James Ishmael Ford

It was Spring. At long last there was no hint of snow on the ground. It was even warm, sort of. Birds and bugs had, at last, returned to Milwaukee. And so in the great flush of Spring madness, Jan and I decided it was time to barbecue. As I walked out into the back yard and toward the garage to haul out the old Weber, I glanced across the greening grass at my concrete Ho-tei. And, I thought I saw a crack, a really big crack running right through him.

"Rats!" I exclaimed, walking over to give him a little closer examination. Sure enough, an enormous line ran up from the ground right to his neck. The damp and wild extremes of Midwestern winters had finally proven too much. As I realized this I thought back to how he had been given to me by Joel Scholefield and the congregation of the Marin Fellowship, when I was leaving to join the fellowship up in Sonoma County.

It had been hinted at that I was to be given a Buddha by the congregation, and I was sort of looking forward to it. But, when my friends presented me with the cast concrete yard Ho-tei, I felt a wave of disappointment wash over me. Ho-tei, also known as Pu-tai, while frequently called the laughing Buddha, is not a Buddha at all. In fact I had always found him a little annoying because in popular American imagination he frequently is the Buddha--a fat jolly guy seen either standing with his hands raised above his head, or sitting on the ground with one knee up.

Ho-tei always has a wide grin and an even wider stomach. Sometimes the sitting version has kids crawling over him. In fact, Ho-tei is rather more like Santa Claus. He was an historic Zen monk who wandered from village to village with a bag of treats he gave to children. Together with the Bodhisattva Jizo, he is a patron, a protector of children in East Asian culture. Altogether an admirable figure. But he isn't a Buddha.

My Ho-tei is one of the sitting versions, rather finely detailed. At this point I had lived with him for a number of years, and over those years had become very fond of him. I found I liked to sit out in the yard with him and contemplate the bugs and birds. His weight had become a household joke in a family that has moved a great deal over the last few years. I frequently would say we will probably still be hauling him around when Jan and I retire to the Winnebago. At this point I realized this wasn't very likely. Sure, I knew I would try to patch him up. But, I more than suspected his fate had already been written.

It was a small disappointment. I can't call it a broken heart, but certainly a bruise. I felt the loss of something I'd come to be familiar with and fond of, and with which I associate many memories. Then, as I was pouring charcoal into the Weber, I found myself thinking of something Achaan Chah Subato, the great Theravandan meditation master once said about broken glasses. I have it framed and hanging on a wall in my office:

"One day some people came to the master and asked 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?' The master held up a glass and said 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.'"

This was a season when a number of people I know and care about had lost loved ones. Always it is complicated. In a very few cases the death had been what can be called "good." There was enough time to draw affairs to a close and to communicate messages to those who needed them. And when the time came loved ones were there. Other times this wasn't the case. Totally unexpected loss--accidents or blindingly quick illnesses. Sometimes these deaths were marked with feelings of bitterness and regret that will never be addressed with any satisfaction.

And so, in that bright Spring afternoon, that season of renewal, of rebirth, of new hope--I found myself thinking about loss, and how precious and precarious all things are. This is true of glasses, and concrete statues, of pets, of lovers and spouses, of parents and children and friends. It is very hard to just enjoy it incredibly.

But, as we all consider the many Springs of our lives, the new beginnings, such as this church year: I hope we will take one good look at the passingness of things, the precious fragility of everything. A single blade of grass, a much loved coffee mug, a fading photograph, a quick kiss; all speak of the wonder and transitoriness of life-and-death within the interdependent web. There is beauty and wonder in this existence. And as hard as it can be to face, the simple truth is this very moment is the only place we will find life and love and meaning.

I think of this and realize it is time to kiss a child, to pack a lunch and take a walk, to have that conversation I've been putting off. Perhaps we all should take the opportunity to do some such thing. This is a new season, a new beginning. Hope is with us, hope reigns, so long as our blood pounds through our bodies.

And so, as we go out into the world and the year, with our human hope bursting from deep within us, I also hope we remember the glass really is already broken. This pause is important--it awakens us. Now such a pause should not awaken us to despair or hopelessness; it is an invitation, a call to enjoy it incredibly! Our appreciation of even the smallest things in our lives is the very majesty and magic of our human existence. We must hold everything lightly, for everything passes. But, and I really believe this, such a holding is enough--when we give it our whole hearts, our full attention.


James Ishmael Ford

A few weeks ago I was back in California for a Zen retreat, or more properly, a sesshin. Sesshin means "to touch the mind." And, without a doubt, at such an event one comes in close contact with all the activity of human consciousness very much in an up-front and in-your-face way. It had also been nearly four years since I had been in California and I count many of the participants at that retreat among my closest friends. I was aware of many emotions bubbling within: excitement, apprehension, nostalgia.

After I arrived I discovered I had been appointed Ino, the ritual leader. The roshi, John Tarrant, has a wicked sense of humor. Still, the rhythms of the retreat quickly fell into place. I found I hardly thought at all about the various issues and problems back home. Instead, I was deeply concerned, for this time at least, with the issues of mind and raw human presence.

Once in a while, taking some time out from our regular activities is very important. I find how much I fall into ruts, into patterns that simply support my assumptions and prejudices. And for people on a spiritual path, like Unitarian Universalists, getting stuck in those ruts is bad. It is very important to find a little time once in a while to shake out the old brain-pan.

I commend going on a retreat of some sort or other to all my friends. Of course a Zen retreat isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. But, to do something that shakes the foundations, something that allows fresh perspective, is very important. And there are lots of different ways we can make retreats. These retreats open us to the possibility of new perspectives, of kensho, of awakening.

And I had such an experience at this retreat. It was the third day. We had been sitting (as we call formal Zen meditation) nine or ten hours each day, broken only by short rest and work periods. Even meals were taken formally in the meditation hall as part of the practice. I was exhausted. My knees hurt something terrible. I had also broken the little toe on my right foot on the first full day of the retreat. (Don't ask.) It throbbed the whole time.

Well, it was very early in the morning. We had been engaged in the practice since 4:00am. It was still dark outside. This was a short break, and I dashed upstairs to change into lighter clothes. As I made my way to the very top of the stairs, the hall light burned out. Flash! I had been looking up in the direction of the bulb, and it went out burning a bright pattern right into my retina, leaving only darkness surrounding an afterimage.

"Oh!" I thought. "In any classic Zen story, this would precipitate an enlightenment experience." "Damn," I thought. "No such luck!" Then, my right foot struck the top step. It turned out I had not been at the top of the stairs.

This time it hurt. It hurt real bad. Kensho? Truthfully, I can't really say. But, there was a purity to the experience that has marked me since. All those hours of sitting, of just being quiet, of noticing thoughts and emotions rising, and letting them go, and returning to just sitting, had a pay off. I really was one with that pained toe. There wasn't enough space to slip the thinnest knife between my experience and who I am. In a moment all thought of self and other dropped away in a red rush of pain. I really did experience a oneness in that moment. Not a oneness that I particularly wanted. But, then, isn't life like that?

Even though I'm selling the idea of retreats, they are not necessarily the places we find our little and great awakenings. Retreats and regular spiritual practice simply set the stage. I mean, as we think about it, don't we see how we get our deepest lessons in the most unlikely, and frequently most unpleasant places? This does tend to be my experience. The greatest opportunities are frequently found in the least convenient moments. Regular practices & retreats simply help us to notice when the possibility of awakening arrives. I got the ugly toe kensho right in the retreat. But, most real awakenings are the ones we find in our daily encounters. Still, even though it actually happened while on retreat, this moment has proven helpful on my way.

It was an awakening. My finding oneness with that sore sore toe contributed to me to be a little more present to my sick friend later in the week. And, I suspect, it allowed me to experience the bus ride down to the San Francisco airport just a little more clearly and focused than on the way up to the retreat center.

Such is oneness. It really is just being present to our friends and to ourselves. It means just paying attention when sitting at the computer, or changing a diaper, or whatever the myriad activities of life may be. Nothing special. And yet, it is all there is within the universe.

And so I sit Zen to help me notice those nothing special moments as they arrive, and just how precious they really are. I have a friend who has taken up Tai-chi for much the same reasons. And I have friends who find Sufi dancing does the trick. And I have other friends who pray, good old fashioned Jewish and Christian prayer right to God. Each of us must find our own best way.

We need regular spiritual practices. And we need retreats. I hope we all will take a little time out once in a while. I think we really can profit from those times out of the ordinary, to help us discover just how wonderful the ordinary is--even ordinary sore toes. So, as we go forth into this new year, I wish for everyone an opportunity to come to oneness with their sore toes. May we all achieve Unitarian Universalist enlightenment--allowing ourselves to be just who and what we are, in a wonderful play of relationship with each and every other person and thing just as who and what they are.

I suspect there is much of value in such discovery.


James Ishmael Ford

(Links in the text below will take you to the endnote for each quotation)

Back in seminary my homiletics professor, that is my preaching instructor, once said the greatest preachers have three, four, perhaps a half dozen sermons in them. That's it, that's all. And most of us budding ministers could expect to have one, maybe two sermons living in us. And its not bad, it's just the way it is.

It doesn't mean a minister won't speak on any number of subjects, but the underlying point, what will be returned to over and over again, if authentic is necessarily limited. After all what do we draw upon, but our deepest personal truths? Now among serious ministers this precious sermon or two will be worked and reworked, refined and sifted, until eventually the preacher may have something truly wise to say, while still exploring the various concerns of the day, of the moment.

As I heard those words I wondered what was my sermon? Being a few years older than most of my classmates, I at least had the sense not to wonder what my half dozen were. In those wonderful abstract, heady, theoretical days at seminary I wondered, "What is my sermon?" In these few months we've been together at Unitarian Church North, as I wrestle with what it means to be human, here, today, regularly in this pulpit, I've found I actually have a bit to say on a number of things. That's good, and reassuring--for all of us, I imagine.

And as I assess the core content of these sermons, I see that I'm greatly concerned with story and myth, and how it is we breathe, and move, and indeed have our being within some great stories, what are traditionally called archetypes--and what I've come to call abiding metaphors. This seems to be very important, and it certainly is a theme to which I return regularly. We need to uncover our stories, to explore and know them, and work out our destiny within them. But, you know, I don't really think my sermon, my core sermon, is about abiding metaphors.

For one thing, I see there is another level to my concern, an assumed and not always examined level, that is even more fundamental than story. It is a gut level knowing that all is passing, that all is transient. As I quoted last week, Gautama Sidhartha, the Buddha told us, "Everything made of parts shall come apart." And I find I frequently speak from this understanding.

This transience is equally true of stars and galaxies, rocks and plants and animals and microbes, and most definitely, true of humans. All are passing and transient, like a bubble on the ocean. And yet, within this passing, mutable cosmos, there is something precious and beautiful in those moments, or as I believe Whitehead said, events of existence, that are stars and planets and people--that in themselves seem to me to be the presence of a wonderful quality that in human terms seems to be love or compassion.

This love, this compassion comes directly out of mutuality, interdependence, interpenetration--and is something we can and do actually experience in so many ways, and is so incredible, that I think of it as God. And I know this divine momentariness, this profound experience is revealed in attention, in presence, to this moment.

I began to suspect that my sermon, my real sermon, as it boils and bubbles and tumbles out of my being, is this: the world is in flux, and the cosmos and human heart are passing things. And yet, through attention, through presence, we can discover the incredible beauty, the magnificent wonder, of a divine mutuality. This presence to mutuality may be called love, may be called compassion, may be called God.

And I've turned much of my conscious concern to this. How do we know it? How do we come to really know, in our bones and marrow, that this is true? I believe this is the great question of spiritual quest. And it is the point of our stories. Whether we follow the stories of heros questing after holy grails or treasures, or immortality; or embrace other stories such as that simple and profound idea of weaving, of weaving our lives--all, if they are true, take us to that holy place when we encounter our momentariness, and the preciousness of that momentariness, in some concrete, and very real, way.

And yet, as I considered this, I realized even this I think is not my sermon. There is something that underlies even love and mutuality. As Meister Eckhart suggested there is something more, or perhaps the better language is "less"--a no-thing that underlies all concepts and even all experiences. Eckhart spoke of a God beyond God. And here I find myself trembling at a threshold. And I wonder how to communicate it, to share this no-thing, this reality that births the cosmos.

And so we come to a koan. I've mentioned koans before. They are a part of the practice of Zen Buddhism. They are themselves embedded in the practice of quiet sitting, the intentional taking of time to simply be present to what is going on--both to what is going on around, and also to what is happening within the individual human mind and heart. Just sitting, just walking, just taking a drink of water.

Someone once asked a Zen master what is enlightenment, and was told to eat when you are hungry and to sleep when you are tired. The questioner said there is nothing easier to do than that! And the master said, all too few have ever attempted it, all too few have ever done it. In Zen this presence is not just adjusting our attitude to acceptance, to a passive compliance with the way things appear to be. The presence of just sitting, bare attention, adding nothing, subtracting nothing--just being present--is the gateway to something vastly more powerful, incredibly more profound. And all too few have ever even attempted it's discovery.

It's hard to even find a half an hour to sit quietly, much less to attend to all our actions, thoughts and emotions. So, after counseling us to take that time, to sit, to just sit, some teachers in the Zen lineages have added koans to the mix. The direct translation of the Chinese word kung-an (koan is the Japanese transliteration), is "public case," such as for a legal document. It refers to those public encounters between teacher and student on the way of enlightenment.

And these encounters have proven to be of value to many across time and space, from ancient China to contemporary Ozaukee county. As many here know, Zen sitting and koan study have been an integral part of my spiritual life for a number of years. And here I would like to share one case, one koan, and perhaps work it a bit, and see what might be of value for us, here today, on this winter day, in this barn, near the shores of that great lake just to the East. Perhaps it points to my true sermon, a sermon that is whispered to me in that time before my dreams, before my loves and hates, before my very thoughts have risen in my mind.

And so the case:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Vulture Peak, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, "I have the eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahakasyapa."1

This is one of the classic koans compiled by the great thirteenth century Zen master Wu-men Hui-k'ai. His own comment on this case was:

"Gold-faced Gautama insolently degrades noble people to commoners. He sells dog flesh under the sign of mutton and thinks it is quite commendable.

Suppose that all the monks had smiled--how would the eye treasury have been transmitted? Or suppose that Mahakasyapa had not smiled--how could he have been entrusted with it?

If you say the eye treasury can be transmitted, that would be as if the gold-faced old fellow were swindling people in a loud voice at the town gate. If you say the eye treasury cannot be transmitted, then why did the Buddha say that he entrusted it to Mahakasyapa?"2

And to finish, Wu-men appended a poem:

"Twirling a flower,
the snake shows its tail.
Mahakasyapa breaks into a smile,
and people and devas are confounded."3

This koan covers a lot of territory. It also has a fair amount of specialized language. Let me summarize the story, with a little less technical terminology. Gautama Buddha was near death and ready to name a successor. There was a great gathering, and someone gave him a flower. He was twirling it in his hand, when alone among the crowd, Mahakasyapa, saw to the heart of the matter and broke into a great toothy, goofy grin.

And the Buddha declares before the assembly that his teachings are secure, Mahakasyapa sees through to that heart of the matter, and is his successor. Wu-men's abusive commentary is traditional Zen praise, proclaiming that the old teacher would steal our delusions, pull us away from our false conceptions about ourselves, and indeed offers us something more tasty than our favorite feast. He also pushes the question, what if all smiled? What if Mahakasyapa didn't smile? And so, here we are.

First, I think its very important to note that this encounter appears to have no historical basis. It is a tradition of the Zen lineage, but there is no historical allusion to it early than nearly a thousand years after the fact. The great American Zen master, Robert Aitken expands upon this and says, "I don't believe it is very important whether Jesus or Buddha and Moses were historical figures. True religious practice is grounded in the nonhistorical fact of essential nature."4 I think it is important to repeat that line: "True religious practice is grounded in the nonhistorical fact of essential nature." Such stories "are your stories and mine, intimate accounts of our own personal nature and experience."5

The very nature of the koan, and how it is presented, is also quite important. "The presentational mode of communication is very important in Zen Buddhist teaching. This mode can be clarified by reference to Susanne Langer's landmark book on symbolic logic called Philosophy in a New Key. She distinguishes between two kinds of communication: "Presentational" and "Discursive." The presentational might be in words, but it might also be a laugh, a cry, a blow, or any other kind of communicative action. It is poetical and nonexplanatory--the expression of Zen."6

We need to experience this ultimate reality personally, and immediately. And, at the last resort, it can only be communicated presentationally. Discursive thought, discursive communication, is very important, and I'm making no attempt to disparage it. But in the realm of our deepest understanding of what it is we are, discursive thought can only take us to the doorjam--after that we must walk through for ourselves.

And what do we discover should we walk through? We find our essential nature, our true nature, what it is that we are all about. And, I hope, the source of my real sermon. In this particular koan the Buddha twirls a flower. But there are other traditional Zen presentations on essential nature. In an another koan, Chu-chih raises a single finger, elsewhere the great Nan-ch'uan raised a sickle, Chao-chou shouted "Mu," and one contemporary Zen master, Sung Sahn Soen Sa, sharply slaps his hand on a surface.

"I am a flower. The whole universe is a flower. If a thought of consciousness moves, it is gone altogether. (Chu-chih) stuck up one finger; (Chao-chou) cried out "Mu!" Are these the same, or are they different?"7 Writing about this koan, the modern Rinzai Zen master, Zenkei Shibayama says, "Those who know will immediately know it. Those who can see will at once see it. All has been thoroughly expounded--what a wonderful talk! An old Zen Master sings:

"As I see it with my mind of no-mind,
It is I-myself, this flower held up!"8

Shibayama Roshi also adds the important distinction, "We should not, however, just draw the conceptual conclusion that I and the whole world are one."9 On this point, another modern Zen master Koun Yamada once observed "an ancient Zen master says, 'Make yourself cold ashes or a withered tree.' Who can do this literally? If you could, it would be magic, not Zen."10

And the magic of Zen is the stripping away of delusion. When we walk through that doorway, and discover our essential nature, we find a universe that might best be called "empty infinity." The true nature of the cosmos and everything in it is all summarized in that line from the ancient Buddhist classic, the Prajnaparamita, where over and over again we are told "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is exactly form." This as close as we can come conceptually: "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form."

At this point we need to leave discursive logic. We shall return to it, throughout our lives. Simple rationality gives us the things of our lives, and cannot, will not, be abandoned. But we have other ways of seeing, of knowing that are equally important. Art and music and dance are all ways of knowing that share much in common with Zen. Each, in its way, suggests that logic of presentation, the logic of presence. But, particularly when it has been informed by some quiet time, some bare attention, some just sitting, some just walking, some just taking a sip of water: then we find a type of knowing that gives eternal to our lives.

Aitken Roshi observes "'The subtle mind of nirvana' (the mind of our essential nature) is the mystery of the universe that is your mind and my own. This mind is obscured when you are centered upon yourself, limited to your sole self, a regrettable condition considering the circumstances: the true Dharma (the true teaching) of no separation in the vast universe. It is when one is preoccupied with me that the mind is obscured, a phase through which all human beings pass."11

All things are empty and void. There is an exact identity of every thing in the cosmos and vast emptiness. But this is no gray, cold emptiness, this is not the vacuum of outer space--it is empty of every thing, coldness, dampness, blackness--it is complete emptiness. And yet, in some mysterious and subtle way, this emptiness empties into the cosmos, and creates all that is. It is the mother of the ten thousand things. More, it is every thing we encounter, including our very bodies and minds. And in that emptiness, we are all joined together, in that emptiness we find our source and our end.

And so I think I've found my sermon: there is no separation in this vast universe. And yet in that identity with all things, there is a precious presence, in which all things have their integrity of being, their eternal life. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. The Buddha twirls a flower, and all beings are freed from the fetters of greed, hatred and ignorance. It is the "eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teachings."

We must each of us resolve to walk through that gate, to allow our discursive, linear logic, to be put down, just long enough, to take up a flower, to drink a sip of water, to discover our vast true nature. Our individual lives may well be a bubble dancing on the waves of a vast ocean, but, ah, savor the moment--within the play of form and emptiness, it is eternal life.

1 -- Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier. (North Point: San Frencisco: 1990): p. 46. Very slightly modified.
2 -- Ibid.
3 -- Ibid, p. 47.
4 -- Ibid, p. 48.
5 -- Ibid.
6 -- Ibid.
7 -- Zenkei Shibayama, Zen Comments on the Mumonkoan. (Harper & Row: San Francisco: 1974) p. 60.
8 -- Ibid, p. 61.
9 -- Ibid.
10 -- Youn Yamada, Gateless Gate (Center: LosAngeles: 1979) p. 44.
11 -- Aitken, p. 49.