James Ishmael Ford

In the nineteenth case of the Chinese Zen classic the Wu men Kuan, Chao-Chou asked Nan-Ch'uan, "What is the Way?" Nan-Ch'uan answered, "Ordinary mind is the Way." The Japanese Zen master Bankei wrote and preached of the "Unborn Mind." And these are not just words arising out of the mists of history. In our own times the great Zen missionary to the West, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi frequently spoke of "Beginner's Mind," while the Korean Zen master Sueng Sahn tells us of "Don't Know Mind."

All these capital letters! So, what great mystery is hidden behind all these designations, these words modifying Mind: Beginner, Unborn, Don't Know, and Ordinary? And, what possible use are they for us Unitarian Universalists on our own way through the difficulties of life, our own quest for wisdom and a sense of meaningfulness?

Frankly, it isn't necessary to travel all the way East to find insight into these terms. While Zen and Buddhism are true and good, there are definitely true and good insights to be found right here at home. For instance, Jesus constantly spoke of the Kingdom of God. And I suggest there is at least one sense in which this Kingdom of Jesus's God and the Ordinary Mind of Nan Ch'uan are the same. In this brief essay I will to attempt to unpack this assertion. In the Gospels we find a particular likening of God's Kingdom to a mustard seed. I suggest there may be an important point here, a common link between ancient Palestine, Medieval China, and our contemporary West.

As we look at the several versions of Jesus' parable, we may discover a dynamic that will help us in our modern quest for insight and perspective. I've been told that in the ancient Near East, there was a saying as to how the smallest of things, such as a cedar seed could grow into the mightiest of things, such as the fabled cedars of Lebanon.

Jesus may well have been drawing on this traditional saying when he chose to describe God's Kingdom. We read in Luke that Jesus said the Kingdom "is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden: it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air sheltered in its branches." Wonderful! And, so grand! Certainly, all capital letters.

But then there is Mark, a more primitive text just possibly giving us something closer to what Jesus actually said. And, indeed, here we get something just a little different. This Kingdom "is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade." The biggest of shrubs? The birds can shelter in its shade? Of course, only if they crawl underneath a bush. Where are the capital letters here?

Chao-Chou asked Nan-Ch'uan, "What is the Way?" Nan-Ch'uan answered "Ordinary Mind is the Way." We each takes up the path of awareness and care, and we attend to what is going on, within and without. And we discover things. Whether we are Zen students, take up the practices of Vipassana, or simply engage the spiritual practice of conversation so much beloved by Unitarian Universalists; in each of these disciplines we commit to being present, to showing up, to listening and paying attention. In any of these ways, we commit to using our ordinary mind, no capitals; paying attention to the ordinary things of life.

And as we do this, we may discover we really do give up the capital letters. As we attend we may find ourselves letting go of our ideas of what should be. What we may have been searching for originally--Wisdom, capital "W," Salvation, capital "S," whatever--in our presence to our suffering and longing, we may find ourselves dissolving into another way of seeing, of being.

At this point we may discover the miracle of ordinary mind, with no capital letters. Here we may discover each breath to be a new beginning. Here we may engage the world with freshness, humility and play. Here we may well cultivate the biggest of shrubs, that will indeed, let the birds of heaven shelter in its shade.


A Sermon by James Ishmael Ford
3 December 1995, Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Chandler, Arizona

Today I want to talk a little of my involvement in Zen Buddhism, why it has a central place in my life, and why I feel it may also have a place within Unitarian Universalism.

So, in the spirit of moving from the particular to the universal, let's start with me.

I got involved in Zen in the late nineteen-sixties. I was a hippie kid. Somewhere along the line I had become very much aware that my life, as was true for so many others, was rootless. I felt some deep personal dissatisfaction with the way things were, with the way I was. Profoundly, I wanted something more, although I wasn't sure exactly what that more should be.

I'd read a lot by people like Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and most of all Alan Watts. So I was primed for something spiritual, although I wasn't sure what spiritual was or should be. Then, in the course of these ruminations, at some point I decided, what the heck, there's a Zen center over in San Francisco--why not try it.

I vividly remember that first Saturday morning. I remember being given basic instruction in sitting meditation, having a quick interview with one of the teachers, and being handed a schedule for the main center in the City, as well as for the various branch groups around the Bay Area.

This began several years of my sitting, as we call Zen meditation, with one of the branches, what is now called the Berkeley Zen center. During this time I considered the great Japanese missionary Shunryu Suzuki Roshi as my teacher. Technically this was true. However, what this meant in practice was that on many Sundays I would go over to the San Francisco center with some friends and listen to him talk. I have keen memories of those times. The roshi was a very small figure very far away, speaking in what people assured me was English.

And so, in fact, my first real teacher was the former beatnik, painter and taxi cab driver, who was the resident priest at the Berkeley center. Sojun Mel Weitsman was quiet, rarely gave talks, but sat with intense diligence. I watched him a lot, and I'm certain that much of what I do correctly today was modeled by him in those my formative Zen days. Over the years I've frequently reflected on his simplicity and what a pure presentation of the way he provided for me and so many other young people seeking wisdom. I cannot say how grateful I am for his teaching.

However, at the time, I didn't think of him as my teacher. In the Soto school of Zen there is a tradition of color-coding robes. And, Mel wore the basic black of an unsui, a clouds-and-water person, a Zen trainee. Teachers wore brown or gold or purple. So, with all the logic of youth, I knew Mel couldn't be a teacher. Unfortunately the only one with the right color robe was Suzuki Roshi--and he barely spoke English, and just plain wasn't accessible. Even by then, in the late nineteen sixties, the San Francisco center was a very large operation.

So, that remained the situation for several years, until Jiyu Kennett Roshi came to America. She was an English Zen teacher--definitely wearing the right color robe. And I became her first student in the States. I was quickly ordained an unsui, and studied closely with her for several years. In 1971 she gave me her Dharma transmission, making me a priest and teacher in the Soto Zen lineage.

However, I wasn't satisfied with the quality of my understanding, and after some coming and going chose not to become a teacher. Instead, I continued the investigation of spirituality and spiritual practices in a variety of traditions, including with Sufis and among Christian gnostics. Looking back on it, I guess this all could only happen in California. Then, in the mid-nineteen eighties, I met John Tarrant Roshi. He is the first Dharma successor of the great Western Zen master Robert Aitken. I've been a student of John's since that time.

So, that's an extremely brief version of the outside of my Zen story, and those are the names of my principal Zen teachers. But, it doesn't reveal why I continue to do what is ultimately a very hard practice. Virtually every day Jan and I sit cross-legged on the floor, attempting simply to attend, to be aware of the wandering mind, and coming back, and coming back again. This is so difficult to accomplish that I also go as frequently as I can to retreats where I can devote several days or a week exclusively to this practice of bare attention.

Unfortunately, this even briefer sketch of my spiritual practice, doesn't convey what is of value for me, and of possible value for all of us as Unitarian Universalists. So, I struggle to convey what has come to mean so much to me, of what I've found to be so valuable. Indeed, this question of value is what I want to address for the balance of today's sermon.

Perhaps this is very appropriate for today. Because, we Unitarian Universalists are, for the most part, engaged in a fervent and sincere search for meaningfulness, for purpose in our lives, for a compass to show us moral direction. Our great desire is to live fulfilled lives for ourselves, and to help our children find purpose and direction in theirs. Beyond this, most of us also desire to do a little good in the world.

At the same time we are a rational people, and we don't let other's tell us something is true without our intending to test it for ourselves. This is also the great assertion of the Buddha: don't put anyone else's head on top of your own. Test, test, and know for yourself, know for myself. Only embrace that which you know, which I know, from the depths of blood and marrow, to be true.

It is my assertion that there is much within Buddhism that can be helpful for Unitarian Universalists in our seeking wisdom and direction. I suggest we start with many common assumptions. I also suggest that Buddhism's twenty-five hundred year old tradition brings some interesting wrinkles to these assumptions. And, these wrinkles can be very valuable, very valuable, indeed. Let me unpack this a bit.

I need at least to glide over the Four Noble Truths that lie at the foundation of Buddhism. Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, made four basic assertions: The first is dukkha, which is usually translated as suffering. True enough, but not complete. Dukkha is the observation that our human lives are filled with a sense of dissatisfaction, of anxiety, of unsatisfactoriness. It is an observation of existential dislocation as a common human experience.

The second of the Buddha's truths comes out of an examination of tanha, which literally means "thirst." Here lies much of the Buddha's unique insight. He observed that all things exist within causal relationships. Everything is caused by other things, and in turn, is part of the web of causal relations that create every new thing. We are all related in this causal universe; you and I, dogs and cats, rocks and water--everything is related.

However, there is something in the human consciousness, in the way we are wired, that makes us want things to be concrete, permanent, not subject to change or dissolution. This is the thirst of tanha. However, in a causally related universe, everything is in flux. This conflict between human desire for things to be permanent and a universe in motion, leads to that sense of existential dislocation called dukkha.

Briefly, the third Noble Truth is an assertion that we do not have to suffer in this way. The Fourth Noble Truth outlines a middle way between self-indulgence and extreme asceticism within an eight-fold path consisting of right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. All these "rights" can be unpacked as a way consisting of moral action, disciplined meditation and wisdom.

But, for today, mainly I want to talk about the second Noble Truth and what it might mean for us as Unitarian Universalists. First, it is an assertion of the way the universe and the human mind work. It claims we are all real, not a dream, but are conditioned, and live conditioned lives.

But, there is something else here, as well. The essential claim of Buddhism is that nirvana and samsara are identical. Samsara is the phenomenal universe, this universe we commonly perceive, and in which we all are born, live and die. Nirvana is the absolute, is the great One, is in the preferred Buddhist designation Empty or Void. This is the assertion that you and I, and all things, are in some very real sense empty.

This is a very interesting assertion. Because, if true, within this emptiness we are all joined, we are all equal. Of course, this is also a paradox. After all in the phenomenal world of which we are each keenly aware, we are all different, we are not equal. A dog is not a cat is not a person is not a star. But, but, the Buddha claimed that there is ultimately an absolute identity of nirvana and samsara, of the empty vacant oneness and you and me.

I think a great deal about this. And within the discipline of my meditation practice, I've come to believe it is true. It has become the source of my perspective on all things. It is what guides me in my actions. This absolute identity of form and emptiness is not abstract philosophy for me, it is a description of the way things are, constantly confirmed by the unfolding universe.

Interestingly, I also find this perspective expressed in our grand Unitarian Universalist metaphor of the Interdependent Web. You and I are the knots of the web, we are the intersections of things playing out across the cosmos. But, the web itself is that grand unity. We exist both as individuals and as the play of the cosmos itself within the manifestation of relationships.

But, enough abstraction. Buddhism asserts that if such a thing be true, it must be known personally and viscerally. Here my Zen practice has been of help for me. But, it also has shown me how we Unitarian Universalists already have many practices that can help us in finding these truths for ourselves.

The one I call our Art of Conversation is a good example. We like to talk. And we find much of value in our talking. But, when we also pay particular attention to listening, then we are expanded, made wider, given the possibility of knowing both how we exist within causal relations, and how we are united with everything else. Here we may find something of incredible value.

In the tradition of Zen one may be asked "Why did the Barbarian come from the West?" That is why did Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Zen come from India? Well, the answer to this koan, this great paradoxical question, this object for meditation, is resolved right here, and right now. If we reflect on this question for a moment, we may find both the spirit of Buddhism, and the reality of our lives as Unitarian Universalists.

Look around and you can see the Barbarian, the great founder. Pat your own tummy, and know it is, in one very real sense, the stomach of the great teacher. We need to attend. This is the guidance of the Buddha, we need to pay attention. This is our ultimate Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. Whether we sit staring at walls, or speak with each other with complete attention--in our paying attention we may discover much. We may discover everything that counts.

Should we do this, I suggest we may discover the very way the universe is made, and how we can act in a manner that blesses the world. For me this is both the wisdom of Buddhism, and the wisdom of our Unitarian Universalist way. In my life these two ways have woven together so tightly that I can no longer unravel which is which. They have become the rope which is nothing other than a strand of the great web itself.

And, this is why I count myself as a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist.