The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology

Who should read this book: Anyone interested in Buddhism, meditation, and if you like monks with a sense of humor.

I first heard about Jack Kornfield through a podcast and have since read a few of his books (some other great titles include After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). All of his books are relatively short, packed full of memorable imagery, and overflowing with wisdom. Sounds cheesy, I know, but I don’t use these words lightly. He does a good job at relating our day to day problems and explains how to use Buddhist philosophy to live a more peaceful life.

It’s spiritual in the sense that his writing focuses on developing your self and your relationships, but generally speaking there isn’t any fluff of dogma behind it. It’s practical, and he speaks from his own experiences. Kornfield spent years traveling around Asia as a Buddhist monk, and eventually returned to the US to set up his own school in California called Spirit Rock, which is an insight meditation center that has various retreats. It’s one of the top rated centers in the US and monks from all around the world are said to drop by every now and then.

The rest of his bio:

He has taught meditation internationally since 1974 and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. After graduating from Dartmouth College in Asian Studies in 1967 he joined the Peace Corps and worked on tropical medicine teams in the Mekong River valley. He met and studied as a monk under the Buddhist master Ven. Ajahn Chah, as well as the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. Returning to the United States, Jack co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, with fellow meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein and the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California.

In this book, Kornfield covers all the basics of meditation and Buddhist thought, from taking the Middle Way, meditation, ritual, karma, forgiveness and transforming desire into abundance. Interwoven is his own story of a traumatic childhood filled with violence, and how it took him years to come to terms with this, and what he learned along the way.

Themes and memorable quotes from the book: 

The courageous heart

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. As the poet Rilke reminds us, “Ultimately it is on our vulnerability that we depend.” This is not a poetic ideal but a living reality, demonstrated by our most beloved sages. Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to be jailed and beaten, to persevere through difficulties without giving in to bitterness and despair. His vulnerability became his strength.

On the nature of conciousness

In its true state, consciousness is simply this knowing—clear, open, awake, without color or form, containing all things, yet not limited by them. This open quality of consciousness is described as unconditioned. As with the sky, all kinds of clouds and weather conditions can appear in it, but they have no effect on the sky itself. Storms may appear or disappear, but the sky remains open, limitless, unaffected by all that arises. Consciousness is unaffected by experience, just like the sky.

Don’t be too serious

We take things very personally. The more tightly we hold self, the more problem. No self, well…[laughing]…no problem. —Master Hina-Tyana

What is “the self?”

In dialogue with his followers, the Buddha regularly asked them to inquire into their true nature. “Monks, these things which are constantly changing, can we call them the self?” “No sir, they are not.” “Are the changing sense experiences of the body the self?” “No sir,” they replied. “Are the changing feelings and perceptions the self?” “No sir, they are not.” “Are the changing thoughts and mental formations the self?” “No sir, they are not.” “And are the changing states of consciousness to be grasped as self?” “No, venerable sir.” “In the ultimate sense,” the Buddha went on, “all these are found to be selfless.” What we take to be a self is tentative, fictitious, constructed by clinging, a temporary identification with some parts of experience. Self arises, solidifying itself, like ice floating in water. Ice is actually made of the same substance as water. Identification and clinging harden the water into ice. In a similar way, we sense ourself as separate.

Letting go of identity

If a CEO can’t let go of his work when it’s time to care for his son, they both suffer. I think of a cartoon I saw of a family on a Martha’s Vineyard beach. Everyone is in swimsuits except the father. He is wearing his three-piece business suit and holding his briefcase. His wife is laughing, “Just because you go to the office every day…” The cartoon is funny, but it has tragic undertones.

On the ephemeral nature of life

In our delusion we forget we are all nomads. We pretend our bodies will stay young, our children will not grow up, our fortunes are secure, our marriages will not change. Yet praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute weave an ever-changing fabric of our lives. “To call a thing good not a day longer than it appears to us good, and above all not a day earlier—that is the only way to keep joy pure,” says Nietzsche.

“Did you never see a man or woman eighty, ninety years old, frail, with tottering steps, broken teeth, wrinkled, with blotched limbs? And did the thought never come to you that this will happen to you? Did you never see a man or woman grievously ill, sick and afflicted, lifted by some and put to bed by others, and did the thought never come to you that you also are subject to disease? Did you never see the corpse of a man or woman one or two days after death, swollen, blue-black, full of decay, and did the thought never come to you that you also are subject to death, that you cannot escape?” These are startling direct questions. They challenge our complacency; they guide us to live with wisdom in the light of death.

Where the Wild Things Are

When we live in the present, joy arises for no reason. This is the happiness of consciousness that is not dependent on particular conditions. Children know this joy. Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, tells the story of a boy who wrote to him. “He sent me a charming card with a drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters—sometimes very hastily—but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim, I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

The Wise Heart A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology-Notebook

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