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Preparing for Death:
An interview with
"Youıve got to get rid of me . . . then you have to let go of yourself."
Jaturun "Jay" Siripongs, a native of Thailand, was convicted in 1983 for the murders of Garden Grove market owner Pakawan "Pat" Watta-naporn and store clerk Quach Nguyen. While Siripongs admitted to involvement in the robbery, he denied having committed the murders. Yet he refused to name his accomplice and was convicted and sentenced to death.
Six days before Jay Siripongs was to be executed, his friend, attorney Kendall Goh contacted Abhayagiri Monastery seeking a Buddhist spiritual advisor. Two days later, Abhayagiri Co-abbot Ajahn Pasanno expeditiously received security clearance to enter San Quentin Prison and spent three extraordinary days with Jay Siripongs, the last three days of Siripongsı life. Jay Siripongs died by lethal injection on February 9, 1999.
There were many reports that Siripongs went through a remarkable spiritual transformation while in prison. As a youth, Siripongs had taken temporary Buddhist monastic ordination in Thailanda common Thai cultural practice. While in prison, he drew upon the meditation training he had received during his ordination and practiced consistently. Guards and inmates alike recognized that he lived his life at San Quentin peacefully. Several guards supported the clemency appeal for Siripongs, some openly. Even former San Quentin Warden Daniel B. Vasquez supported a plea for commutation of Siripongsı sentence to life imprisonment.
Kathryn Guta and Dennis Crean spoke with Ajahn Pasanno in May 1999.
Fearless Mountain: How did you come to be called in as Jay Siripongsı spiritual counselor?
Ajahn Pasanno: The first time Jay expected to be executed was November 17, 1998. At that time, he was accompanied by a Christian minister, a woman who had attended several other executions at San Quentin. Although Jay liked the minister very much and had known her for years, there was a dynamic between them that increased his anxiety. In November, in the final hours before his scheduled death, the two talked incessantly, and Jay was distracted from composing his mind. Jay had had a clear sense of what he needed to do in order to prepare for death, but he did not do it in November. Then, at the last moment, a federal court granted a stay, and Jay was not executed for another three months. He was very fortunate that this first execution had been stayed. His situation and reactions became clear to him. He wanted to make his death as peaceful as possible, and he knew he had to do the inner work to make it so.
For the second execution date, Jay was determined to go to his execution alone so that he could try to be calm and collected in his last hours. His friend Kendall Goh was concerned about his lack of spiritual support and offered to find a Buddhist advisor. It was apparently not easy for Jay to ask for a different spiritual advisor; he encountered difficulties both from San Quentin and others, and he was cautious. I thought that his caution was reasonable as clearly the last thing he needed at that stage was some pious lecture from a monk. However, immediately after we met we connected, and he was happy to have me there.
FM: How did it feel to serve as a spiritual counselor to a condemned man?
AP: At first, I felt happy to help. Then I thought, Iım going into a hell realm, and there was a certain amount of trepidation. There were gates, chains, a metal detector and guards. Then there was a second metal detector, guards to stamp my hand after Iıd cleared it, then more gates and guards. Yet there were also many conflicting images. I heard a guard call children visitors by their names as if he knew them.
When I saw Jay, he was not like others I have been with who are approaching their deaths. Jay was young and healthy, in control of his faculties. He was sharp, intelligent and talented. It was clear he had lived the last years of his life skillfully. Although he was waist-chained, he remained dignified. He was gracious and hugged his visitors. The whole situation took on a surreal quality. Everything appeared normal, but at midnight on Monday this human being would die, he would be executed.
FM: Was there any tension in the air considering that Jay would soon be put to death?
Taking Refugeseeing the Buddha, Dhamma and
Sangha as enlightened knowing, truth and the embodiment of goodness.
Jay was so happy that his friends could hear Dhamma and that he could share
this with them.
AP: Not really. The atmosphere was relaxed and not gloomy. Sometimes we got down to the nitty gritty of the mind. Other times we joked and laughed. On the first day especially, Jay was a very gracious host. Prior to my arrival he had set up a chair for me on one side of a table and for his friends on the other side. He had instructed them very strictly on how to behave in the presence of a monk, and he had planned to offer a meal. He said it was the first time he had been able to feed a monk in twenty years. In response to questions from his friends, I talked about the Buddhist theory of awakening using the lotus flower metaphor. I also talked quite a bit about the meaning of Taking Refugeseeing the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha as enlightened knowing, truth and the embodiment of goodness. Jay was so happy that his friends could hear Dhamma and that he could share this with them.
Yet I felt very concerned that Jay look after the quality of his own mind and not let people distract him due to their own traumas about his imminent death. Jay recognized the dynamic that was going on around him; he was certainly not trying to maintain social contact because of agitation or restlessness. Still, he realized that he had to take responsibility for his own stability. Although he gave himself completely to his friends during the visiting hours, he meditated many of the other hours of the day beginning when he awoke at two or three oıclock in the morning.
During the days before his death, I pushed Jay into not becoming distracted. He had a lot of visitors. I told him itıs best not to get too caught up with all these people. Kendall had told me when I first came that Jay was doing fine, that it was the rest of them who were falling apart. It was very obvious that Jay had touched the lives of many people, and they gathered around him before his death. His sister, Triya, was there. Some of his friends considered him their spiritual teacher. Many of his friends were lawyers, other friends were born-again Christians. So there were many different needs, and Jay, being kind-hearted and generous, tried to fulfill them all.
FM: Is it true that Jay was also an accomplished artist?
AP: Yes. Jay showed me his portfolio. He had become skilled in many different media and was obviously talented. He also gave away most of his artover 600 piecesto acquaintances and friends over the years. Jay used art to express his process of growing and changing. He often used butterflies as a symbol of his metamorphosis. At some time during his incarceration, he had realized that his life would end in prison. He thought, I canıt continue hating myself or others. During the last eight years, Jay underwent a deep transformation and came to a real understanding of himself. He told me that he had been in prison for a long time and couldnıt say it was a bad thing. He felt he had been able to grow in prison in a way that would not have been possible had he not been in such difficult and extreme circumstances. He learned to reflect deeply on what would create well-being and clarity in his mind. The closer he got to the execution, the more he learned about what would obstruct the mind from growth and peace. He turned himself to the process of applying the mind to truth.
FM: And this included taking up Buddhist meditation?
AP: Thatıs right. Jay had learned how to meditate when he was a monk in Thailand many years earlier. While in the monastery, he had had a very clear vision of light while meditating, but when he had tried to replicate the experience, it didnıt come back.
FM: That sounds like the common meditation experience of grasping after what is pleasant.
AP: Yes. I teased him about that. Jay then reported that three weeks earlier the light had come back. This was very encouraging to me. Since Jay was a visual artist, I realized that he could use the vision of light as an anchor at the moment of his death. I led him in guided meditations centering on the breath and light. Since his breath would only be there until the injection took effect, I told Jay that there would come a time to let the breath go and focus instead on the image of light.
FM: How else were you able to help Jay with his inner work? Was he afraid of death?
AP: The first night we talked on the phone, I had asked Jay, "Whatıs your mental state." "Iım at peace," he said. "Iıve accepted what will happen. But I still have things I want to know." Growing up in Thailand, Jay believed in rebirth. He joked that he wanted his ashes scattered in the sea so that they might be eaten by fish and then the fish by humans. In this way, he could quickly return to the human realm to continue his work. He knew that human birth was the place where learning was possiblea place to understand pain and joy, good and evil, right and wrong. Growth and understanding were the results of choices one made. Jay had made some very bad choices over the years, but he had also made some good ones. He felt he had learned some real lessons in this lifetime and was determined to stay on the path of Dhamma in the next life.
FM: Did you ever to talk to Jay about those bad choices, about his crimes?
AP: No, I never talked to Jay specifically about the past. There was not enough time. I focused instead on his spiritual well-being, on his ability to face death with as composed a mind as possible. I was not relating to him as a person convicted of a crime. I was relating to him as a person facing death.
Poem from the journal of Jaturun "Jay" Siripongs
On Jayıs November execution date he had been allowed a mala in his
cell, but before giving it to him, one of the guards had put it on the
AP: Six hours before an execution, the prisoner leaves his family and friends behind and goes to a very cramped cell right next to the execution chamber. Only his spiritual advisor can accompany him. There are six guards, called the execution squad, in a very confined space, and people like the prison psychiatrist and the warden also come in from time to time. There can be a lot of intimidation from the guards right before the execution. They might be carrying on loud conversations or be obnoxious in other ways. They may be watching TV very loudly just three feet away from the condemned man. On Jayıs November execution date he had been allowed a mala in his cell, but before giving it to him, one of the guards had put it on the floor and stepped on it. After I was strip searched, I was taken to one of these death row holding cells. There, Jay and I were separated into two different cells connected only by a small corner. Right away I did protective chanting as a way of cleaning out negative energy. "Weıll take the game away from them," I told Jay. We had planned for Jay to ask for the Refuges and Precepts in Pali, but he mistakenly did the chant to request a Dhamma talk instead. So I gave a short Dhamma talk to him and the guards.
FM: What did you talk about?
AP: I told the story of the Buddha, just after his enlightenment, not wanting to teach, as he thought nobody would understand. I talked about the nature of delusion of the human world and the liberation of the Dhamma. I talked about the Four Noble Truths, about how letting go was not a rejection of anything. I instructed Jay to pay attention to the arising of consciousness. Rather than inclining the mind towards that which will result in suffering and rebirth, I told Jay to move instead towards relinquishment and focusing the mind. In terms of letting go or relinquishment, we talked about forgiveness in the context of "not self." If we havenıt forgiven, we keep creating an identity around our pain, and that is what is reborn. That is what suffers. I asked Jay, "Is there anybody you have not forgiven yet?" I meant the system, his parents, others. Jay thought about it. "I havenıt forgiven myself completely," he said softly at last. It was touching. He had a memory of being a person who had been involved in something wrong in the past, yet now in the present he was a different person. It was helpful for him to see that he was not this memory of himself, to let go of the person in the past who was involved in the crimes. It was also interesting to see that the guards seemed intent on what I was saying, and throughout the evening they were actually very solicitous and respectful of both of us.
FM: Was Jay preoccupied with the numerous appeals to save his life that continued during this time?
AP: Jay did not seem concerned or worried about justice. He did not hold out great hope for the appeals to go through. When the final appeals were turned down, it was not a big deal. "Iım accepting the fact that Iıll be executed," he said.
FM: What was Jayıs state of mind as he got closer to the execution?
AP: At one point, Jay asked, "If I am not the body, not the feelings, not the mind, then what is it that is liberated?" I told him that such a question appearing then in his mind was simply doubt arising. When you let go of everything and experience the peace and clarity inherent in that, you donıt have to put a name or identity on it. At another point Jay said, "I have two people on my mind, . . . me and you." I said, "Youıve got to get rid of me. Iım not going in there with you. And then you have to let go of yourself." We really laughed about that. Basically, I helped prepare Jay for the many distractions that might take place during the execution. "People will be strapping you down; things will be happening around you," I warned. "You need to establish the mind without going to externals. Keep your attention within." We spent the whole evening meditating, chanting and talking Dhamma. So in the last hour Jay was very peaceful and able to establish his mind firmly on his meditation object. Toward the end, we took the time to do a ceremony of sharing merit and offering blessings, even to the guards. After his final appeal had been turned down, Jay also asked me to do some chanting for the lawyers involved in his case. He had a quality of thoughtfulness right up until the end.
FM: Were you present at the execution?
AP: No. That had been decided before I first visited Jay at San Quentin. I believe that not having yet met me, Jay elected not to have me there with him. When I read the papers the next day, though, they reported that he lay very still during the execution and kept his eyes closed. I found this heartening because I felt he was composing his mind.
FM: How did you feel after the execution?
AP: I was very grateful to have been there. It was very humbling. One canıt help but consider what any one of us would have done in a similar circumstance - relating to our death not as something abstract, sometime off in the future, but knowing that at precisely 12:01 a.m. we will definitely die.
FM: Was there a funeral for Jay?
AP: There was a private cremation the day after Jay died. I met with his sister, Triya, at the crematorium. Jayıs body lay in a cardboard box. Earlier, when Triya had asked to view his body, she had been told by the funeral director that this was not possible. I wasnıt aware of this, so I asked the funeral director to lift the lid to the box. With some hesitation, she lifted it. Jay was in a body bag. "There must be a zipper," I said. The woman searched around and said the zipper was by his feet. She hesitated again. She said that Jay would not be wearing any clothes. "There must be a scissors around. Itıs just a plastic bag," I said. The woman brought some scissors over and cut the bag open at the shoulders and head. It was very powerful to view his body. He had the most serene expression on his face. There was a brightness to his skin. He wasnıt dull or waxy. He had the tiniest bit of a smile. It was very good to see he had died a peaceful death. After all that had happened, it was a reassuring ending.