Monday, March 12, 2012

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield is an attempt by one of America’s foremost Buddhist teachers to take the more esoteric Buddhist teachings into a Western, and particularly American, context.  Kornfield himself moved from being a monastic to a married man, founder of Insight Meditation Society, and is candid in sharing some of his struggles with keeping the dharma relevant in his own life.  In doing so, he came to realize how American sensibilities occasionally conflict with the Buddhist ideals.  I found myself remembering the story of how the Dalai Lama is so surprised by the self-esteem issues endemic in our country, saying that this is something his people did not have.  

Kornfield has a strong foundation from which to work.  His personal experiences as a monk and his training in psychology infuse his teachings in this book which, to be frank, sometimes feels pieced together.  Many of the chapters are previously published essays, articles from various magazines, or even expansions of interviews that Kornfield has done through the years.  All are well written if not always interwoven with the same precision as a single text might have been.  This possibly explains why some personal stories are reiterated in similar contexts.  I found myself wondering if I hadn’t already heard this story before and realizing that I had, referring easily to a previous chapter.  For me, this sort of distraction makes me wonder if the author doesn’t trust the reader to have any recollection of what he’s already written or if the editor is simply too lazy to ask for a revision or a different story. 

If in the introduction or elsewhere I had been made aware that this book is an expanded collection of previously published pieces, I would have probably been more patient with the redundancies.  I bring this up because I like the book well enough to recommend but would perhaps suggest that the reader set it aside occasionally, to allow time for a little forgetfulness to take root so that the repetition won’t be so tedious.

With that said, Kornfield does manage to bring the transcendent down to earth, and he allows the American Buddhist layperson practice in a way that is both personally meaningful and possible.   His stories of monastic training may inspire some readers to take their spiritual practice to the point of taking vows.  But he also recognizes that most readers will merely be trying to live out their daily practice in the typical world of family and professional lives.  I would be very interested to know if Kornfield has ever taken his personal story to the page in more than anecdotal tidbits because I’ve a feeling his personal story would be a perfect complement to the intention of this book. 

If there is a single message to be carried off from this book, it is in the Buddha’s own means of teaching a variety of ways to find enlightenment which the author effectively communicates to the reader.  There are many ways to experience the promises made in Buddhism, from traditional meditation practices like intensive retreats and simple mindfulness, to a more western use of psychology and even drugs.  Kornfield doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial issues, including some of the sex scandals that have arisen over the years, but he is no apologist, and tries to follow through on his intention of suggesting ways to take an Eastern tradition and keep it relevant in a Western world.  This is a good book although it did not blow me away.  It did, however, leave me curious to read some of Kornfield’s earlier works and I intend on doing so in the future.  


  1. Buddhism is something I've yet to explore in depth. I don't think I'm yet in the proper frame of mind or state of readiness to receive its tenets. However, I believe I'm moving towards it.

    1. When you are ready, I highly recommend the following teachers:

      Thich Nhat Hanh
      Sharon Salzberg
      Sylvia Boorstein
      Susan Piver

      There are other writers who are wonderful and Kornfield definitely ranks among them. But for someone just beginning to look into Buddhism, I wouldn't recommend them as a starting point, unless you can share the reading with someone who is more versed in Buddhist principles and can help explain things. So you'll see people like Pema Chodron everywhere in bookstores and notice Suzuki's An Introduction to Zen Buddhism or another Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind but their teachings are perhaps less immediately accessible. I wouldn't say avoid them. In fact, I'd encourage anyone to read them but that wouldn't be the starting point. Especially not for a Western reader.


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