Teacher who helped shape American Buddhism is still on a quest
In 1972, Jack Kornfield stepped off a plane in Washington, D.C., his head shaved and his body swathed in golden robes. He had come home to see if he could make it as a monk in America.
Kornfield had spent several contemplative years at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where he lived with few possessions, followed a strict monastic code and retreated each day to the lush forest for hours of meditation.
But in the U.S., he found no monasteries that practiced the Vipassana meditation he had studied. And the precepts he had followed in Thailand — which barred him from handling money and required that he eat only donated food — proved difficult to follow.
He gave up his robes and starting driving a taxi. He dated, got a doctorate in psychology and continued to practice Buddhism on his own terms, using the teachings he had learned to help cope with everyday life’s ups and downs. And with time, he began to help build a new Buddhism.
This distinctly American incarnation encouraged students to find mindfulness in all parts of life, not just in meditation. It was less religion and more practice.
“More and more, we’re teaching meditation not as a religious activity but as a support for living a wise and healthy and compassionate inner life,” Kornfield said recently. “A number of the people I teach don’t consider themselves Buddhists, which is absolutely fine with me. It’s much better to become a Buddha than a Buddhist.”
Kornfield is in Los Angeles this weekend for two events — a talk at the Armand Hammer Museum on Friday night about the psychologist Carl Jung’s journals, and a three-hour meditation class on Saturday at the InsightLA meditation center.
As one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, one of the nation’s most popular Buddhist centers, he has led retreats around the globe and has taught alongside eminent Buddhist monks such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.
Kornfield is credited as one of the teachers who helped Buddhism take root in the West by making it palatable and relevant for Americans.
These days, there are hundreds of Buddhist centers across the country, and meditation programs in schools, prisons, hospitals and even corporate boardrooms. But when Kornfield helped found the Insight Meditation Society in 1976, Buddhism was still a novelty in America. The small scene was dominated by Asian emigre monks — charismatic Tibetan teachers and Zen masters who taught Buddhism with a samurai-like intensity.
Kornfield and two similarly inclined friends, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, decided America needed a place where people could practice the Vipassana meditation of Southeast Asia and India. More so than is taught in Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana calls for a systematic exploration of the inner self.
Together, they bought an old Catholic monastery in the woods of Barre, Mass., and invited spiritual seekers for retreats. In sitting and walking meditation sessions, they encouraged participants to be mindful of their bodies, their breath and the activity of their minds.
Students and teachers wore street clothes, and teachers gave real-life advice on how to live mindfully in the modern world.
Although nearly all students of Buddhism in Asia were monks, most American Buddhist students were laypeople with families, jobs and Western sensibilities. Kornfield knew from experience that they needed their own message.
“Our minds are quite scattered with planning and remembering and tracking and we don’t live much in the present,” he said. “We can be so lost in our minds that we don’t see the sunset over the Pacific, we don’t see the eyes of our children when we come home, we don’t see the garden.”
Kornfield, who sees affinities between meditation and psychology, encourages his students to pair traditional meditation practice — usually sitting — with forms of cognitive therapy.
Some critics have dismissed Kornfield’s approach as “Buddhism lite.” But if his bestselling books are any indication, his message resonates with many people.
Trudy Goodman, who had studied with Zen and Tibetan monks before she arrived at the Insight center in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, said it was sometimes harder to connect with her Asian-born teachers.
“I feel that Jack has changed Buddhism by being a pioneer for the inclusion of our emotional lives in the practice,” said Goodman, who runs the InsightLA center.
In 1988, Kornfield founded the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the Marin County community of Woodacre, which he still runs. He has a wife, Liana, a psychologist, and a daughter, Caroline, who is on an internship in Cambodia this summer. He opened the center as a place to explore a more family-oriented approach to Buddhism. Among other things, he and others lead classes in parenting and teach introductory Buddhist courses for middle school students.
Kornfield also continues to develop his own practice.
His roving life of teaching gives him plenty of opportunities to practice patience and mindfulness, he said. When he’s home, he likes to spend time in his small writer’s cottage on the retreat center’s grounds. From the window, he can see rolling green hills and a line of bay trees planted along the edge of a stream.