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Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Zen Master as Apostle for Change

by Nelson Foster

In the summer of 1976, the man we were still learning to call Aitken Roshi took a break from life on Maui to join the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice, midway in its ten-month march from the West Coast to Washington. Linking up with this small and anarchic bicentennial-year mission urging Americans to rethink their political views and to embrace an array of good causes, he walked (and, as a senior member less fit than others, often rode its support vehicle) across the Texas panhandle and east as far as St. Louis. After a rally highlighted by a blazing speech from Chicago Seven defendant David Dellinger, he left the Walk, heading for New York and the second major event on his itinerary, an entirely different sort of bicentennial commemoration.

Thumbing rides and sometimes, to his chagrin, paying for them, Aitken Roshi reached our rendezvous point in Weehawken, New Jersey, and after a night at the apartment of former Maui member Joseph Bobrow and two restful days with friends on Long Island, we traveled to the Catskills to attend the opening sesshin of Dai Bosatsu monastery. Not until we began approaching its large, beautiful, Japanese-style buildings, shouldering our backpacks, did the incongruity of the moment hit me. The impeccably robed monk who fluttered up to greet us looked startled when my teacher, clad in jeans, a blue work shirt, and a hat festooned with movement buttons, extended his thin hand and murmured, “I’m Bob Aitken.”

We were expected, yet obviously a little unexpected and in some quarters even unwelcome. Not only did Aitken Roshi cut a figure less grand and far more political than other teachers present but also, for reasons only apparent later, he was seated outside the main hall and not called upon to address the assembly. We departed immediately after the sesshin ended, dismayed by its laxity, the lavishness of the scene, and the curious absence of Roshi’s cherished friend and former teacher Nakagawa Soen, nominally the founder of the new monastery. Thus we missed the Fourth of July ceremony at which Dai Bosatsu’s suave young abbot, Eido Shimano, bestowed “Japan’s birthday present to America.”

Back on Maui, over the next two years Roshi instigated several experiments in local activism, all short-lived, as well as the small meeting—four Maui Zendo members sipping juice with the Aitkens at their porch table—where we made the decision to start the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. From prior experience with Honolulu community groups, Roshi held that to make something happen all you really need is one person who wants it badly enough, and we founded BPF on little more than this principle and my readiness to give it a try. Whatever you make of it, the principle reveals something about its author, as does the formulation he dubbed Aitken’s Law: “People in combination make problems.”

These are not the maxims of a political organizer. He chaired the BPF board for two terms and earlier helped launch Hawai‘i offices of the ACLU and American Friends Service Committee, but always more agitator than organizer, he drew inspiration from the pungent rhetoric and symbolic protests of the nonviolent religious left, especially Roman Catholics—Simone Weil, Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennessy, the Berrigan brothers, his friends Jim and Shelley Douglass. Finally, BPF did not satisfy Roshi; neither its language nor its program seemed radical enough to him. Into his final years, he still relished sitting on a busy corner, often accompanied only by a caregiver, with a sign saying “Impeach!” or his trademark “The System Stinks.” Aitken Roshi never quit.

A Personal and Biographical Reflection

by Hozan Alan Senauke

photo by Robin Scanlon

Robert Baker Aitken—Dairyu Chotan/Great Dragon (of the) Clear Pool—died on August 5, 2010 in Honolulu at the age of 93. 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 20 years I was privileged to collaborate with Aitken Roshi at the 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.

Robert Aitken spent his 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 Hawai‘ian Hotel. He loved the air and sea. The sounds of birds and geckos punctuated his lectures, calling him to attention.

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 had 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.

He returned to Hawai‘i 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 ‘40s 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.

Dr. D.T. Suzuki and Robert Aitken Roshi, Koko An Zendo, 1964 photo by Francis Haar

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 20 affiliates around the world, and a cadre of accomplished and transmitted dharma heirs.

Aitken 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 13 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.”

A disciplined writer, Aitken Roshi made writing 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.

There 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!

Turning the Wheel with Aitken Roshi

by Susan Moon

Aitken Roshi was the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s founder, elder, and guide. His deep commitments to Zen practice, to social justice, and to literature were woven together in his teaching, but my relationship with Roshi developed in the realm of his writing, where I met him as editor of Turning Wheel. Working with Roshi on his essays was always a satisfying experience, and I was honored that he took my editorial suggestions seriously. We had real dialogues about his many essays in Turning Wheel, and he met me in a careful process of revision.

The only thing we consistently differed on was the subject of footnotes.

“It’s not really our style to have footnotes,” I would say. “Turning Wheel is not a scholarly magazine. Could we just insert the references into the text?”

He would graciously yield, but then the next essay would come to me with footnotes. After a few years, when I had more confidence as an editor, I decided, “If Roshi wants footnotes, Roshi gets footnotes.” But he was the only one!

Roshi was widely read in Buddhism, philosophy, social and political theory, Hawai‘ian culture, and Japanese and Western poetry, among other things, and he drew on this knowledge in his writing, making creative and poetic connections for his readers. Such an intellect, developed through a liberal arts education, is rare, and becoming rarer in our time.

He wrote essays for Turning Wheel on topics that included money, anarchism, Hawai‘ian indigenous people’s rights, and restorative justice. He courageously raised the matter of sexual misconduct on the part of Zen teachers in our pages, encouraging Buddhist communities to develop ethical guidelines. His language was often poetic and surprising. In his essay on money, he wrote: “Kuan-yin’s practice is embodied everywhere—as the Earth, for example, exchanging energy with Uranus and Jupiter and Mercury and others together with the Sun as they plunge on course through the plenum.”

Nor did he mince words. Of the war in Iraq and the last Bush administration, he wrote, “We face horrible crises. …It is surely past time we turn the criminals out, but we can’t do that with rhetoric. With worthies of the past looking over our shoulders, let us conspire. Let us breathe together and make it happen, and conspire to keep it happening.”

The last time I saw Roshi was in 2006, when I made a trip to Hawai‘i to interview him for a special issue of Turning Wheel that honored him—“A Call to Action.” He was unexpectedly hospitalized for a pulmonary infection shortly after I arrived, and we had to have our conversations in his hospital room. Along with gratitude, I look back at that interview with some sadness. Roshi was ill, crotchety, and self-critical. He expressed disappointment in himself and in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, calling much of his own work “namby-pamby.” But he was an old man struggling with a hard-to-beat lung infection, and it was natural that he would be in a discouraged mood just then. It was not the moment for serious self-assessment. Yet despite his illness and disappointment, he boasted joyfully about his new granddaughter, enjoyed watching some sparrows on the windowsill, and rooted enthusiastically for a young Hawai‘ian woman in a golf tournament on TV. He ended the interview by recalling an ongoing weekly peace vigil he used to participate in, saying, “The work we need to do takes that kind of steadiness and perseverance.”

During the 17 years I edited Turning Wheel, Robert Aitken Roshi always signed his letters to me as “Bob,” but he is the only Zen teacher I’ve known whom I have naturally wanted to address as “Roshi.” Roshi is not only an honorific; the softness of the word makes it into a term of endearment. It’s the perfect word to express the respect and affection in which I held him.

Kamaaina Roshi: Elegy for a Local Guy

by Mushim Ikeda-Nash

Did you speak Pidgin English when you were a kid?” I asked Aitken Roshi, some years ago when I was visiting him with my family.

“You bet,” Roshi said. He grinned boyishly. “I spoke it so much that my parents had to forbid me from speaking it at home.”

taken on front steps to the lanai of Roshi’s house at Kaimu. top row (left to right) Joshua Ikeda-Nash, Robert Aitken Roshi, and unnamed woman, lower row (left to right) Unzan and Mushim Ikeda-Nash

Roshi spooned up the grayish purple poi in his bowl. He ate it every day. There was an ofuro, or Japanese style bathtub, in the house he’d built for his retirement on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Yes, he was an old and venerable Zen Buddhist master, and he was also what they call “a local guy” in Hawai‘i, someone who had lived in the islands a long time, who had grown up there. I, having grown up in Ohio, was a malihini (newcomer), but Roshi was a kamaaina (longtime island resident; literally, child of the land) like my mom and her family.

Yet I would bet that when Aitken Roshi appeared, dressed in a starched white dress shirt and a tweedy suit coat, to do a book signing or to give a public talk on Buddhism in the continental United States, very few people in the audience thought, “Hey, this guy is from Hawai‘i. He must speak Pidgin.” Roshi probably came across to many of his readers and fans as a “straight ahead Caucasian American,” a phrase used by a white American Zen priest in conversation with me recently to mean: the norm. After all, Aitken Roshi had been called “the dean of American Zen.” He appeared on the outside to be a bookish person who spoke educated, standard American English. On the inside, I think he may have always felt like an outsider, and this was something that I think resonated between us from the first time we met, in 1989, in California.

At that time I was a penniless single mother with a baby strapped to my back. I’d been thoroughly burned by the Zen patriarchy and was skittish around spiritual authority figures. Aitken Roshi would swoop down and hoist Joshua onto his back or hold him in his lap so that I could get some work done, or take a break. He never tried to enlist me as a Zen student but couldn’t resist throwing a koan at me now and then. Mostly, however, he was steadfast in his self-appointed role as a Dharma mentor or kalyana-mitra (spiritual friend), a role that he was uniquely generous in fulfilling with many spiritual seekers over his long lifetime.


Roshi grew older, was widowed, and my son began to grow up. We visited him at his retirement complex, Kaimū, near the volcano on the Big Island, in July 2000. His assistants were enjoying their day off and asked me to cook lunch for Roshi. The kitchen in which we sat was in a small house anchored into the lava, next to Roshi’s house, with its tiny zendo. It was just the two of us that day, veggie burgers and green salad. It was hot, and the salad greens were wilting as quickly as we could eat them. We were having what seemed to be a normal mealtime conversation when Roshi startled me by suddenly yelling: “You are a marginal person!” with unexpected emotional force.

I was a Zen student and knew better than to protest the acute discomfort I felt at that moment. My hackles rose. All my life I’d always wanted to be accepted as a “real American.” I’d grown up eating hot dogs and potato chips, watching Star Trek and the evening news on TV in Ohio. My Nisei parents, who believed in assimilation, hadn’t taught their children to speak Japanese. I’d spent my entire goddamn life trying to be less marginal. How come the sudden Dharma combat attack on my cherished national identity? How had a vegetarian lunch suddenly turned into a confrontation?

“You are a marginal person!” Roshi proclaimed again, loudly. “You always have been and you always will be!”

I glared resentfully at him. He paused, then continued, more softly, “And I am too.”

Robert “Bob” Aitken, Zen teacher, writer and scholar, husband, father, and proud grandfather of three granddaughters, didn’t fit neatly into any boxes. The various tributes I’ve read listing his many accomplishments, his lifetime of determined social justice activism, of literary endeavors and dedication to the transmission of Zen Buddhism to the West, don’t convey to me the deep sense of Otherness that he and I seemed, improbably, to share. Roshi had been a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. He lived for almost a century, and he’d had his share of hard work and painful losses and disappointments along the way. I suspect it’s what allowed him to feel profound empathy for those who have been oppressed, imprisoned and disenfranchised, as well as impatience with those who were slow jumping in to address the issues of a broken system that, in his way of describing it, stinks.

Robert Aitken, the man, thought of himself as a marginal person, according to his own account. We were friends and correspondents for over 20 years. The last thing he sent me, not long before he died in the summer of 2010, was a card with an image of Hawai‘i’s last princess, dressed in European clothing. Princess Ka‘iulani’s short life reflected the tragedy of her people’s history of colonization, the heartbreaking loss of their homelands and their independence. What is it, I wonder, that enables us to go home when we have no home, to be “local” where we are, to be okay with swimming upstream? The card is blank inside but I think I’m starting to get the message.

Glossary of terms
Hawai‘i Pidgin English, Hawai‘i Creole English, HCE, or simply Pidgin, is a creole language based in part on English used by many, if not most, “local” residents of Hawai‘i. (Wikipedia)
Nisei: “second generation”; Japanese language term used in countries in North and South America and Australia to specify the children born to Japanese people in the new country. (Wikipedia)
Poi: the primary Polynesian staple food made from the corm of the taro plant (known in Hawai‘ian as kalo). (Wikipedia)

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Comments (1)

  • George Plumerr

    I walked many hours with Robert Aitken in the summer 1976. As a new walker he joined us in the Texas panhandle as we walked walked across the American continent promoting nuclear disarmament and social justice. After physically leading the walk across the Mojave Desert, I fell to the back of the walk each day, to most often the last walker into camp or town in the evening. I often stopped walking to enjoy a view, observe wildlife,visit with a local or travelers, bringing up the rear of the group often hour or more behind with my bread not bombs flag on a bamboo pole waving in the wind. This is where I met Robert Aitken, as I knew him. Being in no hurry the last walker was a very meditative position. It was also the best pace to meet new walkers. Inevitably in a few days after joining the walk, new walkers would end up drifting to the back, due to sore muscles, tired joints, and/or blisters, they would lag behind until they were in my realm. The last walker had the unspoken responsibility of not leaving anyone behind, especially new wounded walkers. Robert worked his way back early.after joining, I believe it was his first day on the Texas plains. I think he was drawn towards the back for its solitude as much as by his newly forming blisters. In my mind there is an image of Robert sitting on the edge of the road, Route 66, with a line of cottonwood trees along the Canadian River on the horizon about a mile to the north, while he nursed his blisters. During his time with the walk, he often found his way to the back of the walk, I think it suited his nature. We enjoyed each other company often as we rested at the edge of the road. I became fond of our often brief conversations before we set of walking again. I think of him as within the core of individual that have an important place in my memories. His calmness influenced my ability to find calmness. I am thankful our lives crossed path.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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