Jack Kornfield is a writer, teacher and one of the leading proponents of Buddhism in the West. He's been teaching meditation across the globe for over 40 years and, throughout this time, his work has played an instrumental part in helping to introduce the useful lessons and concepts of mindfulness to a Western audience.
Mindfulness. It's a word that we hear more and more frequently in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps it should come as no surprise: the modern world is one which seems to travel at a break-neck speed. A place where information, entertainment, and work are all present, 24 hours a day; shaping our thoughts, emotions and living environments.
However, the human mind needs its 'down time', too. We all require moments of rest to reflect on the day's events and to make sense of the world. A few hours' sleep each night is not the same as realising true peace of mind. And that, perhaps, is why mindful living has become such an attractive concept for so many people in recent years.
Jack Kornfield. © jackkornfield.com/Deborah Jaffe
But where did the concept of mindfulness originate? For those who have only recently discovered the mindful approach to everyday life, it's often surprising to learn that mindfulness is not a recent creation at all. In fact, its roots and origins stretch back many centuries into the past.
Perhaps what has been a more recent phenomenon has been the dissemination of mindful thinking across the planet – enabling new adherents to discover this ancient philosophy for the very first time. And, in achieving this, few teachers have been quite as instrumental as Jack Kornfield.
Kornfield's path to the mindful existence has been a lifelong journey of learning and sharing his knowledge. His studies have taken him around the world, and he has studied directly under the tutelage of some of the leading minds of Buddhist thought in the 20th century and the present day.
“With mindfulness, we are learning to observe in a new way, with balance and a powerful disidentification.” Jack Kornfield
Kornfield's story began fairly typically. Born, one of twins, to Jewish parents in 1945, Jack developed a deep fascination for the cultures of the Far East early on in life. Seeking to broaden his understanding, he enrolled at the prestigious Dartmouth College, New Hampshire; graduating in Asian Studies in 1967.
After university, Kornfield joined the United States Peace Corps and was soon assigned to work with a tropical medicines team in the Mekong River Valley, aiding the Public Health Service of Thailand. Working for some time in the northeastern Isan region of the country, he was able to use this time with the Peace Corps to visit many of the world's oldest Buddhist forest monasteries. It was here that he took his first steps on what would become a lifelong journey of learning and understanding Buddhist mindfulness.
The Kammaṭṭhāna Forest tradition of northeastern Thailand is a unique process within Buddhist understanding. It is one which emphasises the balance between thought and action; teaching Buddhism as a process of training the mind to improve one's experiences of everyday life. To the adherents of the Kammaṭṭhāna process, thought precedes all existence.
Jack Kornfield gives the perfect example of mindfulness. © YouTube
That Kornfield would find himself working in the Isan region of Thailand is therefore incredibly fortuitous. The introduction of mindful thought into the West can be traced back directly to this time, and his chance encounters with the teachers of the forest tradition.
Indeed, as we look back, it's hard to contemplate a way that these lessons could have arrived in the West, had Kornfield not visited the forest monasteries and become inspired by the teachings of Ajahn Chah at this time.
The venerable Ajahn Chah was instrumental not only in setting Jack Kornfield on his path to mindfulness but also in helping to introduce the thoughts and concepts of Kammaṭṭhāna to the wider world. A thinker who had himself led an incredible life, Ajahn Chah spent much of his adult life walking across Thailand, living only in woodland and caves as he learned the strict methods of the Forest Tradition.
Having eventually established a settled monastery of his own in Ubon Ratchathani Province, Ajahn Chah became an influential mentor to a new generation of Buddhist thinkers. Jack Kornfield would spend much time with the venerable Ajahn Chah during this period and, under his tutelage, learned the fundamental lessons that he would later develop into Buddhist mindfulness.
Furthermore, during his time in Asia, Kornfield would also meet and study with the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma, and Dipa Ma from India. Together, these three mentors would provide Jack with a broad understanding of meditation, Buddhist tradition, and the Vipassana movement.
From this point, Kornfield understood the beneficial effect that these lessons could bring to modern Western societies. On his return to the United States, Jack immediately dedicated his time to establishing a centre for the teaching of Vipassana meditation in the west. In 1975 he founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) with two of his colleagues: Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein.
The first retreat centre opened its doors in Barre, Massachusetts, in February 1976. The cultural significance of that first Insight Meditation Society is such that it is widely regarded as being one of the very first organisations to pioneer the study of the Vipassanā tradition in the Western hemisphere.
“Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let it be. Let your body relax and your heart soften. Open to whatever you experience without fighting.”
It could be said that, on founding that first Insight Meditation Society centre, Kornfield discovered his true calling in life – that of a teacher. Through his work with the society, he developed his approach to teaching the lessons of Vipassanā.
By 1974 Kornfield had already become a founding faculty member of the Naropa Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado. This was just the first of many positions Kornfield has held as an instructor and tutor in Vipassanā techniques. These lessons have taken him to countless countries around the globe, sharing his knowledge and communicating his insightful views in a way that connects with audiences of all backgrounds.
Jack Kornfield's ordination, 1969. © jackkornfield.com
Kornfield is today considered one of the pre-eminent teachers of mindful thought: his approach is both scientific and spiritual, and always seeks to ground matters of universal significance into a context of the everyday. He holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Saybrook University and has led International Buddhist Teacher meetings with the Dalai Lama.
Today, Kornfield lives at the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California, which he founded, and where he teaches meditation and mindfulness. A passionate advocate for individual freedoms as well as spiritual well-being, Kornfield is a keen activist and has pioneered the use of social media and podcasting to share his vision of what a more mindful society can look like.
Kornfield's books have sold more than one million copies worldwide, and have been translated into over 20 languages. Many guided meditations and mindfulness trainings – for example, with Tara Brach – are available online. ●
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