Buddhas on Death Row brings to light a profound journey unfolding in the darkest of places. It is a testament to the power of art, inner cultivation, and friendship.
The idea for this project was born out of correspondence traveling between the United States and Finland. The pen friends: Moyo and Maria.
At the age of 18, Moyo killed two people. He was sentenced to death and for the past fifteen years, he has been held in solitary confinement on Death Row. There, in his own words, he is working to “polish his soul, clean stains from his heart, and open windows of his mind.”
Locked inside a cell smaller than a parking spot, Moyo began a quest of self-discovery. 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. Deprived of nearly every form of social interaction, he began to communicate with people in the outside world through letters. Once, from a neighboring cage in the recreation yard, a fellow inmate introduced Moyo to yoga and meditation. In the years that followed, Moyo committed himself to a regular practice.
At the age of 18, Maria graduated from high school. In the years since, she has earned a degree, pursued passions in writing and photography, met her life partner, lived in four countries and visited a dozen others. Like Moyo, she too has sought to connect with people across the world, and has been enriched by a multitude of perspectives and countless acts of kindness along the way.
In May of 2014, Maria wrote her first letter to Moyo, inspired by a prison pen pals initiative. Though living vastly different lives on the surface, they swiftly found common ground for friendship. In this era of instant messages, their slow mail criss-crossed the Atlantic in the form of letters, postcards, photographs, poetry and artwork, taking up to two weeks one-way.
This project emerged out of that exchange.
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.
In the turbulence and hostility of prison, Moyo anchors himself in the Buddha's teachings. He now uses his cell as a meditation cell but remains keenly aware of the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement – conditions that international human rights and civil liberties groups widely denounce as torture.
This project does not disregard violent crimes nor diminish the loss of life and the immeasurable pain to victims and their loved ones. For Moyo, his journey of self-discovery has led him to understand the hurt he has caused.
“In my first years of prison, I didn’t think much of my actions. I was simply mad that I was being taken advantage of by the system because I didn’t have the money to present adequate defense,” Moyo describes.
“I now also realize that my actions hurt a lot of people. And I have begun feeling this hurt right along with my own. It’s become my own... I have committed some grave acts and I will never be able to undo them. Yet the very least I can do is to improve myself.”
Buddhas on Death Row seeks to inspire reflection, ripples and conversation. It aims to enrich our perception of human suffering and its antidote, to contribute to our understanding of the pressing need to reform our justice systems, and to illuminate our individual and collective potential for transformation.
Many heads, hearts and hands have come together to make Buddhas on Death Row happen, both in this digital form and in the physical form of the Helsinki exhibit. A profound thank-you to family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic, for your generous gifts of time, expertise, resources, insight, inspiration, and your profound spirit of service. Without you, this project would not have been possible.