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Original Dwelling Place: Zen Essays

by Robert Aitken, Upland, California: Counterpoint, 1996. 241 pp.
reviewed by Robert E. Goss
Webster University
Buddhist-Christian Studies 19.1 (1999) 212-215


Robert Aitken narrates his over forty-year journey into Zen, elucidating not only his spiritual journey but also reflecting the Americanization of Zen Buddhism. He was introduced to Zen Buddhism during World War II as an internee in a camp for enemy civilians in Kobe, Japan. Original Dwelling Place is Aitken's ninth book to explore a series of topics that accent his personal journey into Zen. He has gathered a series of essays about the texts and lineage teachers with whom he studied over the years. In the opening section, entitled "Ancestors", he pays homage to the masters who influenced his own Zen practice. He writes, "All of my guides have passed away, but they are alive in my mind and body" (p. 5). The book reflects his continuing bond with those deceased teachers who exercised a vital presence and environmental book coverinfluence within his life. He shares some stories, personal insights, and legacies of some of his guides, such as Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Roshi, Blyth Sensei, and D. T. Suzuki. I found his essay on the legacy of Dwight Goddard filling in many personal details of a pioneer Western Buddhist who significantly contributed to the Americanization of Buddhism. In many ways, Aitken's own spiritual development and Original Dwelling Place recapitulate the Americanization of Zen Buddhism, providing some important insights into that process of Buddhist acculturation.

Yet Aitken does not limit his guides to twentieth-century ones. He brings alive the classical discourses and relates them to contemporary life. Throughout his essays, I was struck by how alive and dynamic Aitken's Mahayana contemplative vision and practice are. There is a spirit of "contemplative action" that collapses the duality of meditative practice and living that discovers the truth dynamically within a matrix of open living. As a Christian practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, I found many parallels to the Jesuit ideal of being "contemplative in action." Aitken's essays elucidate an ongoing dynamic dialectic that fluctuates between meditative reflection and the world of experience---reminding me at times of the contemplative Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, and at other times of the Jesuit poet-activist, Daniel Berrigan. The reader garners an aesthetic sense that classical Zen texts have been an integral part of his journey and have provided him with a platform to reflect on topics such as marriage, death, the use of money, sexuality, and Zen practice. Some of his essays have a meditative quality, drawing the reader into an web of intertextuality and experience where Zen teachers and Western poets engage in a contemplative path of pleasure expressed in awareness of the everyday dewdrop world. There were moments that I envisioned reading a particular essay on retreat, for they had a meditative quality that reminded me of some the writings of Thomas Merton. Like Merton, Robert Aitken does not merely probe meditative experience but attempts to interrogate the everyday experiences of Western Buddhists from meditative awareness. Most Japanese Buddhists, he notes, are married within Shinto ceremonies, and Western Buddhists have resurrected old Buddhist marriage ceremonies seldom used by Japanese practitioners. Western Buddhist marriage ceremonies, Aitken notes, are a relatively new tradition that often blends ceremonies from The Book of Common Prayer with Buddhist rituals. He ends his short essay on marriage with final reflections on how marriage and family form a little sangha.

In "Death: A Zen Buddhist Perspective," Aitken breaks new ground by noting how Buddhists face the fact of death and find solace in impermanence. He quotes the Japanese haiku poet, Isa Kobayashi (1763-1827), grieving at the loss of his baby daughter:
The dewdrop world
is the dewdrop world,
and yet---and yet (p. 124).

Isa looks desperately for something to give him hope but only finds comfort in his grief. Aitken points out that within grief is emancipation and that bereavement can be a good teacher. He develops some reflections on a highly underdeveloped topic within Buddhism: grieving and the transformation of grief into solace.

Aitken writes on political revolution and the matters of ethics. He addresses the proper use of money, power, and sexual love in a modern world tainted by materialism and decadence. In a number of essays, Aitken works out a practical Buddhist ethics dealing with everyday social issues. His Buddhist ethics evolve from a meditative awareness applied to everyday issues in the Mahayana spirit of compassion. He proposes that American Buddhists form informal groups within larger sanghas to examine what is going on in the world---because we are organic elements of something greater---and then address particular social issues. His definition of the greater sangha includes non-Buddhists as well as a variety of Buddhists.

Aitken openly discusses the issue of sexual misconduct of Buddhist teachers with students. It is a vital issue for both Buddhist and Christian communities, but Aitken's comments are limited to Buddhist teachers. He notes that a therapist who falls in love with a client has the option of terminating therapy before entering an intimate sexual relationship. Aitken points out, "Termination is not an option for the Buddhist teacher, however, for in effect it involves robert aitkenexpelling the student from the sangha" (p. 162). A Buddhist teacher who engages in sexual abuse of his students manifests what the Dharma is not, for sexual abuse often leads to not only the student's disaffection but also hurts other members of the sangha. For Aitken, unless a teacher is willing to resign from teaching, he should rigorously avoid all circumstances that could lead to an affair with a student. He notes that the teacher must stay focused on the health and welfare of students and the Buddhist sangha.

Aitken takes up the traditional Buddhist notion of shunning
(brahmadanda: literally, "noble staff," denoting a noble penalty or shunning) to address the issue of the Buddhist teacher's sexual abuse of students. If those who administer the center fail to confront a teacher, colleagues from other centers and from academia could agree to practice brahmadanda. Colleagues have less to risk than center members; they can practice shunning of the abusive teacher, raising questions from within the teacher's own sangha and other sanghas. Aitken suggests other methods of direct intervention, like that used for those who suffer substance abuse, the need for confession and repentance, and the sangha to support the abusive teacher to confront his difficulties and change his behaviors. The sangha, Aitken believes, needs to bring its secrets into the open before reconciliation is possible. Aitken speaks of his own personal sexual attractions and how he does not act upon them because it harms the student in his or her progress on the path. He keeps the principle of the nonharm of students as a focal point of his discussion in sexual abuse of students. Some Christian churches with a history of clergy sexual abuse might incorporate some of Aitken's suggestions and refrain from placing undue burdens on the victims of sexual abuse by focusing on their welfare. What I found refreshing about his discussion was the genuine sense of care that he expressed for both the teacher and student involved in a sexual relationship. His essay is ultimately sensitive, compassionate, and firm about sexual boundary crossings by teachers with students. He does not demonize the teacher, but tries to help the reader to understand human desire and how destructive it can be when the focus is on the path.

In another essay, "Envisioning the Future," Aitken explores engaged Buddhism and grassroots activism. He notes that Southern Buddhist activists such as A. T. Ariyaratne and Sulak Sivaraksa have adapted Gandhi's program of "Independence for the Masses" to organize community grassroots programs that cultivate self-reliance and provide social critique. He observes that Mahayana lags behind the development of grassroots activism of engaged Southern Buddhists. I found his statement too broad, as I am very well aware of the grassroots activism that Tibetan Buddhists have participated in for nearly four decades. There are, however, several important points that Aitken makes in this essay. He maintains that Western Buddhists need to modify the American activist role to reflect our culture and Buddhist spiritual heritage. Buddhist principles and practices need to be brought to Buddhist activism. He speaks of the greater sangha, which is not merely Buddhist but builds across ecumenical and interfaith boundaries. There are other compassionate, spiritually centered activists who are working for the same social goals. What I call an interfaith coalition of justice friends, Aitken calls the "greater sangha."

Moreover, Aitken is one of the few Buddhist practitioners who discusses the parallels between the sangha and Christian base communities in Latin America. He suggests that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship might consider the Christian base community and its design as a model for developing its chapters and programs. He envisions networks of Buddhists (and non-Buddhists) to become contemplative communities for social change and justice. Finally, Aitken paraphrases a quote of the great Quaker organizer, A. J. Muste, "There is no way to a just society; our just societies are the way" (p. 150). At the heart of the paraphrase is the Buddhist experience of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada), a vision of compassionate interrelationality that has strong implications for effecting social change. Buddhist networks can become alternative social models or change communities, mirroring a society that can realize compassion.

In the section of Original Dwelling Place entitled "Taking Pleasure in the Dharma," Aitken develops a pleasure aesthetic that blends Wallace Stevens and Zen, an ontology of play and the uphill/downhill motions in nonverbal presentations in Zen practice. I particularly like his ontology that experiences karma and Buddha Nature as one in the play of Zen students: "All the world's a stage. We play roles: Zen teacher, Zen student, parent, spouse, friend, worker, pedestrian, and so on. We play 'as if . . .'."

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