Speaker: Maria Jain

Buddhas on Death Row

Maria Jain is a seeker, traveler, writer, entrepreneur, advocate, and story teller. For the past 8 years, she has been working in international development, focusing on women's empowerment, gender equality and ending gender-based violence.  Between 2008 and 2012, she lived and worked in Liberia and in the United States.  Together with her partner, Maria also is co-founder of Kantha, a web store where India’s rich craft tradition meets design that appeals to the contemporary eye.  The business is dedicated to clothes and accessories that honor some of India's age-old craft traditions – such as hand block printing and kantha embroidery – and livelihoods that still today rely on them. 

Now living in Helsinki, Finland, Maria is a traveler and writer who considers India a second home.  She strives to keep her heart and mind open for stories and connections – a way of seeing and being that has brought her to consistently unlock the blooming possibilities around her – whether in finding a painter of the desert or a yoga program for South African inmates, to bright Greyhound bus journeys, to a heartwarming laundry shop.  “While traveling has always been important in my life, it has evolved into a new kind of exploration. I began seeking stories while traveling,” Maria says.  “My intention is to spread the inspiration of the ways people are following their hearts and making a difference.  For me, this has become a way of being a student of life.  Also, a way to be of service.” 

Her biggest journey is the one that she has traveled on the inside – “cultivated in silence and stillness, and practiced in the everyday life, here and now.  On this journey, I connected with Moyo: a fellow traveler, a fellow meditator, a fellow writer and seeker, a fellow curious mind, who lives on Death Row for the crimes he committed at a young age.”

Inspired by a prison pen pals initiative, Maria began corresponding in the spring of 2014 with Moyo (an artistic pseudonym).  At the age of 18, Moyo killed two people – a crime for which he was sentenced to death and, for the past fifteen years, has been held in solitary confinement on death row in the United States.  There, in his solitary confinement cell, Moyo began a quest of self-discovery, working to “polish his soul, clean stains from his heart, and open windows of his mind.”  In an effort to understand and reclaim his own narrative, he became an avid reader, delving into books on black history, art, the justice system, psychology, spiritual texts, fiction and more.  He began making art as a means to explore his own experiences and emotions, and was introduced to yoga and meditation – in time committing to a regular practice of all.

Though living vastly different lives on the surface, Moyo and Maria swiftly found common ground for friendship.  A year into their correspondence, Maria received a special letter from Moyo with a stunning work of handmade art – a gift that planted the seed for an art exhibit of Moyo's transformative story. Moyo continued to correspond with Maria regularly, sending letters, postcards, photographs, poetry and artwork.  In August 2016, Maria exhibited his work as an art exhibition in Helsinki and online.  The exhibition, Buddhas on Death Row, is titled in the spirit of Moyo’s body of work: a series of Buddha portraits with accompanying reflections on suffering and happiness, conflict and peace, impermanence and eternity, ignorance and awareness.

As Moyo wrote to Maria:  “When the state’s attorney at trial painted me as someone unfit to live, this greatly eroded my already non-existent self-worth, and I didn’t want to allow anyone to determine how others viewed me after that.  What that ultimately did for me is show me that despite my grave mistakes in life and all the harm that I’ve created for others, there was something still worthy in me.  I try to make use of discarded or ignored bits in my art because we all have something worthwhile for another, we just have to find it – and it took me coming to death row to find my worth as a human and as a citizen of the world.  I have committed some grave acts in my life and I will never be able to undo them.  Yet the very least I can do is to improve myself.”

For Maria, “Moyo's friendship has propelled me forward in so many ways: to stay committed to my practice, to understand responsibility, transformation, healing in new ways, to slow down, listen, to be still and to be present, to grow in perception and courage, to get back to reading books, to foster creativity and also to remember to give space to being jolly and playful.   What started as an art project, turned out to be a form of practice.  A practice of inner cultivation, art and friendship that has by now touched thousands of people . . . . It has been an immense journey to be able to hold this space and to witness the ways in which people have been touched.”

Please join us for an enriching conversation with this remarkable storyteller on the unifying potential of art as a tool for transformation.

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