By Jack Kornfield
Bantam, 2000. 320 pp.
Among American Buddhists, Jack Kornfield has become a household name. Afterseveral years of intensive study at monasteries in south Asia in the late1960s and early 1970s, he returned to the United States and establishedhimself as a Buddhist teacher and practicing psychologist. Co-founder of theInsight Meditation Society and the Spirit Rock Center in California, he hastaught around the world since 1974 and written more than half a dozen booksabout Buddhism and spiritual practice. His "A Path With Heart," published in1993, is regarded as a classic guide to meditation and spiritual practicefor Western audiences.
Having introduced us to Buddhist practice, his latest book, "After theEcstasy, the Laundry," addresses the difficulties of maintaining spiritualcommitment amid the realities of daily life. It's quintessential Kornfield:wise, warm, and encouraging, as inspiring and compassionate as "A Path WithHeart." Indeed, it covers so many of the earlier book's themes and uses somany of the same anecdotes and examples that it's almost the same book. Itadds little to what Kornfield expressed so well earlier, and on concreterealities like money, consumerism, relationships, and social problems,Kornfield can still be irritatingly vague. His advice to "take the good andleave the rest" and accept the "shadow" in spiritual life, for instance, maysound rather evasive to victims of abuse.
Not that that should necessarily dissuade readers. Kornfield's message,after all, remains as valid and welcome as ever. The truth that life is hardand that enlightenment can't save us from illness, interpersonal conflicts,and other problems bears repeating. Kornfield is admirably honest aboutdifficulties that spiritual practitioners can encounter, including jealousy,vanity, and materialism. He admits that spiritual teachers, as falliblehuman beings, can sometimes misuse power, money, alcohol and drugs, andsexuality. With characteristic gentleness, Kornfield recommends bringing"discriminating wisdom" to such situations and acknowledging the culturalforces that can contribute to them.
Kornfield brings firsthand experience to his discussion of maintainingspiritual commitment in a secular culture. "To enter life requires a radicalunderstanding that holiness, God, or Nirvana are not found apart fromexperience," he writes, "but are its essence. What we seek is what we are."He illuminates this central point through stories, anecdotes, and quotesfrom several (mostly Eastern) spiritual traditions. Often inspiring, theseillustrations repeat a simple and reassuring message: You may think you areenlightened, but obstacles are sure to arise. Discouraged as you may be,don't give up. Enlightenment may not last, but it does exist.
Kornfield's facility in dispensing wisdom like this, though reassuring,eventually pales precisely because of the wisdom's transcendence. Ananecdote about the transformation of a teenage murderer illustrates thisweakness. Kornfield recounts the story of a 14-year-old boy who killed aninnocent child to get into a gang. The child's grieving mother vowed to killthe murderer. She began to visit him in jail, treating him kindly andbringing him small gifts. When he was released, she adopted him as her own.Responding to this gentle treatment, the youth became a responsible adult.The woman succeeded in "killing" the young tough who had murdered her son and bringing a whole new person to life.
It's an anecdote of astonishing beauty. But it hardly addresses theexperience of the typical reader. It's dramatic and extreme; miraculousrather than typical. As many foster parents can attest, sociopathicadolescents are far more likely to burn down the house or steal the car thanto give love back when they receive it. This is not to say thattransformation is impossible, but certainly the real lesson of harboringtroubled children is that we must learn to love without expecting to seethrilling results. Uplifting as Kornfield's examples are, they riskminimizing this point. "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry" is positive,compassionate, and understanding, but may give readers more of what theywant than what they really need.