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James Ishmael Ford is a Buddhist teacher, author, and blogger who embraces Zen Buddhism within the structure of American religious tradition. He serves both as a Unitarian Universalist minister at the First Unitarian Church of Providence and a Soto Zen priest with the Boundless Way Zen network. Ford is the author of the classic Zen Master Who?, a useful guide to North America's Zen teachers, traditions, and sanghas. His most recent book, If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life, leaves no stone unturned in constructing an intimate, multifaceted reflection on the Zen path, drawing on sources as diverse as the Bible and stand-up comics. These days, he's the blogger behind "Monkey Mind," where he writes about everything from "liberal Buddhism"—the encounter between Western rationalistic, humanistic ideology and the dharma—to the civil war.
Below, Ford speaks with Tricycle editors Alex Caring-Lobel and Emma Varvaloucas about the syncretism of Zen Buddhism and Western tradition and thought, hinging his observations on the confluence of the two in his own spiritual development.
You grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist family. How did that upbringing shape the way you approached other religions, like Sufism and Zen Buddhism, later in life? When my grandmother died, for complex reasons, including the fact that her church had a brand new minister, I was asked to deliver her eulogy. It was the first time I’d been inside a Baptist church in several decades. It was also the last time I've been in a Baptist church since.
There was, however, a sense of home inside that small rundown building. I recognized the plain, not precisely ugly interior with colored plastic pasted on the windows giving a stained-glass effect—at least if you squinted—and stood at a cheap lectern facing people sitting in metal folding chairs. There was a vague sense of home to it all that was confirmed for me with the first hymn, which cascaded echoes of memory all around me. As I proceeded, I felt the energy from the “amen corner,” mostly murmurs, but occasionally a full on “amen” when I spoke of my grandmother as a prayer warrior, who lived her faith day and night.
I learned my bone and marrow commitment to the spiritual life in little Baptist churches just like that church. And I continue that full-on engagement.
You wrote in your most recent book, If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break, that everyone should "Start over. That's the practice." Can you tell us about a point in your life when you had to start over? What did it do for you? I owe more than I can ever say to Jiyu Kennett, under whose tutelage I truly learned the art of zazen, and who gave me the great koan of my life with her dharma transmission just a couple of years after beginning my study with her. She was complex and authoritarian, a not entirely attractive personality. Our relationship was, of necessity, intimate. And extracting myself from her organization was bruising. Leaving, I slowly found I’d left Zen practice. I didn’t mean to. It just happened.
After a few years exploring various things, I felt a deep body longing for zazen and the disciplines of Zen. Returning to practice, first on my own and then after finding a new teacher, knowing I was nowhere near ready to lead, was hard. Really hard. I had to acknowledge what I had and what I lacked. And I didn’t like it.
After meeting John Tarrant and reflecting about what it would mean to resume my practice, I told John after I asked him to be my teacher that I was giving my transmission from Kennett Roshi into his hands. I told him I wouldn’t teach until he returned the transmission. So taking on a new teacher was really bowing for me.
It was completely starting over.
You are a dually-credentialed Unitarian Universalist minister and a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. How do the two traditions dovetail? A quarter of a century ago when I decided to enter seminary it was because I’d found a complementarity in the two traditions. The Zen I practiced was the grounding of my interior life. But it lacked anything even vaguely resembling a community. Unitarian Universalism was all about community, about people being together, about banding together to put values into actions, but wasn’t very good at the inner life.
In the time that has passed I’ve seen more fully developed Zen communities and more fully developed Unitarian Universalist communities. I think it is easier to have fully rounded lives in both traditions.
Still, I find the discipline of holding the two traditions together within my heart and my life very helpful. On the one hand I feel a need to a relentless honesty, at the very least with myself, about what I believe and what I accept as a working hypothesis and what I think best left behind. And, for me, I find an emphasis on taking what I discover on the pillow into my lived life.
At this point where the influence of one of these traditions leaves off and the other begins, I can no longer tell.
Do you find that Zen, having coevolved alongside Shinto, is predisposed to meaningful syncretism with other religious traditions—in your case, Unitarian Universalism? I would say from its Chinese foundation Zen has demonstrated an openness to syncretism. As the old saw has it, Indian Mahayana Buddhism came to China, encountered the great indigenous tradition of Taoism, the two shacked up, and their love child was Zen. Not completely accurate, but in broad strokes it suggests something true about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular and the syncretistic potential in any encounter between Zen and other traditions. Wherever the buddhadharma comes it enters into dialogue with the local traditions and takes on flavors of the local culture—sometimes a light touch, sometimes more dramatically. And Zen is no exception.
And as Unitarian Universalism is also syncretistic, the meeting of the two in my own life wasn’t all that difficult.
You've written that Unitarian Universalism is "predicated upon the belief that all religions contain what is necessary to salvation," but that "It doesn't mean that all religions are true." Can you explain what you mean by that? As I’ve come to understand it, the matter of seeing how we are discrete creatures with a clear identity, existing for a moment, deriving our existence from the great play of the world— which is our source, our sustenance and, of course, our end—comes with our ordinary human consciousness. These two truths and what happens as we find both are accessible to us simply because we are human.
As the religions of the world are concerned to some degree with the how and why of our existence, whether those religions are concerned primarily with cosmology or crowd control or whatever, somewhere along the line these open secrets about who we are will be found. And any mature religion will have people who’ve seen partially or deeply into the matter and will have integrated these teachings into the religion. Usually this is the territory of any given religion’s mystical traditions.
So I lifted a line from the Anglican tradition that says of the Bible, it “contains everything necessary to salvation” and gave the phrase a slight twist, asserting that how I see it, all religions contain everything necessary to salvation—to that healing insight about who we really are. Those two insights are there somewhere in all the religions I’ve looked at, waiting patiently to be found.
But. And. Whatever the right word to assert that’s not the end of the deal, religions are too often mostly concerned with other things entirely. Mostly, crowd control. So, while one can find a way in all the religions, there are those with higher signal to noise ratios.
What you call "liberal Buddhism" comes across as the encounter of Buddhism and Enlightenment thought, wherein each has allied itself with the other. How do you view the relationship between the two? That Buddhist and Western Enlightenment encounter is something wondrous. It isn’t, of course, the only encounter going on. There are some very interesting things happening in the Buddhist and Christian conversation. I’m utterly fascinated with the phenomenon of Christian Zen, for instance.
But for me it is the rational and humanist meeting with Zen Buddhism that has been most fruitful. My experience of our western humanism is that it has a tendency to reductionism, a bare materialism that often confuses the method of rational and scientific inquiry with the end, the hope for a life of meaning and purpose. This is to no one’s satisfaction.
Zen relentlessly points us toward the moment as the full expression of our longing heart’s need. At the same time rationalism can provide a corrective for some of Zen’s shadows. Rationalism can cut down some of Zen’s accretions, and challenges grey areas such as lineage and the miraculous flourishes one finds in the literature.
And here's a question from an older issue of Tricycle: how has a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune enriched your Buddhist practice? There have been in my family several deaths outside of a natural time, each an open wound in my heart. Don’t let anyone tell you that such tragedies are for your spiritual growth. That’s simply a lie. But when they happen there is also an opportunity. I’ve seen how each of these incidents has driven me back to the great matter. And within the sadness and regret, for that, I’m grateful.
Read an excerpt from If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break here.