Tuesday, September 04, 2012

If You're Lucky, You'll Read This Book!

James Ishmael Ford has just published a new book:  If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break:  Field Notes from a Zen Life(Wisdom Publications, 2012.)   It follows on the heels of the anthology he co-edited, The Book of Mu:  essential writings on zen's most important koan (Wisdom Publications, 2011), and sits on my shelf right next to his earlier Zen Master Who?  A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen (Wisdom Publications, 2006) and his essential in this very moment:  a simple guide to Zen Buddhism (Skinner House, 2002, 1996).  James is a prolific writer.  (Check out his blog Monkey Mind!)

He's also a unique figure in the sphere of liberal religion.  A Soto Zen Priest, he is also a Unitarian Universalist minister.  If anyone can be said to be involved in the evolution of Buddhism as it encounters the 21st century West, James is the guy.  And in his new book he offers notes on his forty years of being in the middle of it.

And by "it" I mean both Western, or as James calls it, Liberal Buddhism and also the Big IT -- Life.  As I noted in my review on Amazon, in If You're Lucky James manages to write an informative history of Buddhism, an analysis of modern Western Buddhism, and profound teachings on what I've always called The Big Questions.

There is so much in this little book.  I know that I'll be digesting what I've read for a good long while.  Already I can see some of my thinking shifting because of it.

Here's one example.  It's not exactly paradigmatic of the book as a whole, but it is a passage that hit me like a kick in the chest when I first read these three lines.  (But in a good way.)

"We are responsible in a way no other creature I'm aware of is.  We have eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and we have become as gods.  And that godlike quality is responsibility." (p.121)
That's it.  A mere 38 words, and my understanding of God, of myself, and of my place in the universe is forever changed.  It hit me like one of those optical illusions where you see one image if you focus on the foreground and something all together different if your focus is the background.  Usually at first I stare and stare and stare, able to only see one of the two images.  I am honestly unable to see anything but the thing I first see.  And then something shifts.  Or, maybe, everything shifts.  The second image comes into view and I can never not see it again.

That's how this passage affected me -- "that godlike quality is responsibility."  Somehow, out of all of the ways I've heard people describing that thing some call God, I don't think that the word "responsible" has ever been uttered.  And when I've heard people trying to make sense of the idea that "we are made in the image of God," I've heard a lot of talk about how we share the trait of Creativity, or Compassion, or even the Ability to Will, but I've never heard someone say that we're made in the image of God because we, also, are Responsible.

As I said, I need to digest this.  I need to sit with it for a while.  Maybe a long while.  But here are two things that I see right now:

First, it removes for me the capriciousness that is sometimes attributed to "God."  Sometimes it is unintentional and accidental, and sometimes it seems to verge on purposive, but the way people often talk about God implies that God can -- and does -- do anything he/she/it wants.  Because God is declared to be omnipotent -- all powerful, able to do anything -- God can act on God's own whims.  Of course, the whims of God are usually described as making up some kind of cosmic plan, yet so many different things are attributed to God's doing -- everything from hurricanes to Super Bowl victories -- that it certainly seems to me that God doesn't really have a plan after all or that, at least, it's a very unfocused one.

Yet if the quality that describes God best is "responsibility," then that changes everything.  It offers proof, if you will, that three quarters of the things attributed to God's will are not.  Because a truly responsible God would behave a lot differently than Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps would have us believe.  A truly responsible God might be worth . . . well . . . might be worth calling "God."

And if we are "made in God's image," and if our "eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" has, indeed, "made us as gods," and if what changed for us is that now we are responsible, than that makes "responsibility" part of my essential make up.  It makes "responsibility" part of the essence of my humanity.  And this, too, changes everything.  Because the word "responsible" implies, to me at least, a mutual relationship, a sense of equality.  I cannot be responsible to or with someone or something that I see myself as either "above" or "below."  Being responsible, it seems to me, recognizing my innate responsibility in life, is acknowledging that there's a claim on me.  It is a companion to freedom (and free will) and, in many ways, a corrective.

I like books that make me think.  I like books that encourage me to think in new ways.  I like If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break very, very much.  I hope you will read it to.

In Gassho,


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