Jack Kornfield: The Trustworthy Heart
Jack Kornfield: The Trustworthy Heart
After years of spiritual practice, Jack Kornfield found he had emotional and relationship issues still unaddressed. Since then, he has become a pioneer in joining Buddhist meditation with Western psychology.
The man in the ocher-colored robes sits cross-legged, eyes gently shut, palms half-open like seashells resting lightly on his knees. His head is freshly shaved and his faithful begging bowl is by his side.
There’s nothing unusual about the sight of a humble monk meditating—not in Asia, where he’s spent the last five years. But this monk’s not in Asia anymore, he’s in the reception area of Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon in Manhattan, waiting for his sister-in-law. He’s jolted out of his blissful state by a throng of women—some with faces slathered in mud, others with hair in rollers that remind him of fishing reels—laughing at him. The instant he opens his eyes, he realizes that life as a barefoot renunciate isn’t going to play on Fifth Avenue, or anywhere else in America, the way it did in Thailand.
The year was 1972 and Jack Kornfield had just returned to the States a fully ordained monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. “It was pretty obvious that I was going to have to find a way to reconcile the ancient teachings with our modern world,” he tells me in his signature singsong voice.
Since that day nearly thirty years ago, that’s exactly what he’s been doing: translating the path of liberation into a contemporary idiom, making it relevant for Americans. “Jack’s a visionary, a pioneer,” says Sharon Salzberg, who in 1975 co-founded the Insight Meditation Society with Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein in Barre, Massachusetts. “He’s got this incredible energy and bravery. He likes to play the edge, not out of disrespect but out of wanting the faith to be authentic.”
In his quest to transpose the dharma from an Asian monastic setting to a Western householder context, one of Kornfield’s chief preoccupations has been relationships. “There’s a way of dividing the Eightfold Path into three categories: right view, right relationship and right meditation,” says New York City author and psychiatrist Mark Epstein, a student and friend of Kornfield’s since the seventies. “I’ve always seen Jack as the embodiment of right relationship.”
“I believe, especially for us in the West, that relationship is one of the central practices we have,” Kornfield affirms. “It contains all the Buddhist training for perfection of wisdom, generosity, patience, truthfulness and compassion.” And there’s no escape. “When your guru asks you to stay up all night meditating, it’s still possible to go to sleep,” he says. “But when your baby is wailing at three o’clock in the morning, you have no choice except to get up and take care of her.”
His imperative to explore relationships in light of the dharma is not surprising, given his own painful family history. Kornfield’s father was a hot-tempered, sometimes physically abusive scientist whose peripatetic work life kept the family—Jack, his mother and three brothers—moving from city to city. Jack was the designated peacekeeper, a shy and awkward kid who figured out early that intelligence and worldly success did not necessarily add up to a happy life.
Inspired by a professor at Dartmouth College, he majored in Asian Studies. After graduating in 1967, he joined the Peace Corps and set off for Thailand, determined to study Buddhism and trade his angst for rapture. He soon made his way to the forest monastery of Ajahn Chah, a master in the Thervada tradition. There, with little more than a robe and a bowl to call his own, Kornfield underwent traditional training. He walked five miles each day to collect food for the single midday meal, practiced long hours of meditation—including a one-year silent retreat—and in 1969 was ordained as a monk. In subsequent years, he widened his circle of teachers to include Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw, Advaita teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj, and vajrayana guru Kalu Rinpoche.
Kornfield’s life seems to have served as the laboratory for his evolving view of the dharma. After returning from Asia he was shocked to discover that despite his experiences of bliss and awakening in the monastery, his interactions with people at home were just as troubled as they’d been before he left.
“I was emotionally immature, and all the old struggles with family and friends came right back,” he recalls. He also realized that, instead of liberating him, the strength of mind he’d cultivated in meditation had actually suppressed his feelings. “I didn’t know how to deal with them, and most of the time I didn’t even know what I felt.” In fact, he was so out of touch that a girlfriend gave him a notebook in which to record his feelings and preferences so that he could begin to know what they were. “Recovering my feelings was a long and life-changing process,” he says.
What’s more, he recognized that he couldn’t do it alone. “I needed the connection with another human being in therapy,” Kornfield tells me from the home he shares with his wife, Liana, and their 16-year-old daughter, Caroline, near Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California. In his compelling new book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry—a map of the spiritual journey based on Kornfield’s experiences, as well as those of teachers in many traditions—he elaborates: “To find myself still struggling with my emotions was hard. The therapist was essential as a compassionate witness, another being to help me face the images and fears I carried in my body, everything that I had not been able to face alone.” This understanding—that healing our emotional wounds and relationships is as much a part of spiritual development as moments of unbounded freedom and awakening—inspired him to get a doctorate in psychology and practice psychotherapy, in addition to teaching meditation.
“I don’t define the world in terms of spiritual or psychological,” he explains. “As the Buddha taught, there’s suffering, the cause of suffering, which is our fear and confusion, and the end of suffering. Sometimes meditation alone isn’t enough. For example, students often come to me with problems that surface again and again. Maybe it’s their fourteenth relationship in five years, or a pattern of feeling unworthy. Whatever it is, they discover that just sitting with their pain doesn’t transform it or bring liberation. At that point, it’s necessary to shift from the universal level to the personal level, and tell enough of the story in order to make conscious the small sense of self that perpetuates the suffering.”
When I ask him about the danger of getting lost in our storyline and reinforcing the notion of a solid self, he suggests that the question itself is specious. “It’s not so simplistic—get rid of the self and everything will be fine,” he points out. “For one thing, as Ajahn Chah taught, the concept of ‘self’ and ‘no-self’ is a false dichotomy. It would be more accurate to say that there’s unhealthy attachment and healthy attachment—which can occur in relation to experiences of emptiness as well to our notions of self.” Moreover, he adds, both self and no-self—the personal and the universal—are legitimate dimensions of our practice. One is about honoring and respecting what is unique about us, the other is about letting go.
“The heart is very trustworthy,” he says. “When something difficult comes in spiritual life, it’s because it needs our loving attention.” As far as Kornfield is concerned, it makes no difference whether we pay attention in the presence of a therapist, during meditation—or both. “The whole task of liberation is not to rid ourselves of our defenses, but to discover the purity that lies underneath. But that can only happen when we hold or touch the body of fear, the small self, with great compassion.” This is especially important for us in the West, where the emphasis on the individual has produced a society suffering from epidemic loneliness and self-hatred—afflictions that are virtually unknown in the communal Asian cultures where Buddhism first flowered.
Besides, Kornfield assures me, whether we’re talking about seeing a therapist, sitting on the cushion or going to the grocery store, we don’t need to worry so much about whether or not we’re being spiritual. “It’s a delusion to say that this is the spiritual part of one’s life, this is the financial part, this is the psychological part. That’s insane. Spirituality isn’t about any particular realm or dimension to be liberated. It means liberation in the heavens and hells, in the monastery and the marketplace. It means liberation of the body, the emotions, and relationships with all other beings.”
Bottom line, as he writes in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, “The lesson of spiritual life is not about gaining knowledge, but about how we love. Are we able to love what is given to us, love in the midst of all things, love ourselves and others?” If the answer is no to any part of the question, then, suggests Kornfield, we must take whatever steps are necessary, using body, heart and mind, to open ourselves and rest in our natural perfection.
“Jack has an all-embracing, mahayana vision of the dharma in which no aspect of life is excluded,” says Mark Epstein. “He’s taken this classical form of Buddhism and grafted it onto our worldly and complicated householder life.”
Spirit Rock, the meditation center Kornfield founded with Sylvia Boorstein and other vipassana teachers in 1989, is arguably the embodiment of that vision in which relationship and community are central. Unlike the retreat-oriented Insight Meditation Society, which he left in 1984, Spirit Rock, magnificently situated among the undulant hills of West Marin, was already a thriving community center, with programs for families, teens, parents, gays, lesbians, clergy and people of color, when its residential retreat facilities opened in 1998. Today, hundreds of seekers pass through Spirit Rock’s gates each week to attend Kornfield’s famed Monday night dharma talks, as well as other offerings.
Since most of the people who attend classes and retreats at Spirit Rock—and elsewhere in the West, for that matter—haven’t had the benefit of years of traditional monastic training the way Kornfield has, I ask if it’s harder to wake up in the real world than in the monastery. The response strikes me as classic understated, ever-witty Jack: “It’s hard to practice as a householder.” Pause. “It’s also hard to practice as a monk or a nun.” Either way, he explains, “you’re living in a community with a lot of personal relationships, which become a focus of practice. The first seven volumes of the Buddhist sutras are all about community and working through the difficulties that inevitably come up.”
But he also believes that just as living in a monastery offers certain advantages, so does living in the world, with its challenges and multiple roles, such as parenthood and partnership. “In the household life, as difficult and complex as it is, the opportunity exists to get trapped or discover freedom right in the middle of it,” he says, noting that family is the mirror in which all our wounds, as well as our blind spots, get magnified.
In talking to Kornfield, I sense that he takes nothing for granted. He has a quicksilver, incisive mind that relentlessly questions, examines, reexamines and tests every hypothesis against his own experience—exactly as the Buddha himself exhorted his disciples to do. This lends a certain streetwise—or, more accurately, pathwise—quality to Kornfield, who seems at once compassionate and fierce. There’s also a directness and clarity to his speech.
My impressions of his honesty and candor are shared by others. In the dharma world, he’s known as a truth-teller. “Jack is fearless,” says Sharon Salzberg. “He’s always questioning everything, like how this tradition deals with sex, money, women, abuses of power. At times, he’s been the voice of unwelcome truths.”
Sylvia Boorstein, Kornfield’s friend and colleague, remembers a 1995 meeting of Western Buddhist teachers in Dharamsala, when Jack characteristically pushed the envelope. “He opened the meeting by suggesting that we go around the room and share the most significant spiritual challenges we were facing personally and in our teaching,” Boorstein recalls, adding that many of the teachers present hadn’t met one another before. “He might as well have said, ‘Let’s start by taking off all our clothes.’ Jack always asks the hardest questions and establishes the most intimacy right up front. Then he jumps in and is the first one to be self-disclosing. He’s a role model for doing this work with incredible honesty and integrity.”
As part of Kornfield’s drive to keep things clean, he’s been a prime mover in bringing together Buddhist teachers from across the lineages to compare notes and learn from each other’s successes and missteps. Epstein refers to him as “the United Nations of Buddhism”; Boorstein calls him the “Sol Hurok of Buddhism,” after the well-known theatrical impresario. This June, Spirit Rock hosted an historic gathering of nearly two hundred Asian and Western teachers, including the Dalai Lama.
“My goal was to put everyone together in the same room so that we could get to know each other, and collaborate and support each other,” Kornfield says, noting that throughout Buddhist Asia conflict and competition have been common. “Prejudice is much less likely to arise when you come face to face with people whose approaches are different from yours. One of the radical things that’s happening in America is the free flow of dialogue among the traditions.”
But his passion for bringing people together and dissolving their differences through ritual and truth-telling is not limited to the Buddhist universe. For years he’s been teaching men’s retreats, sometimes with Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade. More recently, Kornfield has turned his attention to the wounds perpetrated by racism and, together with Hillman and Malidoma Some, an African spiritual teacher, has been leading retreats for young people from inner cities, many of them ex-gang members. At a recent gathering in southern California, he reports, “We built an altar on which the participants placed stones for all the young men they knew who’d been killed in gang fights. We stayed up all night around the fire, drumming, talking, hearing African, Mayan and Buddhist stories about how to deal with conflict and violence. It was a kind of initiation ritual. This has become a very compelling part of my teaching.”
When I ask Kornfield, now fifty-five, how he’s changed as a teacher since he taught his first meditation class at The Naropa Institute twenty-six years ago, he says that in the beginning he was much feistier and more confrontational. “Buddhism has a lot of warrior energy. There’s a lot of talk about doing battle against Mara or the defilements, about overcoming the hindrances and ridding ourselves of hatred and delusion, and so I taught that way. But then two things happened. In my own life I started to do a lot of emotional work, which began to transform my practice. And as a teacher I started seeing how students, who already felt worthless, used spirituality to judge themselves and fight against themselves and try to make themselves ‘better’ people. It became a self-improvement game. So the biggest shift has come from understanding that for wisdom to open, it has to rest in compassion. Otherwise, you’re just playing into the dualistic mind that wants to hold some things as bad and other things as good, which keeps us in chains.”
Kornfield describes his own ripening as a “journey down the chakras,” from refined meditative states into the heart and body. “I’m still going down, learning to embody and live the practice day by day—when I go to the store or speak to my teenage daughter or care for my own body as it ages. The dharma is fulfilled in the details and, as Maezumi Roshi said, details are all there are.
“At the same time I have the experience that’s common to a lot of long-time practitioners, which is that things become emptier, more transparent, more easily transformed. There’s not so much struggle. I suffer, but that’s the First Noble Truth. It’s not the suffering of resistance to the world, it’s just the human realm. There comes out of that a much deeper compassion, and the compassion is quite liberating. It’s the liberation of not removing oneself from the energies of life, but of resting the heart in the midst of it.”
Barbara Graham has written for the Utne Reader, Vogue, Self, Common Boundary and other publications. She is the author of the satire Women Who Run with the Poodles.
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The Innermost Essence
The Innermost Essence
The maha ati is of the greatest simplicity. It is what is. It
cannot he shown by analogy; nothing can obstruct it. It is without
limitation and transcends all extremes. It is clear-cut nowness, which
can never change its shape or colour. When you become one with this
state the desire to meditate itself dissolves; you are freed from the
chain of meditation and philosophy, and conviction is born within you.
The thinker has deserted. There is no longer any benefit to be gained
from "good" thoughts and no harm is to be suffered from "bad"
thoughts. Neutral thoughts can no longer deceive.
People often try to discriminate between "good" thoughts and
"bad" thoughts, like trying to separate milk from water. It is easy
enough to accept the negative experiences in life but much harder to see
the positive experiences as part of the path. The state of
non-meditation is born in the heart when one no longer discriminates
between meditation and non-meditation and one is no longer tempted to
change or prolong the state of meditation. There is all-pervading joy,
free from all doubts. This is different from the enjoyment of sensual
pleasures or from mere happiness.
From "The Innermost Essence" by the great Dzogchen teacher Jigme
Lingpa (1730-1798) and translated by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Shambhala
Sun, September 2000.
Save Your Sole!
Save Your Sole!By:
“It is one of the perverse virtues of advanced civilization to have transcended repair and renewal.”
Entropy teaches us that things will break. And break and break and break. Falling apart, coming undone, deteriorating—this is indeed the lot of anything that comes into existence, and in particular of things produced by the human hand.
Consider the lowly shoe. Asked to carry us wherever we go, to stretch and bend, to withstand rain, snow, salt, mud and being put on without a shoehorn, it performs the noble task set forth in the Buddhist parable of sheltering our soles so that we need not pave the earth. It provides a path that is with us all the time. What earthly thing could be more intimate?
If it is an athletic shoe (the shoe of choice over what the shoe industry generically terms “brown shoes”), when it wears out it will be unceremoniously tossed in the trash bin or assigned to a pile in the basement. At its best it will become part of an avant garde work of art. There’s no restoring a worn athletic shoe, for just as in the rough justice of professional sports, age for the athletic shoe means not dignity but death.
What of the “brown shoe” (whether it be black, beige or mauve)? Should it be tossed out after a little wear and tear? Apparently so, because shoe repair in North America, along with almost all other forms of repair, is passé to the point of being nearly morte. Just today, while visiting Chicago, I happened upon a shoe repair spot that had become little more than a place for old fellas to hang out and speak of the days of yore. In those days, shoes were shoes, it would seem.
In my own city, there’s one shoe repairer left who has no time to chat. At Empire Shoe, he works the whole day through repairing shoes to the crackling sound of a radio playing a station from Athens. Aristotle once said that money is that which can tell us how many pairs of shoes are equal to a house. I am sure he had my shoe repairman in mind, because he knows exactly how many shoes (or more precisely, shoe repairs) equate with a house. He knows value. He exudes value.
Overcome by a deep need not to add more junk to the pile and a distinct aversion to finding comparable shoes, I brought him two pairs of dress shoes. The first, black of the Italian dancing shoe type, became new and shining, like Cinderella’s slipper. The second, a brown pair, needed not only a sole but had stitching coming loose in every area. They looked to be beyond repair. When he returned them, they looked not entirely new, but entirely repaired, which lent them a certain air of triumph, like veterans of a great war. When I began to wriggle and jam my feet into them, he winced and proffered a shoe horn, as if to say, “Have you no mercy, you cad?”
It won’t be too much longer and my shoe guy will be out of business like the rest of them and shoes can go on becoming ever more expendable. So can clothes, stereos, computers, cars and anything else just as soon as it has grown old and boring. It’s often cheaper now—not to say more convenient and exciting—to buy new. Plus, we get the satisfaction of contributing to the great juggernaut of the economy. Yet as we hear so often and so earnestly today, the earth is a finite resource.
That misses the point, though. What if the earth were an infinite resource? Would it be fine then to just throw everything away without a thought of repairing and mending? Would we glide by guilt free, guzzling and tossing with abandon? Not likely. Like the myth of a deathless life, the world of endless resources is a horrible prospect that we wouldn’t want even if we could have it. Endless consumption would be a blur of tastelessness without a moment of peace, the excruciating boredom of an endless summer. We would have so much next and so much new that next and new would become old hat.
Mending is a major occupation in traditional societies. It is one of the perverse virtues of advanced civilization to have transcended repair and renewal. We have abandoned a more basic understanding of economy—the careful ordering of the house (which is what it means etymologically)—and have redefined it as the sum total of our consumption.
We need to repair and reuse not because the earth will run out, not because the cosmic meter maid is coming down the street to give us a ticket, but because it is the only way to live well. Our willingness to toss away that which we so recently valued, our unwillingness to repair the material things in our lives, speaks volumes about our unwillingness to repair other things that really matter—our errors, our relationships, our lives, our world.
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
“Your shoulders, arms, neck and ribs can either be a restrictive cage for your heart or an undulating, comforting protector.”
The summer before my marriage broke up, I cried a lot in yoga class. It didn’t happen until we lay down for final relaxation. Then tears would pour out of the sides of my eyes. It was almost as though I wasn’t crying, but leaking, and it happened every day for the whole summer.
Somehow the release of toxins in my muscles and organs during the class also released emotions in my heart and mind. Motion led to emotion. Before the class I had been stuck and yoga unstuck me. It took me on a journey back to myself, and as I embodied my sadness more and more, it began to travel through me and by the end of the summer, I felt clean, balanced and brave enough to make the necessary changes in my life.
Even though it was painful, my summer of being heartbroken was better than having no heart at all. To experience the movement of our heart, even if it involves sadness or fear or anger, is how we know we are alive. It is when we don’t experience the circulation of emotions that we get depressed and then get stuck there.
The first way to work with this is on the physical level. People know this intuitively, which is why, of all the workshops I conduct around the world, the Heart Opener workshops tend to fill up quickest. I find that so moving, because I feel sure that the people who sign up for those workshops are already open-hearted. However, their supporting anatomy may be tight or weak, making it difficult to feel the physical movement that enables the emotional journey to deepen.
Try this: Sit up tall and take a deep breath in and out. Then slouch—tuck your tailbone under and curve your shoulders forward. Now try to breathe deeply. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible, and the effort is soon disheartening. As your spine droops, your head drops, and your spirit sinks. You can’t see the sky or meet the world head-on.
Moreover, the anatomical function of the heart is compromised. It cannot easily receive deoxygenated blood from the veins nor easily pump blood into the lungs, where it gets oxygenated. Why not? Because the functions of the heart and lungs are intimately related and we simply cannot inhale enough air when the cardiovascular department is compressed. This inability to take in oxygen is a subtle form of suffocation and leads to weak “life prana,” or life force, which, according to Ayurvedic medicine, resides in our heart.
The Sanskrit word for heart is hridayam, meaning “that which receives, gives and circulates.” We can increase this process of giving, receiving and circulating by strengthening the supportive and protective anatomy around our heart and extending the range of motion in those areas. That includes our arms, ribcage, shoulders, neck, upper back and chest.
Let’s try the following vinyasa, or flowing sequence of movements. It will deepen your awareness of these areas and allow your life prana to flow without obstruction. Work gently, mindfully, and rhythmically. I have included breathing guidelines, but it’s fine if you wish to stay in each position for longer than one breath.
1. Begin by standing with your feet about hip distance apart. Clasp your hands together behind your back. (If you can’t reach, you can hold on to a belt or towel.) Try to lift the front of your armpits so your shoulders are not rounding forward. Draw your shoulder blades toward each other and feel broad across the collarbones. Inhale.
2. Exhale and fold your upper body over your legs. Your arms will go over your head, but try to stay open across the chest. Let your head be heavy and your neck long. If you feel any strain on the back of the legs or your back, bend your knees. Over time your muscles will lengthen and you will be able to straighten your legs easily, but in the meantime, work mindfully and don’t even consider pushing your body.
3. From here, release your arms and place your fingertips on the floor, directly below your shoulders. On an inhale, lift your chest so your spine is parallel to the floor. Feel how the inhalation lifts your heart to this position. Again, bend your knees if that is more comfortable.
4. As you exhale, twist to the right and reach your right arm up to the ceiling. Look up at your hand. If it is in the correct position, it will look as if it’s over your mouth. Feel the right side of your belly spinning up to the sky. Feel a broad line of energy connecting your two hands.
5. Inhale, and return to the flat back position. As you exhale, twist to the other side. Look up and feel the opening in the front of your left armpit/chest area. Inhale and return to flat back.
6. Exhale, and fold over your legs. Hold onto your elbows and let your head drop. Feel your upper body cascading like a waterfall out of your strong legs which are rooted to the earth. Stay here for a few breaths, or as long as you like.
7. When you are ready, on an inhale, begin to round up through your spine. Continue to hold onto your elbows, so that when you are all the way up, your arms will be framing your face. See if you can stand with your arms in this position without letting your front ribs stick out. Relax the whole front of your body and feel it relating to the back of your body. Visualize your warm exhalation moving in a circle around the entire ring of your neck.
8. On your next inhalation, lengthen your arms overhead, and as you exhale, bend to the right. Feel your breath moving into the left side of your rib cage as it fans open like an accordion.
9. Inhale back up to standing and exhale over to the left. Now fill the right side of your ribcage with nourishing breath. Try to keep both arms straight. Press the soles of your feet into the earth. Let your in-breath lift you back up to standing.
Repeat this sequence at least four times. Stay connected to the movement of the breath as much as possible by following the path of the breath with your mind. Start to notice where it goes and where it doesn’t. Notice what’s available to you today and how it’s different in each position.
On your third and fourth sets, see if you can deepen your breathing slightly, without straining or pushing. Maybe you can and maybe you can’t—it doesn’t matter. Just see what you can learn about yourself. Then practice it again tomorrow and see how it’s different. The main thing is to stay present with the exercise and not get hard in your mind, body or breath.
Your body, your shoulders, arms, neck and ribs, can be either a restrictive cage for your heart or an undulating, comforting protector. Well-known yoga teacher Rodney Yee once asked a class, “If you could hold your heart in your hands, how would you hold it?” Ask yourself how you are holding your heart right now: Tightly, tenderly, firmly, gently, carefully, attentively, fearfully, tentatively, easily, joyously?
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “The way to rule the universe is to expose your heart.” When the ebb and flow of our heart diminishes, we feel separate from the vast world around us, a world in which everything breathes, pulsates, expands and contracts. Yoga, Buddhism and all spiritual paths are a map showing the journey back to the heart of the universe: Big Mind, Great Spirit, the Source of all that is. And the heart of the universe is, of course, always within our own hearts, if only we can be brave enough to feel its movement.
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of Yoga in a Box, available at www.omyoga.com.
The Mahayana Motivation
The Mahayana Motivation
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on the bodhisattva path.
The great tradition of Buddhism begins with the simple experience of looking at our minds and seeing that we want some kind of contentment. In a way, it is no more abstract than that. We look at our mind and we see the turmoil and we say, “How am I going to get out of this situation?”
In the Buddhist path we respond to our experience of samsara, the painful cycle of endless existences in which we are caught, with revulsion. One morning we get up and say, “That’s enough. I’ve been doing this for a couple of billion lifetimes, and I think that’s enough. I’ve been the highest of the high, and the worst of the worst, and everything in between, and I think that’s enough!”
But in order to break from samsara, it is necessary to understand samsara. That is what the arhats have done, those who have completed the hinayana path of personal liberation. Those of us within samsara would view them as incredible, heroic beings, because they have dared to look at samsara fully. They have not just dared to leave it; they have dared to stop and really see what is going on. It takes tremendous courage to do that, because when we look at samsara we are looking at ourselves—it’s hard not to take it too personally. It takes a strong mind, a courageous mind, to look at samsara and say, “I will learn this lesson. I will not flinch. I won’t try to manipulate it. I will just look at it.”
However, from the point of view of the mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva, the arhats are taking only a small step. Certainly it is an heroic step, like the first step of a child, and a very important step that one has to take. But it is still said to be only a small step towards liberation.
The bodhisattva is different from the hinayana practitioner in several ways. First, the understanding of truth, of reality, is very different in the mahayana. According to the bodhisattva, the mahayana teachings are the real words of the Buddha. Because of the students’ capacity the Buddha mostly taught hinayana—and very sensibly so, because people were suffering—but he also asked, “Do you just want a release from suffering, or do you want to understand the truth?”
When we get to mahayana, it is the truth. The truth of the mahayana is the most profound truth there is. When the Buddha—the one who sees the whole of the truth—speaks, he speaks about emptiness and luminosity, form and emptiness, emptiness and form. As practitioners, we find ourselves going back and forth between hinayana and mahayana view.
The other key aspect that separates mahayana from hinayana is motivation. The hinayana practitioner feels the pain of samsara and says, “I can’t take it anymore. What can I do about it?” And having understood what samsara is, we can all sympathize with the hinayana practitioner. It is a worthy approach. We are not belittling it.
But the mahayana practitioner takes a much more radical approach. The mahayana practitioner wakes up one morning and realizes, “Sentient beings from endless time have been roaming in samsara.” Here, we not only understand the pain of samsara and how we have been involved in it; we are also able to see what samsara is doing to all sentient beings.
The person who has this motivation is called “the great bodhisattva,” the warrior with the mind of enlightenment. Why? Because that person has transcended their own painful experience of samsara and has woken up to how all sentient beings are suffering.
Mahayana practitioners are inspired not just by the idea of forsaking their own enlightenment so they can help others; they actually drop what they are doing so they can go help somebody else on the spot. When they see somebody who is hungry, they want to take the food they are about to eat and give it to them. The other person’s hunger is overwhelming, their sense of compassion overcomes them, and they want to give their own food away.
Through truly understanding the nature of suffering, the basic fabric of mind becomes loving-kindness and compassion. This is the mind of enlightenment, the basic core of enlightenment. Usually our first thought is, “What can I get for me?” But the mind of enlightenment is actually our fundamental nature. It is said that compassion and love are much more in accord with our true nature than jealousy, pride, and so forth. Therefore, developing compassion and love is an avenue to understanding reality.
Motivation is an essential factor on the bodhisattva path. Sometimes we become preoccupied with wanting to discover the true nature of things, the ultimate reality. But if you look at the writings of great teachers such as Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti, persons of great intelligence who have pointed out the nature of reality, you will see that they also wrote long and beautiful compositions about compassion. This was the inspiration behind their teachings on emptiness—to give bodhisattvas a way to go about saving all sentient beings intelligently. The bodhisattva doesn’t run around randomly trying to help everybody. Intelligence and wisdom are involved.
The bodhisattva says, “For the benefit of all sentient beings, I will achieve liberation.” It is for the sake of others that the bodhisattva vows to achieve their own enlightenment, because then they will be able to help sentient beings in manifold ways. Sometimes people think the bodhisattva vow means that all the other sentient beings should achieve liberation first, but that’s not really right. We do have the view that we want everybody else to achieve liberation; however, the most practical thing we can do to make that happen is to achieve liberation ourselves. The more profound our realization, the more we are able to help sentient beings.
But can all beings in fact achieve enlightenment? When we begin to do the practice of raising compassion, we inevitably come to a point where we ask ourselves, “Is it really possible for all sentient beings to achieve enlightenment?” After all, sentient beings are endless.
So we use our intelligence to look into it. In the beginning we are concerned with the diversity of sentient beings, not their ultimate nature. We contemplate how they end up in different situations through the nature of cause and effect. Then we come to understand that fundamentally all samsaric realms are the same, whether painful or pleasurable. We begin to see that the fundamental nature of all sentient beings is buddhanature—luminosity and emptiness. So of course all sentient beings can achieve enlightenment.
Having established that all sentient beings have the capacity for enlightenment, we contemplate whether we ourselves can liberate all sentient beings. We ask ourselves, “Can I—not anyone else—liberate all sentient beings endlessly?” That is really what the bodhisattva vow is about.
This is why the mahayana is called maha, “great,” because the conclusion the bodhisattva comes to is, “Yes, I can save all sentient beings. Even if I’m the last person left in the universe, I will work tirelessly. I will commit the rest of this life and every life from now on to saving all sentient beings—no holds barred, no insurance, no retirement plan.”
Mahayana is great in two ways. It is great in view, because we begin to see the true nature of things. It is great in motivation, because we dedicate ourselves to working tirelessly for all sentient beings. As a bodhisattva, our whole approach to life has changed. We no longer get up in the morning thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, we get up thinking, “I am a servant, a shepherd, a vehicle, a bridge for all sentient beings to cross over.” What started out as, “I need to get out of here,” has become, “I’ll be the last person here, no matter what.”
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche. He is currently writing a book on mindfulness meditation, to be published by Riverhead.
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