been able to see and find in letter writing this quality of pausing, being present, and listening. And for me, when I write a letter I want to be fully present, to reserve and invest that time when I'm molding my thoughts to the movement of my hand and through the pen it flows onto the paper. So we do that kind of listening and weighing you words.
Sometimes I feel also kind of balancing when I'm writing to Moyo and I've learned a lot about this--one aspect that I've been practicing is this kind of stream of consciousness writing, just editing myself less, "but, oh, can I say that?" "How can I say that?" I just want to be present and be authentic and put away that doubtful kind of tone in my head through that kind of writing.
But then there, of course, have been times when I wanted to weigh my words and it's taken a while to write a letter--a lot of words parsed out so carefully that you cannot read what's left on the paper. And at the same time preserving that authenticity and having the letter be the authentic present, showing also the thought process if I parsed out words, he can see, here's the thought process has not been very easy. These are some of the thoughts that come to me, but another thing that you mentioned about the light coming from the stars being a very old, old light and that asynchronicity.
So when the Buddhas on Death Row exhibition was on in Helsinki and we were preparing for that and everything around that, there has been some amazing synchronicity and I want to share with all of you one of these events. I was invited to a radio show in Helsinki on Radio Helsinki, this beautiful one-hour conversation. For that program the host invited me to request four songs that she would play, and that was a really delightful task. The last song I selected was "Breathing Light" by Nitin Sawhney. It's a song that I felt for a long time that I would want to request for Moyo to hear. And introducing that song in the end of the conversation, I said something like, "this song is important to me because the title is 'Breathing Light' and sometimes in life there are moments when it's enough that you just breathe and be present with your breath. There are times in life when that's all you can do and that's enough."
And then when I went home that evening, there was a letter waiting for me from Moyo. There was a longer letter in that envelope and then a smaller note that he had written on his typewriter on a piece of map. In the end of that note, he said, "sometimes the only thing you can do here in this cell is to lie down with a book or just lie down and just breathe and be. Sometimes breathing is the only thing you can do here."
And when I read those words, I felt like the universe was just condensed. How can you say these words in a piece of a note that you have written at least a week ago and send them to me and arrive exactly on that same day that I said those same words on the radio across the world? Sometimes it's old light, sometimes it's new light, sometimes it's just light.
Pavi: Very true. And I think that's something that's been really striking to see the kind of tuning in that has happened at all stages of this journey, where there's the planning, the logistics of running an exhibition, of organizing the art, and all the myriad details attached to that. There's a mindset that you're using, but there's also a heartset I think that I've been really struck by, the continuously coming back to what is unfolding here. To listen in to that inner heartbeat, underneath the busy scrum of the activity. And that listening, that hope that you have had and that everyone who's come to the present has also brought that quality, is a kind of unfolding that almost feels like it's not just you and Moyo. It seems like there's something much bigger that you are connected to, that is coming through.
Before we jump into the exhibition itself, let's backtrack again. When was the moment when you realized that Buddhas on Death Row was something that you had to do? When was the seed of that idea set for you?
Maria: Yes. That seed emerged in October last year. It came in the form of a very special letter that I received from Moyo. I would actually like to read that letter to all of you, if you permit. So here comes in Moyo and his intention that has been put in motion in all this that we've been doing. This letter is going to describe it to you. It's typewritten on brown paper, which is from a paper bag in which Moyo gets his meals on death row. And he uses whatever he can as material for his art, and also as paper for his letters and just that creative force presenting his letters and his artwork, the creative force and the resilience--we'll get back to that later. I'll now start reading the letter:
And the state says, "We will collect your life sometime after 6 P.M. on the specified date. This is a tragedy which we are playing out. This coming to death row as ignorant boys and becoming men of conscience, redeeming ourselves, falling in love with life, and dreaming constantly of the ways which we could and would love to more than anything, make amends for our sad misdeed.
And even beyond all that, doing all we can to give something good to the world. The experience of profound transformation sparked by our legal condemnation to death, and throughout the decade plus of our time here, like Tupac's famous poem, "The Rose that Grew from Concrete," we come into our own bloom within the concrete and steel isolation of our solitary inhabit itself, feeding this transformation with desolation.
Yet the system which was instrumental in sparking the beautiful metamorphosis remains stagnant, putrid, toxic, gesturing and predatory. And one day, despite all the transforming one undergoes for the sake of his being the natural way, one is handed a warrant for one's very life. Yet all we see is a system which sees clear through who we are today, all the way through to the day we committed our sad act. And it says, "we do not see you today, and in fact, we reject that it is even in your nature to transform. This can only be a sham. You are a criminal. You must die. We will kill you."
Somehow you feel you're missing something and it's beyond your comprehension that a system so powerful, that it has the resources to be made aware that people do change. But who do we tell this to? There's no one to listen, no one to care. And despite it all, you will die. In another way I see this as just another illusion of mankind, a stupid game we are playing and, though it has its repercussions in the eternal view, it's not much. It doesn't mean a thing. In so many ways and for so many reasons, I feel doomed.
However, for me, part of the meaning of overcoming a senseless death is through admitting its purpose, fully, while we live. It's why I'm devoted to continuing my transformation, making art, the writing and rehabilitation course, working towards positive change in here and outside the prison. It's a way of doing something that matters while we can, until something that doesn't matter stops us. -- Moyo
It was this letter that I read and a piece of artwork, a beautiful portrait entitled, Yogi Me, that Moyo sent me as a gift that brought the seed in my mind. I was actually at home meditating one day when this vision just came to me that I need to organize an art exhibition. And I shared that vision with Moyo in a letter and he agreed when I asked him what do you think? Should we do this? He agreed and we started. I had no idea. I had never organized an art exhibition. I didn't know how to do it: when, where, how would everything fall in place.
You know, in the journey, the right people just appeared on the path and joined hands with us and it all came together.
Pavi: I want to go into that process because I think there's a lot of richness there. Before that, though, on paper, one what you can find on line, for a lot of the world, Moyo is defined by his kind [inaudible] at the age of 18 that ended two lives, sent to death row, and where he's been in solitary confinement for the last fifteen years. That's about where his story kind of begins and ends for many, in terms of where the system might see him. For you, who is Moyo?
Maria: For me, Moyo is a friend. He's also a teacher, someone who I can't even fathom the mindset--he has been in a mindset from which such horrendous acts emerge, that he has committed and the journey that he has committed himself to in terms of owning his actions and deciding that he is going to improve himself. He wants to improve himself. He says he's seeking better ways of being and thinking. And that we all have something worthwhile for another, we just have to find it. And the way he has been finding what it is in him that is worthwhile. He is a friend with whom I compare my own seeking of light, my own ugliness, my own darkness as well, ponder upon all of those things.
Once he was telling me--we were talking about in letters about these difficult things in our life, I was alluding to some difficult things in my own life, I wasn't really naming them, and he wrote back saying, "sometimes I just sit down at a table and I invite all these dark things of mine to come to the same table that's bathing in sunlight, to bring those things to the light." What does that mean? They can start dissolving, they can be illuminated.
So, who is Moyo to me? He is a friend, he's a teacher, he's a fellow traveler. He's someone who encourages me deeply to continue my own journey, my own growth, my own practice, as well as to really tap into the power of kindness and compassion within.
Pavi: I think even the letter he shares and every letter you've shared over this journey on the website and with the people who've been helping coordinate, his clarity in expression and the journey he's taken to be able to articulate the way he has. I remember in one of the letters you share he talks about realizing when he's on death row, barely out of his teens, recognizing that he doesn't have ownership of his narrative that's been told by someone else and reclaiming his narrative becomes a kind of a driving force and an exploration that leads him in so many directions, to meditation, to yoga, to African-American history, to art, to art history, to dabbling with colors and paper and with the limited resources.
And in one of those letters it's movingly typewritten on a piece of an Atlas. One of the lines, and you have this on Buddhas on Death Row, where he says, "I was always fascinated with art and how others were able to make pictures, and my idea of art before and well into my incarceration was related to picture-making for the sake of making pictures that were appealing. I never imagined that art can be used as a bridge between two points on the map of life, or between two people."
I think, for me reading that, just the essence of what this project is is building bridges, it's joining people together, hearts across the world. It's joining life experiences. It's really holding up that mirror and allowing each person that comes across Moyo to come to him as a friend, to learn from him and to be able to offer something back to him. I think that's the potential which you created with this platform. And looking at the website now, anyone who's been to Buddha's on Death Row, the website, it just looks so immaculate. It looks like such a perfect work in many ways.
And yet it wasn't necessarily an easy process, and I know you talked about that in the past, and I'm wondering if you could share a little bit about what came up in the process of this beautiful collaboration. What was the method that you had to work through for this lotus to emerge?
Maria: I actually, I would like to go back to what you spoke about, building these bridges and building these connections and I feel I should share another letter right now, which is an important bridge. Moyo talks about sharing light and that's what we should all be doing with each other. I'm just going to start reading this important letter.
Once, over ten years ago, the daughter of the victim of my crime wrote to me after seeing a website. She expressed so much pain that she was feeling because of the actions of mine. And this pain was something that sent me into a depression that lasted weeks. It was then that I began to wake up to the pain that I had created in the lives of others. Here's the most interesting thing to me about this letter from her.
She expressed her overwhelming pain from her loss. The fact that her son would never meet is grandpa, being that he was still in his mother's womb when I shot his grandpa. And despite all of this pain that she was carrying, she somehow found compassion to encourage me to do something with my life. I'm serious, she did. It was strange because I had heard all these stories from guys here who had been contacted by people who were the friends and relatives of the people that they hurt. And it seemed that often these letters come with the wish that the condemned man kill himself and get it over with. Or how the victim's family members will be celebrating the night the condemned is killed by the state, how they can't wait to watch him take his final breath.
But her letter had none of this. I didn't get the sense that she was writing this to wish me all the ill the world can hold, although she was obviously feeling that she was holding all the pain the world can hold. She encouraged me to do something with my life, to get off all the stupid bullshit and do something with my life. I recall telling myself then that I will. And I have tried. But I think that it was that compassion that played such an important role in the course of my life. I'm really grateful for it.
Maria: I learned yesterday that the Navajo people, they call someone who has committed a crime a person who acts as if they have no relatives. So with that thought, I just come back to the idea of building bridges and the need to connect with ourselves when we have forgotten to remember our song and to sing it to each other, and to keep on singing it to ourselves.
Pavi: I think these letters that Moyo sent describing this electrifying letter from this daughter of the victim, where the purpose is so clear and it almost enters him like a force and continues to live in him. And I think that when you started this idea of doing the exhibition, we'll have this collaboration, you are going into uncharted territory and part of going into uncharted territory is the excitement of the explorative. And there's also the fear that can come up with that, the anxiousness, the "maybe this was a bad idea" kind of thoughts that can come in. How does the trust emerge--and this is not someone you can just call up at any time and say, let's talk through this and work through it in this connected kind of isolation or solitude, which is intriguing and I'd love to hear you share a little bit more about the process of the collaboration and how you both worked through the challenges of it.
Maria: Yeah, it's been a great practice of facing fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to move forward in the presence of fear. And that's something I've really had the direct experience of as we have been co-creating Buddhas on Death Row. I've had all kinds of fears and Moyo has also shared with me about the fears that he has had. And really, there has been the opportunity to make a constant decision to be unafraid, and to be unafraid, you have been enabled by building trust. At some point I just decided to trust, I just decided to be unafraid.
All kinds of fears were coming from the outside, doubts. There was a person who was warning me, telling me to be cautious, "consider, don't do this, don't write to him, don't do that." And I felt this fear and doubt starting to accumulate, like these fear birds that hover around and start picking up twigs and building these fear bird nests. I just realized if I wanted to act from my purest intention, to act from my heart, I cannot have these fear bird nests building up here. And I told this person that you have to stop. I'm choosing to be unafraid and I can't have these fear narratives coming at me, because I need to be able to move forward with very little time.
When you work on an exhibition with someone whom you can reach through letters only, who can only reach you through letters and it takes up to two weeks to get those letters between one another. At some point we were really counting down the time. Are we able to get this information, these key pieces for the exhibition together from Moyo in mail?
And with just another blessing on this journey, actually, we met after two decades a person who used to be my best friend back in school days and we hadn't met for twenty years. And, bam, we just happened to meet, and she just happened to be this art professional today in Helsinki, and she said that she would love to help, and when she came on board the doors just started opening. But coming back to this trust, with her we just decided that we are going to trust everything is going to arrive on time and so it did.
I have so many thoughts right now in my head about overcoming this fear, but I think I would actually just like to share what Moyo has said about building trust and working with fear. I want to read from one of his letters.
Here on death row, we only have contact with the outside via letters and visits. And so it is difficult to try and control what is happening outside the prison when it comes to you in here attempting to build anything like what we are doing. You have to trust in the people you are working with. Sadly, most of us come from cutthroat backgrounds, are cutthroat or have been. And we live daily in a harsh place where trust is so very rare. And you know from hard experience that you aren't always paranoid, not always. And it's complicated. Nothing is clear cut, nothing is stone. All you know is that you have to be careful. And then there was that time when that pen pal of such and such took off and kept his art. "You have to watch people," we hear all day and every day. If you slashed these prison walls with a blade they would bleed fear. Illogical fear, paranoia.
And he says that there was a time also when he heard this voice and this voice kept saying that you've got to watch in terms of whether he can trust me or not. And all this that he shared about his fears and overcoming, building that trust, he says, this level of honesty was not possible with me this time last year. It was there but I was too afraid to access it. I would not have revealed this to you last year.
We are both living our respective lives where we are constantly engaging with others and working on ourselves. We are also bringing that light to our meetings, our friendship, and it enriches us. And he says that this experience of putting the exhibition together for him has been an opportunity to practice letting go of control. You know, when you work in a group setting, when you work with many people together. He said, "I can work on listening to others more and feeling that their ideas are as valid as my own." And he feels that all of this has really strengthened him to work, to keep on working on the real nature project, which is the down-to-earth or every day project.
Though, he has so many times really shared how he has learned to put himself aside and to let go of control and to trust. And this expansion that we've experienced, it's been truly remarkable.
Pavi: It's been remarkable and I feel like it's touched on so many things that are universal. Even though it's a very particular collaboration between a particular person going through an experience on death row and you on the other end in Helsinki, there's [inaudible] of your individual story and also the universal truth of what it means to be human, to try and build a friendship, to try and build trust, to try and face down your fears, to try and be your authentic self. The lessons that you've learned and taught each other along the way has bearing on all of our lives.
When you're talking about your fears, there's a real element to that part of your fear as I recall, was just you didn't want anything you did to get Moyo into trouble. And it's kind of a paradoxical thought to think about getting someone on death row in trouble. You think that that's about as much trouble as you can be in, but that there are little things that the guards can do, the little privileges that he has access to can be snatched away, that a miserable living condition can be made that much harder was a real fear for you. And you're working in the outside world where things move fast. He's situated in a context where nothing seems to move at all. And just how those two worlds would kind of come together through this collaboration. There's a friction and a tension there that could have imploded on itself if not for the kindness of spirit that I think you both have and I think it really came to light very sharply in the decision to use Moyo's pen name. And maybe you could share how that came about?
Maria: Yes, so Moyo has wanted to be and has chosen to be present in Buddhas on Death Row with his artist name. It's a name that he has adopted in prison. Moyo is a Swahili word for heart and spirit, and it's just so spot on because so much of what has been happening has been about opening you heart. He's been telling me how this whole practice of opening his heart has been so transformative. I have opened my heart in so many ways, but through previously dark....of my own heart. And for the twelve days that we had the exhibition open for in Helsinki, and I had the blessing and the honor to be there to hold that space. And it really struck me how the people who stepped into that space, over 300 people who stepped in, there was really that quality of open heart.
But going back to the choice of anonymity, of using the artist name, these are Moyo's words and thoughts from a letter he sent to me.
I was thinking that it would be a great antidote for grasping the spotlight to have a healthy dose of anonymity. Have you ever heard that formula before of prescribing the opposite of some affliction in order to heal it? And then he quotes, "in the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of Tao every day something is dropped. Less and less is done until non-action is achieved. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering."
Pavi: I think what you left out was also, I think for me one of the most powerful parts of that was that it actually bothered him initially, the decision to go anonymous. Can you speak a little bit about that? Because I think when we try to go in with the helping mindset, we'll often tend to assume what is needed and we lead with our version of reality that sometimes doesn't necessarily match up. And I think there was a lot of great, in the way he came to that decision of anonymity in his own way, when it hadn't originally sat so well with him.
Maria: Yes, thanks, Pavi, for bringing that up. What I just read was actually the conclusion that Moyo then arrived at. But when we were considering, when I suggested to him to use Moyo as your identity in this exhibition, there were many layers to this and I don't want to share all of them. But I will just say that when you rely on sending letters and time is tight, I learned a lot about clarity of communication on this journey. And this was actually one of the most important and beautiful parts of this journey, of our friendship. But he actually then wrote back to me and he said that he's feeling like he's being pulled from one prison to another. He first wasn't really okay with the idea of anonymity--I don't want to say anonymity because this is not anonymous, but the presence of Moyo has been so powerful everywhere it's not anonymity, the choice of using his artist name.
But he brought up how that actually feels like going from one prison to another, that it's restrictive. And he shared very beautifully, very openly his thoughts. He started that letter with the word respect, and he told me that "in here, in prison, whenever we want to express--controversial is not the word, but if there's like some friction--so we start with the word respect to create that respectful space." So he started with the word respect and then he expressed his feelings and how he sees that. And it totally struck me. I totally understood everything, and I felt deep shame within myself at that point.
But then the very next day comes this letter where he says that, "I see all of this now clear-eyed with you. I should have remembered that you are a person who wants nothing but good for me, and you are a person who I want nothing but good as well." And just in that letter, I'm not very good at putting all this into words right now. I should retreat back into silence, but let's just say that he just then himself concluded, and he realized that he wanted to move forward with the artist name as part of his spiritual practice and antidote.
Pavi: What I love about this is that there is such a respect in the way you both conduct this friendship as well as this collaboration. When you look at the playing fields that you're both in--being in the free world automatically invests you with so much more power to affect certain, to pull certain levers, to make certain things happen. And you can start to leverage that in almost unconscious ways to make things happen your way, or how you think is the right way. And I think that your ability to slow down, to really tune into each letter as it came, to not think about, "Oh, Moyo's not in charge of this part. I'm responsible for this, so let me just make the decision." To really give that space, I think there's just a very different way of working in the world and to have that kind of trust where even when you don't agree with each other necessarily, to say, I know your intention and my intention are ultimately the same, so let's just walk this difference until the threads converge again. And that's how you designed this exhibition, this platform, whatever this river that is unfolding is.
Before we transition to allowing listeners to call in with questions, I want to bring up one very important element of this story, and that is that it is not just an art exhibition--in one sense it is a story of a particular matter. But there is also in Moyo's intention here, that he's someone who's used the solitary cell, he's lived the silence of meditation, but he's never mistaken one for the other. He's very clear that there are realities, parts of his reality, the reality of being on death row, the reality of solitary confinement, that he has a strong stand on that this project and practice is bringing awareness to, and that there is a broader movement and directing of consciousness that you're participating in with this piece.
Could you speak a little bit about that? I think at the core of it I'm really asking--this is not just a stand alone project, right? What do you want this work and this collaboration, beyond Moyo's story and his art and the beauty of this relationship and the potential that it holds, what do you want, what does Buddhas on Death Row wanting to bring attention to, when it comes to some of these, these not so inspiring parts of the realities?
Maria: Moyo wrote to me recently after the exhibition closed in Helsinki and he said that honestly he actually part of him just thought that, okay, this is just one exhibition and that will be it. But this expansion that it has been, all the ripples that have come out of it--and because his initial intention, the one that moved me in that letter that came last year, was to use his life force for the good of more than himself, and I think that is the beating heart of Buddhas on Death Row. To really keep those ripples going and to serve and Moyo has also been sharing with me how this has been one of the first times that he has been able to connect to the spirit of service. And for me, I felt this sense of being so much more alive, for example, in all those interactions in the gallery space with people, seeing how this touches them, how the ripples just go out.
So I think in many ways this is an open slate. Moyo wrote to me saying that he's just willing to walk the path onward wherever it may lead. It's a mystery, it's an open horizon. But really, the key intention there is to build connection, affirm life. It's healing, it's taking responsibility, and it's about seeking, as Fleet Maull said in his powerful Awakin call last month, it's about just feeding in that fire of transformation. And it's about leading with love. It's about becoming more human, creating those spaces in which we can meet one another as human beings and there we can connect more deeply with our humanity, because we are all related. We cannot forget that we are all relatives.
Pavi: One of the things that's been remarkable--there's many things that have been remarkable--but really, I think just recognizing with the ripples that you shared, and I'd like you to speak a little bit about the ripples, both from the exhibition as well as the process of this collaboration. It just became so evident that prison walls, that steel and concrete, there's only so much that it can keep out, and only so much that it can keep in. In a way, Moyo's spirit, his stories, his art, his words have traveled in this month. The ways in which they have worked in the hearts and minds of people across the world is such a testament to that invisible force. What is larger than our smallness? What is bigger than our crimes? It's been undeniable when you hear and see how people are responding to this. So if you could share a little about that, about the ripples, and also a little about the effect--has any of that traveled back to Moyo? Has it come back to him in any way?
Maria: As the exhibition opened, there was this beautiful piece on dailygood.org about Buddhas on Death Row with three powerful passages from Moyo and so many reflections came back from people sharing how those passages touched them. That piece has been read thousands of times by people everywhere around the world. I just want to read a few responses that came back.
One person said, "I find it very hard to express my response to your words and your paintings. Both move me to tears of sadness, and yet also of hope and great joy. Clearly you have suffered enormously and it's inspiring that you have not only owned your grave mistakes, but you have begun to use your art and gift with language to inspire others to be the best they can be, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of those around them."
Another person, who is also an art teacher says that "sometimes I get lost and wonder what art is for," and Moyo reminded this person that art is about speaking from your soul, that art is a form of true communication, speaking from your soul. And life is about creating your own narrative. I know that we are short on time and I would love to hear from the people who are on the line, but in terms of how all these ripples going back to Moyo and how he has felt, I just want to end here by reading a letter from him from last month:
All this love and belief in me from all these lovely people who love so naturally and purely is having me ask, what is the real me? Is it my closed-hearted moments, or am I truly an endless river of free-flowing love? I look in the mirror after hearing the thoughts of these lovely people, trying to see what they see. And I see it. I will do my best to pass this gift of awakening on to others. It's key to keep on passing it down the line and around and around, this awakening.
Pavi: Keep passing it around and around.
Maria: So really how we can hold the mirror, how to remember to look in the mirror to remind ourselves, but also to hold the mirror to others so we all remember who we really are and we can reconnect. And I think that's a beautiful way now to open the mirror to our telephone friends, too.
Amit: Albert writes in and says, "Thank you. A beautiful celebration of our indisputable connection with each other, dissolving the fear of the intimacy of vulnerability of the human condition.
Maria: Thank you, Albert.
Amit: There's so much to still continue to dive into. And touching upon something that Pavi had said earlier, when you think about where Moyo is in this cell and considering where you are, just from a physical space. And then you take that down to the mental level. I'm curious what the impact has been on you personally when you take those constructs into account, when you think about the fact that, "yeah, while he might physically be in a jail or a prison cell," we too sometimes mentally put ourselves in the cell, we put up borders, we put up walls around us. I'm curious how some of his insights have impacted you in that sense.
Maria: It's impacted me a lot. I think I'm a better version of myself in so many ways. And that's what happens when we connect with each other. Of course, I'm just stating the obvious, but it just manifests in daily life for me. The point is to bring it to the daily life. That's where the real practice is. So I would just say, for example, what I also said in the Awakin Call introduction, that one morning when I was biking to work, the realization came to me that, "today as I'm biking here, I can be a friendly face, an assuring face that someone else can see. Who can I be that friendly face to?" Of course, to everyone. But to be mindful of the quality that you bring to all those interactions, and that quality of what you bring to interactions was something that Moyo and I have also been writing about a lot. So it's really coming from those letters to the every day lived life.
Amit: It's interesting what I find--you have this openness to you and I feel like it's because of this true openness that it's allowed you to come across so many different possibilities around you, in regard to a painter of the desert or a yoga program for South African inmates, and obviously, this beautiful friendship with Moyo. I'm curious, if you were to look at the heart of that, what is it that has opened up your heart so much? And what is it that has been so critical to your inner cultivation?
Maria: That's a big question. Retreating to silence, for sure, and just nourishing yourself. The way Moyo writes that all of this has prompted him to ask, what is the real me? I've really been brought back to that question as well. And I've seen the smallness of my heart. I've seen what comes when you act from a smaller heart--if you are fearful. It's kind of sharpened my vision to be more aware and to recognize those things, and when they come up to acknowledge them, but with compassion. To move forward and to keep on striving.
I don't know if I'm being clear at all, but one thought that has been in my mind for the past few days is that I've really noticed some of my own insecurities and negative thought patterns. And I'm like, okay, that's a negative thought pattern. That's okay, I'll keep moving forward. I don't know if that made any sense.
Amit: No, it absolutely does. So important is at least having that initial recognition before you can even get to any other stage you have to have that recognition and then allow it to flow into reflection, and then you have to make that decision what you want to do with anything at all.
Amit: Very nice. The other thing that I think Pavi touched on earlier was, when you think about, not just Moyo, but many of the other people around the world that are in prison cells, and they're on death row, who have come in at such an early age. That thought that, well at such an early age, you would think that maybe we should have tried to rehabilitate him, rather than just saying the rest of this individual's life we're sentencing to death. So, I'm curious what this has done, whether it's Buddhas on Death Row or even in your own life, towards creating awareness and education around that or restorative justice.
Maria: Thank you, Amit, for that question. It's such an important one. And that is something like, for example, the concept of restorative justice. I did not know anything about it. I first heard some small things about it, like a year ago I started to hear, I started to be aware. And now, this process and practice of Buddhas on Death Row, one of the things I feel strongly is responsibility. Responsibility to educate yourself, Responsibility to seek better ways of thinking and being, as Moyo says. And for me, that has come in the way of educating myself, exploring, for example, the concept of restorative justice. I'm not in a place to really speak about it. I'm only learning right now.
Yesterday, I had a chance here in California to visit the San Quentin prison. I went there for half a day with Jacques Verduin who for twenty years has been doing transformative work with violent offenders. And this opportunity to join him and to join the inmates in the prison in these transformative circles was something that has come as an opportunity that opened because of Buddhas on Death Row. And to sit in a circle with prisoners with closed eyes, meditating and bowing into the circle and then sharing from your heart. They had so many questions about Buddhas on Death Row, about this journey, about fear, about building trust, about--one of them asked me, how long have you been in your heart center and working and acting from your heart center? And I said, well it's on and off. Most of the time it's off, but becoming more aware and reminding yourself of coming back to that center.
So, I would like to end this response by sharing with everyone one thing that the inmates shared with me. They told me that you don't know who we are. You don't know what we have done. But we thank you for allowing us to support you on this journey. And the questions they asked me were just so critical and illuminating to me in making sense of the potential of Buddhas on Death Row and everything we have been building together with Moyo.
Amit: Absolutely. For those of you callers who are on the line or listening in, Jacques Verduin, who's also been a previous guest on this call, is the founder of a program called GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power), and he's sort of helped form the Prison Mindfulness Initiative and Prison Yoga Project, and works with a lot of inmates in the highest level prisons to pioneer ways of cultivating their inner selves and transforming themselves. And so what a wonderful opportunity you had to be able to spend time with him and some of the prisoners there in San Quentin.
I bet you can't wait to write that to Moyo.
Maria: Exactly. I actually have a card ready here that I want to write after this call.
Amit: Wonderful. Well, one of the questions we always like to do to wrap up our call is, what is it that we can do to be of service to you or to Moyo? I feel like he has been our guest on this call as well. As a community, what is it that can we do to be supportive to both of your journeys?
Maria: Thank you for that welcome request. I feel that sharing your reflections, sharing how Buddhas on Death Row is touching you, it would be so valuable to hear back from you in terms of making a way for whatever might emerge in the future. So, I would just love to hear from whoever feels called or feels touched to share. So you can send an email, you can find the contact information from the website buddhasondeathrow.com. That's one major thing in which we can join hands.
And everyone can also consider for example to write a prisoner. And just ways of how we can build bridges.
Amit: Absolutely. And we'll definitely share the website with all the callers later on this week. We'll make sure to do that and if you guys have notes or gratitude or any messages that you would perhaps even might convey to Moyo, we can pass that along to Maria and she can find a creative way to get that to him as well.
Maria: Thank you, that would be wonderful.
Amit: Maria, thank you so much. We really appreciate it. We have another comment from one of our callers who said, "Gratitude, Maria, for palpably bringing Moyo into the circle. We thank you and Moyo for sharing your noble friendship and unconditional love has no bounds and invites us into the vastness of your hearts where barriers do not exist and we are truly connected. Bless you both."
Maria: Thank you.
Pavi: Before we go into the closing, I just want to--someone did have a question: "have you had a chance to meet Moyo in person, and if so, what was that like?" Do you want to quickly answer that question Maria? And then, I know you had a closing poem that you wanted to read.
Maria: Thank you. I'm actually going to meet Moyo next week for the first time. May the journey continue. I want to just conclude with a poem that Moyo wrote for the exhibition opening:
I bow to you from across the seas
Land, green grasses, electrified fences
The unstoppable bow
Of peace, of love
The big bow
Big as sky above
As serenely blue
Peace be with you
By your side
In this way you are with me
And I am with you
Thank you humbly for joining us for our ceremony of peace, of justice, of art. My sincere wish is that you experience all the beauty, truth, high values, and courage we see in you. In these works who sincerely emanate from all the truth and beauty in me, which I have collected from all my experiences. Pain, my teacher. Love, my protector. Friendship, my humanity, our humanity. May you find a usefulness in the details we all overlook. May you find here some small inspiration pointing toward our potential. May we all find peace.
Amit: Thank you.
Maria: Thank you.
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