Wisdom Quarterly

A few days ago I posted an interview with Jack Kornfield and said I’d post an earlier interview with him soon. Well, here it is. The interview was given in 2000, around the time Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, The Laundry appeared. Here are two excerpts that will give you an idea of some of the modes of practice Jack was thinking about and teaching nearly a decade before the later interview. In the first excerpt, interviewer and Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov responds to Jack’s telling of his own initial and quite rigorous introduction to the dharma with a question about commitment to practice among his own students:

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.

Here, in the second excerpt, Jack discusses his own approach and understanding to the principles of Western psychotherapy in the context of Buddhist practice and the role of one’s own “story” along the path:

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.

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.

There are lots of exchanges like the above in which we discover that Jack doesn’t attempt to “bring together” Buddhism and psychotherapy rather, he doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between them—or at least, he finds a middle way. In one amusing exchange, Jack points out that if he trained his students like Marpa trained Milarepa, “they’d either leave or sue.” But he’s got another way to teach the same thing. You can read the full interview here

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