Boundless Way Zen

James Ishmael Ford, Roshiclick to email

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A Sermon by James Ishmael Ford, 26 August 2001
First Unitarian Society, Newton, Massachusetts

Early this month I attended a conference of Zen teachers held in Toronto. It was a very good event: we discussed our successes, frustrations and hopes working as teachers of an ancient spiritual discipline in this brave new world that we all share. Everyone there was interesting, I assure you. But one in particular caught my attention.

During the check-in time nearly everyone wore the same tops, an article of clothing similar to a hapi coat, worn in Japan by Buddhist monks and nuns during work periods, and has become fairly standard street wear for western Zen clerics. There were only four exceptions to this sartorial standard.

One of the two Christian Zen masters, a recently retired Roman Catholic nun, wore a simple if frumpy dress in a solid color. The other Christian, a former Jesuit and now professor at a Methodist seminary in Texas, and myself both wore dark slacks and black shirts, our modest concession to the Zen clothing conventions of our companions.

One didn’t make any such concessions, however. He wore Bermuda shorts worn old-guy style above his stomach and an open collar knit short sleeve shirt. (At least he avoided loud plaids.) Before long I also learned had a small pile of pipes in the room they’d assigned him. This was not a very conventional figure at a conference of Zen teachers.

I wondered a little about the pipes. The center we were at was in one of the stricter, if not actually puritanical of western Zen communities, and I’m sure this was the first time tobacco had ever openly graced the premises in the twenty years they’d been in that building. I must say in their defense, that whatever private thoughts they had, none of our hosts said a word about the pipe or the smoking.

During breaks he would sit in the back yard alternating between puffing on his pipe, practicing Mozart on his recorder and schmoozing with the younger Zen teachers, at least those who weren’t aghast at him and his flagrant disregard for so many normative Zen sensibilities. I have to admit I was one of the small flock gathered around him.

Like every one of the people there, his past was fairly colorful. He’d just been at it longer than most of the rest of us. He was a first generation Sicilian-American raised in Brooklyn. During the Korean War he refused induction and instead served a little less than a year in a Federal prison, after which he lived for several years on a Bruderhof commune in South America. There was a period when he tried his hand at being a Jazz musician. Then he returned to school and earned his PhD in Medieval English literature doing his doctoral thesis on Spenser’s Fairie Queen.

However instead of going into teaching, he’d worked for most of his life as a fundraiser, first for the American Friend’s Service Committee, and later several other socially and spiritually engaged non-profits. At some point along the line he became a Zen practitioner, studying with the renowned Taizan Maezumi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and later with Maezumi’s first American heir, Bernard Glassman, with whom he completed formal training and by whom he was acknowledged in his own right as a Zen master.

These days I find I’m at an interesting place in my life. I’m happily married. I serve a wonderful and significant congregation within our denomination. I’ve written a book that attempts to bridge between Zen and Unitarian Universalism and which continues to sell steadily year after year. I’m even beginning to become established as a Zen teacher. At this point I must say I’ve achieved every major goal I’ve ever set for myself.

So now I’m looking at what is to be my next step on the spiritual path, and not quite sure. From this perspective as I reflect on not only how I, but how each of us might manifest our own best insights, here I stumbled upon a living exemplar. His name is Stefano Barragato, his Zen name is Mui. Now in his early seventies, he is what I’ve decided I want to be when I grow up. Without the pipe, I must admit.

Mui means “without rank,” or “nothing special.” It refers to a person who has so integrated the real, that rhythmic existence of oneness with the flow, that each action has no trace of specialness about it. It is the truly ordinary, but an ordinary that brings forth fruit. One such result I’d head about was his prison work. During the conference he and I agreed I would come down later in the month to New York to visit and learn about his ongoing prison ministry.

In doing that I ended up with a major bonus. Whatever I thought before, after going down this past week to learn about his program teaching meditation in a maximum security prison, I’m sure I learned a considerable amount of what a fulfilled life really is all about. Let me stop for a second. I’m not trying to say we’re talking about perfect realization. I’m not describing a guru where every action is God’s grace.

Our path as Unitarian Universalists has little truck with spiritualities that are not grounded in the muck, in the tangible world where we, each of us, perceives only a part of what is, and even that is filtered through assumptions that we know we’re unaware of but nonetheless controlling many of our actions.

We know we always see in part, through a mirror darkly. But, some have wiped more muck away from our mirror than others. Some have even examined the structure of the mirror, and have seen how at some deep level the mirror that is us, itself has no substance. This is a fundamental act of self-liberation. There are people who’ve seen through, who’ve felt through, who’ve loved through, and have found a taste of what our ancestors called the peace that passes all understanding.

As I saw Mui just living his life, I saw how one can do that seeing through, and out of it, live a free life, a life comfortable with ordinary details. Now we’re not talking about someone who has skated through. We’re talking about a real person who has had failed marriages, who spent years working at jobs he didn’t particularly like, who suffered all those small and large indignities and hurts each of us suffer when we just try to live. But in all this success and failure, he has found, cultivated, uncovered, something simple and real.

This past week when I drove down to Kerhonkson, a tiny town in the mid-Hudson River Valley, and up the back road to his home, I found a little bit of paradise. Gloriously disorganized, but paradise, no doubt. As I climbed out of my car, the dogs, Sancho and Rosie, immediately set upon me. Its true the barks were not quite as loud as the fierce wagging of rear ends and tails.

Mui wandered out, again in Bermuda shorts and an old knit short-sleeved shirt. We hugged, he grabbed one of my bags and we walked up to the house. At the porch I met Colonel Mustard, an elderly cat who guarded the entrance. The home he shares with the menagerie and his wife was a country-style campus. At center were two buildings united by that porch. The building I entered following Mui was his office and the guesthouse.

We dropped off my bags and went into the other house where he prepared a cup of espresso for me. Sicilian, you will remember. There I met their second cat, Richard. (Parenthetically, only once and quite briefly did I see the third cat, known simply as the Lynx.) We visited a while until Margaret showed up.

Margaret had just dropped her sister off at the airport in Albany, a several hour round trip. Margaret is an active Roman Catholic, indeed a trained spiritual director with a theological degree from the Jesuit School at the Graduate Theological Union, where by coincidence I did my own ministerial training at another of the GTU’s member schools. In recent years she has mostly worked as a Physicians Assistant. They are, as they joked with me, a living interfaith dialog.

Together we all took a walk around the grounds. There were a half dozen hummingbird feeders, and I couldn’t guess with accuracy, but there were maybe between fifty and a hundred humming birds dancing around the grounds all the time I was there. I learned that during the season they go through five pounds of sugar a week feeding these humming birds, all of whom Mui informed me are named Richard. We walked into the back and appreciated Margaret’s latest mulching contraption, a birthday gift.

In a building a little ways from theirs, Mui’s ninety-three year old mother lives, comfortably listening to Italian language radio, and actually with access to Italian language television. She seems very proud her boy is a priest. I wasn’t entirely sure she understood the distinctions about what kind of priest he was. But that was none of my business.

In his retirement Mui follows a simple path. He lives happily with his wife. He studies. He writes. He guides a small but vibrant Zen community. And he gives a great deal of attention to his prison ministries. In addition to the maximum-security prison that houses his principal group, he visits other jails and counsels prisoners in those institutions.

I think it was at the prison that I saw how his life had distilled into something truly precious and good. The Eastern Correctional Facility is a maximum-security prison. For the last twenty years he has been visiting nearly every week. And now for quite a while, in addition to the weekly visits he leads regular intensive meditation retreats several times a year. A small but authentic Zen sangha, or community, has grown and flourishes under his guidance.

At Eastern there are about twenty prisoners who’ve made Zen their practice. Of the eight present when I was there, all were doing hard time. I didn’t ask what they were in for, but I did notice their sentences were all very long. After the meditation period during which everyone went into daisan, a brief intense interview with the teacher, Mui announced that I would give the teisho, the formal Zen talk. We hadn’t discussed this before. Never trust a Zen master!

I spoke briefly about my own path and my father’s life in and out of jail. During the question and answer period that followed I found myself confronted with questions that revealed these people’s own deepest concerns, both spiritually and as human beings.

In that nasty place, endlessly noisy, surrounded by bars and men with guns, I realized I was in an oasis. That first hint of paradise at Margaret and Mui’s home was in fact continued and expanded in this terrible place. As I was talking with the prisoners about those things that matter most, I realized really I was in a holy place. I realized that here everything was being revealed.

Now I am ready to teach anyone who wishes to learn. But, also I find I am still very much willing to learn, myself. As I’ve already suggested, the path is dynamic, there is always more to learn, and one must remain open. So, truthfully, hopefully, I am willing to learn from anyone. Young or old, educated or illiterate, man or woman, whoever holds a bit of wisdom, I surely hope to be willing to hear and receive and take that aspect of wisdom up as part of my own life.

So, of course, Mui and Margaret the prisoners were all teaching me. This approach has to do with coming home, and finding a certain level of comfort in the way things are. Perhaps this calls for a little more unpacking. One of my favorite distillations of that way things are that I’ve found is within Stephen Mitchell’s adaptation of the first Psalm of David. I was astonished and delighted to find it has been included as a reading in our new Hymnbook.

“Blessed are the man and the woman/who have grown beyond their greed/and have put an end to their hatred/and no longer nourish illusions.//But they delight in the way things are/and keep their hearts open, day and night.//They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,/which bear fruit when they are ready.//Their leaves will not fall or wither./Everything they do will succeed.”

This assertion about what the real is, needs constant exploration. It is, without a doubt, a process that lasts throughout our lives, with ever-newer emphases opening for us, like the petals of a rose. Or, perhaps the opening of a door in a prison. This is a broad and beautiful way.

And this brings us to the heart of today’s sermon. After we’ve come to some sense of what the real matter is, what wisdom might actually look like, and maybe even have integrated it into our being a little: then what? After the ecstasy, after the insights, then what?

Perhaps it is the laundry. Jack Kornfield, to my mind one of the more interesting spiritual teachers alive in the west today, in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, quotes a long time meditation teacher: “It’s as if my spiritual life has been a slow horse.”

“I started with a lot of ambitions. I tried to gallop in the beginning, doing extensive practice here and in Asia. I was going for enlightenment. I found ecstasy, yes, bliss, mystical states, incredible insight—it all came. But all it did was wake me up to what I had to do.

“To be a truly happy person I had to slow the horse down, get really down into earth and make my life actually follow my values. Then after lots more meditation and inner work, I took a hundred-eighty-degree turn toward the world.

“Increasingly I saw how the forests, the oceans, the pandas and the krill, the biosphere depend on me as I depend on them. I became a spiritual activist. I taught it; I wrote about it, I lived it. We had some success, but then again I had to slow the horse down because my ambition had come back in a new way.

“Now I understand renunciation better. It’s not about monasteries and renouncing life. We’re put here to learn the lessons of this human life. It is the renunciation of greed and ambition, of the self-centered ethos of our time. We’re not in charge here. We need to be patient, to let our actions come from a simple and pure heart, and from the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Everything good comes from that.”

This is the way that Mui points to for each of us. We can all come to our own place of harmony and respect, where both the countryside and the prison can be paradise. We can all find some authentic peace, and we can each of us manifest that grace which is the way of the spiritual within the world. As Unitarian Universalists we can look at sages from other traditions, like my friend and in some very real ways, teacher Mui, and gain more clarity on our own way.

From just a little closer to home, Walt Whitman, that profound Unitarian sage sums it all up for us. He shows how we can live, go deep, do some good, and make the world a little more beautiful. “This is what you should do:” sings that teacher of our shared tradition.

“Love the earth and sun and animals,/despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks/stand up for the stupid and crazy,/devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants,/argue not concerning God,/have patience and indulgence toward the people…/reexamine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,/dismiss what insults your very soul,/and your flesh shall become a great poem.”

Sound advice. Let us all come to that place where our lives are a great poem, and the liberation of many people. As we go forward this year, with all our projects great and small, from working to fight AIDS in Africa and slavery in our own backyard, to helping out with Stand High Stand United in Roxbury to trying to find affordable housing here in Newton, to exploring the many faces of spiritual practice, let’s remember the way, the spiritual path, ultimately is about simplicity and attention and care.

Ultimately it is all about becoming nothing special. It is found in a helping hand, an inquisitive heart: transforming the world and ourselves from this very place. Here we find ecstasy and laundry, country and prison, each can be heaven. Let this common everyday learning be our work. I mean wouldn’t that be a wonderful next step for each of us, to make this place right here and now heaven? Wouldn’t it?


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