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A Path with Heart: Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life Paperback – 31 Dec 1993
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In undertaking a spiritual life, we must make certain that our path is connected with our heart, according to author and Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield. Since 1974 (long before it gained popularity in the 1990's) Kornfield has been teaching Westerners how to integrate Eastern teaching into their daily lives. Through generous storytelling and unmitigated warmth, Kornfield offers this excellent guidebook on living with attentiveness, meditation and full-tilt compassion.
Part of what makes this book so accessible is Kornfield's use of everyday metaphors to describe the elusive lessons of spiritual transformation. For example, he opens with "the one seat" lesson taught to him by his esteemed teacher. Literally it means sitting in the centre of a room and not being swayed or moved by all the people and dramas happening around you. On a spiritual level it means sticking "with one practice and teacher among all of the possibilities," writes Kornfield, "inwardly it means having the determination to stick with that practice through whatever difficulties and doubts arise until you have come to true clarity and understanding." The same could be said for this "one book." Among all the spiritual self-help books, this is a classic worth sticking with and returning to--a highly approachable teacher who can only lead to greater clarity and understanding. --Gail Hudson
"A warm, inspiring and, above all, practical book" (Pride Magazine)
"It's encouraging to find Westerners who've sufficiently assimilated the traditions of the East to be able to share them with others as Jack is doing. May such efforts further the peace of all beings." (His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
"This important guidebook shows in detail and with great humour and insight the way to practise the Buddha's universal teachings here in the West. Jack Kornfield is a wonderful storyteller and a great teacher." (Thich Nhat Hanh)
"Jack Kornfield is a remarkable and thoughtful teacher." (Sogyal Rinpoche) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The practices outlined in his books seem to be an amalgam between two Buddhist traditions, neither of which are ancient. His understanding of vipassana seems to come from one of the two Burmese traditions, that of Mahasi Sayadaw (the other Burmese tradition, that of U Ba Khin, seems to be ignored completely). Neither Mahasi nor U Ba Khin taught the use of the jhanas. So where did his teachings on the jhanas come from? We can only assume they came from the Thai forest tradition. We know that he spent time both in Burma and Thailand.
So the spiritual practices he promotes seem to be a combination of Mahasi style vipassana together with Thai jhana traditions. This seems to me as good a practice as any other, but why doesn't Kornfield spell out where his ideas come from? Probably because he wants us to think that this is some ancient tradition going back to the time of the Buddha. It's what the Buddha taught, kept safe in Burmese and Thai monasteries until people like Kornfield have so kindly brought it to us Westerners.
That's what he would have us believe. The truth though is that meditation was pretty much forgotten in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (the main Theravada Buddhist countries). There was a resurgence of interest in meditation not much more than a hundred years ago. Some say this was because of Western ideas reaching the East. Some say it was because the early Theosophical Society encouraged the Sri Lankan man Dharmapala to translate the early Pali texts. Dharmapala did more than just translate, he tried to apply the information practically, and led to a reinterest in meditation especially in Burma and Thailand.
People like Mahasi and U Ba Khin took other people's reinvented techniques (Dharmapala, U Narada, Ledi Sayadaw and Ajahn Mun) and modified them in their own ways. Not only are Mahasi and U Ba Khin's vipassana techniques very different from each other, but they don't seem to have much to do with what we find in Pali texts. The main text that modern Theravada teachers claim as their inspiration is the Satipatthana Sutta .
The Satipatthana Sutta starts with lots of stuff about meditating on corpses. Nobody follows that practice, which is probably a good idea. There are four foundations of mindfulness. Mindfulness of physical sensations is one of them. U Ba Khin used this one and not the other three. Kornfield doesn't follow that tradition, so that's good. Both U Ba Khin and Mahasi had no time for the jhanas. Kornfield doesn't go along with that, which seems sensible.
Kornfield presents us with what seems to be sensible practices. So why doesn't he explain how and why he came to his conclusions? Why the continual pretense of ancient authority? It's to do with his belief that all traditions are good. You would think that he would be happy for people to make up their own minds about what their spiritual goals should be. However, that doesn't seem to be true.
In chapter 13 'No Boundaries to the Sacred' he gives us his theory of compartmentalization. If what he is saying is that people should be aware of their emotional needs and those of others around them, I can agree with that. Someone might make much spiritual progress and yet their personal life is a disaster. Where I disagree with Kornfield is when he can't seem to accept that many people aren't interested in marriage, family, career, mortgage etc. Lots of people can't be bothered with these things but that doesn't mean they are using their practice to "avoid and run away from the world".
If a Buddhist chooses to marry and have children, I don't have a problem with that. However, lots of Buddhists who choose to lead a somewhat conventional life seem to have a problem with those who don't. It can come close to bullying. Kornfield talks of one woman and writes "Her denial was so difficult to break through" as if she wasn't capable of making up her own mind.
Kornfield and some other Western Buddhists want to take Buddhism in a different direction from tradition, and yet they (falsely) claim the authority of tradition. The tradition in Theravada Buddhism is that people can live without marriage, children etc. But to Kornfield this is 'withdrawal and fear of the world'. He thinks that it's a 'shadow' or flaw in Theravada Buddhism.
Each tradition to him has it's 'shadow'. He mentions many traditions and outlines their flaws eg "Devotional practices can leave clarity and discriminating wisdom undeveloped." Or - as I would put it - if you like to sing hymns to deities, then you don't gain the insight you could get from meditation. That would seem to be a major flaw in devotional traditions. Devotion is a waste of time, it doesn't get you anywhere. Compare that to the minor flaw in Theravada Buddhism of withdrawal from the world, which I think he's wrong about, and his belief that all traditions are equally valid falls down.
This book resonated at a deeper level for me and I found the same inspiration in "Nexus: A Neo Novel" which is an experiential guide to heart-centered living. Both books offer a path of compassion, which is important in our age. We can share the wisdom of these books within our circle and help transform lives.