The Inside Scoop

Katy Koontz

Jack Kornfield (the subject of this issue’s “Listening in With …”) might have been born into a Jewish family, but he became one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in the West. “I’m an ‘all-of-the-above’ kind of person,” he told me during our discussion. “I’ve spent time with Christian mystics, engaged in Sufi practices, and participated in Jewish contemplative practices. I’ve taken sacred medicines like peyote in ceremony with a hundred-year-old Huichol shaman. All of them have touched me, brought me gifts, and helped me understand the world more deeply and beautifully.”

Kornfield’s résumé looks just as diverse, with divine wisdom at work behind every change of direction. He started as a premed major at Dartmouth but switched to Asian Studies after taking a class with the late Chinese scholar Wing-tsit Chan, who lectured atop his desk in lotus position. He graduated a hippie activist during the thick of the Vietnam War and joined the Peace Corps, asking to be sent to a Buddhist country. After two years working in tropical medicine in rural Thailand, he stayed in Asia seeking training and ordination as a Buddhist monk.

Kornfield returned to the United States in 1972 and moved into his parents’ home in Washington, D.C., but living as a monk without a monastery proved unsustainable. Buddhist monks customarily don’t handle money, and they eat only what food others offer them directly—customs not embraced in Western life. In A Path With Heart (Bantam Books, 1993), Kornfield tells a movie-scene-worthy tale set at the Elizabeth Arden spa in Manhattan, where a group of women in salon smocks, their hair in curlers and their faces smeared with either mud or avocado, gathered to giggle at the sight of Kornfield, head shaved and wearing monks’ robes, meditating in the lounge while waiting for his sister-in-law. He had become a monkfish out of water.

Not long after, he reluctantly and emotionally gave up his robes to turn to academia. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology while simultaneously becoming a noted Vipassana teacher. Kornfield eventually cofounded two revered Buddhist meditation institutions: the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and, decades later, Spirit Rock Meditation Center near San Francisco.

His background as a Buddhist monk/clinical psychologist/teacher of Eastern meditation techniques for Western students makes for an unusual perspective that turns out to be Kornfield’s greatest gift. “Enlightenment and awakening,” he told me, “are not found in the Himalayas or in some great Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan, or in some extraordinary Christian contemplative monastery or sacred site of another spiritual tradition.” Instead, according to his concept of “embodied enlightenment,” life offers abundant opportunities to awaken—in everyday joy and sorrow, in agony as well as in ecstasy—if we’re willing to be fully present to them, wherever we are right now.

Katy Koontz, Editor