James has walked the spiritual path for more than fifty years. He's danced with Sufis, studied with Christian mystics, lived in Buddhist monasteries, and eventually was ordained a Zen priest. Later he also ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. He has taught in Zen centers and preached from the high pulpits in old New England churches.
James' path has taken him to a life "between" several traditions, bringing him into a nondual spirituality. Trying to unpack what that actually means in his life, and with a tip of the hat to Erasmus, James claims a physiology of faith, a Buddhist brain, a Christian heart, and a rationalist stomach. (For more go here.)
James' spirituality is rooted in the nondual expressions of Zen Buddhism, but is also informed by other nondual traditions, especially Christian mysticism. Practically this has manifested in a professional life as a minister informed as much by Western Christian traditions as Eastern. While at the same time engaged for decades as a Zen student. And now for many more years as a spiritual director deeply focused on the gifts of Zen meditation, retreat, and especially the koan introspection discipline passed on through the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
James is married to Jan Seymour-Ford. Jan is a retired librarian active in social justice issues. She is also a senior dharma teacher with Empty Moon Zen.
Today Jan & James divide their time supporting Jan's mom's living independently in Tujunga, California, and their home in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood of Long Beach.
A High School drop-out, when James considers what might be his alma mater, he has come to feel it would have to be a combination of those early monastic years blending together with near two decades working in used bookstores up and down the California coast.
Along the way he has earned some degrees and certificates.
B.A. (Psychology) Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 1987 (just before he turned 39 and with a nod of infinite gratitude to California's Community College system and specifically to San Diego City College and San Diego Evening College, without which, none of these degrees would have been possible) M.Div. Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA 1991 M.A. (Philosophy of Religion) P.S.R., 1992 Clinical Pastoral Education unit, 1990
His formal ordinations & authorizations:
Shukke Tokudo (novice priest ordination), Oakland, California, 5 July, 1969, by Houn Jiyu Kennett, Roshi Denkai/Denbo transmission (full ordination and authorization as a teacher), Mt Shasta, California, 2 May, 1971, Houn Jiyu Kennett, Roshi Ordination, Deacon & Priest, 24 April, 1978, by the then Episcopus Vagans in the Arnold Harris Matthews' succession, J. Julian Gillmon Ordination, Minister, Unitarian Universalist, Mequon, Wisconsin, October, 1991, by the Congregation of the Unitarian Church North Ministerial Fellowship, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1991 (Final Fellowship in 1994) Dharma Heritage (recognition as a senior teacher in North American Soto Zen), 2004, Clatskanie, Oregon, Soto Zen Buddhist Association. (In 2012, served as doshi or principal celebrant at the fifth Dharma Heritage ceremony. Feeling a misalignment in direction, in January 2023 he resigned his membership in the SZBA.) Inka Shomei (final authorization as a koan Zen teacher), 6 August 2005, Needham, MA, by John Nanryu Ji'un-ken Tarrant, Roshi
(James holds additional ordinations within the independent sacramental tradition as well as several initiations within Inayat Khan Universalist Sufism. They occurred after he left the Zen monastery and before he found his blended Unitarian ministry and Zen practice. They represent important parts of his formation on the intimate way, and in subtle ways continue to touch his life, but less directly than those markers listed above.)
James has reflected on and written articles, blogs, and books about spirituality. He has lectured at Harvard Divinity School, Meadville Lombard Theological School, and the University of the West. At the same time he has worked in the trenches for social justice.
James served as a UU parish minister for twenty-five years. He is minister-emeritus of the First Unitarian Church of Providence. He was first authorized to teach Zen within the California Diamond Sangha. Later became a co-founder of the Boundless Way Zen network, and was its first school abbot. Today he is guiding teacher of the Empty Moon Zen Sangha and within the UU world is a community minister.
James is a member of the the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (he served as chapter president in both the Mass Bay and Ballou Channing districts). Since 2005 he has been a member of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, a clergy study group founded by Universalist ministers in 1905. He is also a member of the American Zen Teachers Association, (he served on its membership committee for a decade). James was designated a Distinguished Alumnx by his seminary, the Pacific School of Religion, on the 22nd of April, 2023.
There is a small but persisting rumor that James' name was plucked out of the air, probably because of his first book, and given to the character "James Ford" later "James Ford Sawyer" in the television show "Lost."