The Wise Heart; A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology
By Jack Kornfield
Any mother who has several children can attest to the distinctly individual style of each child, evident from the day of their birth. I am a fraternal twin, but my brother and I are quite different. Growing up, he was the more outgoing, social type. Bigger and more adventurous, he played football and took the lead in school plays, while I played oboe in the orchestra. I was a skinny nerd, more intellectual and insecure. When we turned sixty, my mother remarked, "Now I know what's alike about them. They're both losing their hair."
When people first begin to be mindful of their personality they are frequently dissatisfied by what they find: they often want to become like someone else. In Buddhist communities, students may try to overcome their dissatisfaction by unconsciously imitating the manner and personality of their teacher. I have seen the followers of one famous lama eat the same kinds of noodles, make the same hand gestures, and speak with a Tibetan accent. Students of a Western Zen teacher I know dress in similar hats and shoes and have become obsessed with her favorite TV game shows. When we are looking for ways to deal with our own confusion, anger, and fear, we try imitation. We hope to get rid of our own personality and become more like the Dalai Lama or some other admired person.
Ajahn Chah noticed this pervasive self-dissatisfaction when he helped lead a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in liar re, Massachusetts, in 1979. He was struck by how hard Western students are on themselves and how much they struggle to change themselves. One afternoon during walking meditation, I took Ajahn Chah outside and we wandered among the dozens of students who were walking slowly up and down the grassy lawn. Ajahn Chah remarked to me that the meditation center was kind of like a hospital. As we passed by the students, he would smile and say to them with amusement, "I hope you get well soon."
What does it mean to transform ourselves? How much can and should human beings change? When we look at the state of our own mind these become urgent questions. Any comprehensive psychology must address them. Buddhist psychology offers radical change, but it differentiates between the gold of our natural personality anti the unhealthy states that cover it up like the clay of the old Buddha. As we shall sec in the chapters ahead, we can transform the unhealthy roots of suffering, but this must be done within the framework of our own personality and temperament, not by getting rid of them.
Ajahn Jumnian, one of my teachers from southern Thailand, liked to exaggerate personality and temperament in order to transform them. For example, he spoke of Somchai, a builder and contractor, who had come to his monastery to live for a year as a monk.
In Thai society, taking monastic ordination is considered a selfless act. But even as a monk, Somchai was quite full of himself. He repeatedly boasted of his beautiful homes and his business successes. Hearing this, Ajahn Jumnian praised him too. Then he told Somchai that the monastery needed a large and elegant receiving hall for the hundreds of daily visitors. He wasn't sure if Somchai was up to the task. Somchai took the bait and went to work. Later Ajahn Jumnian explained that if Somchai succeeded, by collaborating with people at the temple, he would learn to be more respectful and less boastful. Or else Somchai would fail, and that would be a good lesson for him as well, in the end, after a year of hard work, the monastery had a new hall, and Somchai had learned to work in concert with others.
The next year, Nak, a local boxer and tough guy, arrived at the monastery. His mother had died and he became a monk as a way to honor her memory. Ajahn Jumnian knew Nak by reputation, and after observing him for a while, he asked Nak to be his bodyguard. In fact, Ajahn Jumnian did not need a bodyguard. He was a famous peacemaker who hail worked for fifteen years to end the war against the Communist rebels in his province. It was his practice to deliberately walk into the conflict and speak to both the Communist and the government sides openly and unguarded, trusting the dharma. But the role of bodyguard gave Nak a way to transform his aggression into dignity. It also kept him close to Ajahn Jumnian, where he could learn the compassion he needed to open his heart.
Another new monk, Prasert, was a likable villager but also an alcoholic. His charm and generous temperament quickly brought him many friendships within the monastery. Sometime after his arrival, however, the story reached Ajahn Jumnian that Prasert had been seen climbing over the monastery wall at night to drink with old friends on the outside. When confronted, Prasert confessed and vowed to change. But alcoholism needs more than vows. After Prasert was seen returning from another nighttime bout of drinking, Ajahn Jumnian called a meeting. He asked all of Prasert s good friends in and out of the monastery to come. He extolled Prasert s caring heart and acknowledged that many people loved him. Unfortunately, he went on, the traditional monastic rules would require him to expel Prasert if he got drunk again. "Because you are all his friends, "Ajahn Jumnian went on, "I must put him in your charge "Anti from that day Prasert s friends kept him out of trouble.
Ajahn Jumnian recognized the basic goodness in the temperaments of each of his students. Then he focused on transforming the grasping of Somchai, the aversion of Nak, and the delusion of Prasert.
Grasping, aversion, and delusion: we have met this trio before. These are the classic "three roots" of all unhealthy states, and they also create three unhealthy personality types, three styles of approaching the world. The first, like Somchai, is ruled by wanting.
The second, like Nak, is ruled by rejecting. The third, like Prasert, is governed by confusion. With mindfulness, each of these unhealthy temperaments can be changed into healthy patterns. Then we can see that the personality is not a permanent essence. Like the body, it is a temporary condition. It is not who we really are.
Sometimes people read about Zen or hear Buddhist teachings about selflessness or non-attachment and mistakenly believe Buddhism is not interested in personality. New students can even be afraid that meditation will cause them to end up without one. But our temperament is to be understood, not eliminated. Knowing our temperament, we can use this understanding to bring compassion to ourselves and others. We can work with our personality to transform the aspects that are unhealthy. And then we can recognize our true nature that is beyond the limitations of any personality.