Spirit Rock Meditation Center is dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha. We provide silent meditation retreats, as well as classes, trainings, and Dharma study.
Tricycle chats with teacher Jack Kornfield about Buddhist psychology, everyday nirvana, and what all religions have in common.
Just inside the gate to the grounds of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California, stands a modest "gratitude hut." It honors teachers past and present who have inspired the inclusive style of this Vipassana retreat center nestled in the hills forty minutes north of San Francisco, in Marin County. Pictures of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike paper the walls: the current Dalai Lama, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Maha Ghosananda, Anagarika Munindra, Thich Nhat Hanh, Kalu Rinpoche—to name a few—along with some of today's most well-known Vipassana teachers. The center's leading figure and cofounder, Jack Kornfield, draws freely from a broad range of spiritual traditions, citing teachers, political leaders, poets, writers, and artists in what he describes as an effort to speak to people using the language and metaphors they know best.
Tricycle caught up with Kornfield on a mid-afternoon in March, in a room used by teachers to interview students. Typical of the center, the room affords an incomparable view of the hills and valleys beyond. Kornfield has taken a break from leading a silent retreat and sits relaxed, casual, and ready to talk. His latest book, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, has just been published.
What do you hope people will learn from your latest book? Two things: The first is that Buddhism as a psychology has a great deal to offer the West. It provides an enormous and liberating map of the human psyche and of human possibility. Second, Buddhism offers a holistic approach. Often people say, “This part of life is spiritual, that part worldly,” as if the two can be divided. My own teacher, Ajahn Chah, never made a distinction between the pain of divorce and the pain in your knee and the pain of clinging to self. They are all forms of suffering, and Buddhism addresses them all.
One aspect of the Buddhist approach to psychology you call, “behaviorism with heart.” Can you explain what you mean? Western behaviorism grew out of rational emotive therapy, in which thought substitution—good for bad—and retraining an individual to establish healthy habits of mind were central. In behaviorism with heart, the Buddha instructs us to see that certain thoughts we have about ourselves or others are not compassionate. Through specific Buddhist trainings, like metta practice—a meditation in which we cultivate positive mind states toward ourselves and others—we can learn to release negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Where Western psychiatry has focused largely on mental illness, Buddhism focuses on the cultivation of a healthy state of mind through mindfulness, training in compassion, and so on.
You believe in the fundamentally compassionate nature of the human heart. In our own Western tradition this has been debated for centuries. Saint Augustine wrote, “If babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” Wordsworth, on the other hand, wrote, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy.” Buddhists differ here as well. Is Buddhist practice a question of cultivation or allowing our “pure nature” to manifest? We can view our nature as being defiled and deluded, as Augustine might point out. Or we can view our nature as compassionate and loving. So then maybe we should add an “s” and talk about our “natures.” I believe it is most skillful to try to get people to focus on and cultivate the positive. In the Theravada sutras, the Buddha describes the nature of mind this way, “Luminous is the mind, brightly shining is its nature, but it is colored by the attachments that visit it.” [AN 1.49-51] I’ve found that pointing people to their fundamental goodness will awaken it. It’s more skillful than pointing to the negative. We are so loyal to our suffering and to seeing ourselves as damaged that it’s very easy to use spiritual practice to reinforce our self-judgment. That doesn’t help people become liberated.
In your book you point out that Buddhist psychology is not especially focused on the interaction between student and teacher. In Western psychology, the therapist-client relationship is central. Can you say something about this distinction? Of course the relationship between the student and teacher is important, and teacher-student contact is essential. But that’s only one part of it. Even more important are the inner practices, where much of the real transformation comes about. The root of Buddhist understanding of mind is that the mind can be trained and awakened to the nature of reality. Through training and practice we discover our true nature and find liberation. So this is a very different approach from focusing on two people sitting in a room together talking. You do the trainings your teacher offers, and through them you learn to transform and awaken yourself. This is what happens on our retreats.
You talk about the content of our stories—whether it’s the details of our personal histories or just what’s going on right now. In Buddhist psychology, how important is it to understand those contents and to what extent do they become a trap? Content can be a trap, and ignoring content can also be a trap. So one of my tasks as a teacher is to listen to both. There’s a great freedom in just being aware of thought and seeing that it’s empty. But when somebody says, “I think all the time,” I’ll ask, “What do you think about?” If they answer, “My son just died six months ago,” I might ask, “How do you work with grief?” Or if they say, “I’ve just inherited $4 million,” I might ask, “How do you work with planning and attachment?” So sometimes it’s helpful to know the content, and sometimes you don’t need to. When you see the content of thought, it’s not in order to rework it, it’s in order to see the whole pattern so that you can become free.
You claim that Buddhist psychology goes further than Western methods do. For instance, you write of the Three Poisons (anger, greed, and delusion) that “we reach below the very synapses and cells to free ourselves from the grasp of these instinctive forces.” Do you mean to say that greed, anger, and delusion are dealt with once and for all? If our goal is, as has sometimes been said in the Western psychological tradition, to reach an ordinary level of neurosis, then the goal of Buddhist practice takes us far beyond that. It is to free us from neurosis or to shift identity so that we are no longer subject to those forces in an ordinary way; we are liberated from the power of those forces. And the fact that this is possible for us as human beings is tremendously good news.
In your terms, nirvana is the Buddhist definition of mental health, the optimum goal of Buddhist psychology. You say that Westerners sometimes misunderstand nirvana as a transcendent state—I now refer to your previous book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry—but are you selling nirvana short by giving it such a mundane cast? When we’re idealistic, we—and many practitioners in Asian Buddhist countries as well—imagine that nirvana exists somewhere high in the Himalayas, reserved for monks who have meditated for the whole of their life. My own teachers—and other wonderful masters like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi—emphasize that nirvana is to be found here and now.
In the morning and evening chanting in the forest monastery we recite the Buddha’s words, that the dharma of liberation is ever present, immediate, timeless, to be experienced here and now by all who see wisely. Nirvana appears when we let go, when we live in the reality of the present. Sorrow arises when the mind and heart are caught in greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana appears in their absence. Nirvana manifests as ease, as love, as connectedness, as generosity, as clarity, as unshakable freedom. This isn’t watering down nirvana. This is the reality of liberation that we can experience, sometimes in a moment and sometimes in transformative ways that change our entire life.
So these moments in which we experience freedom from anger, greed, delusion—these, too, are nirvana? They are what my teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa called “everyday nirvana.” They are tastes of nirvana resting in awareness, the reality of the liberated heart and mind. He said, “There’s no difference between the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion for a moment or for a lifetime.” This is not an esoteric notion of nirvana, that it is someplace far away to be attained only after a long time. Nirvana is to be known here and now. Sometimes we experience this through profound meditation, other times through the simple direct opening to freedom.