To be a Buddha is to be one who has awakened, awakened to the nature of life and death and the world in which we live, wakened to the body and mind. So the purpose of practicing meditation, the Buddhist and other traditions, is not to become a meditator, or a spiritual person, or a Buddhist, or to join something. Rather, it is to understand this capacity we have as human beings to awaken.
(‘Eightfold Path for the Householder’, p. 4)
Jack Kornfield is an experienced meditation teacher, himself having trained under the famous Thai monk Ajahn Chah, and later becoming a co-founder of the well known Insight Meditation Society in
The first chapter sets the tone of the book, by defining Right Understanding (the first of the eight aspects of the Path) by using both Buddhist and non-Buddhist illustrations, even referencing God – probably to the consternation of some orthodox Buddhists! And this is an important part of the approach the author has in this work, quoting such diverse sources as Don Juan, Ajahn Chah, Thomas Merton, Albert Einstein, Nisargadatta, William Blake, and Mahatma Gandhi, but to name a few. Kornfield uses these people and their tales to bring to life the Path with colorful quotations and stories.
As to the book’s representation of the various parts of the Eightfold Path, the author displays an insider’s view of how the cultivation of morality, meditation, and wisdom are developed by the dedicated practitioner. Right Understanding, for instance, is described in very organic and natural ways, as opposed to a doctrine set in stone which must be memorized by all devoted Buddhists. In this, Kornfield reveals the influence of his former teacher Ajahn Chah, with whom the American studied as a Buddhist monk three decades ago. Of Right Understanding, he says:
You start to see the law of things, that things are impermanent, that attachment doesn’t work, and that there must be some other way. There is actually what Alan Watts called, “the wisdom of insecurity,” the ability to flow with things, to see them as a changing process. You also see not only are they impermanent and ungraspable, but that there’s suffering if we’re attached to them, and that there’s pain as well as pleasure in this world; it’s part of what we were born into.
The book weaves its way through the three segments of the Path concerning virtue with equally comforting and inspiring insights, mixing in with the anecdotes and quotes guided meditations – the book is a series of talks transcribed from a meditation retreat. When addressing the subject of Right Livelihood, something that all of us lay people will struggle with at some point in our lives, he writes not only about the moral aspects, but also ways to incorporate increased mindfulness into the workplace:
There are a lot of ways that one can begin to bring awareness to one’s work. There are the simple ones of exercises. For example, Gurdjieff used to give awareness training exercises where he’d tell people to do things in a different way than they were used to. Tie your shoes and do the bow around the other direction, or open your car door with your left hand instead of your right hand, and let it be a signal for a little while, maybe for two minutes, that you’re going to wake up and you’ll go off automatic pilot and be conscious as the door opens and you sit down in the car and you begin to drive. It becomes a meditation.
(Ibid. p. 58)
The book describes the heart of Buddhist practice, Right Concentration and Mindfulness (or Awareness as Kornfield prefers) from the viewpoint of someone who has been cultivating them for decades, sharing his experience with the reader in an open and humorous manner. He describes meditation techniques such as the watching of the breath (vipassana) and answers questions from members of the retreat the book is taken from. Kornfield has this to say on mindfulness:
Fundamentally, “mindfulness” means to learn to be aware where we are. If not here, where else? If not now, when? Mindfulness is the opposite of “if only,” it’s the opposite of hope, it’s the opposite of expectation. It has in it a certain kind of contentment, not that one might not choose to change the world, but a kind of acceptance that this is the really what we get, these sights, these sounds, these smells, these tastes, these perceptions. This is it!
As mentioned above, the final chapter of this excellent book centers upon the hindrances that we come up against in our walking the Buddhist Path. The five hindrances are: desire, irritation and anger, laziness, restlessness, and doubt. Kornfield knows them well and describes them vividly, revealing anger, for instance, to include irritation, judgment, boredom, and fear. He notes that sometimes intense anger is used as a confirmation of believing oneself to be right, authenticating the egoistic sense of who one is. Of doubt, he states:
We Americans have the curse of choice. That’s not a trivial thing. It enlivens and it enriches the culture and our lives, but it’s a very difficult thing and it’s not so for most cultures. And usually when doubt arises strongly it does so because our heads, our thinking apparatus is not connected with our heart. If you look in the moment where there’s a lot of confusion or doubt, it’s there because there’s much thought and not much connection to the heart, to what we might do based on our deeper values.
Jack Kornfield is a skillful teacher. In ‘The Eightfold Path for the Householder,’ he displays a level of sensitivity for the human condition that makes his words all the more inspiring to the reader. This is no academic work on the Buddha’s teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path, and has more impact because of that. (Not that there isn’t a place for scholastic interpretations of the Buddhadharma, but they do have their practical limits.) This book comes highly recommended for those lay Buddhists that wish to infuse their lives with the living force of the Eightfold Path: Walk on, and read on!
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