The following article appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Inquiring Mind


One  day in Berkeley, Rose Nisker and I met our fathers, meditation teachers Wes and Jack, for lunch. We began talking about what it was like to grow up in our Buddhist families. Really, Rose and I agreed, our fathers are just storytellers, and during the conversation we entertained the idea of having the children of some of the notable Western Buddhist teachers—such as myself, Rose, Will Kabat-Zinn, Noah Levine and Adam Baraz—lead a meditation daylong imitating our parents’ teaching styles. Considering that we could each finish most stories in our parents’ Dharma talks after hearing the first few words—and add in their characteristic gestures—we thought it would be quite an entertaining and effective fundraiser.

Learning what happened after “the two monks walking down the road came to a river” was not the only thing I gained from my unique childhood. Of course, the most important way Buddhism has affected my life was in bringing my parents together after a 1978 three-month retreat in Barre, Massachusetts. But since then, and despite the fact that Buddhism was by no means the only religious tradition practiced in my household, it has been woven into my life in many other ways.

My parents incorporated aspects of many traditions into the way they raised me. In between reading aloud The Chronicles of Narnia, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Secret Garden, they narrated stories from the Bible, the tales of the Ramayana and the story of Siddhartha, among others. In addition to this education through stories, I attended church on Christian holidays as my mother’s Methodist ancestors had and gathered with my father’s relatives for Jewish holy days. Living in Hindu countries, we participated in temple ceremonies honoring Rama and Hanuman and learned how to be a part of their culture. While in Thailand, when I was eleven years old, for a short period I was able to ordain as a Buddhist nun in a forest monastery.

My everyday life was also different from many children’s because of the various retreat centers I visited and other journeys my family went on. My childhood experiences ranged from the ordinary peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Santa Claus; to standing in the hallway listening while a hundred people lay on mats in a gymnasium of a Swiss hotel reliving their births with screams and songs or turning into animals and roaring through Holotropic Breathwork guided by Stan and Christina Grof and my dad; to floating down the Ganges with the mahant of Benares’s Tulsi Temple to see the effects of using the river as a dumping place for sewage, garbage and cremated bodies; to learning Balinese dancing in Ubud.

As a result of my upbringing, encountering new traditions and cultures rarely surprises me in a negative way; instead, I am curious about each unique practice and expression of spirituality I discover. Although I had never heard of roasting and mashing tobacco so the liquid can be inhaled through the nose, our indigenous guide in the jungles of Ecuador, where I am currently volunteering, showed this to us as a powerful way his people connect with the jungle around them. It was fascinating to try it!

Through each experience, my parents often emphasized the similarities among the different traditions, and even now I do not feel the need to pick one religion or spiritual practice, as I am able to see them as complementary and interconnected. This same awareness of interconnection has extended to how I understand the relationships between countries and societies, environmental changes and human suffering. I believe that my parents’ concern for the well-being of those around the world and the influence of the many cultures I have been able to learn about are at the root of my drive to work in the field of human rights.

Not only have I been able to observe many different religious and cultural traditions, I’ve also encountered a unique perspective on happiness and how one should live one’s life. Meditation teachers like Phillip Moffitt and Guy Armstrong, who left their extremely successful careers with Esquire and in Silicon Valley, respectively, showed me that the push to maximize income does not necessarily mean one’s life will be fulfilling or happy.

On the other side of that same coin, I was also allowed a unique view of the many respected, and sometimes idolized, Western Buddhist teachers. I observed how many of them live what they teach and how it enriches their lives, and I also saw that they are only human, with their gossip and “laundry” to do as well. I saw teachers leave in the middle of retreats to run and get chocolate or a steak dinner, I overheard talk of scandals, and everything in between. These observations were not too common, however, and the people in this Western Buddhist community became my wholesome extended family for most of my childhood.

Sometimes I joke that the author of The Book of Enlightened Masters would never have put my father in his book had he lived in our house and seen my dad as I see him. But at the same time that I kid my dad, I know I am lucky to have parents who are the two people in the world I would most like to emulate. They have taken the lessons they learned through Buddhism and other traditions both into themselves and into their interactions with the world around them.

Caroline Kornfield recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s in political science. She is currently selling her paintings and traveling around the world for a year before she attends law school to study international and human rights law.

© 2008 Inquiring Mind