October 17, 2012
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.