An interview with Rev. James Ishmael Ford (Zeno Myoun, Roshi)

by Danny Fisher, Source :, The Buddhist Channel, August 16, 2007

James Ishmael Ford is a Unitarian Universalist minister and Zen master.

Newton, MA (USA) -- A Zen practitioner for forty years, he has spent twenty of those years as a student of Dr. John Tarrant, Roshi, in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage.  In 2005, Tarrant Roshi formally named James as his Dharma successor.

He is currently a guiding teacher with Boundless Way Zen, an ecumenical network of American Zen communities (most of them located in eastern Massachusetts).  The organization elaborates at its website:

[Boundless Way Zen] came into existence through the coming together of independent local sanghas.  We currently support local sitting groups through the authorization and guidance of senior Zen students to lead groups where there is an interest.  Guiding teachers also visit and teach at different sanghas to support these local groups.  All the sanghas come together to create and practice in the longer sesshin.

<< James Ishmael Ford

James also holds M.A. and M.Div. degrees from the Pacific School of Religion, and has been an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister for nearly twenty years.  Today, he is senior minister at the First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA.

Like Jeff Wilson, who I interviewed earlier this year, James has been an important presence in the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship.  A past president of that organization, he has also done a great deal of writing for the U.U. Sangha.

In addition, he is the author of two wonderful books (In This Very Moment:  A Simple Guide to Zen Buddhism and Zen Master Who?:  A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen), and co-editor of another (The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion:  Reflections from the U.U.M.A. Convocation on Ministry).

James also maintains one of my favorite blogs, Monkey Mind Online.

The two of us first began corresponding by email last year while I was travelling in India.  When I asked James recently if he would be willing to do an interview via email for this blog, he very kindly agreed.

DANNY FISHER:  James, you're both a Zen master and a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Both of these traditions have their own unique ways of preparing practitioners for religious leadership.  I'm curious, then:  what have you learned from your training as U.U. minister that has been helpful to you as a Zen priest?  Conversely, how has your training as a Zen priest influenced or affected your U.U. ministry?

JAMES ISHMAEL FORD:  I feel I’ve profited considerably as a Zen priest and teacher from my preparation for ministry within Western and particularly North American conventions. I suspect possibly the most important thing I’ve gotten from my seminary education (and of that most importantly from my parish internship and my clinical pastoral education internship) was a clarification for me about the difference between being a Zen priest and a Zen teacher. I do not see them as the same thing, and my experiences in seminary pointed out pretty clearly how they’re different.

I see a Zen teacher, whether a layperson or a priest is primarily concerned with guiding people toward their deepest understanding of who they are. A Zen teacher is concerned exclusively with the project of awakening. And I believe a Zen priest is concerned with ministry, serving the community in all the different ways that might manifest. This includes fostering sangha either by leading a community or directly supporting the leadership of a community. It means taking care of individuals through counseling, visiting, organizing classes and perhaps in giving Dharma talks. It means being concerned with the religious education of children and youth. It means representing the sangha in the larger community. It can easily mean taking on various forms of chaplaincy including but not limited to hospital, prison and military.

And, I believe my ministry has been deeply enriched by my Zen training. The very fact that I have come to see these two separate functions has allowed me to be clearer in that part of my life which is concerned with spiritual direction, to see that ministry and teaching touch, much like teaching and counseling or psychology touch, but are nonetheless ultimately about different areas of focus.

D.F.:  This one is closely connected with the last question...  In your essay "Holding the Lotus to the Rock", you describe what "professionalizing" Zen centers might look like.  This includes "clarifying the nature of religious leadership within our sanghas, and probably require additional training beyond mastery of the techniques of meditation for our teachers."  While I was reading this, I thought of certain sentiments that have been surfaced in the community of Buddhist chaplains about the educational requirements of certifying organizations like the Association of Professional Chaplains.  One particular argument has been summed up, "We Buddhists have a teacher led tradition, not an M.Div. tradition." To my understanding, though, it's not either/or, but both/and: chaplains need the training of their tradition as well as the specialized training offered by an M.Div. program or its equivalent.  Anyway, I think we might be talking about the same thing.  Can you say a bit more about
the nature of religious leadership in Zen sanghas and how additional training might be useful?  What kinds of training are you thinking of specifically?

J.I.F.:  I wrote that essay more than a decade ago in response to a request from my teacher to provide some context as he considered what might be the best ways to focus our sangha’s resources. I have continued to think about this subject and I explore it at much greater length in my most recent book, Zen Master Who?

As I’ve already said I think there are two different areas of concern in spiritual leadership for us as Western Buddhists, one has to do with spiritual direction. In the tradition within which I practice a Zen teacher is something of a rare creature brought to manifestation out of a mysterious combination of training and disposition. One does not volunteer for this job. In fact if one does, that’s generally considered a mark against that individual’s suitability. It also takes a long time, in my tradition usually only after about fifteen or twenty years of practice under the close supervision of a spiritual director. It also includes, for the most part, the completion of formal koan study, something very few people who begin finish.

But ministry is a much larger vocation and requires different types of preparation. I suspect many who will never be teachers in the stricter sense of a Dharma successor in a traditional Zen lineage nonetheless obvious to all who know them have a genuine “calling” to service and leadership. And that’s the place for priestly training. I believe this is also true for other schools of the Dharma within the West.

In our Boundless Way Sangha we now have four priests. All have teaching responsibilities of one sort or another. But the priestly ordination is not about that. In fact one of our three transmitted Zen teachers is a layperson. Ordination is to a life of service. Some Zen ordination traditions, as they all come out of a monastic context, see ordination as “home leaving.” I think this needs further unpacking now that we have married priests, thanks specifically to our Japanese inheritance. (For more on this see both my book and for more detail, Richard Jaffe’s study Neither Monk Nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism.)

In North American and I think European Zen communities most people who ordain are not going to be celibates. However as a result of the monastic source of ordination, most within Buddhist traditions expect an ordinand to see their ordination and their work as priests to be more important than their families. I find this an unhealthy orientation for anyone who is married or otherwise in a life committed relationship. Within the Boundless Way what we ask of people who think they want to ordain is that they consider their ordination to be at least as important as one of their children. I think it does have to be as important as one’s life, like one of our children. And then it has to fit within the larger context of marriage and making a living.

If one is a monastic, a monk or a nun, which as far as I’m concerned must necessarily include celibacy, then the conversation is about something else, again. Although, I hope obviously, a monk or a nun can also be a teacher and a minister. But that each of these things are also different.

I know all this is a bit too inside baseball, concerned with the specific problems of our emerging Western Zen sanghas, but I feel the general principles are bubbling within most, maybe all emergent Western sanghas.

As far as anyone wishing to serve as a priest or chaplain goes, I think a formal Western seminary education should be seriously considered. I can’t see how anyone would be damaged by the experience, and mostly I suspect one would be profoundly enriched.

And one should do the conventional training of one’s lineage. I’m very impressed that the Soto Zen Buddhist Association has been reflecting deeply on how one might best train a priest. I’m also mindful of some important work being done by Alan Senauke and others associated with the San Francisco Zen Center that start with an assumption that ordination is about ministry. I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of Buddhist seminary training currently being done by the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and Naropa in Boulder.

D.F.:  In the essay of yours that I mentioned in the last question, you write, "The raging question for many western Zen students...has been how to raise their children."  I suspect this comment will resonate at some level with all kinds of American practitioners.  You go on in your essay to consider a number of options for American Zen practitioners seeking genuine spiritual community, a place in which they can raise their children.  Obviously, you have great sensitivity to the needs of children.  As a parent, longstanding practitioner, and teacher, what advice do you have about sharing the Dharma with children?  What wisdom do you have to offer centers and individuals about working with and including children?

J.I.F.: I consider the transmission of the Dharma to the next generation one of the most important things we should be about. I first came into Unitarian Universalism because I felt the Western sangha completely failed in this task, and I knew the U.U.'s were completely open to Buddhists. I’ve stayed a U.U., and eventually became a U.U. minister for other reasons. But that was my initial impulse and I’ve known many other Western Buddhists of many flavors who’ve continued to be led into Unitarian Universalism because of this concern.

And there have been some serious advances on the Zen front. Two small examples come immediately to mind. Norman Fischer, the wonderful Zen teacher and former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, wrote a delightful book on his experiences mentoring youth within the Zen Center: Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up. Among other things it’s a valuable sustained reflection on the necessity of religious education.

Even more important is the work done by Gyokuko Carlson at the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. She has cultivated a full religious education program at that center for many years. I believe she started with a “one room school house” program developed by the Unitarian Universalists, and built upon that over the years, creating an unambiguously Soto Zen Buddhist religious education course. It is a shining example of where we might go, where I think we have to go, if we want the Dharma to genuinely take root in the West.

At least I think so.

D.F.:  In the Wikipedia entry about you, there is a statement about your "taking care to warn his students not to mistake their own concerns with social justice or political progressivism with the attitudes of the Buddha."  Assuming this is an accurate characterization of your teaching, can you say a bit more about this?

J.I.F.:  It’s pretty accurate. Of course the details of my opinion on such matters is itself dynamic. I think the Buddha offered an astonishing analysis of the ills of the world and prescribed a cure. Physicians following him have adapted and modified the cure. I am the grateful heir to one line of these physicians of the heart, the Zen stream. But whatever school, whatever line, all have been concerned with that fundamental insight into who we are, the mess we’re in, and how we can get out of it.

I’m very much taken with Ken Jones' The New Social Face of Buddhism where he observes the Buddha’s analysis of our individual human condition also fits our social condition. I think he’s one of the wise voices in the Western Dharma, and I hope everyone interested in living an authentic life will at least stand in a bookstore and glance at his book, if not buy it, read it and best of all, study it.

That said the bottom line has to be no political or economic school has all the solutions to our problems. And anyone who thinks contemporary Western liberalism is Buddhism is fooling themselves and, worse, betraying what the Dharma has to offer. Both are concerned with helping alleviate suffering. And that’s where the similarities end. I’m a North American political progressive, as we like to say these days. But I’m aware of the traps of stepping in lockstep with the conventions of contemporary progressive politics, even when I’m not smart enough to be sure where exactly it’s dead wrong. I only know for sure that it’s not the last word. So, like everything that I think, I try hard to hold my politics with open hands. I advise those who study with me to also hold their cherished opinions in a similar manner.

D.F.:  As a fellow blogger, I have to ask:  what effect do you think the internet is having on the development of what you term "Liberal Buddhism"?

J.I.F.:  I love the blogopshere. I started blogging last year as a way to keep in touch with the congregation I serve while on sabbatical. And I’ve continued since returning. I read a fair number of bloggers regularly, and dip into many more occasionally.

I think there’s a lot of bullshit out there. And there’s astonishing wisdom. And the lovely thing is that both come from such surprising sources. So, as far as Buddhism on the web is concerned I’m in the let a hundred flowers arise school.

The etymology of liberal suggests liberalism is about freedom and generosity. One of the best ways of breaking the chains of what I think is true is to be challenged. And the web sure does that. It also demands some critical thinking, of course. Which is another essential element to “liberalism” whether political or spiritual. So I think the blogosphere contributes very much to that “liberal Buddhism” which is so dear to my heart.

Danny Fisher, M.Div., is a doctoral student in Buddhist Studies at the University of the West in Rosemead, CA. A student affiliate member of the Association of Professional Chaplains, he has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.). He is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Shambhala International and Naropa University.

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