October 17, 2012

If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life

James Ishmael Ford

Author and blogger James Ishmael Ford is a dually-appointed Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen Priest. His newest book, If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life, was published by Wisdom Publications in September. The following passage is excerpted from the chapter "Spiritual Directors."

Of the many teachers I knew of, the one that most captured my imagination was Robert Aitken, an American and one of the first Westerners to receive full Dharma transmission, acknowledgment as a Zen master. Most importantly, he was a master of the koan way and had a long history of involvement in issues of justice, which I felt should be connected to the spiritual life. The major problem was that I lived in California and he lived in Hawaii. I decided to write him a letter describing my spiritual journey and solicited his advice at this juncture in my life. It proved to be a long letter.

I dropped it in a mailbox down the street from the bookstore as I went in to work. Later that day a couple walked in to the store. The woman was elegantly dressed. She wandered into the literature area. The man, about my height, bearded, roughly my age, dressed casually, asked if we had anything interesting by way of Orientalia. I replied, “Why yes, we have a delightful little book by Lafcadio Hearn, a Japanese ghost story with hand-colored plates.” He asked to look at it. We went over to the locked bookcase, I opened it and handed him the book. It was beautiful. He said, “I’ll take it.”

I was curious and asked if he was a collector. He replied, no, he was not, and told me he was looking for a gift for his teacher. I asked, “Teacher of what?” He replied, “Zen.” His name was John Tarrant, and he was Robert Aitken’s first Dharma successor.

John Tarrant was born in Tasmania, and raised in a house without indoor plumbing. He won a scholarship to the National University, where he majored in psychology and literature. At some point he discovered Buddhism and, following his own karmic path, ended up in Hawaii where he studied with Aitken Roshi. I quickly saw just how good he was with koans. Even now, decades later and with a lot of experience under my belt, I can’t think of anyone more skillful in guiding that particular discipline.

But I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a formal relationship with this man. John was clearly smart and knew his way around a koan. But I felt there was something a bit reckless about him, which manifested in part as big-time charisma. And, truthfully, it didn’t help that he was also a year younger than me.

Then, out of the blue, I learned that Seung Sahn was going to lead a seven-day retreat in Berkeley. As it was his style of koan that was my first experience of the discipline, I was excited at the chance to meet and practice with the master. I registered and attended. It was great. I liked the Korean style, which was more informal, although just as rigorous in the things that mattered. And in particular I liked Master Seung Sahn. He had a ready laugh, and was fierce in pushing us to our own encounter with the great matter.

But they served kimchee with breakfast. I took that as a symbol for all that is wrong with Zen come West.

Don’t get me wrong; I like kimchee, a pickled cabbage that can be quite spicy, and always tasty. But there was just no blessed reason that a meditation retreat that had exactly two Korean nationals out of about thirty people attending, and one of them part time, should make kimchee part of everyone’s breakfast meal. Now the dance between the cultural inheritance that fostered the Dharma and the culture to which it is transplanted is complex, and it is always hard to say what’s too much. But this just didn’t work for me, not at that time in my life.

And even worse was how many of the participants, including quite senior students, mimicked Master Seung Sahn’s broken English. One does not need to sound like Master Yoda to be wise. I felt this too much by half. Again, at least at this time in my life and where I needed my own practice to find itself.

When the retreat ended, I had already made an appointment to meet John at the cheap Chinese restaurant down the block from the bookstore where we regularly ate and talked. We sat together and I gave him a small box of incense, the formal way one becomes a student in the tradition.

I’ve had my regrets along the way. I’m moderately confident he has, as well. John’s a larger-than-life figure who cares little for institutions and rules, and this has come home on occasion. He is often seen as one of the bad boys of Western Zen.

And he proved to be exactly the teacher I needed.

John was able to push me on my own personal, truly intimate way into the depths of who I really am. Within my relationship with him as a Zen student he had absolutely no judgments about me as a person—an amazing capacity, although it presents its own difficulties. Accordingly, I never really knew whether he really liked me or not. However, I learned relatively quickly that this didn’t matter. All he wanted from me was for me to see into the great matter and out of that to find my own way. And thanks to him I did. I owe him endless bows.

From If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life by James Ishmael Ford © 2012. Excerpted with permission of Wisdom Publications

Read our interview with James Ishmael Ford here.

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alalaho's picture

om ah um :)

gjfarrow@gmail.com's picture

I love the title of the book however I don't know much about Zen. I consider myself a Shambahalian Buddhist. In my ignorance I guess I have 2 negative perceptions. 1. Koans are a form of intellectual masturbation and play no real role in developing insight. 2. Zen is incredibly austere to the point of being harsh and for what end I do not know. I have my own practice but I would sincerely like to get a start in understanding the Zen Buddhist religion. Thanks Gary

alalaho's picture

hi Gary,

since you are a Shambala practitioner, there is book of teachings on Zen by Trungpa Rinpoche, "The Teacup & the Skullcup: Chogyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra".

there are also audio and video files on the wonderful website, The Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: http://www.chronicleproject.com/CTRlibrary/index_CTRlibrary.html

I do not practice formally in the Zen tradition, but i have read and studied teachings, specifically in the Soto Zen tradition. But I have heard of the strict discipline of the Way. A Zenny might have the same view of the 100,000 accumulation practices of the Vajrayana, no?

What i have understood from Dharma, is the importance on a specific method for specific mind. Buddha was like a doctor. He never said to people, this is what you need to do. He responded, to the needs of the person, and gave a teaching, in accordance with this persons needs. A prescription. 84,000 methods for the many different minds.

There is a wonderful book on one of the most important koans, "The Book of Mu". The intent of koan practice, I feel, is in contrast to intellectual manipulation, or masturbation as you say. One could engage in this manner, but a good teacher, i believe, would advice one to continue. A koan cuts through the veil of knowledge, intellect.


gjfarrow@gmail.com's picture

Hi Cesar, Thank you. I know that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had a great deal of respect for Zen. Gary

Sarah11.11's picture

I am probably wrong... But my understanding of koans is that they help one develop awareness of the short-comings of the rational mind ( for lack of a better term) when it comes to certain kinds of spiritual understanding and experience. Sometimes it is necessary or at least helpful to exit the realm of strict rational/logical thinking to gain spiritual wisdom, a point that I think is illustrated by the Buddha's speechless sermon.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One cute story has a priest about to deliver a lecture on the Law. Before he utters a word a bird sings its song from the garden. The priest then packs up his notes and dismisses the class.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It is a "special transmission outside scriptures" which does "not stand upon words". This derives from a story in which Shakyamuni Buddha delivers a silent sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience comprehends it except Mahākāśyapa, who smiles.

gjfarrow@gmail.com's picture

Dominic, Thanks for the insight. In Shambhala Buddhism, there is an emphasis on group celebration which seems very contrary to what I perceive the Zen world to be. Gary,

Tharpa Pema's picture

Dear Gary:

I'm a Shambhalian, too. There is no local Shambhala group where I live, so I often attend a Soto Zen sangha. I feel a very strong sense of group support within this gathering. Each month we celebrate the Full Moon Bodhisattva Ceremony.

I did not know before this about group practice in Zen. Maybe reporters and writers don't cover it much, but it does seem to exist.

Maitri, Linda

P.S. At this group, the term "koan" is widely used with many nuances. It is often used in casual conversation as well as formal teaching to refer to any seemingly paradoxical life puzzle.