Robert Aitken Roshi — A Personal & Biographical Reflection
Baker Aitken — Dairyu Chotan/Great Dragon (of the) Clear Pool — died on
August 5 in Honolulu at the age of 93. He was the “dean” of Western Zen
teachers, a great light of dharma. Aitken Roshi was a prophetic and
inconvenient voice right to the end. I have a picture of him from a
year or two back, smiling impishly, holding up a hand-lettered sign that
reads: “The System Stinks.”
Over the last twenty years I was
privileged to collaborate with Aitken Roshi at Buddhist Peace
Fellowship, to study with him at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, and to
help with editorial tasks on one of his books. As thousands of readers
found, his books are treasures — deep in dharma, crisp and vivid in
voice, and ringing with the sound of justice.
spent childhood years in Honolulu, not far from the Palolo Zendo he
built later in life. When I practiced with him at Palolo in 1996, he
took me for a walk through his old neighborhood, pointing out the parks
and houses, strolling along the beach at Waikiki and through the grand
old parlors of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. He loved the air and sea. The
sounds of birds and geckos punctuated his lectures, calling him to
During World War II, as a construction worker on
Guam, young Robert Aitken was interned by invading Japanese troops and
sent to a camp in Kobe, Japan for the rest of the war. A sympathetic
guard gave him a copy of R.H. Blyth's Zen in English Literature and
Oriental Classics which he read over and over. In 1944, by chance,
Aitken and Blyth, who also been interned in Japan, were transferred to
the same camp. They became close friends, and Aitken determined he
would study Zen with a true master on his release.
to Hawaii and earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and a master’s
degree in Japanese language. A thesis on the great Zen poet Bassho
became his first book, A Zen Wave. In the late 1940s he began Zen
studies in Los Angeles with the pioneering teacher Nyogen Senzaki. He
went to Japan in the early 50s to practice with Nakagawa Soen Roshi, one
of the 20th century’s most original Rinzai monks, who invited him to
lead a sitting group in 1959, placing Robert Aitken among the very first
western Buddhist teachers.
From 1962 on, Aitken organized
sesshins for Yasutani Roshi, whose Sanbo Kyodan (Three Treasures) school
merged the shikantaza emphasis of Soto with rigorous koan work of the
Rinzai school. Studying with Yasutani, and with his successor Yamada
Koun Roshi, Robert Aitken was authorized to teach independently, and
became known as Aitken Roshi. The Diamond Sangha arose from his travels
and teachings. It now has more than twenty affiliates around the world,
and a cadre of accomplished and transmitted dharma heirs.
Roshi, his wife Anne, and Nelson Foster founded the Buddhist Peace
Fellowship on the back porch of the Maui Zendo in 1978. The idea was to
further the interdependent practice of awakening and social justice.
The spark for BPF was struck from Roshi’s in depth study of 19th and
20th century anarchism, and his long experience as an anti-war and
anti-military activist. BPF continues to this day with the same
mission. In a later book, Encouraging Words, Aitken Roshi wrote that
"monastery walls have broken down and the old teaching and practice of
wisdom, love and responsibility are freed for the widest applications in
the domain of social affairs."
I was drawn to Aitken Roshi’s books in the 1980s, first reading his classic Taking the Path of Zen (1982), a primer on Zen practice. I have a copy of The Mind of Clover
(1984) signed at a reading at Black Oak Books in early 1985. In my
reckoning this is still the best book around on practical Buddhist
ethics. But among his thirteen published books (with more to come, I
hope), I would also point out The Gateless Barrier — Roshi’s translation of the Mumonkan koan collection — and The Practice of Perfection, his commentary on the paramitas or Mahayana “perfections.”
Roshi was a disciplined writer. That was an essential part of his daily
practice, writing for several hours each morning, trying to avoid
interruptions and distractions. Several times I found him reading aloud
to himself, polishing the language and voice until it sounded right to
his ears. You can hear that distinct voice in every page he wrote.
is an image near the end of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the pinnacle of early
Chinese Hua-Yen Buddhism, that Aitken Roshi often cited. Similar to the
interdependent reality of Indra’s Net, he delighted in the idea of
Maitreya's tower, extending into and throughout space, encompassing an
infinite number of towers, one as brilliant and astonishing as the next.
And somehow these towers co-exist in space without conflict or
contradiction. I think this dazzling vision is how Roshi saw the world.
It is also how we can see his mind and work.
Aitken Roshi never
found an inch of separation between his vision of justice and the Zen
teachings of complete interdependence. The vast universe, with all its
joys and sorrows was his true dwelling place. It still is. Robert
Aitken Roshi, presente!