April 6, 2023

Remembering Jack Engler

By John Spalding

Last month, the IMS community was saddened to learn of the death of Jack Engler, a renowned clinical psychologist, Buddhist scholar, and dear friend of the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, where he served on the boards of both centers for many years. He passed away peacefully on March 12 in Framingham, MA, with his family at his side. He was 83.

To the wider world, Jack is known for examining the self from Western and Buddhist perspectives and helping to establish a bridge between psychoanalysis and Buddhist practice. His pioneering 1986 book, Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development, co-authored with Ken Wilber and Dan Brown, presented a “full-spectrum model of human development.” The book affirmed the importance of both psychological development and transcendent experiences—a correlation Jack echoed in his famous line: “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”

Research for this work brought Jack and Dan Brown to IMS to study the effects of meditation. “It was the first research of its kind that I was aware of,” recalled Sharon Salzberg. “This was before fMRIs, and they used Rorschach Tests and an instrument called a tachistoscope to measure concentration. Jack and Dan tested many of us, including me, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Dipa Ma. Apparently Dipa Ma saw a Rorschach pattern that is very rare—a pattern linking each of the inkblots into a cohesive narrative whole.”

Born in Boston, June 19, 1939, Jack’s spiritual journey began with his Catholic upbringing in Tenafly, NJ. At age 16, he read The Seven Storey Mountain, the Trappist Thomas Merton’s autobiography, a book that kindled Jack’s interest in a life dedicated to silence and service. As a student at the University of Notre Dame, he visited Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky on vacations, and by the time he graduated, he decided to become a monk. He spent his summer after college touring Benedictine and Trappist monasteries in Europe, trying to decide which order to join. He chose the Trappists and went to Gethsemani, where he practiced briefly under the guidance of Merton. His academic interests soon took him back to Europe to pursue graduate work in Munich and England, where he went to Oxford for a doctorate in theology. While in Europe, he experienced a loss of direction in his life, a “personal crisis—a personal and spiritual dead end,” and he returned to the U.S. in 1969.

It was while he was at the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in clinical psychology, that Jack’s search took a life-changing turn after an unplanned stop at the Vivekananda Vedanta Society bookstore in South Chicago. Driving by the small bookstore one day, and unfamiliar with Vedanta, Jack was seized by a sudden impulse. Or, as he later put it, “Something prompted me to just jam on my brakes and go inside.” In the rear of the store, he found a copy of The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, by the Theravada scholar and monk, Nyanaponika Thera. “I got about thirty pages into it,” he recalled, “and I knew that I had found what I had been looking for all my life. It was instantaneous.”

As a practicing psychologist and as a researcher, Jack drew on both Western psychoanalytic and Buddhist concepts in his approach to depth psychology. In 1975, he received a Fulbright that took him to India to study Buddhist psychology and practice Vipassana meditation. Before he left for India, he met IMS co-founders Joseph, Sharon, and Jack, at Naropa in Boulder, CO, and it was through them, all students of Munindra and Dipa Ma, that Jack decided to study with these venerated Vipassana teachers during the two years he was in India.

“Jack had this amazing opportunity to spend extended periods of time with both Munindra and Dipa Ma,” Joseph said. “And when he returned, he came several times to IMS at the end of the Three-Month Retreat to share his experiences with them in India. He told wonderful stories.”

Sharon recalled one such story: “Jack and Munindra were in Dipa Ma’s room in Calcutta, and they were sitting on the floor talking, while Dipa Ma sat on the bed, her back against the wall, dozing. They were discussing a text in the Buddhist commentaries about how in the last life of the Bodhisattva, when he’s about to become the Buddha, he has to be born in a male body. Jack didn’t like that. He argued with Munindra, saying that that line is in the commentaries, not in the actual suttas. Munindra responded saying that the text doesn’t mean that women can’t get enlightened, but that given the nature of that society, that for someone to be accepted as a fully enlightened being, with the authority to teach, they needed to be a man.  Jack wasn’t having it. Then suddenly, from her slumped over, half-asleep posture, Dipa Ma sat up, looked at them both, and said, ‘I can do anything a man can do.’  And then went back to her nap.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Jack became a board member at IMS, and went on to write scholarly journal articles and books on psychotherapy and meditation, including Transformations of Consciousness, The Consumer’s Guide to Psychotherapy, with Daniel Goleman and Eliot Gelwan, and Worlds in Harmony: Dialogues on Compassionate Action, with the Dalai Lama and others. He also returned from India with a deeper passion for clinical work. “I had finally seen not only my own suffering but everybody else’s,” he said. “India just profoundly changed me that way.”

He devoted the last 25 years of his career to private practice in Cambridge, MA. He also taught and supervised psychotherapy in the department of psychiatry at Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Jack’s contributions over the years to IMS and BCBS were significant. He played an important role in IMS’s visioning of BCBS. “About ten or so years after IMS opened,” Joseph recalled, “Jack was on the IMS board when we began to realize that even though people on retreat heard the teachings through the Dharma talks, those were still a limited expression of the extent of the Buddha’s teaching. So, Jack, being a scholar, as well as a practitioner, supported the sense that it would be great if we created a place where people could study the teachings more extensively and more systematically. Out of those discussions the study center emerged.”

Jack also drew on his vast clinical experience to consult IMS on the psychotherapeutic process. “We were trying to understand what it meant to really support people in the West doing intensive practice,” Sharon said. “With his training in Western psychotherapy, he gave us valuable insight into the different kinds of psychological experiences people can have while on retreat, and he advised us on how we could better support them.”

Although in declining health, Jack remained involved with IMS in his final months. Last November, he joined the IMS Book Club’s meeting with Amita Schmidt, author of Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Teacher. During the Q&A, Jack came on camera to offer recollections of Dipa Ma. And in December, he accompanied Eddie Hauben, his longtime friend and a former IMS board president, to a screening of the new IMS documentary film, “Inside Insight,” held at the Barre town hall.

Jack is survived by his wife, Renée DeYoe; his daughter, Gaelen; son, Ian; and son-in-law, Gerben Scherpbier. Most generously, Jack’s family has invited people, in lieu of flowers, to make a donation in Jack’s honor to the Insight Meditation Society, memo: Scholarship Fund, 1230 Pleasant Street, Barre, MA 01005, or online here.

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at BCBS in Barre, MA, at 11 AM. An online guestbook is accessible at the Duckett Funeral Home’s website.