Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman are partners—in romance and in the Dharma. Kornfield, originally trained by the Thai and Burmese masters Ajahn Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw, is a cofounder and senior teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Goodman, trained both in Zen—with Seung Sahn, Kobun Chino Otagawa and Maurine Stuart—and in vipassana, is founder and guiding teacher of InsightLA in Los Angeles. Inquiring Mind invited the two to discuss a series of questions reflecting on their history of studying and teaching the Dharma, particularly in meeting the everyday challenges of relationships, family, health and loss.
Inquiring Mind: People come to your centers with their upsets, fears, confusion, illness, aging, tragedies, traumas. What really helps?
Jack Kornfield: First we try to help them quiet their minds and tend to their hearts. People need to do this in order to have the capacity to be present with the difficult stuff. Our cultural habit is to keep distracted—open the refrigerator or go online. In contrast, as teachers we want to give people a practice and a place to do that practice where they are respected for their hearts’ capacity to be present.
It is also helpful for people to experience the impersonal nature of suffering—just as I suffer, everyone suffers—to realize that difficulty and loss are part of the human condition and that they’re not alone in their situation.
Trudy Goodman: I think that’s really important—feeling that you are not alone. It is healing to be held by the presence of a sangha, a community, a teacher, friends, so that we can quiet down and be present with the overwhelming emotions that often accompany big upsets in our lives. We then realize, Not only am I not alone in facing this kind of pain but there are others who care about what I am going through.
JK: Also important are the practices of vastness, equanimity and selflessness, not as a denial but as perspective. In developing equanimity practice toward others, though we care, we include the phrase, “Your happiness and suffering depend on your thoughts and actions and not my wishes for you.” As we repeat these phrases, we are in touch with the play of each individual life taking place in the vastness of space and time—maha-kalpas of time. Attending Dharma teaching or a retreat is an invitation to step out of ordinary time into the present, and into eternity. We can realize that we’re part of something unimaginably great and mysterious, a cosmos that includes birth and death, joy and sorrow, gain and loss, praise and blame. We gain the capacity to feel the currents of life in a more gracious way.
TG: I remember years ago I had a poster of the Dalai Lama. He was young then, but he had that Dalai Lama twinkle in his eyes, and he was holding his palms together. Beneath the image was a quote: “Maybe I am the last Dalai Lama. It’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.” I remember wondering, how could he say that in the midst of the tragedy of the Tibetan people? How could that be all right? By example, he was showing us that we can learn how to hold this worldly drama in a vast perspective, as you describe, Jack. It still may be terrible, but in some way, it is also deeply all right.
In meditation retreats we learn how to become aware of our own frames of mind and perspectives, and realize that we have the freedom to shift into other states of being. Even though nothing may change in our external circumstances, our view and perspective can shift, bringing us much relief and healing.
IM: Do you believe people can gain the ability to make profound changes by doing a daily meditation practice or do we need the intensity of silent retreat?
JK: Retreats are powerful and often lead to beautiful experiences of insight and opening of the heart. We see it on the faces of people at the end of retreats—we call it the vipassana face-lift. People come in looking worried and haggard, and after ten days they look like they’re young again because their spirit has been refreshed. And their body has also released; it has been cleansed in some deep way.
But retreats are only one form. When somebody asked my teacher Ajahn Chah to explain the Dharma, he said, “The Dharma is the heart.” How we tend our heart or tend our mind—they’re the same word in Sanskrit—is really the essence of Dharma. And that, as we teachers say over and over, can be practiced anywhere, not just on retreat.
Still, intensive retreat practice gives us a strong rudder for our boat as we go through the waters of life.
TG: Similar to Ajahn Chah, my first teacher, Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, always used to say that what matters is how you keep your mind, moment to moment, or how you keep your heart, moment to moment.
For me the body is the rudder that can steer us beyond words into silence. I find that mindfulness of the body is a great Dharma doorway for people who are extremely busy and have very little time to be still and do retreat. Our body and breath are always with us and, as we go through the ups and downs of our lives, we can become more and more conscious of the aliveness of the body or the state of our hearts as reflected in our bodily tension. And since the early years of my practice, I have had an abiding respect for the powerful synergy of Dharma and psychotherapeutic work.
IM: There’s been an explosion of “mindfulness” in the Western world, and some people are worried that the Dharma will become watered down as it spreads.
TG: We have experience at InsightLA of teaching mindfulness at the VA hospitals, where sometimes people only have enough time to practice for ten minutes at a time during their lunch hour. Initially, I worried about how this could really be useful. But over the five years of working in the hospital, we listened to story after story of people healing: getting off multiple medications, finding meaning in their lives, helping others, being more connected, forgiving history and themselves. We had to let go of our ideas of what training in mindfulness looked like, for we saw that some people, with just the smallest amount of exposure, began to understand how important the practice is and dive into deeper waters. Even in standard vipassana retreats and classes, it’s probably a small number of people who practice intensively and take it further into questions of their own consciousness and reality, into the more mystical or existential questions that the Dharma addresses.
JK: That is equally true in the great Buddhist countries of Myanmar or Thailand or Tibet, where Dharma practice is not generally focused on meditation training. It is usually expressed through devotion, community identity and traditional beliefs. Most commonly you go to the temple to make an offering and pray for a better business or the health of your family or your child to get into a good school, and your practice is focused on accumulating merit. Only a small number of people do in-depth meditation practice.
When we started teaching Dharma in the West, meditation was what most interested us and our students. As young teachers recently returned from Asia, we began simply teaching Dharma “without adult supervision,” as Sharon Salzberg likes to say, and the current flowering of mindfulness is beyond what any of us could have imagined. Now there’s a Starbucks, a yoga studio and pretty soon perhaps mindfulness classes on every block. The mindfulness revolution is being supported by extensive research from neuroscience, based on neuroplasticity, our brain’s capacity for neural development. This capacity for transformation is the basis of Dharma practice—the realization that the mind and heart can develop mindfulness, attention, emotional regulation and balance, and grow in equanimity and compassion. The seeds of these qualities are innate in us and can be awakened and trained. I trust that the Dharma is here to stay.
TG: Just to spread the understanding that you don’t have to believe in your thoughts is revolutionary. This notion is just now entering our Western culture and it is a major shift of consciousness.
IM: Does the Dharma ever fail you in your own life or when you are working with students? Have there been times of great doubt? How do you deal with this?
TG: I think the question, “Does the Dharma ever fail you?” is based on some unexamined expectations of what the Dharma is supposed to do for us. For instance, when I was young, I had been practicing for maybe five years and was going through a sad breakup and I actually became furious with meditation. I had thought that if I practiced diligently and trained hard enough, I would have some insurance against unwanted heartache. It felt like a betrayal to discover that was not so. Luckily I didn’t stop practicing; I remember sitting in the Zendo with tears pouring down my face yet knowing deeply, as the Dalai Lama said, it was all right. Now there can be no doubt about the Dharma; I know how it served me even when I thought it had failed.
JK: The question could also be asked, “Do I ever fail the Dharma?” Of course. It reminds me of that great line from Zen Master Ryokan, “Last year a foolish monk. This year, no change.”
There have been times in my life when the grief and loss or the confusion or restlessness was really strong and took me over in ways that surprised me. I thought I was such a good yogi that I was immune. Six years ago I got a misdiagnosis of serious neurological problems. I had thought I was okay with death, having sat in charnel grounds at Ajahn Chah’s forest monastery, and having done practices of death and dying, and having done a great deal of hospice work. But when this misdiagnosis said, You will die relatively soon; your body will fall apart and your mind will quickly go into dementia—I wasn’t prepared for that! The fear was big and very present. I remember talking to Ram Dass about it afterward. He laughed, “Yeah, I flunked the course once in a while too.” But it wasn’t the Dharma failing me. It was my own inability to face my human condition. After I took my prescribed number of breaths, and after a number of days, I realized, Here I am, and the tools of presence, of mindfulness, of loving awareness and compassion came alive for me again. Finally I was relieved to find out it was a misdiagnosis.
TG: In grappling with challenging situations, I am grateful for both my early Zen training and the psychoanalysis I was in at the same time, where there was not only focus on strengthening the beautiful enlightening qualities of the heart but also on facing the difficult side of life—where you find loss, feelings of failure, dread and anxiety. The point of both Zen practice and that psychotherapy was to be awake to all aspects of being alive. Also from the early days in Zen, there was always an emphasis on helping others and being part of community in that way. The implicit teaching is: if you’re really caught up in your own suffering, do something for somebody else.
JK: Over the decades I experience my practice becoming much more full of metta and compassion and forgiveness than it was at the beginning. For me and for a lot of people I’ve talked with, in the beginning we were striving for peak experiences and enlightenment experiences. I have come to a very different understanding of the path—that it’s not so much about perfecting ourselves as it is about perfecting our love. Practice has become less of a duty and much more an invitation to love, to vastness and to mystery.
IM: Sometimes we encounter profound obstacles and challenges in life where what is demanded of us is to start over again. How does the Dharma support us in that?
TG: I chose to completely start my life over when I left my marriage fifteen years ago. It felt like dying, free-falling through the abyss. I had to leap away from my known world and literally start over, landing in a completely new place without my professional community, without my sangha, without my friends of thirty years, without my husband. In midlife I suddenly felt alone and anonymous, and while it was hugely difficult, it was also a liberating experience. There is a koan where a monk asks Yunmen: “How is it when the leaves have fallen and the branches are bare?” And Yunmen answers, “Body exposed to the golden wind.”
How is it when all our leaves have fallen, when everything we thought was “me” is gone? What’s left? What remains when there’s been that kind of suffering and dislocation in our lives? Going through that experience was a purification, coming to a new dimension of trust in what the Buddha called “safe and reliable refuge.” It opened my heart to be more compassionate, and also opened my heart eventually to the mystery of a second love of my life: falling in love with you, Jack. I am surprised to be in love that way again, and I feel so profoundly blessed that it has happened.
JK: I do too. I’ve gone through my own divorce, which to me was also unexpected and painful. I thought I’d be married for the rest of my life, and it turned out not to be that way. But even in suffering I also understood that I had to be willing to start over again. When I write, I start over. When I teach each retreat, there’s some way in which I’m starting over and trying to make what matters to me come alive, so that I can communicate it to others.
When people come in to talk about going through difficult times, I want to communicate trust. I remember the line from Pablo Neruda, “You can pick all the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.” There is some life force in us that is inviolable: the creative spirit that pushes the grass through the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s actually in every person. Our spirit wants to renew itself, and all it asks is the Dharma of our attention and dedication. Sometimes it takes long months of patience or pain or grief, but something new wants to come.
IM: Please share your thoughts on transmission, passing on the Dharma to the next generation of teachers and the growing numbers of new practitioners in the West.
TG: Chan Master Sheng-yen was asked, “In a Dharma transmission between teacher and student, what is it that gets transmitted?” He replied, “Responsibility.” And I think that’s something that you and I have both passed on—a commitment to keep the Dharma alive and available to all.
I humbly submit that we are doing a good job of it. At InsightLA a few years ago, we held our first teacher authorization ceremony; it was for two women, with Sharon Salzberg presiding, and we felt a beautiful sense of a female lineage cascading down the Dharma generations. I think the most important thing I have passed on to these and other new teachers is my deep, deep love of the Dharma, my unshakable trust in the teachings and in the possibility for each one of us to embody them fully.
JK: What did Suzuki Roshi say, that the Dharma is passed on from warm hand to warm hand? Passing on the Dharma is passing on the body of teachings that have been carried for 2,600 years. But more than that, there’s also a communion in which we, in training others, entrust them with an understanding that they get in their own DNA that life is workable. That no matter what the circumstance we’re in, compassion is possible, freedom of heart is possible. And we pass on the wonderful practices, ways to learn to manifest that understanding. I really trust the Dharma seeds we transmit in mentoring. I think Thoreau said, “If you convince me that you have a seed there, I’m prepared to expect miracles.”
TG: Years ago I saw a greeting card which read, “Life is really wacky,” and then you opened it up and it said, “By the time you get your act together, the show is over.” It reminded me of something that another of my Zen teachers, Kobun Chino, said to me when I was probably around thirty. “Zazen or meditation gives us premature wisdom.” I think that is so true—you may develop the wisdom of Dharma in the course of a long life but through the practice of Zazen you won’t have to wait until you’re old. That wisdom allows us to have a reverence and appreciation for the blessing of being alive that often doesn’t come to people until they’re older.
JK: I agree. I used to call myself a premature elder. Because we started teaching when we were so young, we were placed in that role of the supposedly wise person. Fortunately, I had some teachers who were remarkably wise, so I could begin to see what it looked like. Now that I’m actually becoming an elder, I feel comfortable with the role. And I feel happy now, gracious with things in a way that I haven’t before. I feel a lot easier about loving people in all their tainted glory, with their flaws and their beauty. I’m no longer trying to box things up or figure them out in some systematic way. I’m more present for the mystery of human incarnation and the vast star-filled galaxies that whirl around us. I’m really grateful. Aren’t we lucky to have each other? Aren’t we lucky to have the Dharma teachings of awakening?