Once in Sri Lanka, as Jack Kornfield tells the story in Seeking The Heart of Wisdom, he visited a very old, highly venerated mediation master. There was a feeling of joy and freedom about the master, whom, people said, they could not recall ever having seen any other way.
After Jack and the master talked a while, the master looked at Jack and said, “So, you teach meditation, yes?”
“I try,” Jack replied.
“Tell me, what is the heart of Buddhist meditation?”
“There is no self,” Jack answered, “just the play of phenomena. It is truly an empty process.”
The master looked at Jack and broke into a great laugh. “No self, no problem,” he said, laughing and laughing.
That tale is emblematic of the message Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield have brought to their students around the world in the thirteen or fourteen years that they have emerged as leading teachers of vipassana meditation in the West. And it is typical, too, of the delightful flavor with which they deliver their dharma talks, which have been seamlessly brought together as a book in Seeking The Heart of Wisdom.
The book is a skillful blend of pragmatic instruction, psychological insight, and perennial wisdom. It is one of the most useful manuals yet written for those who seek to follow the path of insight meditation and to make it relevant to their daily lives.
By reading Seeking The Heart of Wisdom rather than hearing these talks in their original form at a retreat, the reader gets the sense of the larger mission these teachers are serving in a vast historical epic, the transmission of the dharma from one culture to another. Both Joseph and Jack have steeped themselves in the teachings of the vipassana lineages of Asia, but in bringing those teachings to the West they have become modern Bodhidharmas, translating the wisdom of the Triple Gem into an idiom that brings the dharma alive for yet another land.
Jack and Joseph do their work of translation with skill, remaining true to the heart of the teachings they transmit even as they find a modern cast for these ancient truths. And in finding apt expressions of the essence of the dharma, they implicitly demonstrate the universality of its truths by borrowing quotations that underscore their teachings from a wide range of sources—Kabir, Mother Teresa, Gurdjieff, Don Juan, Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, and Pir Vilayat Khan, to mention only a few.
One example of their skillfulness in translating the dharma for Americans is in the explanations of karma, morality and the emptiness of self, concepts often resisted or muddled in the Western mind. That is particularly true with the Buddhist precepts, which for Westerners can bring to mind an automatic distaste for Puritanical standards of any sort. But the chapter on “The Freedom of Restraint” disarms those objections by showing the practical effects the precepts have on the mind—creating an openness and lightness—and so helping practice. The appeal to pragmatism makes the precepts seem reasonable and useful, not just something to accept blindly:
“Restraint of mind does not mean pushing something away and denying its presence. It does not mean being judgmental or having an aversion toward certain aspects of ourselves; the ignorance of not acknowledging what is present creates more tension and pain in the mind. With restraint, we are open to everything that arises, but we see with discriminating wisdom, without becoming lost or forgetful,” Joseph writes.
Buddha spoke of how trying to figure out karma could unhinge the mind, but the chapter on “Understanding Karma” explains the concept lucidly. This chapter describes karma in terms of the quality of mind we bring to each moment, not just in terms of the more widely understood sense of karma, the laws of cause and effect over time.
Explaining karma in these terms draws on Buddhist psychology, and shows how mental and emotional habits shape personality. While it is true that in Buddhism there is no enduring “I,” it is also recognized that each of us has a unique pattern of reacting that comes about from having cultivated some mind states and neglected others, such as anger or lovingkindness. “Every mind state, thought or emotion that we experience repeatedly becomes stronger and more habituated. Who we are as personalities is a collection of all the tendencies of mind that have been developed,” the chapter notes.
“The teaching of vipassana meditation stresses both the awareness of what is happening in each moment and how we are relating to it, because it is in our relationship to experience that new karma is being created. Are we relating to each moment’s experience in a way that simply keeps the whole cycle of conditioning going? Or can we use each moment’s experience as a way of deconditioning the reactive mind and finding freedom?”
And for those who meet the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation with skepticism, the chapter recommends neither rejecting the idea outright, nor accepting it uncritically. Instead, it points out that the notion is an essential part of the Buddha’s teachings, and that all one need do is stay open to possibilities beyond one’s present understanding with a “willing suspension of disbelief.”
There is a Zen saying, “If you want to know the way up the mountain, ask the one who travels up and down the slopes.” Seeking The Heart of Wisdom shows the authors to be experienced guides to the meditator’s map of consciousness. The careful precision of their explanations show they have not only trod the path well, but are familiar with the many states of mind and byways of consciousness—as well as some blind alleys—that the yogi encounters. Their insights will be useful to a wide range of yogis, from novice to those grizzled, shawl-covered veterans of countless retreats.
Seeking The Heart of Wisdom is a rich combination of breadth and depth, giving the book many dimensions. It can be used, for instance, not just as a companion to practice, but also as a useful manual for cultivating awareness in daily life, in relationships, in social action, or in understanding the mind. As His Holiness Karmapa put it, “. . . every living situation can be part of the practice. You can be living the practice instead of just doing it.”
For instance, Joseph tells of buying some oranges at a bazaar in India when he was approached by a young boy begging. Joseph handed the boy an orange. “He didn’t thank me or smile or even nod,” as Joseph tells it. “He just took the orange and walked away. This simple exchange helped illuminate an unconscious place of subtle expectation in the mind. Behind even the real desire to share there was also the expectation of some little response in return. With careful attention we can see and let go of even the most subtle expectations and learn to respond to situations with the simplicity of our caring heart.”
In that advice and example there is a blueprint for bringing mindfulness practice into life, where subtle—and not-so-subtle—expectations continually operate to complicate even the simplest of relationships.
One helpful feature of Seeking The Heart of Wisdom is that each chapter has at its end an exercise that the reader can employ to experience the concepts just explained. The exercises are simple, and have the effect of making the book itself a practice manual that can bring its teachings to life even for those who may never go on a retreat. The chapter on hindrances, for instance, invites the reader to investigate the specific difficult mind state, such as irritation, fear or lust, as it arises in daily meditations. The chapter on deepening practice ends with an introductory variation of vipassana: Sit for five minutes and simply count the number of discrete thoughts that pass through the mind—a way of seeing that “you are not your thoughts.”
Seeking The Heart of Wisdom is, in short, a superb meditator’s guide to practice. Yogis who always wanted to take notes during dharma talks but never quite got around to it (a particularly onerous chore when you are moving at the pace of a snail), will find all those notable ideas in this book. There is ample and nutritious food for thought and reflection here. The net effect of Seeking The Heart of Wisdom is a strong inspiration to hit the zafu and get on with it.