Photo left, Glen Mckay, courtesy Jack Kornfield; right, courtesy Jack Kornfield. Jack Kornfield today (left) and as a young monk in Thailand, 1969 (right).

JACK KORNFIELD was trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India. After majoring in Asian Studies at Dartmouth, in 1967 he went to Thailand with the Peace Corps looking for a Buddhist teacher. Upon his return, he earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. In 1975 he co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, based in Barre, Massachusetts, which widely influenced the practice of Vipassana meditation in North America. In 1986 he became a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Today he lives nearby with his family and is devoted exclusively to teaching. His books include Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, A Path with Heart, and Teachings of the Buddha. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry will be released by Bantam Books in June. This interview was conducted at Spirit Rock by Helen Tworkov.

Jack, while traditional texts expound the path toward enlightenment, in your new book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, you explore what happens after the first experience of enlightenment. Is this born of a particularly Western need to bring together dharma and psychology? I don’t think there is dharma practice on the one hand and psychology on the other. I believe that sets up a false dichotomy. My teacher Ajahn Chah used to say, “There is suffering, there is the cause of suffering, and as the Buddha teaches in the Four Noble Truths, there is the end of suffering. Wherever you are, that is the place of practice.” Sometimes suffering comes through clinging to certain emotional pain or certain stories; sometimes through not recognizing emptiness, the evanescence of life, that nothing can be claimed as I or mine. The point of dharma practice is to pay attention to where there is suffering, see the clinging and identification, and release it to find a freedom of heart.

Yet in so much of traditional Buddhism, paying attention to emotional pain—and to the personal story behind it—is seen as something “other than” spiritual activity. Well, often traditional Buddhist texts focus on achieving perfect enlightenment and then living in an absolutely free, pure state after that. But there aren’t very many beings at this time that we can refer to in that fashion, even the great, respected, or beloved teachers like the Dalai Lama or Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the Gandhi of Cambodia. These contemporary masters say, “I’m still struggling with this or that, or these are things that I still work on in my practice,” rather than speak from that place of absolute freedom. And so in our times, even our elders and masters raise the question of, “How are we learning to live the dharma, to embody it in an ongoing way in our lives and not just focus on the teaching at the archetypal or absolute level?”

How would you describe your initial training in Asia? Was it along those “archetypal” lines? I feel tremendously grateful for the training I had in the retreat centers and forest monasteries, and the kind of initiation that it offered. I was able to enter into that ancient world of the Elders that has been carried on for 2,500 years—the austere practices and surrender they require. When I first arrived in the forest monastery of Ajahn Chah, he looked at me and said, “I hope you’re not afraid to suffer.” I said, “What do you mean, afraid to suffer?” And he said, “There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that you run away from, which follows you everywhere, and the suffering that you are willing to turn and face and thereby find the liberation that the Buddha taught for us all.” That was his opening sentence.

What made you stick around? Well, he said it with great humor. He wasn’t heavy-handed. He would direct people into difficulties without subtly increasing their unworthiness or their self-hatred. He knew how to mentor people—he would look at students and say, “I know you can do this.” He would see what Thomas Merton called “their secret beauty,” their Buddha-nature, and foster that, which is what a great teacher can do.

Why did you leave your life as a forest monastic? After my first five years in Asia—I was still quite young—I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life as a celibate monk. Marriage, relationships, and living in the world were still important to me, and so I told my teacher that I wanted to return. I felt like I had learned enough of the practices of mindfulness and compassion and now I wanted to see if I could really live them in ordinary life and not in the protected circumstances of the monastery. I didn’t feel that I wanted to live as an expatriate in Asia for the rest of my life. I was drawn back to my own culture.

And when you got here? The fantastic detachment and great bliss and joy and peace that I had known for some years crumbled. I discovered to my horror that a lot of the neurotic patterns of my life were waiting back here, like old comfortable clothes—fighting with my girlfriend, worrying about money. So I really had to ask myself, “OK, now, how do you actually live this practice, how do you integrate it?” That became the compelling question. And what I found is that I had done a bit of a spiritual end run or spiritual bypass around a number of very painful areas of my life. All this unfinished business returned. I had spent eight or ten years in dharma study and practice beginning in college—working primarily with my mind, through concentration and great ardor, but now there arose all this emotional work. I had to really learn how to bring the principles of mindfulness and compassion into the pain and neurosis in my life. And to transform them in some way. I did that in meditation, through a great deal of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion. I also did it in psychotherapy, especially body- and breath-oriented forms of psychotherapy. And I did it through gradually learning how to be more conscious in close relationships, which was a big practice, and not one that was focused on much in the monasteries.

Glen Mckay courtesy Jack Kornfield. Jack Kornfield delivers a talk at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, where he is a founding teacher.

How has this affected your own evolution as a teacher? Probably the greatest change is a shift from the sense of struggle against one’s self, what in Asia was the warrior-fighting—a battle mode of practice such as I found in the ascetic forest monastery—to a mode that is based on the fundamental ground of compassion and healing. And that happened because in the early years of leading retreats in this country we, as teachers, encountered an astonishing amount of self-hatred and self-judgment in students. We saw that practitioners were taking the dharma language of purification—of ridding oneself of greed, hatred, and delusion—and using it to judge themselves, to reinforce unworthiness, or to create spiritual ambition, “spiritual materialism,” as Chogyam Trungpa said. They were trying, in some ways, to negate who they were, which only created further suffering and tension for themselves. It became increasingly clear that the battlefield-warrior archetype did not serve those people for whom the wounds of self-hatred and self-judgment were the primary sources of suffering. And so the form of practice has shifted from a struggle against the self, to letting go—learning to rest on a ground of lovingkindness and compassion for oneself and others.

Without the demanding initiation of the ascetic or the warrior, can the path inspire the same levels of motivation and commitment? True dharma practice is a revolutionary activity, and you can’t do it in a comfortable way. You really have to challenge the whole identity of your life. But the strength that’s asked for is not necessarily the strength of eliminating the impurities of body and mind, or fighting against the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion, the inner corruptions, though this language is very common in Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism. The strength that’s needed is the courage of heart to remain undefended and open, a willingness to touch the ten-thousand joys and the ten-thousand sorrows from our compassion, the deepest place of our being. This is a different kind of fearlessness, which requires as much or more passion and fire.

Aren’t Western students prone to seek a kind of comfort that can undermine the revolutionary quality that you speak of? Yes. One of the dangers of dharma success is comfort. As the teaching becomes more mainstream it has become more comfortable. Practitioners have become more affluent, and if you combine that with greater emphasis on compassion and less ascetic warrior practice, there’s a danger that the true depth of commitment that’s necessary for this revolutionary transformation will get lost.

Is there a way to counter that? Well, complacency is always countered by integrity, which is an unswerving love of the truth and a willingness to live it. If the teachers don’t forget this legacy from the Buddha, then that place in their students that “knows the truth” will reawaken too. They will recognize that liberation is our birthright, our own true nature.

One concern shared by many American teachers is that while their own Asian teachers pushed their buttons as a deliberate teaching mode in ways that made them feel very uncomfortable, that if they then do that with their American students, those students are out the door. Conditions for teacher-student relations are different here. If Western teachers treated their students with the deliberately harsh and punishing way Marpa trained Milarepa in the famous Tibetan story, they would probably just plug into the American neurosis of self-hatred and judgment, and the students would flee or file a lawsuit. However, that need for a radical transformation in the student can still happen by focusing on the forms of practice even more than focusing on the teacher-student relationship. The demanding nature of Zen sesshins or 100,000 Tibetan prostrations or a three-month silent Vipassana retreat serves to challenge practitioners very well. When people come to me during a two- or three-month retreat, weeping or frightened or facing whatever demons have come for them, I can be very demanding in telling them, “Now you can discover in this place that freedom is possible for you, or you can run away and be a coward. It’s time. I don’t care if you die. We’ll have your funeral tomorrow. You can tell me if you want to be cremated or buried, but you go back in there and sit and face those demons.” Using the forms of Buddhist practice skillfully, we don’t increase our suffering but, rather, the forms empower us and bring a kind of freedom. Because they are based on the truth that all our demons are empty, these forms can work to help us let go, to step beyond our small sense of self-to discover our inherent freedom.

Courtesy Jack Kornfield. Teaching Authorization Ceremony in 1979 with Verable Mahasi Sayadaw and his monks of Burma, at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Left to right: Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Jacqueline Mandell Schwartz.

And your students don’t engage you in their personal stories? Sometimes the story needs to be told in the presence of another person in order to accept it or let go of it. But usually a little bit of the story is enough; we don’t need to go back into our whole history. Someone might say that they are suffering because of the past, and we might spend a little bit of time asking, well, what are the beliefs that you have, what are the fears, the memories, the images that you carry? But always working with an underlying awareness which asks: Is that who you really are? Not to solve it or go back and rework it. True inner work is to experience the reality of contraction or fear, just now, and then to discover that it’s not our true nature, not who you are. Knowing the story doesn’t solve it. What brings freedom is turning to face the root of that suffering, and the identity that’s constructed around it, going right into the center of it until one comes to its true emptiness. And wise psychotherapy must also do that in the same way that dharma practice does, because that’s how liberation happens.

The therapist wouldn’t put more emphasis on deconstructing the story line or on evoking description to release suffering? Not necessarily. Let me give you an example. A woman practitioner came to me in great grief because her husband had recently left her. They had a four-year-old child, and the woman had imagined this beautiful, loving marriage, and it broke up. Her grief was exacerbated by the fact that when she was three years old, her own father had walked out and never returned. When he abandoned her she had come to the conclusions, somewhere deep inside, that men were untrustworthy and that she wasn’t lovable. So we worked first with awareness to hold her grief with compassion, not to get rid of it, but to take the meditative seat and accept her situation with mindfulness and compassion. She grieved and wept and there was some necessary storytelling. After a fair amount of work, it seemed time to go back to the core of this primary suffering that she carried. So I asked her to close her eyes, and through visualization meditation she went back to being three years old standing at the top of the stairs, looking down, as a little girl, and her father had his suitcase in his hand and was about to walk out of the door and never see her again. Immediately, she felt grief and terror, this was horrible for her, and I had her tell me what it felt like in her three-year-old body and hold all of that within a spacious attention and compassion. Then I said, “See if you can shift your consciousness and enter your father’s body. Tell me what it feels like.” So she did. There she was. She said, “It’s rigid, I’m filled with pain and suffering and anger. But more than anything, I feel desperate.” I said, “Why are you leaving?” She went on, “I’m trapped. I’m in a terrible marriage where I’m losing my life, I’m going to die. I want to have a life and I feel like the marriage is so difficult and if I’m here another day I’m just going to die. I have to get out of here in order to survive.” She could feel the rigidity and the desperation. And I said, “Do you know that your daughter is there at the top of the stairs, watching you?” “Yes, I do.” “Well, why do you want to leave her? Why don’t you say anything?” “Because if I even look at her for a moment, I love her so dearly, I would not be able to walk out that door. But I can’t stay. I’ll die. I made the wrong marriage. It’s horrible. So I have to keep my eyes down, and grit my teeth, and walk out that door to survive.” She just sat there for a moment, stunned, and I said, “All right. Now go back and be that little girl again, looking.” She sees him leave. What is the story that she tells herself? She said, “He’s leaving because he doesn’t love me. And because my father doesn’t love me, I can’t be loved. There’s something wrong with me.” I asked her, “Who made up that story?” Somewhat astonished she answered, “I did.” Well, I said, “Is that really who you are?” Ahhhh. In this moment came a whole realization of emptiness—that’s not who I am. Next I had her go become her mother, filled with anger and fear, chopping carrots in the kitchen as her husband walks off. As she felt the rage that her mother carried and the anxiety that was in her mother, it made her much more sympathetic to her mother’s experience. Finally, she went back to being a little girl again. And she said, “Now I can see the suffering that was there, which as a child I was asked to bear and didn’t understand.” I asked, “Can you see how you created a sense of self from that suffering that is not who you really are?” And from that moment, things began to change in her. She had seen her life from the wisdom Ajahn Chah called “The one who knows.” I didn’t give her teachings about emptiness and selflessness, or have her do a special Buddhist meditation. But when the inner work is grounded in an understanding of emptiness, then we shift from the “body of fear” to inherent freedom. It’s quite natural. When I’m working with people, the ground is emptiness. I’ll say to them, “Who are you, and what is the possibility in your life of really being free?” Not in just changing the plot of the story, but letting go of all that we cling to as a false self. In this way, the best of modern psychotherapy can be a kind of paired meditation, which is informed from a spiritual point of view.

Once you apply fundamental Buddhist principles such as emptiness and “no-self” to something as socially acceptable as psychotherapy, what happens to the “radical” nature of dharma? To practice the dharma is to swim upstream against the social current. Even in Asia there is a certain truth to that. It demands that we shift our primary values from our attachment to security, from greed for money or worldly success, to value the transformation of the heart. Every day, people come into Buddhist retreat centers carrying an enormous amount of tension, worry, and complexity from living in modern consumer society, and they say, “Help me. Help. Help. How can dharma practice help?” Part of the answer is that they actually have to change their lives! Dharma teaching doesn’t just say transform the vision by which you see the world, although that is one aspect of liberation. It also requires you to let go and change your behavior, change the way you live. The Buddha didn’t choose to live in the marketplace of Benares. He lived simply, in the forest. Yet even for his lay followers who stayed in the city, the Buddha emphasized that to free the heart you must act ethically and generously—this is the ground from which dharma practice grows. You can’t meditate after a day of killing and stealing. It just doesn’t work. On another level, if you live a life that is filled with stressful complexity and are seeking peace and harmony, you will certainly have to change your inner spirit but you may actually have to change the way you live. Freedom is fulfilled by seeing the truth and then learning to embody it in every part of our life. This is not just empty words. I remember going to a psychology conference many years ago and giving a lecture about how I teach ethics to my clients. In traditional psychotherapy, that was a radical thing to do. As a psychotherapist you were supposed to be nonjudgmental. If someone tells you that they’re having a string of affairs, you’re not supposed to be judgmental about it. But I said, this is ridiculous. If someone comes in and they’re having one affair after another or taking money from the till, though I’ll listen in a sympathetic way, and seek to help them understand the pain that is driving them, I’ll also remind them there are universal spiritual teachings—Buddhist, Muslim, Christian—which say that if you steal or if you kill or if you lie, then inevitably you will create patterns of suffering. You are doing the things that create suffering. I would not tell you what you should do, but I want you to wake up to the laws of life so that you can wisely guide yourself. Certain people’s eyes got wide. “You mean you teach this?” I said, “Of course. Aren’t we supposed to be helping these people?” Those boundaries between spiritual truth and conventional life seem, in a certain way, quite artificial. In the teaching that I do, what interests me most centrally of all is the possibility of liberation, what is translated in one of our texts as “the sure heart’s release.” That is to say it’s possible to be free and that freedom isn’t found in transcending the world or leaving the world, but here and now, in this very moment. What my own teachers demonstrated so beautifully was that even in the midst of the worst circumstances in Thailand, or Cambodia, or Burma, their hearts were free and open and their compassion seemed boundless.

And in the West, part of the appeal is the integration of psychology and dharma? I’m not sure that we need an integration of psychology and dharma. I simply feel that in order to be skillful at this time, the dharma has to include attention to personal life and attention to the kind of emotional deficiencies that are common in our society. It has to bring skillful means of awareness and compassion to those areas, which aren’t—weren’t—major focuses in the monasteries of Asia. That’s all. Of course, in the same way, we must include in our dharma attention the ecological devastation, the continuing racism, and the injustices perpetrated by our materialistic culture—but that’s another conversation. The good news is that always in the here and now is the Buddha’s invitation to liberation. Whatever circumstances one is in.

After the Ecstasy
An excerpt from Jack Kornfield’s forthcoming book

Ajahn Buddhadasa, whose monastery spread across a great forest of the Malay Peninsula, invited his students to sit with him in the coolness of the trees. Then he made a point of directing his students to look for Nirvana in the simplest ways, in everyday moments. “Nirvana,” he would say, “is the coolness of letting go, the inherent delight of experience when there is no grasping or resistance to life.”

Anyone can see that if grasping and aversion were with us all day and night without ceasing, who could ever stand them? Under that condition, living things would either die or become insane. Instead, we survive because there are natural periods of coolness, of wholeness, and ease. In fact, they last longer than the fires of our grasping and fear. It is this that sustains us. We have periods of rest making us refreshed, alive, well. Why don’t we feel thankful for this everyday Nirvana?

We already know how to let go—we do it every night when we go to sleep, and that letting go, like a good night’s sleep, is delicious. Opening in this way, we can live in the reality of our wholeness. A little letting go brings us a little peace, a greater letting go brings us a greater peace. Entering the gateless gate, we begin to treasure the moments of wholeness. We begin to trust the natural rhythm of the world, just as we trust our own sleep and how our own breath breathes itself.

On a retreat, a healer and psychologist who had devoted fifteen years to spiritual practice was struggling yet again with the question of relationships. Feelings of longing and craving and blame kept coming up again and again. We talked and I suggested he spend some days directing a lovingkindness meditation toward himself. At first he resisted; like so many of us, he felt uncomfortable focusing on himself. It was awkward to offer the intention of love and kindness to himself over and over for days. But as the retreat went on, his heart softened. Forgiveness for himself and others arose. The world began to look more beautiful. And then came a realization:

It is I who must love myself. No one else can make me feel whole. Only I can provide that love. Now I know that wholeness is always accessible to me and all beings everywhere. This knowing allows me to live with a new peacefulness and kindness to myself and others. In the simplest way, it has changed my whole life.

Again, the lesson of spiritual practice is not about gaining knowledge, but about how we love. Are we able to love what is given to us, to love in the midst of all things, to love ourselves and others? Are we able to see the illumination offered by the sun every morning? If we cannot, what must we do in the body, heart, and mind to allow us to open ourselves, to let go, to rest in our natural perfection? The gate is open, what we seek is just in front of us. It is so today and every day.

Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg went to practice with Zen Master Seung Sahn in Korea. During the journey he undertook a pilgrimage to other masters and temples, and while traveling on a remote road he came across a particularly elegant Buddhist shrine, or stupa, at the base of a mountain. Next to it was a sign, “Way to the Most Beautiful Buddha in All of Korea,” and an arrow pointing to the thousand-step path up the mountain. Larry decided to climb, hiking up the steps until he reached the top. The view was breathtaking in every direction. The simple Zen stone pagoda matched the elegance of the one below. But in place of the Buddha on the altar there was nothing, only empty space and the gorgeous green-hilled vista below. When he went closer, at the empty altar was a plaque that read, “If you can’t see the Buddha here, you had better go down and practice some more.”

From After the Ecstasy, The Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Kornfield Copyright (c) Jack Kornfield. To be published in June 2000 by Bantam Books, an imprint of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters