Mitchell Willoughby

MITCHELL WILLOUGHBY – Death Row inmate: Tennessee, USA

When you realize emptiness, there is no fear.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche 

Having been on ‘death row’ for over 30 years, I have had to deal with major issues of anger, self-worth and forgiveness. I can truthfully say that my Buddhist practice has transformed me from being a drug and alcohol addict to being more human. I have had to learn to accept my fate. I saw how much I had hurt so many people and I came to the realization that no matter what I did to get here, I knew I was never going to get out of prison alive. So I had to make the best of a very bad situation.

My transformation started with reading The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.[1] At first I did not understand Milarepa’s devotion to his guru, Marpa. How could someone be so devoted? After Venerable Robina Courtin of Liberation Prison Project ( first visited us in 1997 and said in one of her talks, ‘You have to do the work, no one else will do it for you,’ it really struck home. I literally had to take my life apart and rebuild it to see who I am. I had no one left to face except myself.

Robina helped me to prepare to take the Bodhisattva vows, the precepts. (These vows are the foundation of the Mahayana Buddhist path; they help commit yourself to the activities and life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person). During this time, I not only committed them to memory, but also practised living according to them and devoting my every action to benefiting other living beings. My practice gave me insights into how people think and react to different situations and problems.

Once I accepted this new space of being, a whole new world began to open up and I was amazed at how I missed it in the first place. My life in here is now spent helping others, even at great criticism from fellow inmates. Over the years I have made many crafts for friends and family, I have written to numerous troubled people and have helped the sick and the dying here on death row. I do not do this for praise or to be recognized for it. I do it because I can.

This is the way it is. I created all this mess. I don’t have anyone else to blame. My practice has helped me make the best of an awful situation. That’s the reality. I have to own up to it and face it daily. Once I began to do this, my anger gradually lessened, as I knew it was all up to me. My family and I are now closer. My mother’s mind is more at ease. I put myself here; no one else can be blamed. The burden should not be placed on my family. I have to carry it. Only when you can really see the harm that you have done to yourself and stop blaming everyone else for all your problems can you see the avalanche of heartache that you have caused others. No one will ever know how sorry I am. It still really hurts my heart even after all these years.

And whatever awaits me in the next life, I will accept it as well. I don’t fear death. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, ‘When you realize emptiness, there is no fear.


Mitchell Willoughby is on Death Row awaiting execution at Kentucky State Prison, USA. In 1983, he was sentenced to death for the murders of two people (and a life sentence for a third). After he overcame his drug and alcohol addiction, Mitchell reclaimed his life through Buddhism. 

[1] a guide book of devotions and teachings by the eleventh century Tibetan Buddhist poet and saint.