Two Must-Read Zen Books


James Ford and David Rynick, two of Boundless Way Zen’s four guiding teachers, have new books.  I’ve read both now, and I think they’re fantastic.


They also are very different books, even though they’re both spiritual autobiographies of sorts, and even though they have the same basic purpose:  to encourage us to embrace and be embraced by, and to be awake to, life more fully.  James and David each do this by offering us a window on their own experience, and on how Zen practice has helped them meet their own lives.


If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life is James’s book.  It is organized thematically around topics one might care to know something about while walking the Zen path, or while thinking about stepping onto it.  Topics like the following:

  • What “enlightenment” (which James prefers to call “awakening”) is and is not
  • What Zen folk do that makes their practice Zen practice:  sitting meditation, koan introspection, meeting with teachers, etc.
  • Zen’s ethical precepts


As James explores these topics, he tells his life story, and the story of his religious development, in particular.  It’s something of an understatement to say that James has covered some religious ground over the years.  He was raised in a Baptist family; he was a hippie in San Francisco in the sixties; he was part of two Zen communities, receiving dharma transmission in the second, before taking a long hiatus from Zen; he flirted with Sufism for a time; he found Unitarian Universalism; he returned to Zen as a student of John Tarrant, from whom he received transmission a second time; and he eventually co-founded Boundless Way Zen, while also serving as a UU minister.


Everything James has to tell us about the Zen way is born of and grounded in his own life experience, which he shares generously.  This sharing includes some quite personal details – details about his hippie years, for example, and about the murderous thoughts he had more recently (i.e., as a Zen roshi) after someone offended him in the checkout line of a grocery store.  This is James fully exposed, showing us his joys and struggles, and showing us how Zen practice has helped him understand and meet those joys and struggles.


I’ve never read a book about the major perspectives and practices of a religious tradition that is this autobiographical, nor, before reading these books, had I read an autobiography that does double duty as a book about the what-and-how of religious practice.  I might have appreciated and enjoyed reading James’s autobiography as such, or reading a further book by him about the perspectives and practices of Zen, but I enjoyed this practice-guide-as-autobiography all the more.  It’s an original approach, and it definitely works for me.


Borrowing a line from Torei Enji’s Bhodisattva’s Vow, David titled his book This Truth Never Fails:  A Zen Memoir in Four Seasons.  The book takes the form of a journal written during a particularly big year in David’s life:  the year in which he and Melissa (Blacker, David’s Zen teacher wife) established the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in which David received dharma transmission from his teacher, George Bowman.


But the book doesn’t exactly read like private “notes to self.”  David clearly is aware that he is writing to and for others, even as he writes to and for himself.  (Does anyone ever write a journal without considering possible audiences other than one’s future self?)  On the other hand, the book doesn’t read anything like James’s teacher-to-student practice guide, as personal and self-revealing as James’s book is.


David invites us to eavesdrop on his conversations with himself – conversations about his insecurities, about breakfast, about the flowers in the temple garden.  He even invites us to eavesdrop on his conversations with the flowers in the temple garden.  This is a stylized, first person account of passing moments and days during the course of roughly one year, written mainly in the present tense.  It is a book about David’s noticing, and his reflections upon his noticing, written with great generosity toward, but without too much notice paid to, us, his readers.


Yet this “my life as it’s happening” approach has everything to do with what David hopes to convey to us.  Roughly halfway into the book, we learn that he tried to write a more conventional practice guide, but that the process and product felt hollow to him.  David wanted the writing process to feel alive and full, and the product to convey the fullness and aliveness he feels (even in the depths of his experience).  He encourages us to notice the stuff of our own experience by sharing his own noticing, up close and personal.


If James’s book is more practice guide-as-autobiography, David’s is more autobiography-as-practice guide.  Both books show and tell, but David’s does much more showing than telling.


It was a lovely experience reading these books together (and I did, in fact, alternate between them).  Like their authors, the books are excellent companions.  Read them and you’ll get a sense of what this Zen project, as expressed within BoWZ, is all about.  You’ll also glimpse the brilliance of having multiple teachers in one community, and you’ll know how incredibly fortunate we are to have these two guys as two of our teachers.