Damien Echols was one of the West Memphis Three, a group of teens who were convicted of murdering three young boys in 1993. Through DNA evidence and a deal with prosecutors, Echols was released from prison in 2011 and started a new life in New York City.
Last fall, Echols, a Rinzai Zen practitioner, spoke with Sensai T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, president of the Buddhist Council of New York, at the Rubin Museum. In the excerpt below, they discuss Echols’s time on death row, karma, and how meditation saved his life.
For those who aren’t familiar with my story, I grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, and I was sent to death row when I was 18 years old for three counts of capital murder. I spent 18 years and 76 days on death row before we were finally able to do DNA testing that led to my eventual release in 2011. I’ve only been out about four years and most of that time has been spent in New York. This is my home. I won’t go into a lot of details about the case because there’s so much material out there already—books, documentaries, newspaper articles, magazine pieces, even a Hollywood film.
I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to say about karma . . . I think, in Western culture in particular, we sometimes take Eastern practices and traditions and oversimplify them so they fit better with the beliefs that we’re brought up with. We take the idea that there’s a man in the sky waiting to reward or punish us and transfer that idea over to karma, as if it’s this unfriendly judge hovering over us, waiting to punish us when we do bad things. I’m speaking from my own experience here—this just wasn’t true for me. This isn’t how karma operates. Karma is not something waiting to punish or reward, but is the direct effect of my actions.
Yes, for me, too, karma means that I am responsible. The Buddha originally spoke about karma as that which determines what you are, who you are, and what makes you noble or wicked. The Buddha was saying that by really focusing on your own actions, you realize that your actions are your responsibility. That, for me, is Buddhist freedom. The Buddha’s point, I believe, was that wherever you are, you embrace all of the things that are already determined and then find a new way. That becomes your life, not somebody else’s life.
But I’m curious about how it was for you, staying in such a small space for such a long time. How did you manage?
In a lot of ways, it was easier in that small space than it is out here. When I first went to prison, the day that I walked onto death row, there was a man in there who became a priest in the Rinzai Zen tradition of Japanese Buddhism. Before he was executed he told me, “You can either turn your cell into a monastery and learn and grow, or you can sit in here and go stark raving nuts. You can lose your mind.” And that’s what most people did in there. Most people couldn’t hold it together long enough. There’s no momentum in prison. Out here there’s something that keeps you constantly changing, constantly growing, constantly learning, even if you don’t want to. It’s almost foisted upon you. In there, that doesn’t happen. You exist in a vacuum. If you want to keep growing, learning, expanding, you have to make yourself do it. And that was what I decided to do. It was easy because I didn’t have a lot of distractions. I couldn’t go to the movies, I couldn’t go to a museum, I couldn’t go out and gorge on donuts. I was trapped in a cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The last 10 years I was in prison, I was in solitary confinement. I had no contact with other people. It made it very, very easy to stay focused on the meditation techniques. Even if I reached a point where I was bored, if I thought, “I don’t want to have to do this again,” it was like, “Well, what else are you going to do?”
When I was in prison, I had a teacher that would come from Japan. Shodo Harada was his name. The second I met Harada Roshi, I knew that this was the most disciplined person I had ever come across in my life. He was nice, he was friendly, he smiled. He was courteous, but at the same time you knew that this man had a steel rod in his spine. When I saw that, it inspired me. I looked at him and I said, “This is what I want to be. This is what I want to do.”
Yes. In Zen tradition, the practice tends to be sitting, just sitting. You focus on one single practice and that can open up your path. It’s like the key. You focus on it, and once you understand one practice deeper and more broadly, then you can understand everything else.
By the time that I left prison, I had been sitting meditation between seven and eight hours a day. Now, I’m lucky to do a half hour a day. Spiritual practice is what allowed me to survive for so long in there. Without it, I would have been dead. My wife and my spiritual practice saved my life. Without those things, I would be six feet under right now. I know—not intellectually, but at the core of my bones—how important these practices are. But at the same time, I spend a lot of time trying to catch up on the things of the world out here. I was in prison for almost 20 years and in solitary confinement for almost 10 years. So when I first got out, everything scared me. For example, I went to a play in the city called “Sleep No More.” It’s an interactive experience that takes place in a five-story hotel; you enter with a couple hundred other people and everyone is wearing masks. You get on an elevator and they let you off on different floors, each one set to look like a new place: the middle of a forest in winter, a cemetery, an insane asylum. They split you up from your friends and send you somewhere by yourself. It’s something that’s supposed to change you on some level. You’re supposed to be a different person than you were when you walked in. So Lorri, my wife, and I, and a friend, go together, and we get split up. It’s the first time since being out of prison that I’d been by myself. I went into pure panic mode. I was terrified, traumatized, and my first thought is to start running through this place trying to find Lorri and my friend. I realized after 30 minutes of doing this: “This is how you’re going to spend the rest of your life, unless you stop right now. You’re going to go through the rest of your life this scared, this traumatized, this panicky, this miserable. You’re in hell right now. This is the hell realm. This is it.” I made myself stop and start walking through this experience, taking it in. No matter how much it scared me, no matter how much I had to fight against that panic instinct, I had to force myself to start walking through this in order to come out the other side of hell and start having a normal life again.
After that day, I started making myself do all the things that scared me. I spent a couple months riding the subway to random locations just so I could master the subway system. In a way, this became part of my spiritual practice, too. I had to overcome fear, overcome terror, overcome trauma, and make my way back out into a normal life again.
You are talking about karma here too. Karma, for me, is something you are responsible for. It can’t be anyone else’s. No one else can go to the bathroom for you! You have to do it yourself. You can complain, of course, but in the end, it’s your life. I’ve learned that if you try to escape something—like a ghost—the ghost will come to you. You are the one who will have to walk your path. Whether you succeed or fail, even if you’re unsatisfied, you have to try to accept it with gratitude. The most important thing is that you are able to bow to your own life, to whatever difficulties and excitements come forth, that you’re able to embrace them with your hands together somehow. If you can keep bowing to yourself, to your own life, then you can be truly responsible and you can embrace your life. Maybe then, after you bow to your own life, you can bow to others.
I was thinking the same thing. When it comes to karma, the number one thing I would like to say is that you can go through life being a victor or a victim. You’re going to have to face your karma. You can go through life with a “poor me” attitude—“Why me? Why this?”—or you can go through it saying: “I’m going to honor my life. I’m going to honor my karma. I’m going to come through this. I’m going to be stronger, I’m going to be wiser, I’m going to help spread what I learned from this situation to other people.”
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