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If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break

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If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life is a new book by Rev. James Ishmael Ford that comes out in September. I was lucky enough to be given a review copy of this book, which I have been looking forward to reading.

Rev. Ford (also known as “James Myoun Ford”) is one of the guiding teachers and masters of Boundless Way Zen, a Zen organization that brings together Soto Zen and Korean Sŏn in several sanghas on the East Coast of North America. He is also a well known Unitarian Universalist minister and author of the Monkey Mind blog. He is the presiding minister at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Rev. Ford often writes on issues of social justice and draws on Zen teachings for his Unitarian sermons (and Unitarian teachings for his Zen sermons!). I’ve interacted with him online for several years and have found him to be one of the consistently sane, calm, and ethical voices of authority within the Zen community.

This book is written in part as a personal memoir of a Zen teacher who has spent decades in Zen and also as a discussion of Buddhist ethics and the precepts. Like all good Zen teachers, Rev. Ford speaks in reference to lived examples and stories, largely ones drawn from his own life. The text is divided into three parts:

  1. What Is Awakening?
  2. Sit Down, Shut Up, and Pay Attention
  3. Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk

In “What Is Awakening?”, Rev. Ford discusses the nature of awakening and the experience of Zen, drawing from his life experiences, such as when he received Dharma Transmission from his own teacher and what that may or may not mean. This is the shortest section, just being a handful of pages really.

In “Sit Down, Shut Up, and Pay Attention,” he delves into his autobiography and the actual practice of Zen. How did he come to practice Zen? What is an experience of awakening actually like (and what is it not like, contrary to mythology)? How is Zen actually practiced in a day to day manner, not merely in theory, but as a lived part of your life? He discusses Shikantaza, Just Sitting, the primary practice of Soto Zen and how he’s found it to be useful and its functioning. Unusual for a seemingly Soto Zen priest, where koans are not a common tradition, he also delves into koan work quite a bit. Rev. Ford had an early exposure to the koan tradition (or kong-an) as taught by Rev. Sŭngsan, who founded the Kwan Um School of Zen. This gave him a taste of koan work and, as he says in the book, “I had found my heart practice.” Through happenstance and his own determination, he wound up work with Rev. John Tarrant, a well known Rinzai Zen teacher, where he practiced the full curriculum of koans as taught within that school. Rev. Ford gives a fairly good introduction to koan work, what it means, how it is practiced, and so forth within his own tradition and dispels many of the popular myths around koan work. As a Zen practitioner who uses the koan tradition of Sŭngsan as one of his primary vehicles of practice, I was quite happy to see an actual popular level discussion and explanation of koan work for the general reader. Texts that touch on it are few and far between. As Rev. Ford states:

“Koans are actually about life and death—our lives, our deaths—in the most intimate sense about who we are, you and I, about our true home, about what it is to be human and present to what is, all that is.”

In the final section of the book, “Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk,” Rev. Ford discusses ethics and precepts, focusing on how it is that we are to live an ethical life. This is the longest section of the book, comprising almost half of it. In this section, Rev. Ford’s wider training really shines. He is a graduate of a local multi-denominational Christian seminary, the Pacific School of Religion, and has served as minister for several Unitarian Universalist congregations. In his discussion of ethical behavior, discusses the current controversy in Western Zen around karma and rebirth but moves on quickly to discussing actual ways of living. In this, he draws on both the Noahide Laws, which some point to as an attempt at ethics drawn from a monotheistic, Western, worldview, and the traditional five Pratimoksha vows used within Buddhism. Given his background in both Unitarian Universalism and Zen, I can appreciate that Rev. Ford looks at things in a broader manner, across traditions, rather than limiting his influences to just the world of the Buddhadharma. With these both as influences, Rev. Ford draws a list of seven precepts:

  1. Love Your Mother (in the sense of God/dess, the Universe, or Reality-as-it-is)
  2. Reverence Life
  3. Speak Truthfully
  4. Respect Things
  5. Respect Our Bodies
  6. Seek Justice
  7. Seek Clarity

The rest of the book is then a short chapter discussing each of these in turn. In the first and sixth, you can see the influences of both the Judeo-Christian background of the Noahide Laws (as much as I dislike the term “Judeo-Christian”) but also the commitment to social justice and activism in the world that characters the better end of that tradition, especially amongst liberal churches like Unitarian Universalism. Rev. Ford mentions that both sexuality and social withdrawl as the two “dark shadows” of Buddhist tradition (or “near enemies” as I tend to think of them). These are places where other traditions have often seemed to engage better. His examples are often personal and autobiographical, which is really the best way to teach and discuss these things. It is easy to sound “preachy” in an overbearing way when discussing precepts as absolutes or ideals without relating them to lived experience. Fortunatley, Rev. Ford’s experience, both on the cushion and in teaching others, comes to the forefront here.

Overall, I really (really) liked this book. It is engaging, humorous in places, deep without being dry, and shows a lot of reflective thought that I think only comes from experience (and Rev. Ford has decades more than me in all of this). This is the kind of book that I’d recommend my fellow Buddhists, especially Zen practitioners, read but which I would also recommend to my non-Buddhist friends and family (such as my Wiccan priestess mother and my Methodist preacher uncle). I think everyone would get something out of the discussion of lived ethics in it but also, for those unfamiliar, a strong taste of what the Buddhdharma, as practiced within Zen, is about at its best as a living and engaged tradition of practice.

If any of this is interesting to you, I suggest that you pick it up and give it a read when it comes out in a couple of months. I’m grateful that we have teachers like Rev. Ford taking the time to write from the heart to share their hard-won realizations with us.

Update: Corrected two errors noticed by Rev. Ford.