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Spiritual Gurus: Jack Kornfield

Jack Kornfield, a pioneering figure in America’s mindfulness movement, has helped countless individuals find inner peace, cultivate compassion, and live with greater awareness. By blending Buddhism with Western psychology, writing numerous best-selling books, and co-founding a number of America’s most celebrated retreat centers, Kornfield has helped transform the West’s understanding of spiritual practice while popularizing traditionally Eastern Buddhist practices.

Jack Kornfield Profile:

An image shows the famed American spiritual teacher standing for a professional headshot image with his hand resting peacefully on his chest.Date of birth: July 16, 1945
Occupation: Spiritual Teacher, Psychologist, & Author
Areas of Focus: Mindfulness & Buddhist Psychology

The Life of Jack Kornfield:

Jack Kornfield’s journey to becoming one of America’s greatest meditation teachers wasn’t without challenges and obstacles. Born on July 16th, 1945, Kornfield was raised as a fraternal twin, and one of four boys, to Jewish parents. Although his father was a celebrated biophysicist, he was also violent, and his abusive behaviors meant Kornfield’s childhood was marred in trauma. However, it was also these early-life struggles that fueled his determination to become a peacemaker and led him to begin seeking solace in a spiritual presence at a young age.

Kornfield attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he majored in Asian Studies and was drawn to Buddhism. Upon graduation in 1967, he joined the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War and requested to be sent to a Buddhist country. His assignment took him to the rural Mekong River Valley in Thailand, where he worked in tropical medicine. At the end of his Peace Corps tenure, Kornfield decided to stay in Thailand and devote himself to the practice of Buddhism.

He entered monastic life at the Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery, home to the iconic Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah. Here, he began learning about compassion and cultivating mindful awareness, both of which have remained central to his core teachings. During this time, Kornfield was also greatly influenced by his time practicing with the great Theravada master Mahasi Sayadaw. Of this period of his life, Kornfield told us:

Working on rural health and medical teams in the provinces along the Mekong River, I heard about a meditation master, Ajahn Chah, who welcomed Western students. I was full of ideas and hopes that Buddhist teachings would help me, maybe even lead me to become enlightened. After months of visits to Ajahn Chah’s monastery, I took monk’s vows. Over the next three years, I was introduced to the practices of mindfulness, generosity, loving-kindness, and integrity, which are at the heart of Buddhist training. That was the beginning of a lifetime journey with Buddhist teachings.”

Kornfield returned to the United States in 1972 and initially attempted to maintain his life as a Thai monk in Washington, D.C. However, without a supporting monastery, his lifestyle soon became unsustainable, leading him to disrobe in an emotional ceremony held at a Japanese temple displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In 1974, Kornfield became a founding faculty member at Naropa University, where he met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who invited him to teach a Vipassana course at his new school. It was here that he met and began working alongside Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, two additional influential figures of the American mindfulness movement.

An image shows iconic American mindfulness figures Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell and Joseph Goldstein at IMS in 1977.

(L-R) Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell and Joseph Goldstein at Insight Meditation Society in 1977.

From the mid to late 1970s, Kornfield played a major role in co-founding the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) of Baree, Massachusetts, and it was while teachings there that the now iconic meditation teacher started integrating insights from Western psychology with Buddhist theology, an approach that was groundbreaking at the time. His ability to blend the two was greatly enhanced in 1977 when he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Saybrook University.

Throughout the 1980s, Kornfield’s life was altered by a number of life-changing events. Not only was this when the legendary spiritual teacher got married to artist Liana Chenoweth, but it was also when the couple gave birth to a baby girl they named Caroline. Additionally, it was in 1988 when Kornfield co-founded one of America’s most iconic retreat venues, Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Over the course of the past three decades, Jack Kornfield has continued to cement his legacy as one of the most influential Western spiritual teachers. Throughout his career, he’s published 15 books, including “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology” and “A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life” while also expounding wisdom to students in retreats, meditation classes, dharma talks, and digital media.

3 of Jack Kornfield’s Most Important Teachings:

An image shows the esteemed spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield walking alongside His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.Jack Kornfield’s contributions to Western Buddhism and spirituality have had a profound impact on the lives of countless spiritual seekers. His teachings on the transformational power of mindfulness, forgiveness, and compassion offer practical guidance for navigating some of life’s greatest challenges, and it’s through these insights that Kornfield continues to inspire and guide his students toward greater self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and subjective well-being.

The Transformational Power of Mindfulness:

Renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield emphasizes the transformative potential of mindfulness. He encourages us to cultivate our ability to live mindfully by practicing meditation, as doing so will help us live in the present,  shedding past regrets and future worries, and lead to a profound sense of interconnectedness and subjective well-being. He continues to explain the benefits by telling us:

With mindfulness, we are learning to observe in a new way, with balance and a powerful misidentification…[Bringing] mindful attention to any experience is liberating. Mindfulness brings perspective, balance, and freedom.”

Throughout his nearly 50-year teaching career, Kornfield has become accustomed to seeing how incorporating mindfulness into one’s daily life can be transformative, helping practitioners manage stress, improve emotional health, and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world. The great spiritual teacher expands upon these benefits alongside the imminent psychologist Rick Hanson in the following video interview:

Freedom is only Possible with Forgiveness:

Jack Kornfield places great emphasis on the role of forgiveness in our lives. He perceives forgiveness not as a sign of weakness or as an act of forgetting past wrongs, but as a conscious decision to let go of resentment and bitterness. Kornfield’s teachings on forgiving are deeply rooted in his personal own experiences and highlight that forgiveness is an act of self-love and a crucial step towards healing and liberation. He tells us:

Forgiveness is fundamentally for our own sake, for our own mental health. It is a way to let go of the pain we carry… But to forgive does not mean we will allow injustice again.”

To act with greater levels of forgiveness, Kornfield suggests acknowledging our interconnectedness with all things and recognizing that just as we are interdependent with the earth, we are also connected to others through consciousness. Through this understanding and by practicing forgiveness, we can unburden ourselves from the weight of past hurts and cultivate a sense of peace and well-being. Forgiving both others and ourselves can lead to profound personal transformation, helping us manage stress, improve emotional health, and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world. The iconic teacher says:

It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness life would be unbearable. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release.”

Compassion is our Deepest Nature:

Jack Kornfield underscores the inherent nature of compassion in his work. He believes that compassion arises from our interconnection with all things, and it is not merely a passive sentiment but an active force that drives us to alleviate suffering and promote well-being. Yet, although compassion is our deepest nature, the brain’s natural tendency to focus on the negative can make it challenging to express. This is why Kornfield tells us that compassion is courage in action:

The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world. With compassion we come to trust our capacity to open to life without armoring.”

To reconnect with our inherent compassion, Kornfield tells us that we must cultivate it within ourselves through ancient practices such as Metta Meditation.  As you’ll discover in the following meditation guided by Kornfield, nurturing a deeper sense of connection can help us extend kindness and empathy to others while contributing to a more harmonious world:

Inspirational Jack Kornfield Quotes:

The heart is like a garden. It can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love. What seeds will you plant there?”

Most of us have spent our lives caught up in plans, expectations, ambitions for the future; in regrets, guilt or shame about the past. To come into the present is to stop the war.”

The basic principle of spiritual life is that our problems become the very place to discover wisdom and love.”

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