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Saturday, 4 May 2013

5/4 - James Ishmael Ford

                The small sitting group I host in Fredericton meets at the Shambhala Center—which has been generous in allowing us to use their space. It is, however, located on Serenity Lane, and every time I have to give people directions, I cringe just a little bit.
                Today we are in the city of Providence (Rhode Island) and at the corner of Benefit and Benevolent Streets—the location of the First Unitarian Church of Providence. (Unitarians, I am informed, prefer the term “Meeting House”—but the sign out front designates it as a church.) The minister is James Ishmael Ford, who is a Unitarian Minister as well as a leading figure in American Zen. I can’t resist asking if he doesn’t blush just a little when giving the address of the church. “Just a little bit,” he admits with a laugh. “But I do love it.”
                It is a beautiful spring day in Providence; bright yellow forsythia bushes are rife; a street fair of artists and artisans has turned several blocks of Benefit Street into a pedestrian mall. James arrives in the church parking lot while Joan and I are just getting out of our car. He’s in shorts, sandals, and a Hawaiian shirt. He has a beard and glasses with large round lenses. He has a professorial look, but not the professorial manner. I suspect he’s an excellent minister.
                And he’s proud of the history of this building on the corner of Benefit and Benevolent Streets—the first congregational church in Providence, which eventually morphed into the First Unitarian Church in Providence. He takes Joan and me on a tour. It is quite a lovely structure—elegant, classic lines inside. A ship’s prow pulpit raised high above the congregation, one assumes to assure good sight lines. I can’t resist asking him to pose in the pulpit for the photo; the shorts and sandals, after all will be concealed.
                While Joan goes for a walk, James and I meet in his office in the Parish House—an administrative building connected to the “meeting house” by a walkway and atrium. His ministerial robes hang on the back of the office door. There is a votive candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe under a Mexican papier-mâché rainbow on one shelf, a framed rendition of the Heart Sutra in Kanji over another set of shelves, a New Mexican horned cow skull, and a statue of an ape contemplating Darwin’s skull.
                I start with my standard opening question—what is the function of Zen?
                “I think it’s to heal the heart.”
                And the function of Unitarianism?
                “Well, I think it’s the cure of the human heart as well.”
                James is the founder of Boundless Way Zen. Melissa, and another teacher—Josh Bartok—are his  students, but the three of them—along with David—make up a teaching team of equals. As I had noted in Worcester yesterday, one of the strengths of Boundless Way is that it combines multiple teaching lineages and, presumably, approaches. It’s an important experiment, a serious effort to address a number of challenges facing Zen if it will be able to persist into the future, rather than being—as James puts it—merely a “historical blip.”
                His concern about institutional matters is one of the reasons I was particularly interested in meeting him. In his work and writing, he has identified many issues which occurred to me as well as I worked on the third book in the series. The problem is how to address them without an institutional structure which has the authority to speak on behalf of all the Zen teachers in America. There is the American Zen Teachers’ Association, but it has specifically chosen not to act as a governing body. So there are issues, but as yet no effective vehicle for addressing them.
                In our conversation, we identify four:
·         The need for a mutually agreed upon code of ethics which are, in some manner, enforceable;
·         The matter of assessing the authenticity of teaching authority (transmission)
·         Common and accepted standards for priestly education (Zen priests need to be more than meditation teachers)
·         And Ford adds, “Envisioning a way to support teachers.”
None of these have been resolved, but Ford has taken leadership in bringing the issues forward. And for that we should be grateful.
                There is also the matter which Sunyana Graef brought up, that while North American Zen has focused on the development of wisdom, it has not always been that good at developing compassion. “That’s something maybe they can learn from Unitarians,” Ford suggests. Unitarianism is a liberal, non-credal, tradition with a history of social engagement. There is a trade union meeting going on in Parish Hall while we meet in his office.
                “Are there any other Unitarian Ministers active as Zen teachers?”
                “At the moment I’m it,” he admits. But then he also points out that many Zen groups across the country started out in Unitarian Church (Meeting House) basements.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Ford, James – 27, 138, 191-205, 208, 210, 211-13, 220, 221, 222, 224, 228-29, 230, 251, 271, 322-23, 324, 417, 418, 468.

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