Jack Kornfield?

I’m kind of suspicious of western teachers. Is Jack Kornfield coming from a secular Buddhism perspective? I could be way off here.

IIRC he ordained under Ajan Chah and spent some years with him in northeast Thailand, however he disrobed because apparently he disagreed with some of the Vinaya rules.

Besides that experience he wandered SE Asia and practiced under many great Theravada masters of that time. He has lots of books describing these other experiences and some teachings on Vipassana/mindfulness especially.

Now he is sort of a secular/spiritual teacher. I like some of his books where he goes a bit more in depth about Theravada and meditation, especially his encounters and experiences with some great Theravada masters like Ajahn Chah, Mahasi Sayadaw and Dipa Ma.

Personally, I find the more general “spiritual/secular” teachings of his extremely uninspiring but that says more about me than him! :smile:

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From his book After the Ecstasy:

Enlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the Divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace—these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last. […] There is no such thing as enlightened retirement.

I basically lost my respect for him myself after reading that, as it sounds like he’s given up on enlightenment as such, deciding instead to redefine it as something temporary, conditioned, etc.

Quite sad really. To meet Ajahn Chah yourself and then say there’s “no such thing as enlightened retirement?”

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I have not read that book, so I may be taking it out of context, but from the quote you provided it looks, to me, like he is saying that enlightenment exists, but you do not get to rest on your laurels. That does not seem so bad.

~Edit~ How bizarre… the post edited itself to remove the quote?

Yep, that’s a feature of the software to people from quoting the entire previous post. We can all know you are replying to the person above you unless you say otherwise.

Even the Buddha criticized a lazy stream enterer. However the texts are abundantly clear that in the Buddha’s teachings stages of enlightenment come about when specific fetters are removed. To say that the removed fetters can come back is to contradict core doctrine.

The whole “enlightenment is temporary” can be used by people making false claims of attainments to be able to explain away bad behaviour. “Oopse! My enlightenment must have temporarily slipped away when I did that. Don’t worry, now it’s back.”

If Kornfield wanted to say that spiritual progress in general can move in both directions, he could have just said that.

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Is it possible that what he meant by enlightenment (by the looks of it seems to mean jhana) may not be the same as what is generally understood by that word (becoming Buddha / arahant)?

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Not just possible, that’s exactly what he’s done. And after redefining the term (as I said in my first post), he goes on to say that real enlightenment (i.e. the permanent destruction of the afflictions) is impossible (“there is no”). That’s the problem. Not only has he moved the goalpost, he’s then declared the original goal out of bounds.

No disrespect, but if you still have laurels to rest on, that ain’t (full) enlightenment.

“Originally there is no mirror, no stand; So where could dust alight?”

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I think you are on the right track in trying to understand what he meant. But I don’t think it is jhana but more something that correlates to Zen concepts like Satori/Kensho.

Yeah that quote on laurels seems to me like he might be talking about enlightenment as in the whole field of eastern spirituality and not necessarily nibbana.

If that is the case, then I get it, there’s a huge novelty effect when you first discover the dhamma and meditation, and this huge burst of motivation and energy definitely leads to “divine” experiences, but like any drug or high, it eventually wears off. This is what I think and also what I thought Jack was trying to convey in that quote, and not specifically enlightenment as in Arahantship/nibbana

As for OP’s Jack Kornfield question, I think he’s very commercial and there always seems to be a foreword or acknowledgement done by him in any big Buddhist book on the market. I don’t think he’s bad, but I think there’s better teachers out there, more who are not as popular and who have lived the ascetic life.

To name a few EBT centered monks:

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Lord Buddha needed help from above not to retire, and Ajahn Chah never retired; they both kept on till their last breath and maybe, beyond …
I think there is mentioned in one sutta where Lord Buddha asks Sariputta something like this; Have you ever heard me say it like this? Sariputta says, no, and Lord Buddha replies, neither have I.
Learning and deepening never takes a rest.

Absolutely epic, and so right.

I never had interest in Jack or his contemporaries. Too many wellness tropes for me. I have read some of their work, and am always left trying to figure out what exactly they are saying. Honestly, Stephen Bachelor may be a person people on this forum find troubling, but his work was more helpful to me when I was exploring more “secular” approaches to the dhamma–once you accept his cherry-picking, and are willing to move outside of that box of course, at least I could understand what he was getting at.

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I agree with the above posts. I started to read that book “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” and had to put it away without finishing it. Enlightenment or any stage of it, is not something someone takes on temporarily. Even the lower stages are safe-havens, where one does not revert back downwards. If those people he referred to in the book claimed enlightenment and later had bad behaviors, then that means their so-called enlightenment was not real to begin with.

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I remember reading in a Tricycle article or perhaps Lion’s Roar, that his favorite food is hamburger. I know that one can be Buddhist and eat meat, but I would have thought someone who is such a renowned Buddhist teacher, who has practiced for decades, would have been a little more advanced than that. I know a monk or nun receives food via the 3-fold rule, but he’s a layman and can choose at the grocery store or restaurant, without indulging his senses and taste buds so much.

edit: this might be the article I read:

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Ann Gleig in From Theravada to tantra calls Jack Kornfield’s style of Buddhism ‘American tantra.’

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I haven’t been able to verify a lot of details, but the impression I got from the monks at Wat Nanachat who had been there at the time was quite different from the public perception. Kornfield writes:

Working on rural health and medical teams in the provinces along the Mekong River, I heard about a meditation master, Ajahn Chah, who welcomed Western students. I was full of ideas and hopes that Buddhist teachings would help me, maybe even lead me to become enlightened. After months of visits to Ajahn Chah’s monastery, I took monk’s vows. Over the next three years I was introduced to the practices of mindfulness, generosity, loving-kindness, and integrity, which are at the heart of Buddhist training.

He doesn’t actually say where he ordained, or how long he spent with Ajahn Chah. I believe, however, that he ordained in Bangkok, probably at Wat Mahathat (?), which was teaching Mahasi technique. The monks at Nanachat said that he stayed for a few weeks, and was in and out.

Most of the anecdotes he tells about Ajahn Chah are from books; or so it would seem from the basic search I did. However, in the introduction to the chapter on Ajahn Chah in Living Buddhist Masters (his first book, in 1977), he says:

As a new monk at his monastery I became frustrated by the difficulties of practice and the seeming arbitrary rules of conduct I had to follow. I began to criticize other monks for sloppy practice, and to doubt the wisdom of Ajahn Chah’s teaching. At one point I went to him and complained, noting that even he was inconsistent and seemed to be contradicting himself often in an unenlightened way. He laughed and pointed out how much I was suffering by trying to judge the others around me. Then he explained that in fact his teaching was just a balance.

I can only imagine what Ajahn Chah thought of this young American guy showing up and accusing him of being inconsistent!

You have to understand, there were hundreds of monks there, and Ajahn Chah had little time for personal instructions. Kornfield spent some time near Ajahn Chah, mostly staying at the nearby Wat Nanachat, and probably meeting Ajahn Chah on occasion together with other monks. To say he “trained under Ajahn Chah” is probably not technically incorrect, but I don’t think it really gives the right impression.

When I was around, years later, Ajahn Chah was dead and Luang Po Liem was the big boss. I met him on a number of occasions, and had some Dhamma discussion. But I’d never say I “trained under” him.


As for Jack’s teachings, many years ago I read something where he said that even if you’re enlightened you still need therapy. I lost interest after that.

That is hilariously accurate.

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Just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to say that Kornfield was one of them.

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I’ve always found it difficult to take western lay teachers seriously, especially those who are well-known. “American tantra” really does sum it up.

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Could someone explain why “American tantra” is an apt name? I realize that’s getting away from the OP, but I’m really not sure why that term is accurate. Because it’s about transforming a poison into medicine?

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Re: why “American tantra” is an apt name.

I had a conversation with a full blown practitioner of Kashmiri Shaivism i.e. an actual Tantrika.

Two seconds into the conversation, she was like, “Yeah, it is a non-dual householder’s path.” (I.e. probably not something that she thought I would be interested in.)

Anyway, some description of this school of Tantra, for comparison.

"The philosophy of Recognition, as outlined by thinkers like Utpaladeva, teaches that though the identity of all souls is one with God (Isvara) or Shiva (which is the single reality, Being and absolute consciousness), they have forgotten this due to Maya or ignorance. However, through knowledge one can recognize one’s authentic divine nature and become a liberated being.[59]

Another important element of Trika theology is the active and dynamic nature of consciousness, which is described as the spontaneous vibration or pulsation (spanda) of universal consciousness, which is an expression of its freedom (svātāntrya) and power (Śakti).[60] Because of this, though this philosophy is idealist, it affirms the reality of the world and everyday life, as a real transformation (parinama), manifestation or appearance (ābhāsa) of the absolute consciousness.[61] The Absolute is also explained through the metaphor of light (prakasha) and reflective awareness (vimarsha).[62]"

I can see some resemblance, especially with the language of “oneness”, “the divine”, and “grace”, monistic philosophy, and emphasis on householder and everyday life.

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Hmmm that’s interesting. I always connected these resonances more with the Alan Watts’ philosophical neovedantism, as (to me) Tantra is more about visualization practices… :thinking: But I can see it. Especially, the focus on “actualization”

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