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Robert Aitken's Amazing Life

John Tarrant, Roshi
Shambhala Sun | November 2010
Note: see the reply to this article by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker

aitken"He was not the shiny, self-assured, clear creature that Zen masters were advertised to be. He was always feeling around for the meaning of events, and I found that to be one of his best features." 

John Tarrant, Roshi, remembers a giant of Zen in the West and pioneer of Buddhist activism.

Some people want it pure white
but sweep as you will, you can’t empty the mind.

—Keizan Jokin

Early on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers came low through the gap in the mountains of Oahu and sank the great warships in Pearl Harbor, and, by the law of unintended consequences, doomed the Japanese empire and exported Zen Buddhism to the United States.

The Japanese invaded Guam, and among the Americans working there was a civilian in his mid-twenties, thin, physically awkward, scholarly, looking for a direction. The Japanese army decided his direction for him by hauling him off to an internment camp in Kobe, Japan. Unlike prisoners of war, interned civilians were accorded no special cruelty, though stragglers were shot. The young man keeping carefully in line was Robert Aitken. He played a great part in bringing Zen to the West.

I was close to him from the late 1970s, when he was coming into his own as a teacher, until the late 1990s, when he retired, and his stories and our meetings around koans are the things I remember most. Through the timing of my arrival, I was the first person to complete koan study with him, and also the first to receive transmission to teach. He died on August 5, at the age of 93, and this piece is a tribute to him.

In the internment camp a guard lent him a book called Zen in English Literature, by R.H. Blyth, an English translator in love with Japan. Aitken read the book over and over; it made him happy in dark circumstances, offering a link between his own tradition and the meaning of life. When the camps were consolidated he met Mister Blyth, as he always called him, who had also been interned. Blyth was a mentor in an unlikely place, and introduced the newcomer to Zen, koans, haiku, and the value of surprising events.

After the war, with funding to study haiku and koans, Aitken returned to Japan, leaving his wife and infant son with friends. This led to his unmarrying; later he felt qualms but told me, “I had no choice, really.” By this he meant that he was obsessed with the big questions and could have no peace or joy without solving them.

When he remarried it was to Anne Hopkins, an heiress with a gracious and floating physical presence. For their honeymoon they went to Japan and straight into sesshin, a period of intense Zen meditation. It turned out not to be her idea of a honeymoon, although it was a source of amusement later on. Anne was a part of all he did in Zen, and she cofounded and funded his zendo. It began in their living room in Honolulu, and something of that informal tone always stayed with his groups. Anne moderated his emotional connections with colleagues and students, and he found it hard going after she died.

In the seventies, Bob, as he was known (later he became “the Old Man”) and Anne ran temples in Maui and Honolulu. A big part of his presence in the Buddhist world was to link left-wing politics and Zen. When I met him, at Kahului Airport in the late seventies, he was returning from a demonstration at a Trident submarine base near Seattle. He was wearing tennis shoes and was excited and anxious because he had nearly been arrested. It seemed very innocent to seek arrest as a gesture of political sincerity, and it was also hard to avoid the thought, “Weren’t you in prison during the war?” This mixture of innocence and contradictory echoes was intrinsic to my experience of him.

At his centers you could spend about eight months of the year in serious Zen training, including eight seven-day retreats offered annually. If you wanted to drop everything and have a run at enlightenment, it was the place for you. You climbed an overgrown path through guava trees and flowers to get there, and my first sight of the Maui Zendo was of beautiful naked people in open air showers. It was an exciting place for other reasons; there was a feeling that Zen for the West was being constructed each day and anyone could have a hand in the enterprise. During retreat you could share a room with a guy who had run a bird zoo in Portland, or watch William Merwin, a poet whose books I had carried on fishing boats in Northern Australia, stand on his head, then write furiously in his notebooks before running down the hall to the first meditation at 4.30 am. An elegant, gracious woman who seemed more refined than most of us had a house set up for tea ceremony and, through a strange and fatal turn of the mind, became a breatharian, subsisting entirely on air until she starved to death. Zen pioneer Paul Reps dropped through and showed his fish prints. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti banged on the door.

You had to wear robes to meditation and everyone tripped over them all the time, especially when running at four in the morning while trying to tie them on. If you didn’t sit still, someone would yell at you. But sitting still might be helpful and a few rules, arbitrary to the point of lunacy, seemed necessary to bond an unlikely crew. There was often a feeling that you might be doing the wrong thing, but if you could bear that, the temples on Maui and in Honolulu were places where a wanderer could work with koans and find out the nature of mind and his or her place in the cosmos, or at least grow up. The Old Man was generous with interviews and we felt we were proving the tradition together, something exhilarating and intimate. The system more or less worked for me and cleared up my doubts.

Whether it had worked for Aitken was itself a question. His most influential early teacher was Nakagawa Soen, the reluctant abbot of a great temple in Japan. Soen spoke good English, liked Beethoven, and was a notable haiku poet. The relationship had a high degree of whimsy. When Aitken visited Soen in winter, and they went for a walk by the Japan Sea, Soen stripped down. “Remember,” he said, “Zen is not asceticism!” and plunged in.

Once Soen was giving sesshin in Honolulu and gave a great yell. Aitken found himself joining in. Soen thought Aitkin was on the verge of enlightenment and started yelling and whacking him with the Zen stick in an effort to push him over the edge. Aitken was yelling too. “But nothing happened” he said later, forlornly. “I don’t think those methods work.”

Aitken ended up studying with Koun Yamada, who had been Soen’s high school roommate. After the war Yamada had taken the problem of suffering seriously; he trained very hard and became the poster child for massive enlightenment experiences. Yamada had a literate, innovative, and practical mind. Some of his students found enlightenment quickly; others Yamada would drag or inveigle into the koan curriculum, coaching them in the hope that they would find their feet by stumbling along. Aitken was his test case for that theory.

When the time came, Bob wasn’t so sure he should teach. He muttered, “I just can’t do this, I can’t teach,” to Taizan Maezumi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and Maezumi invited him to stay for a while. It was Maezumi, he said, who really made him a teacher. Maezumi didn’t quite fit the idea of a Zen master either—“I could smell the sake on his breath,” Bob remembered, “but he was completely clear and he held my feet to the fire till I understood.”

Bob never stopped wondering if he had indeed ever had an enlightenment experience, and told me different versions at different times. Sometimes he was quite sure he hadn’t. He was always feeling around for the meaning of events, and I found that to be one of his best features. He was not the shiny, self-assured, clear creature that Zen masters were advertised to be. He was timid and anxious, and put down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness. But he knew that he judged and assessed others because he judged and assessed himself, and when he was least certain he was most interesting and helpful to be around. In Zen there is a famous koan about whether a dog has buddhanature, and that was the koan he worked on for twenty years, trying to settle the matter of his dog.

He learned enough to guide others. In an interview he held out his hand and I met Hakuin, the great medieval koan master, embodied in a little room while outside it rained and rained and inside there was light, nothing but light. I never forgot that dawn. Sometimes his understanding seemed deep and other times not so much, but his rule-bound meticulousness was fine for me, because I didn’t expect someone to understand my feelings or mirror me; I wanted to know what the tradition thought and how it could deepen me and those to come.

In the Buddhist world the obligations of mentors and students are always under negotiation, and when I left for the Bay Area, turning down his offer to stay in Hawaii and take over his temple, he took that as disloyalty, which I suppose it was.

I hadn’t been aware that I had any strong reaction to my old mentor’s death, but the night after I heard the news I dreamed of my long-dead grandfather, another tall, difficult, intelligent man with great stories. I kept waking and falling back into the same dream. In the dream he drew for me some star maps for navigation. I noticed he drew the far northern stars, indicating in the dream that he was intending to sail into high, cold latitudes. When I was leaving I realized I could have taken him sailing, but I hadn’t thought to and wouldn’t be returning that way. We wouldn’t meet again and he would be alright.

Many years ago, just before I began teaching, I dreamed that I was following Robert Aitken and Thich Nhat Hanh up the steps to a big temple. They went in and I was a few steps behind. It wasn’t a matter of personal feeling—these weren’t teachers I would have imagined following, and they didn’t agree with each other either. I was just following them, entering the same great temple they entered. In the dream personal feelings and opinions didn’t matter, as they don’t matter in life.

We have all followed the old masters up those steps, and it’s not the temple we expected. That’s the point of Zen—the day we have is the good day, that dog has buddhanature after all. 

Originally published in the November 2010 Shambhala Sun magazine.
John Tarrant directs the Pacific Zen Institute in northern California, where he has developed new ways of teaching Zen koans to make them more accessible. He is the author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life.