James Ford

James Ford founded the Boundless Way Zen centers in New England and later established the Blue Cliff Zen Sangha in California. He was also, until his retirement shortly after I met him, a Unitarian minister. We first met in his office at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island – located on the corner of Benefit and Benevolent Streets – and discussed the various scandals that were challenging Zen’s credibility at the time. In a wistful tone, he remarked, “I fear there’s a real good chance that we’ll simply attenuate into . . . and—you know—we’ll simply be a historical blip.”

It was a remark that stayed with me for a long while.

Five years after he expressed that concern, he was slightly more optimistic than he had been. “There will be – without a doubt – the great die-off,” he tells me. “The sheer number of boomers interested in and active in Zen – you know, actually giving our lives to it – is coming to an end. And there was a period where it looked like it just wasn’t going to continue. But now what I believe is going to happen – my prediction – is there will be a major shrinkage. I suspect Zen twenty years from now will probably be half to a third the size that it currently is. But the difference is that these will be much better trained people.”

James points out that what draws new students to Zen is often very different from what had drawn their predecessors. “I think they’re most commonly looking for relaxation. I think the mindfulness/relaxation thing has been a tsunami which has changed many things and who comes. There’s always a little bit of a thread because of the koan, because we emphasize the koans, and koans are aligned with awakening experiences. So there’s the occasional person looking for awakening, but mostly people are not coming for that.”

“Do people still achieve awakening?” I ask.          

“Well, koan people do. But it is a more mature approach. I think there are fewer people who are in the kensho-factory kind of mode. You see that with some of the Sanbo Zen people, but even there it’s shifted. It’s a life-practice; it’s not about a momentary experience so much – although the momentary experiences are important – but they are more healthily contextualized, I think.”

“So, if they’re coming for mindfulness or relaxation, why come to a Zen Center rather than doing a Vipassana retreat or taking up yoga or Tai Chi? What is it that draws them to Zen?”

“I think that for many of them, they don’t realize there’s a difference. So it’s a little bait-and-switch. ‘Sure! We’ll help you with mindfulness.’ And others – an interesting sub-set – are people who’ve done mindfulness training and think it’s too attenuated . . .”

“Too shallow?”

“Well, I think . . . well, yeah, I think it often is shallow. It often is. I want to hesitate because I think the mindfulness community can lead to depth, but it usually doesn’t. I mean, if you’re looking for relaxation, you’ll find relaxation. And some people intuit that there’s more to be had, and they drift over to the Zen community, and the next thing they know they’re being encouraged to do retreats.”

And, at retreats, they’re introduced to koan work.

“So koans are a thing that distinguish some Zen teachers from other spiritual traditions,” I say. “What about Soto? Koans aren’t so central to that tradition. Is there anything that distinguishes Soto Zen from the other meditation offerings out there?”

“I think there will be many Soto people for whom there is very little distinction, except their saving grace (in some ways) is also a deep problem with their structure – our structure – with the emphasis on monastic training and the expectation of extensive meditation retreats. The ango, the ninety day retreat. There’s a pretty hard requirement that there be some experience of that in the normative training of a North American Soto priest.

“I think our generation, the boomers, were ‘seekers’ in a sense that the Gen-X were not. Although I have this kind of fascination with the Millennials, because they appear to have a seeker element as well, although it’s somewhat different, and they have different access. When you and I were looking for Zen teachers, we had Three Pillars of Zen and – what? – five teachers on the continent? I mean, it was really hard. And Japan, you know, wasn’t anything. But I know at least five Millennials who they graduated college and they went to Japan. You know, they spend three, four, five years, and come back ordained Soto Zen priests. In fact, it’s kind of ironic; the Millennials tend to be more conservative around their spiritual stuff – not socially but religiously – than we were. Of course, we were mitigated by a lot of drugs and that kind of thing. They are really true believers, and that can be rather graceful and beautiful and totally authentic.”

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

The Story of Zen: 338-39, 371-73, 379, 382, 389-90, 391, 392

Other links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Ishmael_Ford

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "The Story of Zen" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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