Interview with Jack Kornfield on ‘Lamp in Darkness’

Candles courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Other photos today are courtesy of Jack Kornfield and his publisher.Jack Kornfield’s pilgrimage as a Buddhist teacher spans half a century of tumultuos world events. Born among the first Baby Boomers, he came of age in the ’60s, trained for years in Asia—and has been a beloved spiritual teacher for decades.

In Part 1 of our coverage of his new A Lamp in the Darkness we published a brief excerpt to introduce this very practical new book with audio meditation-starters.

In our interview, today,
Jack speaks for himself …


DAVID: Let’s start with your home base: Spirit Rock. Tell us about it.

JACK: Spirit Rock is one of the largest meditation centers in the West in the Buddhist tradition. We train in mindfulness and compassion practices. We have thousands of people who come, not as Buddhists, but who come because they want to quiet their minds and use these extraordinary trainings to improve their own lives and the world. I am a founding teacher.

DAVID: This new book is full of training practices. On the audio disk that comes with the book, readers actually hear your voice leading them in some of these meditations. We will publish a brief excerpt of the book to introduce readers to the overall purpose. As I began going through it, I made a note to myself in the margin: “Buddhism 101.” Is that a fair catch phrase to describe this practical book?

JACK: No, I don’t see this book as Buddhism at all, actually. I see it as offering fundamental teachings of the human heart. This is universal and extremely accessible. This allows us to take our difficulties small or large and discover we’re not alone in them. We share this journey of working through joys and difficulties with so much of humanity. In the book, I am showing people that it is possible not only to survive, but to transform our difficulties into courage and in the process open up our lives. What’s so important about this book is that it offers about 10 different inner practices and trainings that people can use to relax their bodies, learn to live in their bodies, learn about forgiveness. There is a lot here, but I do see it as universal. Those who come to this book—whether they’re in a time of difficulty or they just want to learn more about riding with the waves of life—will find some of the best practices I’ve learned through the decades that can help people quite immediately and effectively. These practices at the heart of this book are offered in a nonsectarian and very accessible way.


DAVID: I have circled the world writing about religion and talking to people about their daily spiritual lives. One thing I find, wherever I go, is that Buddhism holds a special status among the world’s religions. Many people will take issue with one religious tradition or another, but most people tend to say good things about Buddhism. Why does your tradition seem to enjoy this almost universally warm reputation?

JACK: To the extent that people really are respectful and open to Buddhist teaching, I can say that, at first, Buddhism doesn’t require a blind belief. You don’t have to exchange one set of religious beliefs for another. Buddhist teachings are immediate and pragmatic. The Buddha says: Take these and see if they are of benefit to you. The point is to become a Buddha and not a Buddhist. You can become a Buddha in the Christian community or a Muslim community or even an atheist community. Our classes and retreats at Spirit Rock are full of people who still are faithful Catholics or Jews or Muslims. We have priests and ministers who come to learn the transformative practices of forgiveness and mindfulness, of turning our hearts into zones of peace even in the midst of the world’s struggles.

DAVID: It’s easy to mistake what we’re talking about as an awfully somber pathway. But there’s a great deal of humor in Buddhism. I’ve covered the Dalai Lama’s appearances a number of times, over the years, and he is as famous for laughing as he is for saying wise things. How can such a serious tradition, which is so closely tied to compassion, wind up so—full of humor and joy?

JACK: In part that’s because Buddhist psychology and teaching start with basic human goodness. Instead of original sin—we focus on original goodness. We are born with a beautiful spirit that gets covered over by protective mechanisms. These layers of protection form because of traumas and difficulties that we encounter. Yet, under all of this is an inner goodness—a kind and compassionate spirit. Buddhist practice is to see the Buddha nature in ourselves and in others. That’s one reason the Dalai Lama laughs and people love to be around him. If he can keep his joyful spirit, even under the weight of the tragedies in Tibet and around the world, then perhaps we can, too.

That does not mean that things can’t get extremely hard in life. We go through periods when it feels like we’re dying. What we need to avoid is allowing that pain to turn us toward distractions and addictions. Instead, we need to lean toward the difficulty, like finding our center in a storm and leaning into the wind. In this way, we can allow ourselves to go through experiences that in some ways are deaths—deaths of the way things used to be in our lives. And when we do move through something like that, then we discover the indestructible within us. I’m not being a Pollyanna in saying this. I’m talking about something that has been known through many generations. There are thousands of generations who lived before us who have given us the capacity to face misfortune.


DAVID: That is a good description of what people will find in your book. You take joy—seriously. For example, you include a few jokes in your book. It’s notable that, like the Christian New Testament and the contemporary Christian writer C.S. Lewis, you find joy one of life’s great virtues. Is that fair to say? One of your central goals is rediscovering joy?

JACK: Perhaps this is the most important message in the book. We have our measure of sorrow and we need to learn to weep our tears honorably. In the Lakota tradition, tears are considered holy. Tears are potent. But tears are not the end of our story. The rain clears. If we become too loyal to cultivating our own suffering then we can mistake sorrow as defining us. But, that is not what we really are.

No one can imprison your human heart and spirit, if you refuse to let that happen. The point of these practices is not grim duty, but to free the spirit—to allow us to see the lavender color in the rain puddle at the end of a long day as the sun is setting. We want to see the miraculous arc of tangerine opening up across the sky as a new day is beginning. Without this renewal of the spirit, all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Joy is the treasure of humanity.

DAVID: You were born in auspicious times. I was looking at your biography before our interview and, for example, you were born in 1945. You were among the very first Baby Boomers. You graduated Dartmouth in 1967, a tumultuous year in American history—there were urban rebellions in some U.S. cities that year but ’67 was also the first “Human Be In” at Golden Gate Park and the musical Hair opened. That’s just one example of a milestone year in your life. In the span of your life, you’ve lived to see the end of the Cold War, the new millennium and this strange and violent post-9/11 decade.

JACK: I am so grateful to have lived in this period. At times, it has been terribly troubled with wars and assassinations and continuing racism and so forth. On the other hand, it’s been an enormously creative time in which the world has been woven together in a worldwide Web and the consciousness of women and of our environment has grown and there has been a great rebirth in interest in the contemplative life and inner training. Some of this comes from many, many years of work on bringing Buddhist teaching to the West; but some of this comes from the great outpouring of modern neuroscience. We are learning that the nervous system and the brain truly can respond in positive ways to these kinds of trainings.

We can prepare ourselves by learning techniques that can help us. The world may seem wonderful at one moment, then we all go through terrible times. I have an enormous trust. The poet Pablo Neruda said, “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep the spring from coming.”

The final questions in our interview were about life after the 9/11 decade—and Jack’s responses were published closer to the 9/11 anniversary.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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