Zen and the Wounded Heart

Zen and the Wounded Heart July 13, 2023

Gin Lane
William Hogarth






















“An enlightened person who loves alcohol, when they pass the liquor store, their head will still turn.”

I spent some time recently pursuing that quote. While one version of it or another is a Zen trope, the person who most likely said it in this form was Taizan Maezumi. Maezumi Roshi is of incalculable importance to me directly and indirectly. He was the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the source of the White Plum lineage a hybrid school rooted in the Soto tradition but through him and continuing through many of his heirs and theirs a version of what is usually called the Harada Yasutani koan curriculum.

And he was an alcoholic, and possibly related to that, had sexual relationships that damaged students’ lives, and ultimately died in an incident directly related to his drinking. So, that quote and how powerful it is.

I think of that term “wounded healer.” It’s less commonly used these days, when we’re more focused on accountability. We’re currently quite rightly focused on not letting people off of the various hooks upon which they’ve hung themselves. There are boundaries and some of them are important. And always, always there are consequences.

But there is something we’re in danger of missing here, as well. It’s not just wounded healers. We’re all wounded. One way or another, we’re all wounded. Along the way some of us also become healers. So, that Zen saying points to a very important truth for us to not forget. It is seeing through our wounded being, our brokenness, the hurt, the way we’re all of us in some way incomplete, that we can discover our usually hidden wholeness.

Our wholeness and our brokenness are in fact not two.

Awakening floats in this liminal place. Always. 

With this there’s another truth. While we find can and do find the wholeness, there never is a time when we are not also broken. 

One of my dear friends Ken Ireland, onetime Jesuit, long time Zen practitioner, and a genuine person of the way, noticing my searching for the author of the quote and then some of the unpacking out of that search, offered a brief meditation to me in a private message.

I thought it said things someone might need to hear. And I asked him if I could share it. He generously said yes…


Almost 12 years without a drink now I can walk by a spirit shop without a twinge of pain or regret or envy or greed or even nostalgia. I can force myself to feel those things when I think I should.

The other day to prepare for an important meeting that would determine the course of the next year of my fading days, I went to a barbershop for gents. They have such operations in the Royal Kingdom, and I paid a royal fee for an ordinary haircut with very expensive scissors. These high class barbers offered spirits to their customers in leather chairs. I noticed that the men who complained were offered Jameson.

The Red Label seemed reserved for the regulars. I could smell it. I politely declined. Sure there were memories, faded old newspaper headlines, Drunk Found in a Gutter Half Alive. Paramedics Saved the Day. I wondered if any of these men in the other leather chairs might merit a write up in the expat press.

When I left and paid my bill I noticed that my total was the same as the guy to my right who’d complained and been served the Jameson. I didn’t feel the need to complain. But as I walked back down the alley towards my cab, I noticed a wonderful noodle shop, and somehow the memory of Anthony Bourdain waxing poetic over a plate of crispy fried pork with exotic spices lifetimes away in Cambodia or Vietnam flashed before my mind, and I cried.

I wish that I had been there when he picked up those drinks before he fashioned the knot he put around his neck. Could I have muttered, whispered, shouted, yelled a magic turning word that might have preserved the wit and charm, the je ne sais quoi that I loved? I was not given the opportunity.

Then I thought of Maezumi. A relaxing soak in a perfectly warm bath always seems like a good idea. But then he passed out drunk. It was no gutter and there were no paramedics. Technically not the same kind of suicide as Bourdain’s rope, but still, a self-inflected death is never admirable, and in both cases the world lost a gift. Bourdain was in love and Maezumi was lonely I think. Certainly he didn’t go to the bath with a few companions.

Nothing much can stand in the way of a determined drunk bent on self-destruction, especially with a steel trap mind like Bourdain. In AA when I did the steps I made lots of lists. The Fourth Step is called a Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory, or basically how you won’t let go of the slight that your best friend delivered on prom night or your complicity in the murder of the drug dealer who crossed you and stole your last fiver.

There are no mortal and venial sins. It all gets in the way. The lists are one of the most obvious places where The Steps and Buddhism cross paths. My sponsor, my third or fourth, and the second time I made my list–well I loved him totally, and I was three times as smart as he was, but he didn’t let that stop him. He came for me with determination and love and commitment.

The question was not nuanced: what was your role in the matter? You mean how did I get to be reborn as a fox? Another stupid answer to an obvious question doesn’t cut it. What did you do, I mean really, in real life, what the fuck was going on with you? It doesn’t make any difference that you couldn’t see straight after 4 shots of Red Label, why did you turn your back on your friend? What did you miss?

We lost Maezumi and Anthony and so many more. Can I say we squandered a gift? Now we will have to turn those koans into dust ourselves and search high and low by ourselves for those exotic spices that make the taste of the moment exciting enough to dream that we have found Heaven.


To which I can only add an amen…

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and a Unitarian minister. 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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