On September 15, 1984, Jack Kornfield became the disciple of one of the great spiritual masters of all time when his daughter, Caroline Waterman Kornfield, was born. After being a monk and itinerant dharma teacher for many years, Jack has now settled down with his mate Lee Chenoweth and their newborn Caroline in San Anselmo, California, where Jack will continue to teach, conduct a dharma-related psychotherapy practice, and change diapers. This interview took place two weeks before Caroline was born.
Inquiring Mind: Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us about your first steps on the spiritual path.
Jack Kornfield: I was interested from very young. I read T. Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye when I was fourteen. I was so pleased to see that there were possibilities and points of view other than the scientific, rational perspective that I’d grown up with. I knew a lot of very intelligent people, because my father taught at a university and I could see that though they were smart, they were not necessarily wise. I felt something was missing. Then I studied at Dartmouth: Chinese and Asian studies and some Buddhism. And I went into the Peace Corps. I asked the Peace Corps to either send me to Nepal or Thailand, and ended up in Thailand. I knew before I went that I wanted to be a monk and I knew that I would be able to ordain if I went to Thailand—I guess I was nineteen or twenty at that time. I just wanted to be a monk! Why? It’s weird, isn’t it? And when I first ordained it felt very natural. It was like going to the supermarket. It was not an unusual event. It felt, as they say, almost as if I had done it before.
IM: Was your first training difficult?
JK: It was hard; it was a lot harder than I expected because I thought I would go and have a good time. I trained with Achaan Chaa first for a year and a half or so, and then on to a Burmese monastery. I had all the difficulties everyone else does: I couldn’t concentrate, I sat and tried to meditate and it was very, very difficult. I wondered where it was going to take me, how it would work and if it would work at all. I was so excited the first time a little bit of rapture arose in my practice, which was after some months of struggling with my breath. All of a sudden I felt very light and floating. I got so excited—wow, this stuff actually works. It wasn’t insight or anything, but it was something. My knees weren’t hurting as much.
IM: You were over there during the Vietnam War period. The West was coming to the East and shaking it awake in a very violent way. And you were there meditating. What was that like? Did you have much contact with the war?
JK: Yes, I did. I was in the Peace Corps in the provincial health teams in the villages in the Mekong River valley in northeast Thailand. I met a lot of the army and Green Beret people there. Achaan Chaa’s monastery was near Laotian and Cambodian borders and in the mornings we’d take our bowls to go out for alms round—you could see the jets and bombers going overhead with their loads of bombs to drop. At night you could see flashes in Laos and hear bombs in the distance. So it was quite close.
My sense of Achaan Chaa’s monastery is that it was a precious refuge, a living archive. It was a place, some hundred acres or more in the forest, which, even in spite of the war and the difficulties of the societies around it, preserved some of the best human values and the deepest wisdom of human society. You could walk into that monastery and leave a gold watch, and come back, and someone would have picked it up and saved it for you. It was a place that preserved virtue and honesty and compassion. And even though it wasn’t actively involved in anti-war activities, it was a place that preserved sanity in a crazy world. I saw that the preservation of sanity was something essential, not just for the Vietnam war but for decades and for centuries and millennia. It was very inspiring.
IM: What was your impression of Buddhism in Asia? Is the essence of the dharma being transmitted and practiced?
JK: It was a shock, actually, when I first arrived in Asia, to see that only 5 or 10 percent of the monks even meditate at all. Much like Christianity, where people go to church on Sunday, most Buddhists do the same thing. They go to the temple on the holy days and make some offerings and pray. The monks are like priests; they study and they do ceremonies. Very few people are actually taking it to heart and putting into practice the teachings of liberation. It’s rare anywhere in the world.
IM: It’s amazing to those of us who have heard the teaching and find it so true and simple, so accessible, and to think that so few in this big four-billion-people planet actually have heard it, and understand it . . . and want it.
JK: And how few, even in those countries where the teachings are accessible, actually practice. It’s not just to hear the teachings and to have a suitable place, but also to understand that there’s something incredibly precious—to wake us up in this whole dream we live in, to open our hearts and transform our lives.
IM: It’s been ten years since you began teaching the dharma. How did you get started in that honorable occupation?
JK: When I returned from being a monk in Asia I went back to graduate school to study psychology and try to figure out what happened to me, as best I could. I had no plans at all of being a teacher. In fact the summer that Joseph and Sharon and I all started teaching—that summer at Naropa—I met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at a cocktail party. He was, as usual, drinking some. I was introduced to him, talked about the Living Buddhist Masters book and the kind of training I’d done. He said he was starting this university, Naropa Institute, and needed someone to represent the Theravada tradition and way of practice, and would I come? I said no—I had done some teaching in Asia with Achaan Asaba and had some preparation in teaching, some practice, but I said no, I didn’t really feel prepared. He seemed to find that a good answer for him. He said, fine then you should certainly come and teach. And he pressed me a couple more times, and I said alright, I’ll try it, I’ll see. But it came somewhat unexpectedly.
IM: How significant is the work you and your colleagues have done, spreading the dharma in the West?
JK: I think it is very significant, but it’s really what the dharma has done. Our society was ready, in a way that it had not been before. In the last decade, both in the vipassana tradition, and equally in the Tibetan and Zen traditions, there has been this flowering of interest and sincerity in practice among thousands of people in the West. The teaching that I’ve done, and the other IMS teachers, has been one part of what helped that to happen. I feel that it’s enormously significant. It’s like Arnold Toynbee saying that the most important event of the twentieth century will be the movement of the Buddha Dharma from the East to the West.
IM: You seem to have a great interest in history, politics and pop culture, and you can reference any number of subjects and seem to know a lot about a lot. Do you ever feel that all that knowledge fills your mind to the detriment of meditation practice?
JK: Does it ever fill my mind . . . Does it ever fill my mind! It does, indeed. But I feel that the important part of practice is not an empty mind that is free of content, but how to relate to it. There are times when I get caught up in it and sometimes I feel a compulsion in wanting to know. But also, it can be a tremendous resource to be able to draw on some knowledge of history, psychology, poetry or anthropology to enrich one’s own life and to use as a resource in teaching. There’s no problem with the knowing of it at all. The only problem is if one is attached to it or compulsive about it.
For example, in considering the question you just asked about dharma coming to the West, I find it really useful to look at Buddhist history. In China it took centuries for the basically Indian form of Buddhism to become integrated, mixed with the language of the Taoist tradition and the cultures of China of that era, of fifteen hundred and more years ago. Gradually there evolved a unique and appropriate form of Buddhist teaching which was the flowering of Mahayana Buddhism in China. In this country I don’t think it will take centuries because we’re doing everything much faster. Hula-Hoops only last for a second and video games only last a blip on the screen. Instead of centuries it may only be decades, it may be fifty years or a hundred years instead of five hundred or a thousand. But it gives one a little perspective to see that what’s happened in these ten years isn’t necessarily what dharma will be in the West; it’s just the beginning. It makes it fascinating.
Furthermore, part of what made dharma unique in each country that it’s traveled to is that it’s been translated into the language of that country, into the vernacular, and it has been integrated into the existing religion of that country. So in Japan, Zen and Shinto have kind of blended together. In Tibet the old Bon religion, to some extent at least, influenced the form of Buddhist expression. In China it was Taoism. Now at this time in America our modern religion is science; science and psychology. And the dharma is already being expressed in the symbols of those disciplines. For example, meditation is being tested and studied under the eyes of modern psychology. Also I think that our modern language is a technological language and Buddhism in the West is somehow going to be translated by technology. Maybe there will be dharma video, computer dharma, maybe even rock dharma . . .
IM: We need a form that fits into our attention span, which has been so drastically reduced by the media . . .
JK: . . . and since we have micro attention spans, you have to get a dharma sutra into just a few words. Wake up! We could just do a rock song that says “Wake up!” as the chorus, over and over again—get the Police to do it: Every breath you take . . .
IM: Do you think that perhaps vipassana is more suited to the Western scientific mind than some of the other more elaborate forms of Eastern dharma, say, for example, the Mahayana traditions with their pantheon of deities, or some schools with elaborate rituals and chants in a foreign tongue?
JK: It’s true that vipassana speaks very directly to those who wish to not only observe the physical world but also begin to observe the mind and consciousness in what could be called a scientific manner. But there will always be people for whom the best language is that of metaphor, of the archetypes of gods and bodhisattvas. Perhaps, in some ways, vipassana, although it meshes the most, is missing something that would be good for our culture, which is, in fact, the Latin that has been taken out of the Mass and the richness of the nonlinear, of deities, of bodhisattvas, of poetic and artistic expression that speaks to our heart. I see a place for all of that. But vipassana definitely tunes into the more scientific domain.
IM: That is sometimes a criticism of insight practice. Some vipassana yogis say they long for a little more chanting and maybe some ritual.
JK: In one sense, what we’ve brought back of the vipassana tradition is a stripped down version. In the Asian countries of origin there is a much more extensively used cosmology, heaven realms, hell realms, birth stories and Jataka tales of the Buddha way before he became the Buddha, all the animal tales, karma over many generations; we’ve left a lot of that behind. Which does leave it dry in a sense. But I think that it’s very fitting for many of us in this culture because we are such an overloaded and overstimulated culture. What a vipassana retreat does, it says, “stop.” Don’t do anything; don’t talk, don’t read, don’t write, don’t imagine, don’t try to make, just be with what things are for a moment. And start to look at them. Because we’re so full already, most of us, it’s a very powerful thing to do, to stop. It says in the Tao that only by stopping can one begin to see the Tao. The very simplicity and bare bones quality of it, in fact, speaks directly to many people in this culture who’ve never stopped, never stopped and looked and listened in some deep way. I think that is part of the appeal of the vipassana retreats.
IM: So, the mythology and the ritual will have to be organically grown, and as soon as you and Joseph die, stories of the origin of vipassana in the West will start to spring up and you will become heroic. Deeds that you never did will be ascribed to you.
JK: Instead of Bodhidharma, the First Zen Patriarch to China, who sat for nine years and faced the wall, Joseph Goldstein sat for . . .
IM: . . . three days and three nights without a chocolate bar! (laughter)
You are a practicing psychologist as well as a meditation teacher. In what ways do the two disciplines intersect in your work?
JK: Psychology and meditation practice share some of the same concerns and methods. Freud’s discovery that one could pay attention to things, as one does in psychoanalysis, without judging or suppressing them is very close to meditational attention, and a great deal of Western psychology is built around that insight of how to observe. I personally find it very helpful to use the tools of psychology with meditation students. I sometimes have them look at the patterns that came from their parents and their upbringing, or the patterns they have learned for intimacy with another person. So if you’re sitting and you keep hearing this superego voice that says you’re not doing well enough, you should be working harder or something, one thing you can do is just note judging, but another, you can recognize, “there’s mom, there’s dad,” and you realize it’s not your own voice, that it’s just a part of the conditioning. That psychological insight can be very liberating.
But basically Theravada Buddhism doesn’t talk so much about dealing with the problems you have in your neurosis, in your relationship, with your parents, with the kinds of hangups you have in your desires or compulsions and so forth. It speaks to a much higher level than that generally. It says abandon these things, let go of them and go to a level where you’re not dealing with that content.
IM: What is the question that your students ask you the most? Has it changed in ten years or is it pretty much the same?
JK: It’s changed. The early questions were more about nirvana and enlightenment, what is it, where is it, how do you get there, how much does it cost? More frequently—I think it comes from the maturity of the American sangha or maybe it comes from their frustration at not having gotten a lot of good answers and/or perhaps experience with nirvana—are questions that have to do with people’s emotional life. How do we deal with anger, with fear, with attachment in relationships, with love in relationships. Those are the questions now. They are more immediate and compelling aspects of dharma for people in their daily lives.
IM: That’s a good question. How does vipassana come out of retreat mode and affect our daily life? People have struggled with that. They go to retreats, they feel like they’ve really found something, then they go back home and they forget it, or it’s very difficult for them to integrate their practice and their insights into their daily lives.
JK: Yes, it is a very hard thing. Mostly vipassana teaching has been preserved in monasteries over thousands of years, primarily as a non-worldly, non-household activity. One of the things that we’re doing which is unique, and was done by Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma as well, is to begin to make a way of dharma practice accessible to householders and not just to renunciates, to nuns and monks in the forest. Some of it has worked out and some of it we are still developing.
I see that part of the problem of integration is simply the problem of impatience. People don’t realize what a radical and major transformation it is to have dharma really become the guiding principle in much of your life. In a protected retreat environment you can get concentrated and calm, but to expect that to last in the outside world is unrealistic. The wisdom of people who have done retreats over many years now begins to see that you can’t hold on to those mind states because you can’t hold on to any mind state. But rather what you come away with is a much greater sense of balance, of equanimity, of seeing how things change, of being able to sit with and then later in your life deal with all the states that are difficult—your frustration or loneliness or restlessness. To sense your capacity for awareness and liberation in relation to those things.
At first, the naive spiritual mind wants it all to go away and just be peaceful, without any of the unpleasant content or personality remaining. Good luck. Actually our personalities are like our bodies—we get issued one for the trip. So we have to come to terms with it. It’s something Buddha pointed to very directly, that liberation isn’t freedom from things, or running away from the world, but rather seeing it in a transformed or new way.
IM: Do you find that people are very hard on themselves?
JK: Very hard. The amount of judgment, the amount of ambition, that I’m not good enough, I haven’t done enough, the amount of self-hatred that people discover in retreats is large and profound. If people can learn just one thing over a lot of retreats, of how to be gentler with themselves, how to love themselves a bit more, how to touch their basic goodness, to see that even though there is fear and desire and greed and hatred, and all the things that are in everyone’s mind, underneath that there is that fundamental goodness as well, this compassion for ourselves, it would be a wonderful thing. It’s so hard, because we all have this little place that we hide, we don’t want anybody to see, including ourselves, where we think we are not okay. To learn to love oneself, along with sila (virtue), is the foundation of a genuine spiritual life.
IM: What other important themes do you see developing in our Western way of dharma?
JK: The essence of the dharma will always remain the same. Impermanence will always be the law. Attachment will always cause suffering. But there is a whole shift away from the ascetic and masculine monastic containers for practice which have preserved it for so long in Asia. Three key elements are beginning to be emphasized in our practice here. They are a feminization, a democratization and a new integration of practice into our world.
The feminization means much more than the inclusion of women in an equal way. It means a shift to include the archetypal feminine more in practice, greater attention to the aspects of intuition, feelings, eros, the receptive, in order to balance the ascetic, mental, logos orientation of the teachings in the monasteries. Our consciousness of the feminine has grown greater in our culture—it is inevitable that it will be included in our practice.
Similarly, with the democratization, our Western culture stresses individuality and participation which makes it very different from the hierarchical ways of the East. Certainly a great deal of surrender and trust, and working with a good teacher is necessary to go deep in practice. But for Americans there won’t be so much the “yes boss, yes guruji” authoritarian quality without questioning. There is already a greater sense of openness, a questioning of forms and authority and a desire to participate in decision making by all members of the community. This is part of our heritage. So practice will be more a combination of our sincerity and willingness to work hard with a deep questioning that fosters a real independence. There is in fact a wonderful and profound independence that comes out of practice, if we go deep enough.
The third key shift is a spirit of integration that I talked about already, where we learn to practice in an earthy way, not removing ourselves from life to a monastery, but including all aspects of life as practice. The Sufis say, “Praise Allah and tie your camel to the post.” Bring mindfulness and practice to driving and child rearing and world peace and sexuality. Let practice be seen as a full opening, a wholeness rather than an escape.
IM: You are currently writing an article about sex and spirituality. Give us a preview, or, should we say, “a tease.”
JK: Sex is part of our most basic desire system, to continue to exist as a separate self or body and to continue to procreate the race. It’s built in to having a body and cells. It’s biological. But it exists to me for a deeper and in some ways more wonderful reason, and that is this tremendous longing in people for union, for transcending the self, and I feel like a lot of the sexual craving, when you go beyond the lust and the desire for sense pleasure, is the deep desire to transcend ourselves, to come to something outside of this limited envelope that we take to be “I.” And sex is also one of the few times in life when there’s natural samadhi, when there’s a unity of mind and body. Its great danger is that, unlike what happens in meditation, there’s a tendency for attachment to take hold.
IM: Part of your article, at least, is about the sex lives of gurus. Why are there so many teachers from the East who seem to get themselves entangled in sexual scandals?
JK: Eastern traditions don’t teach people very well how to be teachers in the West, or how to work with the tremendous transference and all the desire and all the sexuality that’s so overt here. A monk in Burma never sees a woman except clothed to the ankles and wearing a shawl that covers all her basic bodily features except her nose, and so they’re protected from their own desires basically, and here it’s all a totally different game. Whether in a teaching position or as a student, we have to learn to deal with these tremendous forces, and to deal with them with wisdom and with less compulsion and, at the same time, to honor that they’re a part of us and not to repress or deny them. That’s where a lot of the trouble also comes.
We have held a myth that spirituality means to escape from bodily function—you don’t have to go to the potty and you don’t have sexual needs—and what my article hopes to do is to speak about that and other myths. It’s amazing how many people don’t think of their teachers, or their parents, for that matter, as sexual beings, and in most cases, they both are.
IM: Well, we know you are because you’re going to have a baby and the only way you can make babies is to . . .
JK: At least once. We did it as tantra, I promise. (Laughs)
IM: Why did you decide to have a child? Was it a reasoned decision?
JK: There are a number of reasons for it although essentially it comes from much deeper inside. You’re in love with someone and it’s a kind of fruition of that intimacy and that opening. I will assure you, as many people know, that to open in an intimate relationship is as hard or harder than to open to one’s heart and body and mind and feelings in a sitting retreat. Maybe even harder. It’s hard enough to look at it yourself, and then to let someone else look at it as well.
IM: It can be a very powerful practice.
JK: It can be if it’s done with awareness and some understanding. In addition to that, my own sense of wanting a child was feeling that were I to remain single, an old bachelor, as I have been, that even though my own practice could ripen, and, in certain ways I could become a better teacher, somehow it felt like for me it would be dry. It would be without the richness of a deep inner feeling to go with it. I have a sense that in my own path, for the opening of my heart—which is as important to me as the clearing of my mind—that for the opening of my heart, I need to learn about intimacy and how to be fearless with other humans as well as myself. To have a child is a real expression of that exploration and that growing. In having a child, the richness of it, of it really melting my heart, through the difficulties as well as the joys, that kind of learning, for my own path, is really essential.
IM: Perhaps in settling down and having a child, you will grow more familiar with the lives and concerns of most of the sangha. Maybe you can help us develop the Western Householder’s Canon.
JK: I hope so, for my own sake as well as for the sake of all sentient fathers and mothers.
For me there have been two aspects to practice, one of which was opened up very deeply in my early years on the path, and one which has grown much more real for me as I’ve lived back in this country for ten years. I see them as complements. The early practice brought me to a deep understanding of emptiness. That is the thread that goes through all of practice; it’s the gem of the Buddha’s awakening, to see that it’s ownerless. That all things arise and pass without any ownership at all. That they come out of nowhere and they go into nowhere. To discover that, not as an intellectual concept but to taste it in some measure in your life, is enormously liberating.
The other expression of practice, and one that has grown for me quite strongly, is that of wholeness. The sense of wholeness has come over some years of teaching, now, in practice, and in my own struggles in interpersonal relationships, in my love life, in starting a family. What I discover is that to practice deeply I don’t want to cut myself off from any part of myself, out of aversion or dislike or fear. Another expression of liberation is the expression of fearlessness, which means that one can experience a wholeness, that one can come directly to terms with one’s passion, anger, fear, loneliness and boredom, as one does in a sitting retreat, but even more actively in one’s life. To not be afraid to live life. To live in a way that’s full each moment and not attached from one moment to another. I have this very compelling sense that a key practice for people who live as householders in this country will be to balance emptiness and seeing things as they are, with coming to a wholeness in all the parts of ourselves.
IM: Any advice on how to achieve that kind of balance?
JK: There’s a beautiful line in the Third Zen Patriarch, the one of the whole teaching that moved me the most. The nondual—the world of unity—is one with the trusting mind. It’s such a hard thing for us to learn but it’s a key element, learning to trust.