Notes on Spirit Rock: Visit to Monday evening Buddhism class with Jack Kornfield

Notes on Spirit Rock: Visit to Monday evening Buddhism class with Jack Kornfield

 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:

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.

What is the official name of the room? Is Jack associated with a monastery or other organization, or is Spirit Rock his official Buddhist home? Is he of a certain Buddhist order or teaching? Does the money earned at the talk go to him (in part?)? Does money from his books go entirely to Jack? What is Jack’s “title,” or in other words does one address him as “Brother” or “Teacher?” Is this the formal way? I do realize everyone there calls him by his first name, Jack. 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