Interview with Jack Kornfield on ‘Lamp in Darkness’ 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 …

ON A LAMP IN THE DARKNESS 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.

REDISCOVERING TRUE JOY IN LIFE 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.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Jack Kornfield: Finding A Lamp in the Darkness CAN READ JACK KORNFIELD’s new book, A Lamp in the Darkness, on a Kindle or an iPad (as shown above), but the audio tracks of Jack leading short meditations are only available with the book version. Images of Kornfield and the Spirit Rock website are courtesy of Jack Kornfield.Jack Kornfield has brought Buddhism to countless Americans—maybe millions after 40 years as a leading Buddhist scholar. He teaches through books, including a 2004 collaboration with Bible scholar Marcus Borg that we highly recommend: Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. And he regularly teaches in person at the Spirit Rock retreat center that he co-founded.
TODAY, we recommend his latest: A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times, which you can order right now via this link or by clicking on the images at right.

Our regular readers will recall Jack Kornfield’s spiritually challenging reflection on sprouting compassion again, after the trauma of living with global fear. Many readers praised that 9/11 meditation by Kornfield, the text of which came from the in-depth interview we will publish later this week.

TODAY, we’re sharing a short excerpt of “A Lamp in the Darkness” to illustrate why we so highly recommend this resource for—as the subtitle says—“illuminating the path through difficult times.” No, you don’t have to “become a Buddhist” to appreciate this volume. In this book, Kornfield has gleaned his lessons from timeless spiritual truths, as he explains in our interview later this week.


THERE IS praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Did you think this would not happen to you?
The Buddha

If you’re reading these words, you’ve probably hit hard times. Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one, or maybe you’ve lost your job, or received a difficult diagnosis, or someone close to you has. Maybe you’re divorcing or you’re in bankruptcy or you’ve been injured, or your life is falling apart in any number of ways. Maybe daily life itself has become too much for you—or not enough. But even in the best of times there’s plenty to worry about: seemingly endless wars and violence, racism, our accelerating environmental destruction. In difficult times, personally or collectively, we often begin to wonder not only how we can get through this difficult patch: we begin to question existence itself.

One of the most difficult things about hard times is that we often feel that we are going through them alone. But we are not alone. In fact, your life is only possible because of the thousands of generations before you, survivors who have carried the lamp of humanity through difficult times from one generation to another. Even Jesus had hard times, and Buddha did as well. At times they were hounded, threatened, physically attacked, and despised. Yet their gifts outshone all their difficulties. And now, as you read these words, you can feel yourself as part of the stream of humanity walking together, finding ways to carry the lamp of wisdom and courage and compassion through difficult times.

Several years ago I was giving a talk on compassion with Pema Chodron in a large hall in San Francisco filled with at least 3,000 participants. At one point, a young woman stood up and spoke in the most raw and painful way about her partner’s suicide several weeks before. She was experiencing a gamut of complex emotions, such as agonizing grief and confusion, guilt and anger, loss and fear. As I listened to her I could feel her loneliness, and so I asked the group when she finished, “How many of you in this room have experienced the suicide of someone in your family, or someone really close to you?” More than 200 people stood up. I asked her to look around the room at the eyes of those who had gone through a similar tragedy and survived. As they gazed at one another, everyone in the room could feel the presence of true compassion, as if we were in a great temple. We all felt the suffering that is part of our humanity, and part of the mystery that we share. But it’s not only in great difficulties like the suicide of a loved one that we touch this truth: in the midst of our daily confusions, self-doubts, conflicts, and fears, we need support, reminders to trust in ourselves. We can trust. We were designed to journey through the full measure of beauty and sorrows in life and survive.

Come back later this week for our interview with Jack Kornfield, one of the world’s most important Buddhist teachers.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

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

Jack Kornfield on 9/11: Sprouting compassion again Kornfield is one of the most popular Buddhist teachers in America. Trained in Thailand in the 1960s, he was in the 1970s vanguard of teachers spreading Eastern spiritual traditions in the West. He is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock, one of the largest Buddhist teaching centers in the West. In September, he will publish a new audio-and-text overview of spiritual practices A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times. This reflection on 9/11 comes from an upcoming ReadTheSpirit interview with Jack Kornfield.

Table of Contents: All of our 9/11 reflections you can use …

9/11/2011: Sprouting Compassion Again

By Jack Kornfield brought home to people in the United States our vulnerability and our interconnectedness with the whole world. We are not separate from hopes and suffering and craziness around the world. We are involved in so many ways, even beyond economics and politics. Think of how many people around the world choose to mirror our culture. We are part of developments everywhere.

After 9/11, we were asked to show our resiliency as people. But the important question remains: Can we lead from a place of justice? Can we keep a kind, compassionate heart even in these difficult times? This was difficult for us because 9/11 also ushered in an era of fear that has not been healthy. We became part of something called the war on terror, which is such a strange phrase, because we actually took terror into ourselves as a culture. For a decade, colors like yellow and orange became alerts across our country—as if we turned on the fear center in our collective brain and we didn’t know how to turn it off. Remembering the tragedy of 9/11 calls on us to become more outwardly sensitive to our own strength and courage and the need to play our role wisely in the world.

Helen Keller wrote: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

9/11 reminds us of our impermanence—that everything is subject to change. Life is woven, as Buddhist teachings tell us, with gain and loss, birth and death. This is the fabric of human experience. For us to live wisely, we must not turn away from vulnerability and insecurity. We must discover the wisdom of insecurity. My teacher in the forest monastery of Thailand, a great meditation master, would encounter people who asked about the future. He would say: “It’s uncertain, isn’t it? Can you rest in the truth of uncertainty and live each day going forward?” That is really the question we face. We do not want to turn away from impermanence in fear and confusion—and on the other hand we do not want to become despondent and drown. Impermanence is our nature.

If we try to hold onto what is around us indefinitely, we get rope burn, don’t we? Or we can pilot our boats into the middle of the river and flow in the changes all around us with a wise and compassionate heart. We can take that ride. That is the wisdom of every great culture. We can’t stop the waves, but we can flow with them.

Difficulties are a part of life. When we are born into this human realm, we have both magnificent delights and almost unbearable sorrows. We must not run from what’s painful and seek only that which is pleasurable, because that fills our lives with sorrow and fear. We must trust our heart’s capacity to bear life’s measures of sorrow and extraordinary beauty, because both are woven into life. This is what makes us wise, what fulfills us.

Ten years after 9/11 are you still afraid? Do you fear that somehow you won’t survive? Look back over your shoulder! Look back and you will see a thousand generations of ancestors who survived. They survived loss and the insanity of warfare. They survived migrations and ice ages. We have survival built into the cells of our body and into our spirit.

Our spirit is like the new grass that pushes itself always upward even through the cracks in the sidewalk! When Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison after all those years with courage and compassion—he changed not only South Africa but the vision of the whole world. That spirit is within us, too. Step forward now in courage and compassion.

Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for our complete interview with Jack Kornfield in September. You can order A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times at Amazon.

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

Welcome to ‘Peacemakers’! Inspire, learn … and act!

How can we keep pushing against the tide of violence? When one war is finally brought to a weary end, another breaks out with horrifying ferocity. There is no end to the work of peacemaking.

These are words from “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” debuting today.
It’s a book and, over time, it will become part of an expanding online effort at ReadTheSpirit to highlight and connect readers with voices of peace.


We have asked for your help: We asked some questions we hope readers will answer about your favorite authors and small groups. Then, we followed up with a second request about favorite books.
Today, we are publishing Daniel Buttry’s book,
which is an international event. Even before launching the book in the U.S. today, Buttry was part of a peacemaking delegation visiting one of the recent hot spots in Kenya. After a violent political conflict that nearly tore Kenya apart, reconciliation now is taking place. In addition to taking part in peacemaking programs and in symbolic acts like planting trees, Buttry donated copies of this new book to Kenyan activists. Here is a Kenyan London News story about that recent delegation, including a photo of Buttry planting a tree.

You may already own Daniel Buttry’s earlier books: Interfaith Heroes Volume 1 and Volume 2. Those books focus specifically on courageous men and women who crossed religious boundaries to save lives, make peace and build stronger communities.
His new book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, has a much bigger goal: In 62 inspirational real-life stories about peacemakers around the world, Buttry tells the largely unknown story of how peacemakers from many backgrounds have shaped our 20th and 21st centuries.


Here’s just one example: Wonder what touched off the Arab Spring? Millions of people around the world are amazed at the seemingly spontaneous explosion of revolutions around the Arab world. It turns out that many young activists across northern Africa and the Arab world have been reading the influential work of Gene Sharp—some of Sharp’s work in Arabic translation and some in English. Sharp’s peacemaking strategies helped to revolutionize the Arab world.

Another example: “Who the Hell is Diane Nash?!?” That was U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s explosive response, 50 years ago this summer, at the peak of the Freedom Rides that broke open the American civil rights movement. The Kennedy brothers had been content to monitor the overall movement through contact with a handful of leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the violence of the 1961 Freedom Rides—when flames, beatings and imprisonment were used to intimidate civil rights activists—the Kennedys discovered that they knew very little about the real peacemakers organizing this movement. One of those crucial figures was the virtually unknown Diane Nash. That’s why Bobby Kennedy was so surprised.

QUESTION: Both Gene Sharp and Diane Nash are profiled in this new book—and their photos appear on the front cover. In fact, Sharp and Nash both are in the enlarged rows of photos at the top of today’s story. Can you pick out their faces in those tiled portraits above?

Stay tuned all this week to ReadTheSpirit for daily excerpts from Blessed Are the Peacemakers.
Today, from the Introduction …


Here are a few paragraphs from the book’s introduction, titled “What Is a Peacemaker?” Tomorrow, we will publish the first of several sample profiles of peacemakers—from the heart of the new book. Care to read this entire introduction? We have a convenient link here.
Here are the opening paragraphs of the book …

In these pages, you will meet heroes.

The world is troubled now and has been troubled in many earlier eras. In these pages, you will meet men and women who were not afraid of the worst that humans can unleash through ignorance or ill will. Like all of us, the people in this book agonized over the tragedies they encountered in the world. Sometimes they were terrified, too, but ultimately their faith in a wide range of religious and ethical traditions won out in their lives. They summoned the courage to make peace. Depending on your own spiritual tradition, you might call many of these men and women saints.

What you will discover in this book is that their heroism did not depend on the qualities our popular culture celebrates in heroes. As a group, they were not exceptional in muscle, martial arts, great beauty or wealth. Their gifts lay in the way they communicated their love, hope and wisdom—through teaching, preaching, organizing, mediating and protesting. Some shared their great visions to move millions. Some communicated through music and the arts. Some gave their lives and were martyred in the pathway toward peace.

This book will inspire you to evaluate your own life, your own response to the world’s troubles. But inspiration is not all you will experience.

In these pages, you will find world-famous names, including Gandhi, King, Tutu and Bono. You will rub shoulders with Nobel Peace Prize winners. But in most cases, you will be meeting men and women unknown to the larger world. Flip through the chapters. You won’t recognize most names. For each King we celebrate standing on a mountaintop, there are thousands of nameless peacemakers changing the world. In reading this book, you will learn that generations of peace activists—each building on the work of others—have been circling the globe for many years. This book makes visible for the first time networks of peacemaking that are invisible to most people in our needy world. By reading their stories, you become a carrier of those stories and spread their light. You become a part of the unfolding network. As you read, you will find ideas in these pages about acting on your new wisdom.

These ideas are potent! In 2007 on the island of Trinidad, a 13-year-old girl had been reading about the life of Gandhi and decided to act on his teachings. Choc’late Allen was concerned about the high levels of urban violence around her, so she began 12-hour-a-day fasts at local libraries, reading books about peace aloud to children. Her actions drew widespread attention and soon she was traveling around the Caribbean, especially to urban centers such as Kingston, Jamaica, where her message reached thousands. Choc’late declared: “We have the power of making the right choices! We have the power of accepting responsibility for our action! We have the power of doing anything!”

So, brace yourself! Join me in these true stories—and this true journey. The world needs us.

The world needs you.

PLEASE, consider purchasing a copy of “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.” Here’s how to do so easily and securely online.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

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

Enjoy spiritual adventure with travel writer Judith Fein friend helps travel writer Judith Fein adjust a traditional Vietnamese head covering.If you love travel, you’ve probably read a Judith Fein adventure in a magazine at some point over the past decade. If you’re a longtime National Public Radio listener, you might recall Judith from her stories on the old Savvy Traveler series. If you read Spirituality & Health magazine, flip to page 64 of the current print edition for “A Viking Blessing for the Common Good” in which Judith takes readers on a spiritual adventure to Norway. There’s a photo from that trip in Part 1 of our story about Judith Fein’s new book, “Life Is a Trip.”

Today, you can meet Judith in …

AUTHOR OF ‘LIFE IS A TRIP’ FOR SPIRITUALITY & HEALTH BOOKS This is quite a different How To Travel book! There’s nothing here about packing and planning. There’s no checklist for travel safety or guide to travel etiquette. This is really a series of adventure stories—about how to actually experience an adventure. Does that description make sense?

JUDITH: Yes, that’s why I wrote this book. People always ask me: How do you travel the way you do? How do you find these adventures you talk about? So, I said: OK, I’m going to show you my path. This book is written in the first person but it’s not about me, really. It’s about what happens on the road and about how you meet people.

DAVID: So, if you’re reading this interview, but you’re not planning to take a trip to a distant land—these principles also are useful close to home.

JUDITH: If you’re truly a traveler, you can do this kind of thing in your hometown as well. You do not have to travel abroad to be a traveler. I’m writing about an attitude toward life. It’s about letting go of this compulsive need to control the trip.

DAVID: You’re drawing a line between traveling and tourism, but you’re not discounting those folks who simply want to book a package tour. It’s fine to go on a cruise.

JUDITH: Yes, it’s OK to go on a tour. That’s fine. You’re visiting touring sites that people want to see. And, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going on a cruise. I just spent two weeks on a cruise ship—and we had such an adventure! But there is a difference when you become a traveler. A traveler doesn’t have that same compulsion to check off lists. You show up somewhere: perhaps far away or perhaps close to home. First, you just show up. This is about the risks you’re willing to take in your life to step outside of your own way of seeing the world.

DAVID: There’s Buddhist mindfulness in what you’re talking about or, from a Christian spiritual perspective, an alert compassion about the people around you.

JUDITH: To me traveling is Zen, because as a traveler you can’t be anchored in the past or the future. You have to really be there. The language is different. The culture is different. The food is different. If you’re present, you’re not worried about the future or moaning about the past. In this book, I picked 14 experiences that were transformative in my life.

DAVID: Your title, “Life Is a Trip,” captures the theme.

JUDITH: Yes, we can start with becoming travelers in our own lives, where we live now. The question is: How can we stop being visitors in our own lives? How can we keep from letting lists rule our lives? Is life really just checking off the next To Do item day after day? When you start by just showing up, weird things can happen. This is an attitude toward life.


DAVID: We’re both veteran journalists, concerned about covering the world accurately, so I have to ask: What changed in our journalistic understanding of religion? Back in the 1980s, I worked with a National Geographic photographer on a proposal for National Geographic to circle the world and capture different ways that people express prayer. We got back a rather sharply worded response from the magazine’s editors, chiding us for even thinking that religion was an appropriate subject for a cover story. Well, flash forward to this decade and National Geographic now is producing entire books on world religion. What changed?

JUDITH: It’s obvious now that that there’s a huge groundswell of interest in spirituality. Just look at the New York Times bestseller lists. People are interested in traditional religion, too. Religion has entered politics with a vengeance. It’s in the news. Everywhere you look, it’s commercially viable to write about religion now. People are buying books about everything related to spirituality and religion.

This change came from the ground up. People are interested in this. It also may be because times are more difficult right now. In difficult times, people look for things that are good for the soul, the psyche, the heart. This is where people find comfort. I don’t think it’s a sea change in journalism. It’s a sea change in the way people are finding their spirituality outside churches. There’s a resurgence in interest in people’s lives and the media is just jumping on that.

HOW DO WE BECOME WORLD TRAVELERS? Fein in Norway with descendants of Vikings.DAVID: What prepared you to see life and the world in this way? I’m sure a lot of our readers who are parents or teachers will want to know.

JUDITH: When I grew up, we were just a middle class family in New York. We did not have a lot of money but the money we had was spent on travel and culture. This was inculcated by my parents from a very early age.

My mother sometimes berated me for my attitude. She’d ask me, “Why do you have to seek our people who are so different than you?” I guess I was born with that gene that always made me look for the kids who were not mainstream, who might be ridiculed by others, and especially people from different cultures. This interested me from as far back as I can remember. In the 1970s, I went to live in Europe and didn’t come back for 10 years.

DAVID: So you were there after the youth movements of the ‘60s?

JUDITH: I was there for anti-war protests in Paris. One of the reasons I stayed over there for so long was that I couldn’t support our country’s war in southeast Asia. My bottom line on everything is: I always preach tolerance, but I have no tolerance for state-supported murder of any kind. So this was a pretty virulent period in my life with the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be where the action was and that was Paris.

DAVID: You seem fearless. People who have traveled widely outside the tourist routes begin to gain a confidence—the kind of confidence that comes through in your writing. I get the impression, though, that many Americans are terrified about the world these days.

JUDITH: Yes, there are lots of Americans whose main concern about travel is safety. A lot of that is the result of the chronic unfairness and stereotyping in news coverage. Violent events get coverage. There’s a lot of fear mongering.

Some of the concern is understandable. If people are taking a trip, they don’t want to be hassled. They don’t want to have problems. But I ask people: What does safety mean to you? You could be at an airport and a bomb could go off. You could be on a cruise and encounter pirates. In my own traveling, I would not go to a country in the middle of a revolution. But, right now, I am making plans to go to Tunisa as soon as I can. This is the first time Tunisia is experimenting with democracy. What an exciting time to travel to Tunisia and experience the birth of a new nation! On the other hand, I wouldn’t go at the height of a revolution.

Earlier, I lived six years in the Arab world. I didn’t know violent people. Sure, I knew people who were sane and people who were crazy, like we find people all around the world. But these images of the Arab world that we’ve seen over the years in American media mostly focus on scenes of violence. That’s one reason I’m glad we’re seeing coverage of the recent revolutions, because we’re seeing lots of smart, articulate, conscious, soft-spoken Arab people in these stories. Suddenly, people in America are sympathetic with people in Egypt. I think this period is a game changer.

DAVID: So you don’t pay much attention to popular wisdom about safety.

JUDITH: For people who are circumspect about this, Canada is perceived as a very safe destination. Many publications seem terrified of Mexico at the moment. But, I just got back from Mexico and I couldn’t have felt safer. Now, obviously you don’t go into an area where there’s a lot of trouble with the drug trade, but Mexico is a huge country. I’m saying: Don’t get swept up in generalities and fear mongering.

A SWISS WETTERSCHMECKER & THE WAY OF ST. JOHN marking many of the traditional pilgrimage routes that form the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago.DAVID: Let’s give people a couple of examples of unusual things you include in your book. One is just a short item, but I’m Swiss-American myself and it certainly caught my eye. You visited a traditional Wetterschmecker. Tell us a bit about that.

JUDITH: It was so interesting! This is a very hands-on experiential book, so I tell readers that one day we were in this gorgeous Swiss city and I was bored with hanging around in the hotels and restaurants. The weather was bad, so spending time outside wasn’t an option. We were having lunch and I asked the question: What exists in this town that we wouldn’t find somewhere else? And, a woman said: the Wetterschmecker, people who read the weather with their nose. The word means “weather taster.” So, we got on a bus and went to a village. We found a man’s house and he was happy to talk with us. There was a huge tree outside his house and he showed us how the particular way he saw the branches drooping told him what was going to happen with the weather. He talked about how he can look at the wool of the sheep and tell what the weather is going to do. There are not many of these people left, but they still get together and predict the weather pattern for the next six months. They like to see how they stack up against official forecasts and sometimes they beat the forecasters.

DAVID: You include an entire chapter about the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago. I love that chapter in your book because it reminds us that, if approached with a spiritually open heart and mind, this form of travel really is a pilgrimage. And you’re not telling people that they have to go off and chart their own brand-new course of travel. You’re encouraging them in this chapter to think about the timeless routes of pilgrimage.

JUDITH: I don’t like things that people call New Age. I like things that are old age. I’m not telling people to go invent something out of thin air. I can’t relate to that idea that we all should go consult psychics. I love discovering things that are anchored, that go way way back through history and human experience.

We can connect with millions of people over thousands of years if we connect with the past in this way. In the present, to tell you the truth, I don’t relate to a lot of American culture. It’s not absorbing or interesting to me. It’s frivolous. I love things that are steeped in meaning. I don’t have to agree with everything I’m encountering; I don’t have to believe it all. But if we step into that vortex, we are carried back to humans who lived over many years. How did they live and worship? What did they believe? Spirituality to me is the way we relate to other humans on a daily basis. How do we engage with each other? What’s my carbon footprint on someone’s heart? Life isn’t about just one person alone in the world.

If you risk placing yourself into one of the world’s many places of traditional pilgrimage … If you stop texting … If you are quiet and listen, then these ancient settings, sometimes the stones themselves, begin to speak to you. That’s the kind of travel that is amazing.

YOU CAN ORDER Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel through Amazon at a discount.


If you like the themes in today’s interview, visit Judith Fein’s website Your Life Is a Trip. Or, Judith and her husband photographer Paul Ross also post stories, photos and news about travel journalism on their Global Adventure website. There’s also a Judith Fein author’s page for “Life Is a Trip” with more information about the book.

We want our international conversation to continue

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Brad Warner: Fearlessly exploring ‘Sex, Sin and Zen’ you ever described a close friend this way: “He never has an unexpressed thought!” That probably makes the friend good company—and a little terrifying. The Zen writer Brad Warner, who once supported himself by working on Japanese monster movies, is like that.
Brad is an ordained priest in the Soto school of Zen, which stretches back at least to the 13th-century master Dogen Zenji. The Soto school pretty much cuts to the chase in Buddhist practice. For example, Dogen and Soto teach that you see what you get. Mind and body aren’t separated. Life is unified. The Zen path is not a mysterious, endless quest for some distant enlightenment. Buddhism is living out, day by day, precisely what you preach. Watch out! Honesty is entertaining, exciting—and terrifying.

Brad Warner feels no need to shield the inner thoughts of a Zen priest. And that’s what makes his books so compelling. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I first discovered Brad through a longtime friend, the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin. A couple of years ago, Geri urged us to recommend Brad’s earlier book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma. We got that book, read it—and recommended it. (Geri herself last visited ReadTheSpirit in December for a story about “Thrift Shop Saints.”)

If anything, Brad Warner has forged deeper into personal territory in his latest book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. If you thought Jay Bakker’s new book, “Fall in Grace,” was edgy—then you ain’t seen nothin’ like Brad Warner’s books. (By the way, if you select your reading based on Amazon reviews, Brad’s “Dipped in Chocolate” book racked up a remarkable 33 reviews with either 4 or 5 stars. The newest book already is headed in that direction with 10 reviews ranking 4 or 5 stars.)

Recently, I told Geri Larkin that I was planning to interview Brad about his new book. She laughed! “I have to say that, now that I’m older, I am nervous for him,” she said. “He’s such a wild man. I love him, but: Does he have to be so honest about everything in his life!?!”

ON ‘SEX, SIN, ZEN,” A BUDDHIST EXPLORATION OF SEX You’re fairly young to have accomplished so much: a religious teacher, author and documentary filmmaker. You’ve also been a punk rock musician. And you’ve written a provocative book on religion and sex. You sound a lot like the Buddhist Rob Bell.

BRAD: Is he a late-night radio guy?

DAVID: No, he’s an evangelical Christian writer and religious teacher who also is fairly young, makes films, performed with a punk rock band and wrote a provocative book on religion and sex.

BRAD: I think I’ve heard of him.

DAVID: Well, you two do move in different circles. I mean, Rob has never appeared in Japanese monster movies. Do I have that right? You actually appeared on screen in bit parts during the decade you lived in Japan?

BRAD: Yeah, you could describe them as monster movies so people over here would understand it. I actually worked for Tsuburaya Productions, a company that was founded by the guy who did all the special effects for the original Godzilla movies. But his company didn’t own the rights to Godzilla. The main show we made was called Ultraman, which was mainly a television series. There also were spinoff theatrical features with Ultraman. Ultraman is a big pop-culture icon in Japan—sort of like Dr. Who in British television or maybe the Star Trek series in the U.S. Describe Ultraman for our readers.

BRAD: Imagine a super hero as big as Godzilla who fights imitation Godzilla monsters—and that’s what Ultraman is all about. I did appear on screen sometimes. You might see me for just a couple of seconds here and there. I would be a foreign journalist reporting on a monster attack. In one show, I was an American pilot attacking the monster of the week. In another one, I ran down the street away from the monster.

DAVID: More recently back here in the U.S., you’ve made a documentary film about the punk rock scene in Ohio.

BRAD: The film is called “Cleveland Screaming” and hopefully we’ll get that out in a DVD release soon. We were supposed to have it out there two years ago, but we experienced some delays. It’s a bit like Bullwinkle the moose, you know: This time for sure!

DAVID: Right now, though, you’re homeless. You don’t live on the streets, but you don’t own a home. You’re basically a traveling Zen priest.

BRAD: I travel a lot in the work that I do. I realized it was stupid for me to keep an apartment, so I put some things in storage and now I stay in different places. As we’re talking today, I’m staying in a spare room with friends in Montreal.

DAVID: OK, let’s go back to the beginning of this adventure. You were born in Ohio and attended Kent State University, where you made your first connection with Zen. How did that happen?

BRAD: In my first or second year at Kent State, I signed up for a class called Zen Buddhism. At the time, a class like that was too freaky to be a for-credit class so it was listed as a non-credit class. That’s the kind of school Kent State was even when I went there. So when I got my transcript later, this class wasn’t even listed on my record. That’s funny, because it’s the only class I remember with any clarity from that time; and I not only didn’t get any credit for it—it’s vanished from my record. But that course affected my whole life. At that time, I had been part of the punk rock scene, which I had gotten into because I wanted to find something more direct, real and honest than what mainstream society was offering people. To me, Zen was more punk rock than punk rock could ever be!

DAVID: Then, you moved to Japan but it wasn’t to pursue religious studies.

BRAD: I moved to Japan because I was trying to put out records with a band and none of them were making any money. I decided that I needed a real job and I found out that I could teach English in Japan. I had always been a huge Godzilla fan, and I’d always wanted to go to Japan. Then, I got a job at Tsuburaya. I also got married during my years of living over there—and the marriage lasted for a while. All those details are in my third book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.

‘JUST SITTING’ IN THE SOTO SCHOOL OF ZEN of the SOTO SCHOOL of ZEN BUDDHISMDAVID: I’ll probably do a terrible job of summarizing Dogen and the Soto school for our readers. The easiest way to learn more about your particular tradition is to start reading your books. But, please, give our readers a little feeling for this tradition.

BRAD: It’s hard to say who was the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, because it’s lost in mythology, but the key person to know about is Dogen who was a 13th-century Japanese monk. He traveled to China to try to find the real Buddhism, because in Japan at the time the Zen school was new and he didn’t think the teachers in Japan understood it all that well. So, he traveled to China and met a teacher who was a lineage holder in the Soto tradition and Dogen received the dharma tradition. He was ordained. He brought the Soto tradition back to Japan. You’ll find places where people say that Dogen founded the Soto school, but that’s not right. He really was a crucial figure in bringing it back to Japan where the school became very popular.

The word Zen is a Japanese mutation of what originally was a Sanskrit word meaning meditation. It implies that this brand of Buddhism is specifically oriented toward meditation as opposed to some of the other branches of Buddhism that are more interested in other kinds of ritual or study. The specific thing that makes Soto tradition distinctive is that the practice is “just sitting.” I don’t even like to use the word meditation. Meditation to me means that you’re doing your practice to have some kind of experience. Pretty much all forms of meditation that I know tend to orient your experience that way—the practice is a means to an end and the goal is something else: usually enlightenment or something like that. In the Soto school, the meditation practice is a goal in itself. We call it Shikantaza, or “just sitting.” It’s a funny thing: If you’ve actually done this, it usually feels mostly like achy legs and a sore butt from sitting too long. But the philosophical conceit in the Soto school is that the practice itself is enlightenment.

DAVID: We’re going to recommend your new book, which is part memoir and part journalism. The overall narrative takes readers into some really different approaches to sexuality. I won’t try to summarize it all here, but among the sections in the book is an interview you did with a porn star who is trying to follow Buddhist precepts. And, you write about some of your friends who are sort of punk feminist activists, I guess we could say. You take us to a lot of different places in 300 pages. Is it possible to summarize what you hope readers will take away from this unusual book?


BRAD: I do get asked that question a lot: What do I want people to learn? And, the first thing I want to say is: I’m not really trying to teach anything specific, but I do feel that Buddhism has a lot to offer in its ethical standpoint when it comes to sex. Compared with other traditions, Buddhism doesn’t rely on a lot of very specific commandments.

DAVID: Of course, that’s the first thing Americans think about when they hear the subjects of religion and sex in the same sentence: Thou shalt not.

BRAD: Buddhism doesn’t give you a lot of commandments like that: Do this! Don’t do that! But Buddhism does recognize that sex is an important part of life. People who have studied any Buddhism will tell you about the precept that says: Do not misuse sexuality. Buddhism’s approach is that sexuality should be carefully considered and must not cause harm to anyone. Buddhism is interested in having people approach sex in a mindful way—and, even as I say it like that, I hate using that word “mindful” in this context. But for want of a better word—be mindful when you’re engaging in sex. You are involving someone else and their life—in your life, in your stuff. It’s a big deal to do that and you shouldn’t enter into relationships carelessly.

DAVID: Not everyone in your circle of friends agrees with you on this, right? You come out of the punk scene and you’ve got colleagues, friends of yours who readers will meet in your book, who think you’re drawing too strict of a line here.

BRAD: There are some people who get really hot under the collar when I write about this. For example, there are some who promote the idea of NSA, No Strings Attached. This idea is that you can have sex in which you don’t establish involvement with the other person—and may not even see the other person again. The implication is that sex can be purely physical and has no spiritual side to it. I disagree. I think that idea of NSA can be false and harmful.

In Buddhism we don’t view the human entity—or whatever we are—in that way. We don’t separate mind and body like that. We don’t separate spirit and matter. If you’re getting involved with someone on a physical level, don’t pretend that you’re not making a real connection. I’m not telling people that they should never have a one-night stand. But, when you try to deny the reality of the connection between people, it’s like walking into a wall and saying: “I don’t believe that wall exists.” Well, you just walked into it! It’s there!

FROM BRAD TO ROB AND BACK AGAIN? You’re really critiquing the very communities in which you’ve worked as a musician and a filmmaker, right? You approach this whole subject of religion and sex from a completely different point of view than, say, a Rob Bell. But you’re winding up actually agreeing with someone like Rob on several basic themes. I know you haven’t read Rob’s book, and I realize there are some big difference between Rob’s faith and your Zen practice—but I can see the similarities in the conclusions you reach. For example, you’re calling for a much deeper ethical and spiritual awareness of sexuality—a way of cutting past these decades of very specific Emily Post-style rules that we’ve accumulated about sex. You’re both reconsidering the ethical and spiritual issues.

BRAD: What I’m saying is that you can’t separate yourself from the rest of the world. Having lived both in Japan and America, I can see the faults in both cultural approaches to life. The Japanese historically have emphasized very strongly this group, social aspect of each life. A person’s individuality is not as important as the group. But in American society, we go to the other extreme and claim we’re absolutely individuals—and so just, you know, go screw society! I can do what I want as an individual! One of the bad parts of the punk rock ethos is that it can go deep into that extreme.

But truth lies in neither extreme. We are part of a society and part of a universe. We can’t separate ourselves out. It’s important to think about this in relation to sex, because people find themselves out there all the time contemplating sex. Maybe they’re already naked in a room together and they’re just starting to think about what’s going to happen. I’m saying, we have to step back and realize that what we’re doing is something that is going to affect another person. What we’re contemplating is going to have more implications than we can possibly know going into this. I’m not saying: Never do it. But I am saying that in sex, waves can spread out from that moment of human interaction in a powerful way. You can’t even know what you’re going to affect—but you can at least start by trying to make sure that you don’t deliberately go into something that you know to be harmful.

DAVID: That’s a pretty good summary of what we learn by the end of the 300 pages. You take us to a lot of strange places in the course of the book, but through it all—that’s the ethic you’re trying to promote. So, thanks for giving us that summary.

BRAD: You know, if you really start to riff on this, you realize that everything in life and every contact in life with other people is important. You don’t have to stress about this, but we should be aware that everything we do affects a much wider range of life than we can possibly imagine.

You can order Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Betweenfrom Amazon at a discount.

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

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656 Think you know Islam or Buddhism? Surprises from Youssou N’Dour and PBS

Youssou NDour in I Bring What I Love
his week, we’re helping you understand the world’s dramatically and rapidly evolving religious landscape. As Dr. John Esposito pointed out in the excerpt we published Monday, this is far more than a matter of spiritual inquiry. Nothing less than world peace hangs in the balance.
    Tomorrow, we’ll publish an in-depth interview with Esposito.
    TODAY, we’ve got important news on two films you might overlook without these recommendations:


Youssou NDour I Bring What I Love New on DVD this week from Oscilloscope Laboratories is a truly startling documentary on Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour.
    You may recall the high-spirited and high-voiced African singer who burst on the world stage in 1988 as part of the Amnesty International human rights tour that year with Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. By the 1990s, N’Dour was an internationally famous performer and composer in his own right, selling millions of albums. He crossed over into all kinds of other venues: composing an opera that was welcomed in Europe, demonstrating for political change in South Africa and even writing theme music for World Cup soccer.
Then, in 2004, he released “Egypt,” an album of sacred songs using traditional African instruments and languages. The world premiere in Morocco was a hit and he soon took Europe by storm.
But “Egypt” hit a brick wall in his beloved Senegal. Worse yet, traditionalist Muslims in his homeland began to turn against him. They shipped back entire truckloads of his CDs.
    What was their problem? “Egypt” is a beautiful suite of songs based on sacred Muslim themes. I own the album and enjoy it myself. So … what was the problem in Senegal? The answer to that question is truly eye opening as the documentary unfolds. Basically, Senegalese knew N’Dour as merely a sexy pop star. In stark contrast, he saw himself as a Griot, a traditional African storyteller and musician. In “Eygpt,” he used his talents as would-be Griot to tell the stories of a series of Senegalese Muslim saints.
Of course, N’Dour seems incapable of making anything less than joyous music. Even the sacred songs lift one’s spirits and many of the songs encourage people to move their feet. In Egypt, he was inviting the world to dance to sacred stories.

Youssou NDour preparing in I Bring What I Love    
Why should Americans care about such an esoteric debate in Africa? Because, halfway through this gripping film, you’ll realize that Islam is far more diverse than even well-informed Americans may have guessed. As a long-time journalist specializing in covering world religions, I had never heard of the annual Senegalese pilgrimage to the mosque of the saint known a Sheikh Bamba. After this film, I know quite a bit! Every year, a million Senegalese make their way to Bamba’s tomb and mosque.
Throughout this new film, N’Dour talks about his vision for mobilizing peaceful movements across the Islamic world. He advocates human rights, women’s rights and world peace. His music has become a prayer that Islam can make the world a better place, if only peaceful inspirations will surface in individuals, families and communities.
The controversy in Senegal doesn’t stop him from touring the rest of the world and this film is flat-out beautiful in the wide array of places it takes us and music it shares with us. In the end, I can say: N’Dour figures out a very clever semi-solution to the “Egypt” controversy.
But his overall response to this career-changing experience in recent years is to declare, as the title of this documentary proclaims, “I Bring What I Love.” N’Dour tells us—sincerely and believably—that his only motive is connecting his deep faith with his love for the world’s many peoples.
    Click Here to visit Amazon for the DVD, “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love.”


Buddha The PBS network is devoting a big slice of prime time this week to “The Buddha,” a major new documentary on the founder of Buddhism.
Unlike “I Bring What I Love,” this film is a more … well, a more traditional travelogue through Buddhist history and culture. The story opens with sacred accounts of Buddha’s birth and his pathway to enlightenment.
We meet lots of creative Buddhist scholars, including Howard Thurman—the father of actress Uma Thurman. The filmmakers use animation, Ken Burns-style film footage of Buddhist art from around the world—and we eventually visit exotic lands as well. The Dalai Lama shows up.
If you want to learn more about world religions, you’ll enjoy this journey into the heart of one of our greatest spiritual traditions.

    Click Here to visit the PBS network page for “The Buddha” to learn more and check broadcast times.




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