Confessions of a Ministry Between Worlds

Confessions of a Ministry Between Worlds July 5, 2023

Rev James Ford preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Providence



Fifty-four years ago today, the 5th of July in 1969, I was ordained an unsui, a novice Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

The English word “ordain” comes from Latin by way of French and means “put in order, arrange, dispose, appoint.” Ordination is the formal rite dedicating someone to sacred work. It is common across cultures, although the definition of sacred work shifts with various cultures.

In Zen in the Japanese tradition in which I was first ordained, this had to do with an approximation of the monastic life. Japanese Buddhism had added in its own twists to the received tradition. And so while bound by rule, my ordination was not to what is generally considered monastic in the West, or among Buddhists generally, for that matter. Celibacy was not expected. But a commitment to monastic formation, was.

Formation is another term of art. It consists of embracing disciplines and study that shapes a person’s life. In matters spiritual it has to do with prayer or meditation and, certainly in the Zen traditions, retreat. If one counts by days, years of retreat at this point…

These things would continue to be part of my life to this day, fifty-four years after that act in Oakland, California.

And. Well. Things rarely turn out the way we think they will.

There’s an old saying, scratch an Asian Christian and you will find a Buddhist (or Taoist or Confucianist), and scratch a western Buddhist and you will find a Christian (or Jew). Religion at the dawn of the twenty-first century of our common era has become very interesting. Cultures are meeting in dramatic ways and the boundaries among them are becoming unclear. On one hand this generates a lot of defensiveness, which includes the rise of fundamentalisms, some very dangerous to those who do not fit their view of the way things are supposed to be. But there are other hands. At the edges where these cultures and their religions are meeting there is a lot of energy, exploration, confusion, dead ends, foolishness, and some very, very rich discoveries. New worlds…

And that’s the word. Worlds. There is a new world emerging at this edge. Several.

But this is personal, an important day in my life. So, my worlds.

From time to time I’ve described my spirituality out of this meeting of worlds and possibly emerging new world. On the 17th of this month I’ll turn seventy-five. And I will explore more of what that means then. But in short I say I have a Buddhist brain, a Christian heart, and a rationalist stomach. I came up with this formula a good number of years ago. And, while where the emphasis goes shifts around over the years, it’s always been this mix.

And it’s always been within the context of an ordained life. And that’s what I’m thinking so much about right now.

Before that first ordination, in my childhood I expected to be a Baptist minister, and mostly some kind of missionary. In late adolescence that gave way to a full on embrace of the natural world and the power of reason. Then with a brief exploration of Vedanta, it flowed into Zen Buddhism. And that novice ordination. My training continued and in 1971 I received full ordination as a Soto lineage priest.

Then there was a period of searching, dancing with Sufis, looking at the Episcopal church, and then in 1978 ordaining as a priest in the independent sacramental movement. The priestly ordination lacked adequate formation and was weak. A dying friend who was a bishop in the independent sacramental movement consecrated me to succeed his work. It was a mistake. The impulse to bring together the disparate parts of my spiritual life within a call of ordained service was not wrong. But it required more support in many different ways than was available in that world.

Then, as I resumed my Zen practice with a householder koan master, and I joined a Unitarian church. From there I went to a seminary, the Pacific School of Religion, where I received genuine formation as a minister within the western traditions. It was followed in 1991 by ordination into the ministry of the Unitarian Universalist church.

Later I received inka as a koan teacher in the Zen tradition. But that wasn’t toward ministry, proper. More by our current usages as a spiritual director. Still, it was and is critically mixed up with the person I have become. And while I’ll address that more as I cross my seventy-fifth birthday, for now just noting it and its importance for me.

But here it is the ordained life.

For me the three critical ordinations were as unsui, a person of clouds and water with a vow to practice and in time to teach, then that illicit ordination as a priest in the western tradition with the vow to serve in a place between heaven and earth, and finally that ordination as a Unitarian minister that allowed me to bring all of it together. And then to serve as a parish minister.

And so now today. Fifty-four years since that first ordination.

Buddhist. Christian. Unitarian. Interfaith ministry.

A moment to pause.

And for me to be grateful…


About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a minister, spiritual director, blogger, and author. His sixth book "The Intimate Way of Zen" is due from Shambhala Publications in the Spring of 2024. You can read more about the author here.
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