I read the interview with Jack Kornfield in the Summer 2008 edition of Tricycle with an eye toward his new book, The Wise Heart. I have always found attempts to merge Buddhism and Western psychology disappointing. In the same edition of Tricycle, Robert Aitken echoes my suspicions in his response to “The Question”: “As much as I have availed myself of psychological therapy, I can’t get past its purpose to enhance the ego.”
Early in the Tricycle interview Kornfield describes our “nature” as both positive and negative, depending on how you look at it. His book, however, is not so liberal, leaving the impression that he thinks our “true nature” is fundamentally good. Indeed, in his interview he offered a quote in which the Buddha describes the nature of mind as “luminous” but did not elaborate on how this equates to “goodness” and morality. I would have preferred a bit more elaboration about this business of “good,” in light of the references in his book to Jungian psychology, which puts forth the view that human nature, or the psyche, is neither fundamentally good nor evil.
Carl Jung discussed the problematic aspects of the Catholic doctrine of privatio boni. This doctrine claimed that God is only good, without a dark side. Evil, then, is the lack (the privation) of God. Kornfield seems to draw a similar conclusion—i.e., that Buddha-nature is all good, while darkness is the privation of Buddhanature. This distinction, not as explicit in his interview, is arguable at best. Kornfield says that “it is most skillful to try to get people to focus on and cultivate the positive.” However, without acknowledging darkness, there is a risk of falling into the stream of self-help approaches that do little more than attempt to blot out the negative side of the psyche— which only comes back to bite you.
I was struck by Kornfield’s suggestion that if Western psychology’s goal is “to reach an ordinary level of neurosis, then the goal of Buddhist practice…is to free us from neurosis or to shift identity so that we are no longer subject to those forces in an ordinary way” [italics mine]. This forceful statement avoids many of the ontological and moralistic undercurrents concerning the nature of the mind that I question in his book. The ego, empty as it may be, needs to relate to its world in an extraordinaryway, by cultivating a flexibility and fluidity that allows it to slip its attachments, alter its sense of self-identity, and address its suffering, empty as that may be. It is precisely here that Buddhism and psychology often cross paths, becoming less about egoenhancement and more about the causes of suffering and the mechanisms to address that suffering.
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