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.
MEDITATION UNDER FIRE
Tricycle’s article on the U.S. Air Force Academy (“Salute to Buddhism,” Spring 2008) brought back many memories from my tours of duty in Iraq. As a combat medic, I was exposed to the true ugliness and suffering of war. I carried with me some incense sealed in a waterproof sandwich bag, stowed in my Kevlar helmet. I also had my prayer beads in my pocket. Since each day was unpredictable, I would attempt to find places to sit for a few minutes. One of my favorite places was in a concrete bunker. I would take off my helmet, place a half stick of incense in the sand, close my eyes, and breathe in and out. I could only count on ten minutes or so, but those ten minutes made a huge difference. I often thought of Gandhi’s words, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Blinded, how can we create lasting peace?
SFC Dave Strong
ANSWERING “THE QUESTION”
What a wonderful idea “The Question” (Summer 2008) is! Exploring what in Buddhism we changed our minds about and why is an inspiration for all seekers and practitioners and a validation for the uniqueness of each path we represent among ourselves. One can only imagine what entries might be made by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama—and why stop there? Picture submissions from Krishna, Mohammed, Christ, or Buddha as they express how their minds changed. Every story, grand or mundane, offers insight into our own. This collection is a wonderful testimony that no matter who we are or how we live, the revelation behind each veil we pull away is just another veil. The rock rolls back down the hill for us to roll up again, eternally. With any luck, we discover joy in the engagement.
In response to “The Question” (Summer 2008): I recently changed my mind about faith.
Faith has been problematic for me—as a younger person, I considered it a needless crutch, and even as an older person, I found it theoretically interesting but impossible to experience.
As my life has become more and more complicated and difficult, it became apparent to me that some change in my outlook, in my mental processes, was necessary—I needed a purpose, a direction, a reason for being. One afternoon as I was roaming aimlessly about my house I stopped walking and had a thought: why not give it up? Why not give up the worry, the anxiousness about the future and the sorrow over the past? How about doing something revolutionary—how about having faith that it would be okay?
At that moment, I did it—I somehow just gave it up. I let it go, and allowed faith to enter my being: faith that it would be and has been okay all along.
Letting go of my determined anxiousness has made room for me to experience the bliss of knowing what I am best at and to work for it in a creative, focused, playful, and energetic way: not thinking constantly about the results but being in the process. Faith is good. Really.
COMMENTS FROM TRICYCLE.COM
“The Question” (Summer 2008) is such an interesting and germane feature! First, a comment on the answers from the famous Western Buddhists online and in the magazine. Some answers seem honest and profound (Pico Iyer, Martine Batchelor), some trite (John Tarrant), some self-aggrandizing. Some display a surprising naivete (Steven Hagen), some a surprising fundamentalism (Robert Aitken), and some an inability to pull away from Buddhism for a moment in order to reflect on the question being asked (most of the others).
I have been a practitioner of Buddhism, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen for the past ten years. My answer to what I’ve changed my mind about: Just about everything. Whereas I used to think, like Steven Hagen and others, that Buddhism was a way to transcend identities and the self, I now realize that adopting an identity is inevitable, and actually a thing of beauty. Relax and enjoy the show as it unfolds: it’s all about the process!
Arthur Flynn, M.D.
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