James Ishmael Ford

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James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford Roshi.png
Born (1948-07-17) July 17, 1948 (age 70)
Oakland, California
Education BA, Sonoma State University; MDiv and MA, Pacific School of Religion
Occupation Zen Buddhist priest and Unitarian Universalist minister
Spouse(s) Jan Seymour-Ford[1]

James Ishmael Ford (Zeno Myoun, Roshi) is an American Zen Buddhist priest and Unitarian Universalist minister. He was born in Oakland, California on July 17, 1948. He earned a BA in psychology from Sonoma State University, as well as an MDiv and an MA in the Philosophy of Religion, both from the Pacific School of Religion.


Ford began his Zen studies in 1968 at the Berkeley Zen Center under the direction of Mel Weitsman, later Weitsman, Roshi. He was ordained unsui and received Dharma transmission from the late Jiyu Kennett Roshi. After leaving Kennett Roshi's Shasta Abbey and for a brief time exploring other religious traditions including the Episcopal Church, the western Gnostic tradition and Inayat Khan Sufism, Ford pursued Zen koan introspection for nearly twenty years with the Sanbo Kyodan derived Harada-Yasutani Zen master Dr John Tarrant, with whom he completed formal training and from whom he received Inka Shomei in 2005.

Ford also began to be seriously involved in Unitarian Universalism at about the same time he began his work with Tarrant Roshi. After completing theological studies he became a Unitarian Universalist minister, serving Unitarian Universalist congregations in Wisconsin and Arizona before becoming senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA[2] in 2000. In May 2008 First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI[3] called him to its pulpit; he began his ministry there in the summer of that year. He retired from the ministry in July 2016, but continues to work on an interim basis.

He also maintained his relationships within the Soto community, and in 2004 Ford participated in the first Dharma Heritage ceremony of the forming North American Soto Zen Buddhist Association. This event, designed to be the equivalent of the Japanese Soto Zuisse ceremony, was a public acknowledgment of Ford (among others) as a senior member of the North American Zen community. Ford, a past president of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, was the first Unitarian Universalist minister to be named a Zen master.[4]

Ford is currently a teacher at Boundless Way Zen,[5] a network of Zen meditation groups mostly in eastern Massachusetts. He joins in this project with David Rynick, a Dharma successor of Zen Master George Bowman in the Korean lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn and Rynick's wife and Ford's Dharma heir, Melissa Myozen Blacker. The Boundless Way appears to be the first Western Zen community to attempt to blend several lineages into a single organization.

Ford is co-editor of The Transient and Permanent in Liberal Religion,[6] and is the author of This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists,[7] both published by Skinner House Books. He is also the author of a study of Zen teachers and communities in North America, Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen,[8] the co-editor of The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan,[9] and the author of If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life[10] from Wisdom Publications.

Ford sees himself as part of a westernized Zen which is still evolving in important areas. In his dharma talks and teishos he regularly draws attention to the fact that Zen, as it is practiced in the West, often blends classic Zen Buddhism and its practices with a Western rationalist and humanistic understandings. "Liberal Zen",[11] as he chooses to call it in contradistinction to "traditional Zen," may differ considerably from traditional Zen, particularly as practiced in the social and cultural milieu of its Asian sources. The inclusion of women and homosexuals on equal footing with other practitioners, the emphasis on lay practice, and a concern that spiritual insights lead to ethical and social engagement represent a few of the areas in which liberal Zen may be seen to vary from a more traditionalist perspective. Ford regards the tensions between these perspectives as one of the great creative opportunities for practice in the West, while also taking care to warn his students not to mistake their own concerns with social justice or political progressivism with the attitudes of the Buddha.


See also


  1. Blogger.com profile
  2. First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA
  3. First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI
  4. "Unitarian Universalist minister named Zen master", by Jane Greer, 29 August 2005, retrieved 10 June 2007.
  5. Boundless Way Zen
  6. James Ishmael Ford; Dan O'Neal; Alice Blair Wesley (1995). The Transient and Permanent in Liberal Religion: Reflections from the Uuma Convocation on Ministry. Skinner House Books. ISBN 978-1-55896-330-6. 
  7. James Ishmael Ford (1996). This Very Moment : A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists. Skinner House Books. ISBN 1-55896-347-2. 
  8. James Ishmael Ford (2006). Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-509-8. 
  9. James Ishmael Ford; Melissa Myozen Blacker (2011). The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-643-4. 
  10. James Ishmael Ford (2012). If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 1-61429-039-3. 
  11. "A Note on Liberal Buddhism" by James Ishmael Ford

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