James Ishmael Ford
12 May 2015
Presented as a Personal Odyssey
at the Annual Spring Retreat of the
Ballou Channing District Gathering of the
Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association
Somewhere in my adolescence I prayed a prayer.
I told God that if he or she or it would just reveal himself or herself or itself, in that moment the divine could kill me.
I thought it a fair deal.
What I received was silence.
SETTING THE STAGE
As it happens a couple of years ago Jan and I gave each other one of those DNA studies for Christmas. It turns out there are two kinds. The one tells you what country your ancestors came from. The other is scientific, deals in probabilities, and requires a course in genetics just to read. Totally by accident we got the scientific kind. That might have been the end of it, but for the fact they also provided ways to connect with genetic relatives. And in fact a relative appeared, a retired sailor in Australia. We are exact matches to sixty-odd markers; something my genetics sophisticated friends tell me is fairly impressive.
The catch was my family is Irish and he was a straight line Norman English. At first I assumed our common ancestor was a Viking who took a trip to Ireland on the way to France. But in fact the story was a bit more complicated. According to my cousin, who appears to have a lot of time on his hands, in 1170, four of the five sons of our common ancestor the Sheriff of Devon, Bartholomew de Poer, joined in a war to put down a revolt by the Count of Striguil, Richard de Clare, apparently best known in his lifetime as Strongbow. As their reward they were given estates in what would come to be called the county of Waterford. I don’t know what happened after that, although one might imagine, as at cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a peasant from the neighboring county, Cork, my direct ancestor, who was also genetically a direct descendant of one of those four sons, a boy named William Ford, arrived on America’s shores.
In 1919, his son, James William Ford was born in New Jersey. In truth I don’t know all that much more about his life before he married my mother. We believe he was orphaned early and passed around among relatives. It appears he eventually ended up in an orphanage, but by sometime in his adolescence he found himself on the streets of New York. He flirted with crime, but wasn’t particularly good at it. After a stint in prison, possibly as part of an early release program James joined the Army and became a medic in the Second World War.
He was badly wounded during combat in Italy and permanently lost the use of his right arm. After he was mustered out, he took the advice of friends who said if you want to get married and you want a nice girl, you have to go to a church. Church doesn’t appear to be where he normally spent his Sundays. But, for reasons beyond my kin, the birthright Catholic, and by the time I knew him a mocking atheist, James chose to attend a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Oakland, California. The CMA is an accidental denomination formed by independent Baptists who joined together for mission work. They are very conservative, believing Southern Baptists to be dangerously liberal and not at all sure American Baptists are actually Christian.
Anyway he met Barbara June Bernard at that church. Barbara also came from hard times. Her parents were from Missouri but moved to Oakland before Barbara was born. Both sides of her family had been in America since before the Revolution. For the most part it appears they picked the wrong side in most of our historic conflicts. First, they were mostly Tories, and the next time around they were mostly Confederates. There are stories they had money, once. But, now all they had were the stories.
Her father, Donald, had trained as an engineer. It seems he was the only person in the family to attend college. But actually no one really seemed to know much about his people. He was an alcoholic, and seemed to have lost his professional jobs due to drink. The only job I clearly recall him holding was as an elevator operator in Manhattan. But that’s a lot of years later. He and his wife Boline had two daughters—Barbara, born in 1926, and Julia, born in 1930. There was also a brother who died before he was one.
Donald abandoned the family several times. The last time he left Boline found work as a live-in maid. Which meant she was forced to place her daughters in an orphanage. She paid their support through her meager wages, although this left her almost nothing for clothing or other necessities. But at least she ate and slept sheltered from the weather, and her daughters were cared for. In those dark years during the Great Depression that was more than many had.
Near the end of Barbara’s high school years, her father returned and the family was reunited. She graduated school and had a job as a secretary, although she continued to live at home. She had been engaged to a young man, but he was killed during the war. And this was the situation when Barbara met James. He was very handsome and very charming. Charming as the devil. The courtship was a whirlwind, and they married.
I was born in Oakland, California, on the 17th of July 1948. My brother, Donald, was born in San Francisco the next year. For his whole life my father was never able to settle down. During my childhood, we never lived anywhere two years running. James just passed from job to job, always on the look out for the next best thing. Occasionally he ended up in jail, frequently holding the bag for someone else.
For me the world was small, just the family. But, as it was all I knew, it seemed just fine.
I was nine or ten and lying stretched out on the living room floor reading the Sunday funnies. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask what would the cartoons look like if I were a Martian and had never seen such a thing before. I turned the page upside down and noticed how the shapes were formed, particularly how all the cartoons were contained in boxes. And I realized that that didn’t have to be so, it just was how someone decided to put it all together.
Just a hint of something. A small intimation. But. I never forgot…
AND MY STORY CONTINUES
In my early adolescence when my father was managing a liquor store in Hemet, California, a friend explained he only needed to borrow the money over the weekend. My father gave him all the cash in the safe. He spent a year in jail for that. I was thirteen. I took to bed, and wouldn’t get out. With no other options, my mother sent me up to Oakland to live with my grandmother and that part of the family. I was enrolled in as best I recall an all black school. I was beaten up the first day. And then the second day, too. By the third day I pretty much learned how to hide. When my father got out of jail our immediate family was reunited. I don’t recall where we moved at that time. But, away from Hemet.
James eventually found his professional calling as an itinerant bartender. He followed this occupation until his death.
The stable force in our family was my maternal grandmother, Boline. In the terminology of my childhood faith, she was a spirit-filled woman and a prayer warrior. I loved her, and honor her memory as my first spiritual teacher. She taught me that God was love, and all could be saved. She said even Catholics could be saved, although everyone else at those CMA churches said that wasn’t possible. And I mean they said it wasn’t possible.
But, I believed my grandmother. Worlds followed that believing.
My grandfather, grandmother, and Aunt Judy (as we knew her until a decade ago when she declared her name was in fact Julia and she really wanted to be called by that name.) were all closely intertwined as “the family.” We frequently lived together, and often pooled our resources such as they were to indulge my father and grandfather’s next scheme. For example, I recall the year we lived in Missouri when the two men spent some money my father got as a veteran, for a farm.
Auntie was the steady income in her part of the family, working first as a telephone operator, then for years as an X-ray technician. Later she was a file clerk. My mother didn’t work outside the house much during my childhood, but when she did she hosted sometimes at restaurants, and in a pinch was a maid. When my father’s health declined long after I’d left home, she got a job as a clerk in a self-insurance company, eventually working her way up to claims adjuster. She was quite proud that she was able to move out of the clerical pool and at least to the lower rungs of a professional life.
My family was like those we found in so many of the churches we belonged to over the years–women and children attended church, while the men were drunks. I believe the only men in my early life who weren’t drunks were ministers. I don’t doubt this is one of the core threads weaving into my eventual calling both to become a Zen priest and later a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Depression, addiction and suicide have cut through the heart of my family like a razor. Almost the only thing we knew about my father’s father was that he had committed a suicide, and was almost certainly an alcoholic. My father and maternal grand¬father were alcoholics. My father attempted suicide on a number of occasions.
I recall the day I walked into the bathroom to find my father had hung himself in the shower. I looked at him, and I turned to leave. My mother came on us, screamed, and I turned back went into the shower and held him up while she undid the belt he had used. I don’t recall much more, no doubt a call to the police or for an ambulance. He hadn’t been hanging long and there was no lasting damage. Physically. What I remember to this day is my seeing him and turning away. And occasionally I wonder what would have happened if my mother didn’t find him for five or ten minutes.
Later, my brother committed suicide. He was also drug-addicted, and an alcoholic. And that same year my son, a heroin addict, also committed suicide.
I read these words on the page, and I find how dry they seem. And so remote from the reality they are meant to convey. Death walks with me, always part of the great question of my life. From my youngest days, I vividly recall after my father’s drunken falls, complicated by various illness connected to his war time wounds, wounds that never healed, holding him up so he could breathe, thinking at first how noble my task was, and later, thinking if only he would die and that this burden could be lifted from me, and the family. And the guilt that followed that thought…
Somehow I escaped what seems to be the fate of our men. Not that I didn’t try. I didn’t have a real taste for alcohol, although I have abused it, and I did have an unhealthy romance with pot, smoking a forest of it. However, I was never cursed with depression. Something critical. And evidence, I think, of the genetic component in this litany of sadness, and with that I dodged the curse. That said, it is from this heritage of grief and loss that my spiritual life has grown, the dark soil of my soul.
The wider world of possibility was opened to me through books and voracious reading. I’m sure this is a significant part of what saved me from going the self-destructive way of the men in my family. Before I was six my grandmother taught me to read from her large illustrated King James Bible. I always saw my family reading. It was nearly as natural as breathing. My grandfather was rarely without a magazine or book at hand. Grandmother constantly read scripture and devotional materials. Both my father and mother read. He almost entirely science fiction, and she for the most part murder mysteries. And my auntie loved comic books and trashy novels of all sorts. So we always had lots of books in the house, or apartment, or car.
And I quickly took to reading for myself. Among the first books I recall reading on my own are the travel narratives by Richard Halliburton discovered in a camp library. But, then, I recall in my early adolescence rummaging around in the garage when we lived in a suburban tract home for a year or so. We were looking for my father’s Playboys. Instead we stumbled upon a cache of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels. I recall to this day picking up a copy of A Princess of Mars, an Ace paperback with the famous Frank Frazetta cover. I was hooked. I just devoured them. And from there on to more science based science fiction. My favorites were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Harry Harrison, and perhaps most of all Robert Heinlein. Later I discovered more complicated writers like James Blish, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K Dick. While it has been years since I’ve read science fiction, today mysteries are more to my taste I owe so much to that genre. It was my first education. And it opened me to the world of the mind.
I was a reflective child. And religion was very important to me. I remember vivid fantasies about being a missionary in Africa or India, and converting the poor benighted to the good Gospel. That is, until I became a socialist when I was sixteen. Through H. G. Wells and later George Bernard Shaw I discovered the Fabian Society. And, well, I guess it all started going down hill from there.
In my later adolescence as a fan of the British expatriate intellectual community, particularly Aldous Huxley, I followed the example of his grandfather, and at seventeen declared myself an atheist. Well, if I had actually followed the good professor Thomas Huxley a bit more faithfully, I guess the reasonable choice would have been agnosticism. But, I always pursued religion to extremes in my youth, and, okay, to this day, so quite naturally I opted not for the more reasonable agnostic stance, but for the more emotional atheism.
That passion meant something. Even though Christianity didn’t seem to fit anymore, I wasn’t through with religion. Through the writings of those British expatriates, including Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, I discovered Vedanta. I visited the Vedanta center in Berkeley, but it was just too churchy for my reactive feelings at the time. Still, I recall a photograph from those years of me holding a copy of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and looking what I probably thought was soulful.
At seventeen, I dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. I never left the country, but that also meant I missed Vietnam, which was good. Discharged, as an uneducated kid, I was beyond fortunate to land a job at Holmes Book Company in Oakland. It was the last standing of a three-store chain that dated back to the beginnings of the twentieth century. The main store was a big old three story building downtown; at the time I knew it beginning to go ramshackle. I started as a stock clerk, but quickly moved over to the sales floor.
The book trade would be my occupation for the next twenty years. During this time I would work primarily as a clerk and general used book buyer. And this is most important. It was working within the book trade where I launched into my true intellectual education. As most autodidacts, I followed my nose, and learned a great deal about what I was interested in, but very little about anything else. While I’m so glad with where I’ve ended up, and with whom, I do on occasion wonder what it might have been like if my life led me to a university experience at the ordinary time in the normal course of our culture.
Instead, I was pretty much on my own. Somewhere along this line, it was the nineteen sixties, after all, and the San Francisco Bay Area, I discovered psychedelics. After a relatively brief, but pretty intense exploration of what they could do, I came to the conclusion they did teach that things are not as I would normally think they are, a lesson I’d already had, but which they double underscored in thick black ink. After that they offered little else besides entertainment.
And so I decided I needed some spiritual discipline. I cast about, and after a couple of false starts, found Zen. In California, and particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, Zen was almost main stream at the time, certainly as mainstream as I was going to be capable of.
In those days the Japanese Zen missionary Shunryu Suzuki was teaching in San Francisco. I would hear of him in various venues. People would tell me about how he was a great Zen master. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Later I came to feel they didn’t either. But it was supposed to mean something special. And special sounded good to me. One Saturday my girlfriend and I decided to visit the Zen center for their regularly scheduled introduction to Zen practice. We dropped acid and started hitchhiking to the City. Fortunately we ended up on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. The next week I went without the chemical assistance.
There at the Zen center, which at the time was hosted by Sokoji Zen Buddhist temple, itself in a former Synagogue on Bush Street in Japantown, one of the senior students, Ananda Dahlenberg gave the introduction. He walked the small group through the rudiments of how to sit in the Zen style. Then I was hustled into my first interview with a Zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri.
He asked how long I’d been practicing Zen. I replied about five minutes. He said keep that mind and rang the small bell that ended the interview. I joined the Berkeley branch of the center, and fell under the influence of Mel Weitsman, my first real Zen teacher. He was a former beat artist, taxi driver, and now Zen priest. I meditated regularly, although I also continued to flirt with the psychedelic culture ubiquitous in the late San Francisco area 1960s.
Somewhere along the line I discovered I was a Buddhist. I was deeply moved by the Buddhist concepts that we all experience dukkha (suffering/anxiety/anguish) and that disciplined spiritual practice offers a way out of this morass. With my background I was well primed for such an examination of the way things are, and also found a glimmer of a hope for how things might be. Throughout my life I’ve been marked by the fundamental teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism: simple and rigorous attention to what is, both inside and out.
I decided I wanted to be a Zen priest. But I was young and callow and ill educated, and, truthfully, wasn’t content to buckle down to the system set up at the San Francisco Zen Center. So, I thought it a godsend (I rather doubt I used such a term at the time) when the British Zen master Jiyu Kennett came to town. She’d been in Japan for a number of years and was on her way to London to start a new Zen center there. She stopped at San Francisco and fell in love with California. Instead of returning to England she moved to a flat on Potrero Hill and announced she would now accept students.
I became her first student in America. It was a rocky road. As I learned, much to my grief and confusion, she was inclined to authoritarianism and inappropriate interference in her students’ lives. She was, by my best read from my vantage today also a bit on the crazy side. Some years after I left her she would have a series of visions that took her organization in directions significantly at odds with the mainstream of Zen. Only today, years after her death, does her organization appear to be moving back toward a normative Buddhism, or at least as normative as one is going to find in the West.
At the same time, I need strongly to assert, it was under her tutelage that I genuinely learned the disciplines of Zen meditation. While with her, resident in the temple for nearly three years, I sat four ango, the intensive ninety-day monastic training periods that mark Japanese Soto Zen formation. It certainly provided the discipline I was looking for.
And I carry a number of resentments, particularly around her pushing me into a marriage that caused a lot of hurt for several people. But, really, at this stage in my life all now simply low glowing embers and my gratitude outweighs all the rest. Kennett Roshi was my first real Zen teacher, in the sense of my making a deep commitment to her direction. And I owe her a lot on the way to becoming who I am.
I was living in the Zen monastery when it was in Oakland. It was deep into sesshin, an intensive seven-day meditation retreat. Mostly what I recall from those days was being hungry. And the main feature of dinner was a thin miso and vegetable soup. I quickly slurped down all the vegetables long before I felt even slightly full. Feeling sorry for myself I swirled the spoon in the broth and lifted it up. I was surprised to see a large cabbage leaf sitting in the spoon.
And then it happened.
I felt waves of gratitude wash over me. For the cabbage leaf. For the spoon. For my companions. For the room, itself. For the planet that supported us all. For the whole blessed cosmos. Then, just gratitude. Wave, after wave. Eternity.
And then even that fell away.
No cabbage leaf, spoon, companions, room, planet, cosmos.
And, then I put the spoon to my mouth and ate the cabbage leaf.
I was at Shasta Abbey, in my room copying out the transmission documents, part of the process authorizing me as a full priest. It was complicated and involved a lot of attention. Suddenly I felt a little sense of dislocation, and put the pen down, walked over to the bed and lay down. As soon as I closed my eyes I felt some sense of “I” leaving my body and floating above looking down at the room and my body. I then flew, went, the word escapes, somehow out of the room and around the grounds of the monastery, watching people working and studying and mediating. Then I felt something calling me, and the next thing I knew I was sitting up in the bed.
My teacher made much of this. More, a lot more, I admit, than I do when someone I’m guiding today has a similar experience.
But when people tell such stories, I remember.
And I notice how we interpret such things, and when those interpretations are looked at closely, how many assumptions they reveal. A most important lesson.
I was walking down a suburban street, wearing a large mala, a Buddhist rosary. A small girl playing skip rope, stopped, looked at me, and asked, “What’s that?” I paused fingering it, and replied, “It’s a Buddhist rosary.” She sniffed. “It sure looks stupid.” And returned to her rope skipping. I felt a deep blush that ran from my face all the way down my body. I recalled those words about Zen practice, “One continuous mistake.”
And again, but instead of gratitude, I just saw the rosary, the girl, and myself, just as we were. And I knew we were complete as we were. Only this. Only this.
Then, I knew we were connected and not at the same time. It was all so bright and so empty.
And then I continued on to where I was walking.
MY STORY CONTINUES
I was rapidly ordained, first unsui (a novice priest), and then osho (priest). During these near three years I was with her we moved the center from San Francisco to Oakland, and finally to Mount Shasta. Not long after that, I left Kennett Roshi. Exhausted and feeling I’d managed to dodge a cult, if barely, I thought I had also left Zen.My then-wife Leah Holdaway and I moved to Southern California. In rapid succession we had a baby, Josh, then divorced. Because of Josh we would remain in touch, but our relationship would forever be strained. Much later, after Josh’s death, and with that no communication with each other, I would only learn of her death some three years after she had died.
I found work in another bookstore, Wahrenbrock’s Book House. There I continued my informal education, although I also enrolled in evening courses at the local community college, mostly studying English.
Here I met and married Linda Madden Works, joining her and her three children Francine, Patrick and Brendan. Each has become a wonderful person, all of whom I maintain contact with to this day. During this time I also explored a number of spiritual options, ranging from Episcopalianism to Sufism to various independent gnostic groups. I was ordained by the gnostics. But nothing stuck. I was a seeker. I was serious, but, also, burned once, and cautious about whole-hearted commitment.
I had a dream. I was wearing a helmet and metal and leather armor and I was at the head of a band of similarly dressed men. It was hot and dusty. I knew I was an officer in some army, in some time very long before, in some place very far away.
I felt like it was somewhere in the Near East.
But the experience had a vividness about it unlike any other dream I’d ever had. And I’ve never forgotten that dream which felt so much more a memory than a dream.
I was alone in the meditation/meeting room of the Sufi Center in San Francisco. I was sitting on the floor in the Zen style. Suddenly a man dressed in the robes of the ancient Near East walked up to me. I realized it was Jesus. He looked kindly at me and said, “I have a great gift for you.” I felt a wave of joy until he held out his hands palms toward me. They were bleeding. He took my hands in his, and I felt the pain of the world shoot through our hands. All the pain in the world. In a moment it was over. But my hands hurt for weeks following.
I’d already learned not to interpret such things too quickly.
MY STORY CONTINUES
At about this time I ran across a copy of William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon. I read it and thought, I could be this kind of Christian. I attended the local UU church, but I’m afraid I fell asleep during the sermon. Still, something kept drawing me back. I continued visiting UU churches with increasing regularity.
My second marriage began to unravel. While I would be marked by ongoing karmic connections to my second wife Linda’s three children, and, actually to her as well, we were much better as friends than a couple, the marriage itself collapsed. Like my first marriage, it would last five years.
After my second divorce I moved back up to San Francisco, where I continued to work in the book trade. There I met and married Jan Seymour, who was also deeply interested in spiritual questions, although she gave more attention to politics. She had dropped out of UCLA in the midst of the Vietnam War, to join the revolution. First she worked for the American Friend’s Service Committee, and then the Central Committee on Conscientious Objection. By the time we met at a Sufi kankah or commune in San Francisco, she was working as a typesetter. Something clicked. We’ve now been married for thirty-three years.
I’d by this time been working in the book trade for just shy of twenty years. The conventional wisdom is eventually one should own one’s own shop, or move on to something else. Jan and I decided to start our own bookshop. We searched for a suitable town in northern California and finally settled on Guerneville about sixty miles north of San Francisco.
I had been working with several teachers in the Sufi Ruhaniat Society, most notably Moineddin Jablonski and Wali Ali Meyer, and by this time I’d been given authorization to teach. This school of Sufism is a universalist order established in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century by an Indian named Inayat Khan, who didn’t require people to convert to Islam to undergo the training, and later modified further by a Jewish Sufi mystic named Samuel Lewis, who had been Moineddin and Wali Ali’s teacher. There were many ironies here. First, as they were essentially a musical order, and I couldn’t sing to save my life. Also, their metaphysics were also more personally theistic than my general inclinations, which were increasingly non-theistic, at least as most people use the term. And, most of all, I found a pervasive interest in psychic phenomena within the group annoying.
We had space at our bookstore and I led Sufi meetings on Thursday evenings. I’d also resumed Zen meditation and opened the store early on weekday mornings for anyone who wished to sit with me. While nothing came of the Sufi group, the Zen group soon blossomed to a half dozen people.
One of these people, Jim Wilson, had formerly been a monk in a Korean Zen lineage. He left the order when he realized that he’d become a monk to avoid accepting his homosexuality. By the time I met him, Jim had found a life-partner and was just looking for a nice group to sit with. In one aspect his Zen training was substantially different than mine–he had studied koans. Koans are questions one engages under the guidance of a spiritual director. They intrigued me mightily.
Although Jim had extensive training with koans, and in fact was a former abbot of a Zen temple, he wasn’t authorized to teach.
I was sitting at the desk of my bookstore in Guerneville, on the Russian River. I’d asked my friend Jim to give me a koan. It was maybe the twentieth time I’d asked. He sighed and asked me, “Everything returns to the one. To what does the one return?” I looked at him. I looked at the books lining the walls. I looked up at the bare light bulb. I looked out the window at the trees and sky. I smelled the smells of that river town, dust and gasoline fumes. I heard the traffic outside.
And, I knew.
And I told Jim.
MY STORY CONTINUES
Something deep within me clicked. I instantly knew I had found my primary spiritual discipline. I knew from the depths of my bones that this discipline would be at the core of my spiritual life. I studied koans with Jim for almost two years.
At this time I was regularly attending the Marin Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The minister couldn’t preach to save his life, but he exuded compassion from every pore of his body, and at the time that was enough for me. It was here that I started generally calling myself a Zen Buddhist Unitarian Universalist, eventually for shorthand, a liberal Zen Buddhist. I do call myself other things as well, and others have even more creative terms for me. But at heart I’m a theological liberal, by which I mean in the classical theological use, pretty rational and disinclined to supernatural explanations of things. And with that spiritual style informing it, a Zen person. And a Buddhist.
Then my fifteen-year-old son Josh came to live with us. Part of our agreement was that we would attend church together. The Marin Fellowship was too far—a thirty-mile drive each way. I knew Dan O’Neal, the minister at the local UU church on a social basis, so I called him and asked what kind of youth program they had. He responded, “What kind of program are you thinking of putting together?” And so began my institutional commitment to Unitarian Universalism. I became the high school instructor and youth advisor. We had considerable success, mostly because of the astonishing kids there.
In my Zen practice, I had run through the koan curriculum that Jim was familiar with. I knew it was time to connect formally with a Zen teacher working within a traditional lineage. After much reflection I chose the social activist and lay Zen master Robert Aitken as the only reasonable possibility for me. I wrote him a letter outlining my journey and asking if there was some way to study with him.
I was working in a bookstore. The day I mailed the letter a couple walked into the store asking for really nice Orientalia. I showed them a lovely copy of a ghost story by Lafcadio Hearn with hand-colored plates. As we chatted, I learned that the man, John Tarrant, was a student of Robert Aitken. He had moved to California to finish up his PhD. And, most important to me, he was authorized by Aitken Roshi to teach in the koan tradition. John would be Aitken Roshi’s first Dharma successor.
John was amazingly smart, totally on top of the Zen discipline, and I could also tell had a dangerous edge to him, something reckless around the edges of his aura, if you will. He really seemed like the guy for me, but, still, I hesitated. About that time Master Seung Sahn came to the area to lead a Zen retreat. I registered and sat with him. I thought he was something wonderful. He was everything one might want in a Zen master. And we ate kimchee for breakfast. I thought I’d had enough of ersatz Asian culture. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Asian cultures and think we have a lot to learn from them. I even like kimchee, if not for breakfast. And, at that time Master Seung Sahn’s students tended to speak in broken English, even when they were born in San Francisco and had doctorates from Berkeley. Days after returning from that retreat I gave John a box of incense, asking him to be my teacher.
The store was seriously under capitalized, and we reluctantly came to the realization it was time to move on. Neither of us had an undergraduate degree. And we could see without that degree our options were not good. So, we decided to put us both through school and to take on professional lives. Jan wanted to be a librarian, and after a bit of hemming and hawing, seriously considering social work, and maybe psychology, with the counsel of Dan O’Neal, the minister at the Sonoma County Fellowship who observed, “James, you know you aren’t cut out for honest work,” I settled on ministry. I began taking classes at Sonoma State University, studying psychology while Jan finished up some general education requirements at several local community colleges.
Jan made a deal with me–I could go to any seminary I wanted, so long as it was in Berkeley. She had completed three years at UCLA way back when. Now that it was her turn to finish her undergraduate degree, she wanted to attend Cal. In addition to the denominational school Starr King, the very liberal Protestant Pacific School of Religion had a substantial UU enrollment. Visiting both schools I decided PSR would be the better fit.
Not being in a UU school I needed help finding an internship site, and went to Robbie Cranch who was serving as the District Executive, and who had an office in the basement of Starr King. She asked what I wanted out of that experience. I said, five hundred dollars a month together with three weddings would be nice. She said, no, what do you think you might need to prepare for the ministry. I paused and said I guess I hope to go to a mid sized church out of seminary. She said, “Great, Lindi, it is.” I went through my mental rolodex, and realized she meant Lindi Ramsden, down in San Jose. In those days San Jose was considered the armpit of the Bay Area. I thanked Robbie, and left, wondering what to try next. A couple of days later, Robbie called and asked if I’d been in touch with Lindi. I said, oh, I was going to do that today. She said I had an appointment with her at the end of the week. Those two women would become the anchors of my UU ministerial formation.
I also had the enormous benefit of studying with Masao Abe who was a visiting professor at PSR for two years while I was there. With Abe Sensei I was able to delve deeper into the intellectual foundations of Zen Buddhism. I also followed the guidance of finding a professor you admire and take whatever it is they teach. I’d done that successfully earning my undergraduate degree, and met someone who seemed to fill the bill early in my time at school. Unfortunately that person was Louis Weil, an Anglican priest and professor of liturgics. I learned more about that arcane subject than could ever be good for a UU minister.
I completed my MDiv at the Pacific School of Religion in 1991 and an academic MA in the Philosophy of Religion in 1992, finishing and defending the thesis during my first year of parish work. In 1991, Jan also graduated, with an AB in Linguistics at UC Berkeley. She then went on to earn her MLS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She worked as a newspaper librarian, a reader’s advisor for a braille and talking book library, and as a public librarian before becoming the research librarian at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. As we move to California she will continue to work as a consultant for Perkins half time thanks to the miracle of the interwebs.
My first settlement was with the Unitarian Church North, a congregation just barely within the orbit of Milwaukee. It was a major cultural challenge for someone who had spent all his adult life up until then in California. I like to assert I never saw snow fall out of the sky before we moved there. Jan says this is an exaggeration. But, it’s my story, and I’d never seen snow fall out of the sky before that first Wisconsin winter. I also had never had the thought form in my head, “oh, my! My eyeballs might freeze…”
I hadn’t been there a month when I received a phone call from a local UCC minister who said I was welcome to join a little clergy support group if I didn’t talk about Jesus too much. Jeff and Don were the heart of it, and they became dear friends. My UU mentors at the time were Tony Larsen, Drew Kennedy, and Rupert Lovely. I owe each of them, each in their own way, so much.
We also moved my mother and auntie in with us. They had both retired, but were watching their meager savings quickly disappear. They gave us the balance of that money which we used as a down payment on a house in the suburbs of Milwaukee, and we became a single household.
After my first year settling into the ministry I flew out to California at least three and often four times a year to do sesshin, those intensive meditation retreats, and spoke regularly with John on the phone for interviews.
I served among the good folk in Mequon for four years. Among them I learned the rudiments of the ministerial arts. As we were coming to the end of our time together I thought I owed it to them to tell them what I thought needed addressing, that I felt blocked the forward motion of the church. Under the leadership of my predecessor they decided to build a new church building. Along the western coast of Lake Michigan at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of octagonal barns had been constructed. That design was settled on, and the building built. It is beautiful, sort of a humanist cathedral.
And it was very unfriendly for anything other than the Sunday service. The single large room that served for religious education was a disaster. People with families would come, and the next week-drive the dozen miles south to the First Unitarian Church. I wrote a letter declaring the church was not the building and they might wisely consider giving up the building. I noted several suitable and much less expensive church buildings in the area currently on the market. I moved instantly from being a nice enough beginning minister, to someone they were glad to see the back of. I learned a couple of things in that moment that have served me well.
From there I accepted the call to serve the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Chandler, Arizona, a southeastern suburb in the megaplex that is Phoenix. Founded to serve the academic community near the university, I found my place and pace as a minister. It would be a while yet before I found my rhythm as a preacher, but I found I was on my way with that, as well. Jan and I had started a Zen group in Wisconsin, and we repeated the pattern again. Also, I was asked to join the editorial team for a book of proceedings from a minister’s gathering, published by Skinner House Books, the UU denominational publishing house. I accepted and taking advantage of that advice if you have any connection to a publisher, use it; I asked them if they wanted a book on Zen for UUs. They said, yes. And so my first book “This Very Moment” was published.
I was at a retreat with my teacher John Tarrant. We were each sitting on pillows in the interview room, knee to knee. I was responding to the koans, one after another. Then he smiled wickedly, leaned in to me; I could smell the black tea he preferred on his breath. He almost whispered, “Even enlightenment is just an idea.”
The world fell away.
I bowed and left.
MY STORY CONTINUES
In 1998 John Tarrant gave me preliminary permission as a Zen teacher.
It was also while we were here that my son and my brother both committed suicide. Sadly, my mother learned of these deaths before she died later in the year.
In 2000 we moved to Newton, Massachusetts, so I could serve the First Unitarian Society there. Not long after Jan found what would be the great work of her life at Perkins School for the Blind. This was also the year I was formally installed as a sensei or full teacher in the Harada Yasutani lineage of koan Zen. While here I wrote a history of Zen Buddhism in North America, “Zen Master Who?” We also established a new sitting group, and began to work with others to form Boundless Way Zen, a Zen Buddhist practice community with connections to the main stream of Zen in North America, but also with a distinctive connection to Unitarian Universalism.
In 2004 I participated in the first Dharma Heritage ceremony of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association in North America, a rite designed to replace the Japanese Zuisse ceremony. Finally, in 2005 I received Inka Shomei from John, formal acknowledgment of my mastery of the Zen way and with that was given the title roshi (old teacher). While it is a signal honor, and one I’m unlikely to live up to, I’ve also been told the more colloquial translation is “old fart.” So, at least I knew I could live up to some of it.
In 2008 I accepted the call to the First Unitarian Church of Providence. These years were productive in a number of areas. It was during the struggle for marriage equality in the State, and the church became the principal religious voice in favor of equality. And as the settled minister, I had the privilege of standing in front our crowd as we made our voice heard. I also co-edited with Melissa Blacker “The Book of Mu,” an introduction to Zen’s discipline of koan introspection. And I wrote a semi-memoir, here’s what I think its all about book, “If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life.”
In June 2014 I announced that the following church year would be my last and we would be retiring to Southern California, to be nearer to Jan’s family. Shortly after making the announcement friends within the congregation stepped forward and said they were looking to downsize and our home in Oak Hill was close to exactly what they wanted. They purchased it, and with the money freed up we found what we consider an idea condominium in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood of Long Beach. Close to the beach and to coffee shops, a lovely walk around neighborhood, something on the rare side in Southern California.
In these last months my auntie who had been with us for twenty-three years, moved into hospice care, and died. We count ourselves fortunate that she was able to die at home with her family. Auntie was followed in death within a week by her beloved cat, Cleo. This has been a very powerful experience for us; our lives have instantly taken on new contours.
Jan and I are currently in home limbo, moving from the apartment we rented at the sale of our house about nine months ago, into a friend’s house for another month. At the beginning of June we will move into our Zen community’s temple in Worcester for the last several weeks of my service at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.
On the 14th of June I will deliver my last sermon as the senior minister of the church, stay for the coffee hour, and then Jan and I plan on a leisurely drive to the West Coast, taking up to two weeks, or, maybe a day or two longer, as the spirit guides us. About the only thing set in stone is a visit to New Orleans that Jan has owed me for a bunch of years.
My writing continues. My latest book, a study of koan introspection practice, the working title is “Fingers Pointing to the Moon,” has been accepted by my publisher, and I’m currently in the midst of the rewrites. Also, I have a manuscript that falls outside the tight constraints of my publisher, which only does clearly Buddhist titles, but has the revealing working title “Spirituality After Religion,” which is in the hands of an agent. My first experience working with an agent, something I’m still deciding whether I like.
Last week I came to an agreement with the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, which is about half an hour from our condo in Long Beach, to serve among them as their three-quarter time interim minister starting in September 2015. Of course Jan and I intend to start another Zen group in California, and if the congregation’s leadership is comfortable with it, probably at the PUC.
So, I expect to continue to be active, although I can tell some form of retirement is also taking shape.
So, where have these sixty-six years, and counting, taken me?
I recall my prayer, to see God. That prayer was the longing of my heart. It directed the course of my life.
And then of course, there was that silence, the contours of which I’ve investigated in minute detail.
So, how would I summarize it all? Perhaps you know that passage in scripture.
And Jacob wrestled with the stranger until dawn. In the struggle the stranger pushed the joint out on Jacob’s thigh. But, still, Jacob held on to him. With the light the stranger said, “Let me go, the dawn comes.” But, Jacob, knowing with whom he was wrestling declared, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And the stranger blessed him. After which Jacob named the place “Where I have seen God face to face.” But, even with the blessing he limped from that match for the rest of his life.
You could call this the short version of my story. This vision of Jacob and the stranger and that wrestling all night pretty much says everything about my life.
Oh, and that blessing. That blessing.
For me in that wrestling match with the divine that has been my life, I’ve found the axis mundi, the place where heaven and earth meet.
I am wounded.
And, I’ve seen God face to face.
So, what can I say? I think of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
In the midst of it all as it is, washed over by a lifetime of tears and laughter, of sadness and joy, I find myself standing before the lord of song, and all I know is a Hallelujah.
Blessing piled upon blessing.