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Unitarian Universalist minister named Zen master

The Rev. James Ishmael Ford is the first Unitarian Universalist minister to be named a Zen master.
By Jane Greer

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Buddhist Ceremony

The Rev. James Ishmael Ford (left) was recognized as a Zen master by his teacher, Dr. John Tarrant, in an August ceremony. (Chris Bell)

For the first time, a Unitarian Universalist minister has been formally recognized as a Zen master. The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, was acknowledged at an August 6 ceremony as a master in the koan tradition of Zen Buddhism by his teacher, Dr. John Tarrant, a Zen master and director of the Pacific Zen Institute.

This is Zen’s highest honor, according to Chris Bell of the Boundless Way Zen Community. Ford has become a hassu or “dharma successor” of Tarrant and can function as an independent teacher in the Harada/Yasutani Lineage, with the power to confer this status on others. During the ceremony he was given the teaching name Zeno Myoun Roshi.

Ford has been a Buddhist for the past 38 years and is the author of In This Very Moment: A Simple Guide to Zen Buddhism (Skinner House Books, 1996), as well as numerous articles. He is the founder of the Boundless Way Zen Community, based at First Unitarian Society, and the lead teacher for the Henry Thoreau Zen Sangha, which also meets at First Unitarian Society.

Ford’s Zen training included the answering of over 600 koans, the short and paradoxical parables, like the well-known question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The koans, which are frequently mistaken for riddles, are focus points for meditation and can only be understood through the practiced experience of meditation.

An ordained UU minister for the past fifteen years, Ford sees a consonance between Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. The First and Seventh Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations deal with the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals and the interconnected web of all existence, principles that find their Buddhist counterparts in a belief in the centrality of the individual and the radical interdependence of all individuals. “It’s possible to intuit this radical interdependence in Unitarian Universalism,” Ford said, “but Zen offers the opportunity for direct experience of what would otherwise be simply ideas.”

Jeff Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is studying Buddhism in America, sees Ford’s achievement as a significant step for UU Buddhists. “It suggests that those practicing Unitarian Universalism can achieve deep wisdom via Buddhism and be recognized for their abilities without [their] involvement in Unitarian Universalism being seen as a hindrance by Buddhists.”

Ford has been an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship for many years and is past president. The fellowship, an independent organization affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, held its first convocation at the end of April 2005 in Garrison, New York, drawing 130 attendees.

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