If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break - Selections

Field Notes from a Zen Life


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Then the Divine answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: “Who is this who despairs without knowledge? Pull yourself together. I have questions for you, and you must answer. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you understand. Who measured out the universe?—do you understand? Who gave it shape?—do you understand? Who set the foundation, who set down the cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy, where were you?”

– Job 38:1–7

Chapter 1: The Answer, Sort of

I’ve been walking the Zen way for the larger part of a lifetime. And along this way of terrible broken hearts and unspeakable joys, of learning what a fool I usually am, and of a wondrous beauty that pervades the entire world and invades the hearts of people—even people as difficult as me—I’ve learned a few things about this Zen way that may be worth sharing.

The first is that it is all oversold a bit. There is indeed such a thing as enlightenment, as awakening, absolutely; I’ve tasted awakening in small and large ways. But what enlightenment actually is isn’t quite as grand as the literature sometimes suggests. Or, rather, it is considerably subtler and more dynamic than we ever think. Actually, as one Zen teacher said, “Awakening isn’t what you think.” Quite simply, awakening (a term I generally prefer to enlightenment) is part and parcel of our human condition. It doesn’t take us outside of the natural realm to any other place—awakening is found within our lives, just as they are.


There is a koan, a traditional Zen teaching story, that addresses this. This koan appears in the twelfth-century Chinese anthology the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate, case 2:


The master Baizhang Huaihai gave a series of talks on the Dharma. Among those who attended was an old man who sat near the back of the hall. One day the old man lingered after the talk and the master approached him, asking, “Who are you?”

The old man replied, “Many eons ago I was the master of a Zen temple on this spot. One day a sincere student of the way asked me whether someone who had awakened was bound by the laws of cause and effect, or not. I replied ‘No, such a person is not tangled in the strands of causality.’ Ever since that time I’ve been reborn as a fox. Perhaps five hundred times now. I’m desperately hoping you can say that turning word and free me from this horrible fate.”

He then made formal bows before the master and asked the question. “Is someone who has experienced awakening bound by the laws of cause and effect, or not?”

The master replied, “Such a person is one with the laws of cause and effect.”

Hearing this, the old man responded, “Thank you, those words have liberated me. I am released from this fox body. I have just one more request. My body is around the other side of the mountain. Can you retrieve it and give it a monk’s burial?”

Baizhang agreed and when the spirit vanished he called the head monk and announced that after the noon meal there would be a funeral. This information passed like wildfire through the assembly. Everyone knew there was no one in the infirmary, so they were very curious. After the meal the monks made their way around the mountain, retrieved the fox’s body, returned to the monastery, and gave it a priest’s interment.

Later that evening the master told the assembly what had happened.

His student Huangbo stepped forward and asked, “Master, what if when asked about awakening and causality he had given the right answer? What then?”

Baizhang smiled and said, “Come here and I’ll tell you.” Baizhang was a very small man, but his teacher’s stick was sitting in his lap, and the wise avoided his reach. Huangbo was said to be seven feet tall so as he walked up to his teacher he came within his very long arm’s reach while still well short of his teacher’s; Huangbo reached out and slapped the master. Baizhang laughed and laughed, and said to the assembly, “I thought the founder of our way, Bodhidharma, the barbarian from the West, had a red beard. But right here with us is a red-bearded barbarian!”


For those engaged in the discipline of Zen koan introspection, this is a complicated case with several important points to investigate. For our purposes here, I want simply to draw your attention to how, in the story, the old master of that mountain had been tangled in the all-too-common idea that awakening/enlightenment somehow excuses us from life. It doesn’t.

The awakened person is one with the flow of cause and effect, is one with the play of life and death, is the same person who has longings and desires, who is hurt and who needs. With awakening we are in all respects the same people we’ve always been, woven out of the mess of genes and history, our stuff the stuff of the world. But with this truth we are awakened to the reality of our intimate connections.

As we proceed here, what this actually means will be explored from a number of angles.

The grand language that one runs across within our Zen literature is appropriate because it points to a fundamental shift in human consciousness that does indeed liberate us from fear and shows us just how intimately connected we are with this whole great, lovely, and terrible matter that is life—and death.

It is about being real; not more real, not less. Awake or not, or (as we actually usually live) now awake,

now not; each step we take, each action we engage, each word that tumbles from our lips, and actually each thought that forms in our heads creates conditions that will engage with other conditions, and will have consequences. Everything is connected and everything has consequences.

As a practical matter this spiritual project is an invitation to discover who we really are. As such it is encountered, engaged and manifested entirely within our lives. As we open to this larger perspective we find a certain grace, and a whole new world of possibility.

Awakening does not particularly address the hurt of our childhoods nor does it fix our relationships with each other or the world. In fact I suggest that most of us who wish to embark on the spiritual quest would wisely also find competent psychological counseling. They can go together quite nicely.

Similarly, following the spiritual path doesn’t require going into a monastery—not that that is a bad thing for those so inclined. In fact for the right person it can be the wisest thing in the world. But the monastic way isn’t how most of us are going to live, and to think it necessary can be a bad mistake. Rather, I encourage everyone who walks the spiritual way to find a kind of work that is fulfilling and to pursue the proper preparation for being employed at doing it, whether that is going to welding school or getting a teacher’s certificate or, God help you, going to seminary as I did. Don’t put off your life. The spiritual, the worldly—it is all one thing.

Informed by our experience of awakening, we can more healthily engage those things. We can use the light that shines when we open our hearts and minds to discover our larger identity, to walk more carefully, more wisely on this sweet and suffering planet.



The first half of 2010 felt like the year of the earthquake. In January Haiti was absolutely devastated; in February there was another, even stronger quake in Chile, although fortunately less damaging; in March another tumbler in Taiwan; quickly followed by one more in Mexico; then in April, a pretty bad one on the Tibetan plateau. No doubt, such things can give one pause.

Among the responses to the devastation of these events was New Age guru Dr. Deepak Chopra sending a tweet to his followers, apologizing for starting the quake in Mexico through the force of his meditations. I assumed it was a joke—if one in pretty bad taste. But when asked for clarification, the good doctor didn’t plead an unfortunate sense of humor; instead he explained that he’d indeed been doing a powerful meditation at the time of the quake, though he did acknowledge that correlation isn’t necessarily causation.

As creepy as that might be, however, it pales when compared to fundamentalist Christian preacher Pat Robertson’s astonishing assertion that the horrendous Haitian earthquake was the result of Haiti’s founders having made a pact with the devil. “Blame the victim” is a venerable if reprehensible tradition explaining horrors, natural and otherwise.

Of course both these characters stand in a long line of people getting out in front of disasters and suggesting they know why they happened. The ones above are classic examples: one to claim unseen powers, another to blame the victim—though blaming victims is a way to claim power, as well. And these sorts of responses are about power—who has it, and who doesn’t.

And these are among the reasons I’m not overly enamored with religions.

Too often it’s just about power. No doubt natural disasters are very powerful things—and few are as mysterious and confusing and frightening as earthquakes. As a native Californian, I know—I’ve experienced many quakes. By and large, for most of my life, I didn’t really give them a lot of thought—until, that is, October 1989.

My wife Jan and I were living in Berkeley, California. On October 17, at 5:04 PM, I was at my internship site at the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, at the bottom of the Bay some forty-five miles from Berkeley. The whole thing remains vivid in my mind. I was standing in the front office, as was Lindi, our senior minister. Margie, our church’s administrator, was sitting at her desk. That’s when the earthquake struck. We were all native Californians so we ignored the first pitch. But with the second roll, as products of California’s public education system, Lindi and I each stepped into doorways while Margie went under her desk.

And that’s when I realized there was something they didn’t mention in those instructions at school. It was true I was in a relatively secure place should the building collapse—but I was also sharing that space with a door that wanted to fly back and forth. At 6.9 on the Richter scale and known later as the “pretty big one,” the Loma Prieta remains one of the largest recorded earthquakes in the lower forty-eight, and the most severe quake either Jan or I have ever experienced.

            While I was in San Jose sharing space with that door, Jan was up in Berkeley in our apartment, ironing and listening to records. The room she was in, as were all our rooms in that small apartment, was filled with jerry-rigged bookshelves reaching from floor nearly to the ceiling on every wall. She felt one sharp jolt. A book fell off one shelf. As we were the building managers, Jan went outside to see if the earthquake valve—a mechanical device that turns the gas flowing into a building off at any severe jolt—had been thrown. It hadn’t, so she returned to her ironing. It would be an hour or so later when she turned on the radio before she learned why I wasn’t about to walk through the door.

Turns out that our neighborhood sat on a solid hunk of granite, and a big one at that. However, this wasn’t true for most of the rest of the Bay Area, which had experienced a hellish fifteen seconds. There were sixty-two deaths; nearly four thousand people were hurt; parts of several freeways— including one that I drove along pretty nearly every day— and a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed; eighteen thousand homes were damaged; and a total estimated six billion dollars were lost in those fifteen seconds. That’s power.

And Jan and I, like so many others, were left shaken to the core. I can’t quite describe the feeling after such an experience. The fragility of it all, and the tentativeness of life itself, seemed to seep into our pores, and grew slowly from the first exhilaration of having made it, to a bone-and-marrow knowing that the earth could move from under us at any time, and no place really was safe, no place. The next year when I was offered a call to serve a church in Wisconsin, despite being Californians who had never lived outside the boundaries of our native state, Jan and I were pretty happy to leave earthquake country.

And I’ve found I have a take-away from that experience: I find myself thinking a lot about how the lessons that stick tend to be the ones that catch me off guard, that knock me out of my safety zones. They can be big, and they can be small. These experiences, big and small, are all intimations of what we really are.

Paul Evans, who blogs as “Melville at the Custom-House” provides a nice example of what that small intimation might look like:


Panhandlers frequented most of the main streets in Clifton, the neighborhood in Cincinnati where I lived from 1990 until 1995. They were quite a nuisance, especially when they set up shop by ATMs and pay phones. I made it a point to never make eye contact or acknowledge them.

One night, a bearded street person in his mid60s came up to me and actually clutched my sleeve. “Young man, do you have money for dinner?” They always needed it for a cup of coffee, or bus fare, or for a meal—never to buy booze. That was how cynical I was.

“No, I don’t,” I said, using a tone that telegraphed to him the matter was not open for discussion.

“Well, for God’s sake, get yourself something!” he said, stuffing a five-dollar bill in the breast pocket of my shirt. Before I could fully comprehend what had just happened, he disappeared in the other direction.


I queried Paul and he assured me the person was almost certainly indigent: his clothes needed cleaning, and so did he. I’ve been thinking about that, and the small earthquake for my new friend. And what it has meant for him in the days and weeks and years since.

I found myself thinking of that old Yiddish saying: “God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake.”

We all can make ourselves the center of the universe a bit too easily, and start seeing everything that is going on as being about us, about me. Like Dr. Chopra “causing” the earthquake. There is danger in this way of thinking. The truth is that in most of life, most of our lives, most of us are walk-ons, minor characters at best, with a single line to say.

But we can also, like my friend and that poor man who gave him five dollars, let the encounter open us up like a flower in bloom. It is at such moments—when I just open up, when my heart is thrown open in spite of myself—in which I discover the beginnings of meaning. Not meaning in the sense of an Aristotelian thread of argument, but meaning as something powerful and compelling, and for our human hearts maybe more important than the solution to a problem.

This sense of deep meaning is the sense that informs the Yiddish saying above: the earthquake upsets what we expect and gives us something else, something quite possibly devastating. I suggest this isn’t so much even about letting go, but about discovering there is nothing to hold on to, and nor has there ever been.

This is about being thrown into the chaos of it all, of being swept away.


In this context I’d like to hold up the Book of Job for your consideration. I’ve wrestled with that book for ages and have come back to its points on any number of occasions. I’ve found in that ancient book how, in the midst of suffering and longing and frustrated desire, in the midst of that deafening silence to our pleas and calls, we are in fact given a gift. It is a terrible gift, no doubt. The wounds we receive in our lives, the death of children, the ravages of disease, the hunger and want that haunt this world—in addition to the horror of their reality—that moment of confusion and uncertainty can also open our hearts to some fearful reality, some astonishing reality.

I’m not calling for a joyful embrace here; at least not exactly. One would be right in raging against the horror of such things as follow in the wake of these earthquakes. Indeed there is an almost endless litany of things in life that should offend us. But, in addition to weeping for the children, and doing our best to work to help the survivors— we can also look full on, and not turn away. And if we do, if we really do not turn away from those hurts, we find something.

We discover that who we are counts, however important or not we might be in the ordering of things. We discover that what we are as individuals is in fact holy. But, it is a terrible holiness. After all that happens to Job, after his great demand for justice, then, there, from out of the whirlwind—or, you can just as easily say from within the earthquake—he and we get the gift of a terrible presence and a roaring confrontation with all that is.

It is that which pulls out of Job his hymn, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite… I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”

Comforted that I am dust. This passage has long haunted people. Some rage against it, saying all that Job is doing is wallowing in that dust, squeaking his submission to the great cosmic bully. But I suggest there is more here. That wise commentator on this whole great mess, Stephen Mitchell, in his modern spiritual classic, The Book of Job, tells us, “Job’s comfort at the end is in his mortality.”

So we need to be appalled at what has happened. We need to reach out a hand to those in need. We need to stop, to notice, and to discover in this terrible moment something about ourselves. It is, I suggest, the gateway to wisdom. And that is where we find meaning, purpose, and direction, which is also our work, perhaps the great work itself.

Out of the earthquakes of our lives, small and great—in the awe, in the silence that follows—notice.

Everything follows this noticing.


How to cite this document:
© James Ishmael Ford, If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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