Robert Aitken's Amazing Life
"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
but sweep as you will,
you can’t empty the mind.
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
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.