By Peter Menkin
Spirit Rock is not a New Age Center, per se. Located in San Francisco’s Bay Area (Marin County’s Woodacre), Spirit Rock is home to Buddhists. They are not Zen Buddhists, as they emphasized. They are Theravada, as is one of their founding members, the teacher and popular writer Jack Kornfield.
Many find Spirit Rock a refreshing and spiritual place to visit and take for a retreat. Marin County, and in specific Southern Marin, is not a place for Christian worship. Practicing and church attending Christians are few. So says an older study on religious practice in Marin. (Tobin, Gary A. and Patricia Lin. Religious & Spiritual Change in America: The Experience of Marin County, California. San Francisco: Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2002.) The following anecdotal piece of evidence indicates religious interest in San Francisco’s Bay Area Marin County. One librarian at the Tiburon library says most spiritual and religious books in their library are New Age. Christian reading isn’t of interest. Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist teacher, is a popular writer and many read his books here in San Francisco Bay Area and the United States.
Jack Kornfield writes books that are Buddhist teaching.
Random House, the book’s publisher of “…After the Laundry” says: “'Enlightenment does exist'’ internationally renowned author and meditation master Jack Kornfield assures us. “Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine ... these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away.
"'But even after achieving such realization — after the ecstasy — we are faced with the day-to-day task of translating that freedom into our imperfect lives. We are faced with the laundry.
"Drawing on the experiences and insights of leaders and practitioners within the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sufi traditions, this book offers a uniquely intimate and honest understanding of how the modern spiritual journey unfolds — and how we can prepare our hearts for awakening.”
An excerpt of the book is found as Addendum at the end of this article, used with permission from the publisher).
According to a “Marin Independent Journal” article, “His books have been translated into 20 languages and sold more than a million copies. They include, A Path with Heart; After the Ecstasy, the Laundry; Teachings of the Buddha; Seeking the Heart of Wisdom; Living Dharma; A Still Forest Pool; Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart; Buddha's Little Instruction Book; The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace and his most recent book, A Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.”
A brief excerpt from “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.”(“The Wise Hart”, which Bantam published in hardcover in April 2008, and has just released in trade paperback May of this year.)
“When we learn to rest in awareness, there’s both caring and a silence. There is listening for what’s the next thing to do and awareness of all that’s happening, a big space and a connected feeling of love. When there is enough space, our whole being can both apprehend the situation and be at ease. We see the dance of life, we dance beautifully, yet we’re not caught in it. In any situation, we can open up, relax, and return to the sky-like nature of consciousness.”
So Jack Kornfield, the author, promises in his new book.
My Church friend Letty says Jack Kornfield is not the only writer who is a Spirit Rock teacher. The work by Sylvia Boorstein, titled “It’s Easier than You Think” is about this Spirit Rock teacher’s “...experience as a Buddhist.” The point is that though as a writer Jack Kornfield is popular and known, there are other Spirit Rock Buddhist teachers who write books on the subject.
As someone who is not familiar with Spirit Rock, this visitor came with the idea the place is New Age. What I found was a meditative place, Buddhist, whose staff and ethos is welcoming and friendly. There are few “members” of Spirit Rock, as one does not sign a book for “official” membership, or is one required to enjoy the same Christian rite of inclusion. In other words, all are welcome and people come and go as they like. Mostly, they come and visit and even stay around for years calling themselves Buddhist. It works, and it is enjoyed by many and practiced by the many who visit.
Spirit Rock answers are not necessarily forthcoming in the conventional sense; this journalist was unable to get all his questions answered. These were posed among others, and add to the flavor of their worldview:
Do you have a relationship with others, like Christians or other Buddhist groups different from yours.
The question comes to mind, and will you confirm the fact, too, if true? Has Spirit Rock a relationship with the Dominicans, and if so, what is it; how long has it been going on, and what is the nature and a few specifics about this relationship?
Their answer was “We are Buddhists in the Thai Forest or Theravada tradition, with no association whatsoever to the Dominicans.”
In another email question set, these were asked.
1. What is the official name of the room?
2. Is Jack associated with a monastery or other organization, or is Spirit Rock his official Buddhist home?
3. Is he of a certain Buddhist order or teaching?
4. Does the money earned at the talk go to him (in part?)?
5. Does money from his books go entirely to Jack?
6. What is Jack's "title," or in other words does one address him as "Brother" or "Teacher?"
7. Is this the formal way? I do realize everyone there calls him by his first name, Jack.
8. Has he a press picture of himself with wife, or family?
The email response by one of their kind press officers went this way…
“Here’s what I can tell you. Jack is a co-founder of both Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. He was a Thai Forest monk under Ajahn Chah at Wat Pah Pong Monastery in Thailand, which is part of the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Here’s a link to info about Jack’s main teacher:
We call the room where the event was held last night officially the “upper Retreat Hall” with the “upper” in lower case. Usually Monday Night Class is held down the hill in our Community Meditation Hall, so that was a little unique last night. I don’t have an answer for you on the numbers, but it was filled to capacity. Jack often draws pretty large crowds, so that was about what we were expecting last night. Jack doesn’t have a title, other than Ph.D. (although nobody tends to refer to him as Dr., sometimes they do print his name with the PhD after it). He is officially a “dharma teacher” but that wouldn’t be used in caps. He has a wife and one daughter, but we don’t have photos of them all together for release. His family tends to keep a low profile.”
Fair enough reply in its way: it is noted here for his email is so interesting and shows how Spirit Rock responds and how they view the world, which is in character with other religions as they too have a world view which is seen through their lens.
Significantly, many teachers at Spirit Rock emphasize the feminine as does Debra Chamberlin Taylor who writes in their August 2009 “Spirit Rock News,”, I don’t know if there is any other Buddhist center that has a statue of Prajna Paramita sitting as an equal beside the Buddha on their main altar. The Image of the ‘Mother of All Buddhas’ clearly communicates Spirit Rock’s intention to honor the feminine. Some people might ask, ‘What’s the point? It doesn’t matter because enlightenment has no gender.’ This is true, but for many people, especially women, seeing the image is significant both consciously and unconsciously. It’s a reminder that females, as well as males, can fully awaken.
In that same “Spirit Rock News,” the article, “The Sacred Feminine: Restoring Balance in Challenging Times (Interviews by Walt Opie, Communications Coordinator),” a yoga instructor who is a novelist (“Enlightenment for Idiots,”) writes:
Again, it is not an issue of men versus women because I’ve experienced many male teachers who also emphasize these dimensions of practice. But when I’m sitting yoga on a retreat that’s oriented towards the Sacred Feminine, I’m aware of an explicit intention to value the interpersonal aspect of practice; the intimate aspect of practice; the qualities of unwinding and opening rather than dominating and controlling. It’s an approach that emphasizes allowing and being, rather than doing and becoming.
Her name is Debra Chamberlin-Taylor.
The opportunity arose to speak to Jack Kornfield after his talk, for he was in the area of the main upper Retreat Meditation Hall when I was leaving. A more slight looking man than imagined, this writer did not speak to him; it is easy to see he had a piercing and aware look when getting ready to speak at this gathering of what were more than 300. The room was standing room only, with people in the hallway. A greater proportion of those in attendance were young or youngish. Almost half the room was on the floor with flat pillows for the meditation section; the pillows were of good quality, those in attendance educated people, by and large. No hardship here or ascetic undertaking. Jack Kornfield does have a presence, so though he looked like most others who were in attendance, the familiarity of having just seen him and heard his talk came into play. In his way, he has fame.
Something of the evening talk:
The chairs in which the rest of us sat were good quality, in the hall. I remark on how comfortable they are, for many churches haven’t such nice chairs. For many churches, chairs are usually folding chairs. Spirit Rock is a comfortable place, more expensive and elegant than some I’ve been to like Immaculate Heart Hermitage in Big Sur. Impressed with the handsome buildings and quiet of this place of retreat, this retreat center in comfortable surroundings is set-away-from the hub-bub outside.
Glass windows about the hall made the room light. Everyone enjoyed the hall, it appeared. They were a happy crowd.
Call this a crowd? Perhaps, but mostly they appear as seekers. They are not disappointed in Jack Kornfield.
Someone said Jack returned from a book tour just recently, and this was his first talk on a Monday since returning. So the big crowd. Nonetheless, he draws an interested and larger following anyway.
We sat for 15 minutes prior to Jack Kornfield’s arrival to class. He’s been teaching at Spirit Rock for 20 years or more on compassion and wakefulness. Essentially, the evening was one of quieting the mind, ostensibly to be 35 minutes of introduction, talk, and discussion. Of course, this didn’t include about 40 minutes of meditation. It is lovely, the meditation.
Notes about the talk:
7:23 p.m. Still and quiet. Cell phone rang, and people were reminded by Jack to turn them off, and to be present.
7:40 p.m. Quiet, still. One could clearly hear a bird or birds calling outside the hall.
Jack Kornfield sits on a small, elevated stage (riser) with a Buddha behind him and a Prajnaparamita statue. One is black, the other brown. Flowers are set between the Buddha and Prajnaparamita statue behind Jack who is sitting. It is a simple altar. There is a desk before Jack (altar?), and a bell for ringing tto his right(not a clapper bell). He uses it at times during the talk and meeting.
7:48 p.m. He tells us, “Rest in the space of awareness.” The bell is rung twice at 7:50 p.m.
We sat together, all so many people, in connectedness. So went one of the evening’s purposes. Jack spoke briefly about a visit to Israel and Palestine which he said was a peacemaking trip. He called it, “…very expansive.” Spirit Rock offers high callings in a big room.
One sense of the evening was the ethos, that everything spoken of is dear. The evening for many is comprised of dear moments, or so it seems.
8:10 p.m. The bell is rung a number of times to ask people to return from the 15 minute break. There will be a talk on Jewish-Buddhist practice by a Rabbi and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein. A man sits next to the woman on my right and exclaims to How are you? “I am wonderful.”
8:13 p.m. The talk begins, and we are told, There is no quiz at the end. A request is made that that what people note will “resonate” with them. Jack explains he is having health issues. The 60 year old noted that, “Weird things are going on." In a note of humor, Jack said, "One doctor asked could it just be me.” The group laughs.
It is time to come back to ourselves, Jack said. He said those present are “seekers.”
8:23 p.m. More stories by Jack, like aphorisms. He quotes Henry Miller briefly during the talk, among others. Jack asks, “What animates your life?" He instructs, Rest in your seat and let compassion allow you to see the world as it is observed. He reads from Rilke. He instructs, Take the seat in the midst of all things.
8:28 p.m. Speaking about George Schaller, the primatologist Jack talks about gorillas and man. His remark speaks of presence and kindness and gentleness. He suggests those present, Sit as Buddha. He says, Our lives are made of rivers. (He said he would speak basics this evening._ He emphasizes, Every breath you take contains a molecule of Julius Caesar’s breath.
8:36 p.m. A story of Iraq illustrates a show of American respect instead of shooting in the war. He reminds those present, Take the seat in the center of your body.
8:44 p.m. Mark Twain is noted, briefly, too. Jack reads from Mark Twain and comments.
Jack tells a story of how meditation helps its practitioner, a training it is for kindness even in the face of death. People are moved, even audibly so.
He mentions Albert Camus, James Baldwin.
Continuing from written notes, he says, To take a seat in the midst of things takes courage. Practice becoming the space of awareness.
8:48 p.m. He says, We are here and now. This is the place of freedom.
George Washington Carver is mentioned.
8:53 p.m. Jack says something about, the madness of the spiritual life. He offers as a statement, The Buddhist nature within you. Things are as they are, he tells everyone in the hall.
9:09 p.m. The talk ends. He offers, Let’s sit for a few minutes. There are 3 bells. Everyone chants, as invited.
End of evening.
Located on 410 acres in rural west Marin County, 30 miles north of San Francisco, upcoming retreats and talks in July are described by Spirit Rock by these titles:
• In a series of classes, “How to be an Earthling: Evolution as a Guide to Spiritual Liberation and Ecological Healing.”
• “The Neuro-dharma of Love – Using Brain Science and Buddhist Wisdom to Illuminate the Heart of Important Relationships.”
• “What do we do Now? The Buddha’s Teachings for Difficult Times”
• “LGBTQ Awakening the Heart of Love and Wisdom: A Daylong Retreat for the Queer/Bi/Trans Community.”
• “The Bodhisattva Path and Vows.”
Excerpt from a book by Jack Kornfield, “from “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”
When I found myself becoming a Buddhist monk in a forest monastery of Thailand over thirty years ago, I had to learn how to bow. It was awkward at first. Each time we entered the meditation hall we would drop to our knees and three times respectfully place our head between our palms on the stone floor. It was a practice of reverence and mindfulness, a way of honoring with a bodily gesture our commitment to the monk's path of simplicity, compassion, and awareness. We would bow in the same way each time we took our seat for training with the master.
After I had been in the monastery for a week or two, one of the senior
monks pulled me aside for further instruction. "In this monastery you must not only bow when entering the meditation hall and receiving teachings from the master, but also when you meet your elders." As the only Westerner, and wanting to act correctly, I asked who my elders were. "It is traditional that all who are older in ordination time, who've been monks longer than you, are your elders," I was told. It took only a moment to realize that meant everybody.
So I began to bow to them. Sometimes it was just fine - there were quite a few wise and worthy elders in the community. But sometimes it felt ridiculous. I would encounter some twenty-one-year-old monk, full of hubris, who was there only to please his parents or to eat better food than he could at home, and I had to bow because he had been ordained the week before me. Or I had to bow to a sloppy old rice farmer who had come to the monastery the season before on the farmers' retirement plan, who chewed betel nut constantly and had never meditated a day in his life. It was hard to pay reverence to these fellow forest dwellers as if they were great masters.
Yet there I was bowing, and because I was in conflict, I sought a way to make it work. Finally, as I prepared yet again for a day of bowing to my "elders," I began to look for some worthy aspect of each person I bowed to. I bowed to the wrinkles around the retired farmer's eyes, for all the difficulties he had seen and suffered through and triumphed over. I bowed to the vitality and playfulness in the young monks, the incredible possibilities each of their lives held yet ahead of them.
I began to enjoy bowing. I bowed to my elders, I bowed before I entered the dining hall and as I left. I bowed as I entered my forest hut, and I bowed at the well before taking a bath. Ater some time bowing became my way - it was just what I did. If it moved, I bowed to it.
It is the spirit of bowing that informs this book. The true task of spiritual life is not found in faraway places or unusual states of consciousness: It is here in the present. It asks of us a welcoming spirit to greet all that life presents to us with a wise, respectful, and kindly heart. We can bow to both beauty and suffering, to our entanglements and confusion, to our fears and to the injustices of the world. Honoring the truth in this way is the path to freedom. To bow to what is rather than to some ideal is not necessarily easy, but however difficult, it is one of the most useful and honorable practices.
To bow to the fact of our life's sorrows and betrayals is to accept them; and from this deep gesture we discover that all life is workable. As we learn to bow, we discover that the heart holds more freedom and compassion than we could imagine.
The Persian poet Rumi speaks of it this way:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“Excerpted from After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield Copyright © 2000 by Jack Kornfield). Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.”
Images: (1) Portrait of Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher and author. Jack Kornfield at Monday June class, evening. Photo by Walt Opie. Courtesy Spirit rock. (2) Book cover "The Wise Heart", photo courtesy of Random House. (3) Jack Kornfield, (standing, right), and his teacher Ajahn Chah (seated). Ajahn Sumdeho standing in the middle. Photo courtesy Spirit Rock. (4) upper Retreat House, Spirit Rock. Photo by Walt Opie. Courtesy Spirit Rock. (5) Jack Kornfield, teacher of Buddhism and writer at the June Monday evening talk (upper Retreat Hall), Spirit Rock. Photo by Walt Opie. Courtesy Spirit Rock. (5) Crowd in upper Retreat Hall Monday evening in June to hear Jack Kornfield talk. Photo by Walt Opie. Courtesy Spirit Rock. (6) Vista of Spirit Rock taken on the grounds. Photo by Rick White. Used by permission Rick White. (7) Book cover, "After the Ecstasy the Laundry." Photo courtesy Random House. (8) Lovely view of upper Retreat House, Spirit Rock. Photo by Walt Opie. Courtesy Spirit Rock.