The Roots of Buddhist Psychology with Jack Kornfield

Among the world's great religions and philosophies, Buddhism has developed one of the most detailed and practical maps of consciousness in recorded history. In this interview, Jack Kornfield looks at the roots of Buddhist psychology, and describes the transformative means that can lead practitioners to a true “freedom of the heart.”

Sounds True: How would you describe the essence of Buddhist psychology?

Jack Kornfield: The essence of Buddhist psychology is practical and transformative. It offers a way to understand the heart and mind so that we can be free, authentically compassionate, and happy in the midst of all the things that change in our world. Buddhist psychology provides tools and practices for true happiness in the midst of praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain.

It is also an old psychology—thousands of years old—so it's very well developed. There is an understanding of the nature of the senses, the body, and the mind taught in monasteries whose details are as sophisticated as an MIT course on cybernetics. And at the same time it leads to direct ways of transforming our relationship to the world so that we are free. Just as all the great oceans have but one taste—the taste of salt—so all of the teachings of the Buddhas are said to have but one taste, which is the sweet taste of freedom in the heart.

Sounds True: What do you mean by that—“freedom of the heart?” Is that something we can actually have in our lives on a daily basis?

Jack Kornfield: Freedom is possible for each of us. It is the capacity and birthright of every human being. The circumstances of our lives cannot always be changed, yet even in the midst of the greatest difficulties we have within us a longing to be more loving, to be open, to not be so caught up and reactive. And this freedom in the face of fear, anger, addiction, and confusion connects us to what we really know to be true in ourselves. This can be cultivated and awakened through a wise practice and understanding.

Sounds True: What are the practices of Buddhist psychology?

Jack Kornfield: They are initially practices of sacred attention—to reconnect the body and mind. We begin by learning to know our breath and our body intimately. Then we expand our attention to the world of our senses; to sight, sound, taste, and smell, to understand the life of the senses and the body. From this we begin to examine the nature of mind and how our moods and inner stories affect all the relationships that we have as the world changes around us.

From this point, there comes the possibility of the practices of the spacious heart of forgiveness: of letting go, of inner abundance and ease. With these we shift from the “body of fear,” from the small-self stories that we've identified with, to our Buddha nature: an inherent happiness.

Within this set of teachings are practices for reawakening our natural lovingkindness; for cultivation of profound forgiveness; practices of compassion and joy and the practice of equanimity—which brings a sense of divine equilibrium, or sacred ease in the midst of all things of life.

Sounds True: On The Roots of Buddhist Psychology audio set, you talk about an actual shift in personal identity that happens in the process of studying and practicing Buddhist psychology. Please explain this shift.

Jack Kornfield: To understand Buddhist psychology, we are invited to study ourselves. For example, we might study our anger and begin to notice when it comes. To name it and bow to it. To feel it in our body; to hear the stories it tells. Then as we sense more deeply its roots, we can identify those stories that arise out of fear, out of disappointment, out of pain, and so on. We can see the stories that we've been taught or our mind tells about how the world should be and who we think we are.

Through respectful and careful attention we begin to discover that these stories and reactions are not who we are—they are conditioned responses and old habits. There's an enormous space of knowing and ease that can be found surrounding the fear or the contraction that seem to be our problems. This begins to reverse the image of ourselves we have fixed in our being. Instead of being a person who is lost, climbing in a dark forest, all of a sudden it's as if we come out in a clearing and see the sky and the space all around. We see the trail we're on and we know how we got there. It's like suddenly you take a deep breath and say, “Ahhhhhhh.... It's a much bigger dance than I thought.”

Sounds True: What is this new identity like?

Jack Kornfield: When you ask I can hear my teacher's wonderful laughter. I also remember his great kindness and mercy for the pain we all share, that we can learn to hold in our heart of a Buddha. As our identity shifts, our body, personality, friends, and habits may remain much the same. But to the extent that we continue to believe that's all of who we are, we may still be frightened or lost or needy. The practices of Buddhist psychology bring a shift from the small self—where we feel that we're this limited person who can only do and know so much—to a sense of interconnectedness with all the world. Our innate Buddha nature is awakened, which has within it a great abundance.

The mystic Rumi writes: “Walking out of the treasury building, I feel generous.” So we can find this inner treasure of what it is really like to just feel fully alive. We come to realize that it doesn't matter what grade we got on a test, or how much money we make, or those kind of worldly accomplishments. It's more like the music of our being. And that shift is not a philosophy, but can be directly experienced through the practices that are offered in

Sounds True: In your teaching tapes you mention a famous quote from the Buddha, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Please expand on this saying.

Jack Kornfield: When the Buddha says, “Be a lamp unto yourself,” he means that no one can do the great work of the heart and spirit for us. No one can love for us. No one can let go for us. No one can be free for us.

In the end, it is us that becomes the source of the love that we seek.

Jack Kornfield

Jack Kornfield Return to top of page

Jack Kornfield, PhD, trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India and has taught worldwide since 1974. He is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practices to the West...

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