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If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes From A Zen Life


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James Ishmael Ford ,
Wisdom Publishing, 2012
183 pages with Index, Afterword and Introduction
reviewed by Vladimir K.

James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher with Boundless Way Zen and a senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island. I have to confess here that I am suspicious of Zen teachers that mix Zen Buddhism with other religions, especially Christianity. While some have expounded an ecumenical meeting of religions (Robert Aitken Roshi tried hard to bring Zen and Christianity together, not very successfully in my opinion), I have always been very dubious of this approach. Certainly there are similarities amongst all religions but there are also vast differences. I don’t believe a syncretic approach to Buddhism is in the best interests of Zen practitioners. Some scholars aver that the decline of Zen in China was partially due to syncretistic tendencies with Neo-Confucian philosophy and the practice of nembutsu (invocation of the name of Amitābha Buddha) as well as adverse political circumstances. (see Dumoulin (1994-1998) n.124 pp 295-296: “The critical stance of Neo-Confucian philosophy, above all the strong aggressions of the greatest thinker of the age, Chu Hsi, inflicted heavy casualties on Buddhism. To that we must add the sign of internal weakening, above all that produced by syncretistic tendencies…”)

Having said that, Ford, who grew up as a fundamental Christian, claims that the Unitarian Universalism “is not exactly a form of Christianity…[but has] come to stand in a place roughly between Taoism and Confucianism,” an odd admission for a religion “historically rooted in Christianity” (p 5). Regardless, after searching through Episcopalianism, Gnosticism and Universalist Sufism, Ford settled on Zen Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism, becoming a Zen teacher as well as a minister in the Unitarian church. The Unitarian church he sees as being a “Western liberal religion” which has two notable attributes: “a deep respect for reason and rationality” and “a broadly humanist perspective to the matters of spirit”. (p 4) Therefore, he labels himself as a “liberal Zen Buddhist”.
book cover
All of this is in the introduction to this book and sets the stage for the rest of this wonderful book. When I read in the first chapter, The Answer, Sort Of, that Ford believed that Zen is “all oversold a bit”, (p 11) I knew I was going to like this work as I too feel that way about much of Zen.  On the same page Ford states that “enlightenment actually is isn’t (sic, or is this just a Zen play?) quite as grand as the literature sometimes suggests.” Ford approaches his Zen with a light touch and a good sense of humour (upon receiving inka from John Tarrant, he notes the meaning of the word given by another Zen teacher as “Show me the ink!”) (p25) There is an easy companionability to this work, as if one is listening to an old friend who has some interesting anecdotes to amuse you, yet beneath this lays some wisdom and sometimes a startling truth that reminds you that you’re listening to a Zen teacher of many years experience — a Zen teacher with a refreshing approach that doesn’t patronise or mystifies the simplicity of Zen.

“Awakening happens. You don’t earn it. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be smart. Awakening just happens.” (pp 36-37) One Zen teacher I had said it’s just luck, like winning a lottery, which is somewhat distressing as I’ve never won a thing in a lottery. Ford points out that awakening can take place on the cushion but often happens unexpectedly when you are doing something else. For him, it occurred while eating cabbage soup during a retreat in Oakland, California. Of course, describing such a thing is impossible: “The words, oh God, the word fail. But the consequences have played out for a lifetime.” (p36) Indeed. Ford gives some solid advice for practice for the chances of awakening without any practice are indeed a lottery and not many win lotteries. As he points out, “The way is vast and endlessly forgiving. It is also harsh, demanding everything from us.” (p 38)

James Ford has had a number of teachers over the years and he isn’t averse to at least hinting that some of them were problematic.  One of his important teachers was Jiyu Kennett, the first female to be sanctioned by the Soto School of Japan to teach in the West. Ford mentions that “Several former students, including me, carry deep wounds that resulted from her questionable actions.” (p 70) (Ford goes into more detail about Kennett in his first book, Zen Master Who? See pp 141-144) He took up koan study with Robert Aitken’s first Dharma heir, John Tarrant, and describes him as often being seen “as one of the bad boys of Western Zen”, (p 73) but exactly the teacher he needed at the time. Although this is not the right book to spend much time criticizing teachers, it is good to see that Ford acknowledges that there are problems in Western Zen. In this same chapter, Spiritual Directors (pp 70-73) he also criticizes Seung Sahn and his followers for being entirely too Korean in a Western context (kimchee for breakfast, anyone?). The clash of cultures between Eastern Zen and Western Zen has often been commented on and gradually we in the west are learning what to adopt and what to drop.

The book is broken into three parts with short chapters in each section. Part one is What is Awakening, with just three chapters. Part two is Sit Down, Shut Up, and Pay Attention (it’s not nearly as aggressive as it sounds) and the third part, Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk, has eleven chapters, with the last seven chapters being an exposition on seven lay Buddhist precepts. Here Ford looks at precepts such as Do Not Kill and Do Not Lie and Do Not Misuse Sex from three perspectives: a literal understanding, an understanding based on compassion and an approach from the absolute, the empty, boundless understanding. I believe these chapters will help many a Zen student come to terms with these precepts, especially those who come from a strict Christian upbringing where much is forbidden and all are guilty.

This is a most enjoyable read and, I believe, will be useful for many seekers. As Ford says in his Afterword, “if your heart is broken, if you find a longing that cannot be satisfied in the ways the world is offering it through secular culture, come to a Zen hall.” (p 175) While the subtitle of this book, Field Notes from a Zen Life, is appropriate, the title, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break, really doesn’t do it for me. Oh well, you can’t have everything and isn’t there something about judging a book by its cover?

Further Readings:

Aitken, Robert and  Steindl-Rast, Brother David  (1996), The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian, Shambhala, Boston
Dumoulin, Heinrich, (1994, 1998) Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, India and China, Macmillan, New York
Ford, James Ishmael, (2006) Zen Master Who? A guide to the people and stories of Zen, Wisdom, Boston

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