Tending the Garden of the Dharma for 25 Years


by Walt Opie Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma. He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology, and his books include A Path with Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry; and The Wise Heart.

Spirit Rock: After establishing IMS in Barre, Massachusetts with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and others, you eventually moved out to the Bay Area and helped establish Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California. What do you recall about that time in your life? What made you decide to help create an Insight Meditation center in northern California?

Jack Kornfield: Joseph and Sharon and I began leading retreats in California from the first year of our teaching. The very first retreat (among our community) in the U.S. was taught in California, in 1974. That was with Joseph and Sharon up in Sequoia. Then I taught one with Joseph and Richard Barsky in Massachusetts. That was probably the second one.

When my wife Liana got pregnant and we decided to move to California to raise our family. When we moved to the Bay Area in 1984 there was already quite a strong dharma community established here. There were people like James Baraz who was leading groups, and others. Within a short period of time there started to be informal meetings of folks who thought it would be good to have a center on the West Coast similar to what was established at IMS in Barre.

So it wasn’t my doing—it came completely out of the collective community, and out of people’s experience of how wonderful, beneficial and transformative their retreat practice and meditation practice had been. And then committees and board were formed, and people starting to look for land and so forth. But it was very much a collective effort and it was the fruit of ten years of a lot of people’s work and practice. I hardly did anything. In many ways that’s really the way the Dharma unfolds. It’s rare that it’s an individual, it’s really much more sangha and community.

SR: Were there any major hurdles early on that you remember?

JK: Hurdle may not be the right word. There were different sets of visions of what we were looking for—some of us were focused more on a rural retreat center, so we looked at property from the Santa Cruz Mountains up to the Russian River and found some potential places that the board almost bought. And there were some, myself included, who really wanted it much closer to San Francisco so that Spirit Rock would combine two dimensions—the dimension of the retreat center which we had at IMS and was so beneficial to thousands of people, and the dimension of an integrated practice where people could come for daylongs and classes and make a community that was a regular part of their lives. That’s because the most frequently asked question (from retreatants) in that first decade of retreats and thereafter was some version of, “How do I live this? How do I integrate it? How do I have support for embodying this year round?”

Those of us who were very much interested in responding to that question wanted to find a place that was close to the city. We looked for a long time and turned down places. In fact, the board almost bought a place on the Russian River, and I said, “Well, you can buy it, but I’m not going to teach there very much because I’m going to be closer to the Bay Area, and I’m more interested in the combining of retreats and the integration (of practice).”

In the end they decided not to do it, and then we kind of gave up after several years of hunting. It was at that point that Jack Tjeerdsma, a board member who had been connected with San Francisco Zen Center, came along and said there was this property available in Woodacre. And who had ever heard of Woodacre? Except it happened that Liana and I had recently decided to move our family to Woodacre, so we were already connected with Woodacre when this property came along! And then to find this property was over 400 acres in this beautiful valley, being sold by The Nature Conservancy, and that the money we gave to The Nature Conservancy would go for international work such as buying rain forest land, we were thrilled.

SR: How did you imagine this new center would be, and how does that compare to what it’s become now?

JK: Well, we wanted to serve the community of people whose lives had been transformed by learning the practices of mindfulness, compassion, loving-kindness, and so forth. We imagined we would have a retreat center somewhat like IMS and we would also have classes, daylongs and other study opportunities.

We had no idea that mindfulness would blossom into a huge national movement. Now there’s mindfulness in hospitals and clinics, mindfulness in the arts, mindfulness in education in hundreds of school systems, mindfulness in sports, and mindfulness in the law, in business—all these different dimensions. We had no idea that this would happen. We simply wanted to serve in a wise, supportive and integrated way the community of people we knew who were practicing. It blossomed and flowered far beyond anything we imagined.

There’s something else. Even though we had no idea it would become this great kind of force in the society, from the very beginning those of us who had practiced initially in India, Thailand, Burma and elsewhere knew we had found something marvelous. We knew that the world itself is in a great deal of trouble these days—the environmental destruction, continuing racism, warfare, conflict, injustice and so forth—and we knew somehow that the transformation that was necessary for us was an inner transformation as well as an outer transformation; that no amount of outer development could bring the kind of happiness and well-being that a life of wisdom, compassion, understanding, and of inner life wedded with that outer development could bring. So we knew this practice was terribly important and really transformative and wonderful, but we had no idea that it would spread so widely and so quickly.

SR: Was there ever a moment when you were a monk in Thailand where you perhaps thought, “I’ve got to take this back to the West where they really need it?”

JK: No, that would be a lot of hubris. I think more, for all of us—for me, Sharon and Joseph—in coming back it was that we had these marvelous experiences, you know—healing and opening and transformation—and then we told people about them when we came back, and they said, “Oh, would you teach us? Would you tell us about it?” So people asked for a retreat or for classes, and we responded.

SR: What are you most proud of or what are some of your favorite moments since Spirit Rock was founded?

JK: If you look at our original vision mandala, which was the creation of Julie Wester, Anna Douglas and dozens of other devoted people who spent two years trying to envision what a wise Dharma community would look like, it includes right relationship, service and integration of mindfulness and compassion in all aspects of lifer as well as the right retreat and meditation practice and formal  Dharma study. I’m enormously happy that we’ve been able to flesh out much of that mandala and make a life of Dharma teachings available to people through everything from family retreats to trainings for meditators and retreats on creativity, and programs for scientists, educators and lawyers. That the many dimensions of our life—retreats on the body and retreats of study of Buddhist tradition, and retreats of extending this into healing—that many of those different dimensions have begun to be fulfilled. That makes me very happy.

I’m also really happy that we have a very strong and accomplished teacher’s council and a very strong, accomplished and dedicated staff that really hold Spirit Rock as a center of well-being and benevolence for people who come here. And then there are all these beautiful things that have happened that make me tremendously delighted. We had the first African American Dharma retreat probably ever in the world, and we also had some of the first retreats for people of color.

For the African American retreat, I remember the retreat center being filled with 100 African American practitioners and being led by Alice Walker, Jan Willis, a wonderful teacher from Wesleyan University, and George Mumford, who was the meditation coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. One of the things that we discovered early on was that these weren’t new people who wanted to learn about meditation; many had been practicing for years but more or less on their own because they didn’t feel a kinship with the extremely white communities of practice that had developed. And coming to that retreat was an extraordinary thing, as the people of color retreats had been.

I’m completely delighted when I recall some of the wonderful and great women meditation masters who have come to express the Dharma in the feminine voice here, from Ruth Denison who just turned 90 and was here recently, to Sister Dipankara, this amazing nun from Burma, to Ani Tenzin Palmo, who lived in her cave in the snow for twelve years, to the strong women on our teacher’s council. And the fact that our forms of practice have changed from a rather monastic and patriarchal system in Asia to be life-affirming, democratic and deeply feminine, as well as masculine, now and much more integrated in life brings tremendous delight and satisfaction.

But I also remember magic moments. Our early family program where every year Seth Castleman who was running it would have the kids do a play on the life of the Buddha and Wavy Gravy came down to play the part of Mara the tempter. Or one Monday night in the early ‘90s when we had a visit from the Gyuto Tibetan Tantric choir who do that very deep, multivocal chanting. It was October 31 that night, and I was explaining to them about Halloween and they said, “Oh, we have with us the formal garb for the dance of the dead.” So the Gyuto Tantric Choir put on these skeleton costumes and went out under the moonlight in the meadow, and we took all 200 plus people out of the community hall and circled the meadow, and under the moonlight the Gyuto tantric monks did the dance of the dead on Halloween night.

Or the kind of conversations that happened when we had Ajahn Jumnian, a Thai Forest master and shaman from southern Thailand here at the same time as Tsoknyi Rinpoche. They had this beautiful dialogue up in the retreat hall on the nature of pure consciousness, enlightenment and liberation. They were telling stories, laughing, and very much agreeing that they were offering the same teachings. Or just being at the end of a ten-day or two-month retreat and watching people’s faces as they walk out of a retreat with what we call the ‘vipassana facelift.’ You know, they look five or ten years younger and there’s this kind of luminous sense of openness, innocence and free spirit beginner’s mind that you see in people over and over again. There have been so many blessings.

SR: Are there any things you wish you’d done differently in hindsight?

JK: You know, I don’t wish anything was different. It’s been a fantastic ride. And I don’t feel like any of us have been in charge of it. It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk or something—I mean these extraordinary Dharma seeds that we all carry back. It’s not just me but all of us are Johnny Appleseed with our bags—getting this piece of land in this beautiful valley and planting the seeds. And then the seeds being tended by the rains, the wind, the sunlight and the spring blossoms from the plum trees… and being tended by the land itself… and by this whole community of people who care about compassion and loving-kindness and awakening together, and they’ve blossomed. I just feel fortunate to have been around while the garden grew.

SR: Do you have any advice for somebody wanting to serve the Dharma by opening their own meditation center somewhere else in the West?

JK: Yes. It’s like having a child. It’s one of the happiest things that you could want to do because people’s lives become more joyful, people become freer, healed… more fulfilled. They become more compassionate and mindful in themselves and in the way that they live. And that’s just a beautiful thing that we can share as human beings. But like having a child, it’s a tremendous amount of work, so it takes a lot of dedication and love, not because you want to make some great center but because you’re tending the garden of the Dharma.

So if you want to do it, you just have to say, “All right, we’re gonna have this Dharma child and it’s gonna take a lot of tending.” You want to do it out of love, that’s all. You want to do it with a loving heart because that’s what gets you through. And when you see the blessings of the Dharma and teachings and how much it changes people’s lives, it’s a child worth tending… only it’s not just one kid, but many.

SR: Lastly, how do you envision the next 25 years of Spirit Rock?

JK: There are all kinds of ideas that I hear from people of online Dharma and cyber-Dharma and a greater sense of community… and having hermitages with very long and special training programs—the whole range from the most traditional to the most modern. And truth to tell, I have no idea. I couldn’t have envisioned the way it grew as it has, so wildly and so beautifully, and so I see all these possibilities and think we’re all tending the garden. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

As long as it is threaded through with people who are dedicated to the actual trainings and practices of mindfulness, generosity, compassion… as long as people tend to their own personal mindfulness and integrity and treat one another with loving-kindness and respect—treat the world that way—it will continue to blossom and grow in all kinds of wonderful ways, many of them unexpected to us at this time.

Find Peace


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