Transforming every situation we face into the path of practice is one of the key teachings of the Buddha. However, very few of us have the opportunity to do this work with a death row inmate in his last few weeks of life.
In October, Venerable Thubten Jampel from Sravasti Abbey in Newport travelled to Oklahoma City to act as spiritual advisor to Don Wackerly, a death row inmate and student of Venerable Thubten Chodron since 2006.
Ven. Jampel had previously spoken at Don’s clemency hearing in September, then spent a week visiting him each day until his execution on October 14.
According to Ven. Jampel, it was obvious from Don’s videotaped statement to the clemency hearing that he had been practicing the Dharma.
“Don didn’t get caught up in his own personal distress,” Ven. Jampel said. “He maintained his innocence, but he didn’t go into self-pity, which can often be a fallback position for many of us.”
“The Board denied clemency. This outcome actually gave Don an incredible opportunity to practice Dharma. He had solitude, relative quiet, and a date for his death; that’s something the rest of us won’t get.”
“In meditation, we intentionally think about what it would be like to die in a week or in a month; Don had the meditation done for him. What he needed to do was draw out the beneficial aspects, energy to practice, a clear focus, and allow all the small things to drop by the wayside.”
However it was his dealings with the prison authorities that had the most impact on Ven. Jampel.
“The most powerful experience I had was being able to see people who, through the choices they made in their lives and their previous karma, led them to the position of being an accessory to murder,” he said.
“My interactions with the decision-makers around Don’s execution made me realize they were good-hearted people. Even though this situation was very different from a murder committed on the street, it is so easy for us to see all those who kill others as horrible people.”
“The people I met sincerely believed they were serving justice and society’s wishes. They took jobs and made decisions that got them into this situation with a genuine desire to serve. That, in turn, led them to making life and death decisions; they will have to bear the burden of those actions and decisions.
“I particularly remember one woman on the clemency board. It was very obvious to me she felt the need to vote in a way that fulfilled her duties as a public servant. It looked like the decision was very painful for her. She winced. Her duty was one thing, but her moral beliefs were something else.”
“Later when I went to speak with her, she looked as if I had cornered her in a dark alley; she was cringing and cowering as if she was waiting for my anger. I had no anger; all I wanted to do was offer my condolences that she had to make such a choice.
“I would rather have been in Don’s place than hers. She might have felt the same.”
Ven. Jampel was able to see first-hand how Don‘s practice had changed the way he was thinking and behaving.
“When I arrived at the prison a week prior to Don’s execution, he was already in a good, peaceful place. He had let go of most of his anger.
“Because his own personal suffering was so clear to him, it was not difficult for him to expand that to the suffering of all those around him and cultivate compassion. If you can die with compassion in your heart, you can’t go to the lower realms.”
Don’s situation also touched the hearts of many around the world. The Abbey received news that thousands of people, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and monks, nuns and students from Buddhist centers in the US, the UK, Nepal, India, Singapore and Australia, were making prayers for him to take a precious human rebirth.
In his last hours, Don continued to practice, renewing his refuge in the Three Jewels and retaking the five precepts just before his death. In lieu of a final statement, Don smiled at his supporters, generated compassion for all sentient beings and recited om mani padme hum, the mantra of great compassion, until he could no longer speak.
A letter from one of Don’s lawyers noted the effect the Dharma had on Don’s final outlook.
“The teachings transformed Don’s life, and he died in a manner which I would be delighted to emulate when my time comes,” he said.
Another of his lawyers noted that every local news report about the execution mentioned Don’s chanting and the prayers made for him by Geshe Dorjee, Ven. Jampel, and others in the observation area. “Pretty good for here,” she said.
According to Ven. Jampel, the unusual nature of Don‘s last statement and his having Buddhist monastics around him as he died had a positive impact on many people.
“At the very least, people I met had to rethink their beliefs and deeply ingrained assumptions about death and what it means,” he said.
“During all my time with Don, I had to keep a mind that recognized his suffering and the causes of suffering that were being created by those involved in his execution, but to look at that only within the context of samsara.
“I needed to keep a broader perspective, one in which the dreadful action of killing a human being can also result in our moving away from suffering and towards kindness and compassion.
“We can use the circumstances around Don’s death to increase our compassion and widen our view of the world. This perspective, in turn, can lead to all our deaths being more peaceful, our minds more calm, and our hearts more open. It can help us in general to have a more meaningful life.”
The Dharma helped everyone concerned. Don’s practice had enabled him to let go of a lot of anger and reconcile with his sisters several months before his death.
His sister wrote to the Abbey, “Our family had been so broken and so hurt. I don’t know that we would have healed had Donnie not found you and your teachings. It is so sad to lose a loved one, but to lose them with anger in your heart would have been devastating.”
She also commented, “I found it truly amazing that as he was facing his final hours, there was no anger or bitterness, only love and compassion. His concern was not for himself but for his two sisters. He was totally at peace as he faced his death.”