Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield
Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield. Shambhala 1996. 319 pages.
First published in 1983 under the unfortunate title Living Buddhist Masters, the law of impermanence inevitably asserted itself and the masters died. The title was then of necessity changed to something more “permanent.” (I’m sorry, I can never miss the grim, yet oddly appropriate humor that applies here!) Titular changes notwithstanding, the book is still in print, and deservedly so–it should be on every Buddhist practitioner’s list of “must read” books. Why this is so becomes abundantly clear upon glancing at the table of contents.
What Jack Kornfield has done is allow the Dharma (or, more correctly, “Dhamma”) experts to speak for themselves. His contribution has merely been to supply an introduction on the Theravadan Buddhist meditation tradition and then brief bios of the individual teachers. The chapters therefore consist almost entirely of essays or talks from the featured “masters.” The result is a rich, diverse cornucopia of insights, attitudes, practical instructions and advice matched by few other books in the field.
While Kornfield’s contribution is relatively small, it is not insignificant. Chapter one, “Essential Buddhism,” covers basic elements of meditation practice–the meditation setting, the three trainings of morality, concentration and insight, the role of mindfulness, an interesting blurb on differing opinions concerning “goals/no goals” in practice, the factors of enlightenment and another interesting blurb on why anyone should even bother reading dharma books. Chapter two is more specific, looking at these topics as they apply in the traditions of southeast Asian Buddhism (i.e. Thai and Burmese). Chapter three is a gem–all of half a page, and that mostly empty space. Kornfield writes: “I have reserved a whole chapter to make a simple statement. The entire teaching of Buddhism can be summed up in this way: Nothing is worth holding on to” (p. 31). I think everyone should stand up at this point and applaud, because I’ve yet to come across a more condensed, accurate and well put statement of what the Buddha taught than this. In other words, if you learn this much–really learn it–you’ve done what had to be done and there is nothing more of this to come.
But, thankfully, there is more to the book!
The profiled teachers include such famous sorts as Achaan Chaa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Sunlun Sayadaw, Achaan Buddhadasa, Achaan Maha Boowa, and U Ba Khin, as well as lesser known teachers like Achaans Jumnien and Dhammadaro, Mogok Sayadaw and Taugpulu Sayadaw. Notably absent are Webu Sayadaw–a reputed arhant bikkhu–Dipa Ma and Goenka. It would have been nice if when the book was reissued chapters on these people had been added, but I guess you can’t have everything. My personal favorite chapters are those on Chaa, Sunlun, Mahasi and Jumnien.
Certain tensions in teaching and practice emerge from these profiles. There are those who clearly emphasize practice over theory (Chaa, Sunlun, Boowa, and Jumnien, for example), theory as preliminary to practice (e.g. Mogok and Mohnyin) and those that seem somewhere in between (e.g. Mahasi). Then there is (as noted by Kornfield in his introduction) the tension between a goal directed practice, or a more natural, goal-less “way of living.” Respective represenatives of these contrasting approaches would be Sunlun and Chaa. Some teachers work within the contexts of monasteries, others meditation centers. The impression one comes away with is that there is something here for everyone, no matter their calling in life (monk vs. lay), their personality type (intellectual vs. practical), or their particular needs (long-term living vs. short-term, intensive retreats). Most importantly, it becomes clear that the Buddha’s teaching, both as it exists now and as it certainly was in the founder’s day, is not so much an ideology as a highly sophisticated technology one uses to cultivate and master the mind. In other words, the Dhamma is something one does as opposed to believes.
My Amazon rating: 5 stars