Three Reader Reviews at Amazon
I have been trying to decide what is the best way to describe how I feel after reading this book. Inspired doesn’t encompass enough of it. Wiser, possibly, as I’ve learned through Rev. Ford’s numerous real – life stories and clear teachings and feel like I was right there with him during the last five decades. I enjoyed reading about his initial experiences in Zen which I haven’t read anywhere else. And I resonate with this skeptical eye towards who and what he encounters on his path. I also appreciate him noting when things didn’t go as planned. He talks about how Zen means sit down and watch, but also what to do once you get up off the cushion – something that Engaged Buddhists will appreciate. His explanations of what Koans are – and aren’t – I foresee will be repeated to every new Zen student before his/her first koan interview. I wish I had this wisdom when I started! But I could say that about the entire book.
Rev. Ford gives us the gift of his hard-won wisdom in such a tender manner that I could imagine him telling these stories to me over numerous cups of tea. His heartfelt desire to share the Dharma with us shines through. If you’ve never sat in meditation or if you’ve been around the cushion a few times, you will find new insights and new ways of pointing to reality through our every day lives in modern society.
But the most important and the strongest feeling I’m left with after closing Rev. Ford’s unique book covers is to go to my own cushion and sit. He reminds me of one of my teachers, the late Zen Master Seung Sahn (about whom Rev. Ford references in the book) who said: “don’t know; try, try, try for 10,000 years non-stop; keep a mind which is clear like space, soon get Enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.” I am grateful for Rev. Ford’s teachings in this illuminating book. May I break open again and again.
There are books about the history of Buddhism, in general, and Zen, in particular, like Heinrich Dumoulin’s A History of Zen Buddhism or Ford’s own Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen.
And there are books about Buddhist teachings, such as Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught or, again, Ford’s earlier In This Very Moment.
And there are books that combine personal memoir with direct teaching of the dharma, like Soko Morinaga’s Novice to Master (which has my vote for the best subtitle of all time) or Janwillem VanDeWetering’s The Empty Mirror.
What Ford — a Soto Priest and Unitarian Universalist minister — has managed to do here is to combine all three kinds of books into one, and he’s done so in a way that is both accessible and original. As I look at my shelves containing multiple dozens of books on Buddhism and Zen I can honestly say that I have nothing else quite like this.
In the service of full disclosure I will note that I, like Ford, am a Unitarian Universalist minister. And, like him, I have been involved with Buddhism for quite a while now. Yet unlike Sensei Ford, my involvement has been much more of a study than a practice. I never, as he puts it, “threw myself into the Zen way to find out the most important things about who I am and what I might be.” I am both personally and professionally grateful that I now have these “field notes from a Zen life” to help me see what I’ve been missing.
The chapters in If YOU’RE LUCKY are brief, yet full. As noted, the subjects covered range from Buddhist history, to analysis of contemporary Buddhism in the west, to stories from Ford’s own “Zen life,” to explorations of a modern model of morality, to explications of traditional teachings. This book is rich, yet Ford manages to weave these potentially dispirit strands into a whole cloth that is both beautiful and functional.
Of particular interest is Ford’s assessment of what he calls “liberal Buddhism,” that form of Buddhism that is developing in the West. As one of the foremost teachers in this “new” Buddhism, he has an insider’s understanding of the evolution of this tradition, yet his “dual spiritual citizenship,” if you will, offers him a unique perspective. He sees both the forest and the trees; he recognizes the strengths and the pitfalls and is willing to publically reflect on both. In Ford’s writing, this tradition, which has such an air of the exotic for so many, is brought down to earth and made at home right next door to wherever you happen to be right now.
In several chapters toward the end of the book Rev. Ford lays out his “seven suggestions” regarding a universal moral code. This is a profoundly simple – and simply profound – blending of the Noahide code from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Five Precepts of traditional Buddhist teaching. This may be Ford at his best – distilling from a myriad of sources a clear and beautiful truth.
Over the years I have had many congregants ask for my recommendations of books about Buddhism. I have had many books on my shelves that I would offer them. I now have one that I will go to first and most often — James Ishmael Ford’s IF YOU’RE LUCKY YOUR HEART WILL BREAK: FIELD NOTES FROM A ZEN LIFE.
Erik Walker Wikstrom
I’ve been a fan of James’s blog for several years. He writes well and he’s very funny. His take on the world is very much inline with my own and honestly he’s a bit of a hero of mine.
This book is quintessentially everything James is. It’s simultaneously Zen, Unitarian Universalist, and an unabashed celebration of the Humanity that we all share.
James looks at the Bodhisattva Precepts very closely but he has a Liberal Religious spin on them that delighted me. When it comes down to, books about Zen are usually boring & overly technical. Many are so erudite and simultaneously vague as to be endlessly frustrating. This one is none of those things. While it is intellectual and learned that’s only because James, as a person, is those things.
Any really good Zen book is merely a story of a person’s life, the day to day, the sublime and the mundane all rolled into one big fascinating mess. We all are these things and life is where Zen lives. Zen isn’t the mountaintop. You may have go there to hear it first but it’s down in the marketplace of life where the interesting stuff happens. James tells you his highly interesting and amusing life story and through that you get a glimpse of what Zen is and what it is not.
Some books this book reminds me of:
1. Being Upright by Reb Anderson, Tenshin Roshi
2. Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller
3. Any of the books by Brad Warner.
If you’ve read and liked any of those books this one is definitely for you.
If you’re a UU interested in Zen this might be a good starting point for you.
James A. Lambert