This year, the Blogisattva Awards is offering up something new. Kyle and I decided that due to his passing, Robert Aitken Roshi should be the first recipient of the Blogisattva Lifetime Achievement Award. Aitken Roshi was a blogger too, but he will of course be remembered for his impact on Western Buddhism, which was as monumental as it was far reaching; so we felt this would be the right thing to do.
I e-mailed his son Tom about using a bio and was told it was ok to use the bio from Aitken Roshi's site. It was written by Aitken Roshi, and is pasted here to help us all grasp just what this man meant to the Buddhist realm. It is lengthy and I hope you will take the time to read it. Below the bio are comments and remembrances from the likes of Roshi Joan Halifax, James Ford, Rev Danny Fisher, Jundo Cohen, John Pappas...
I came to Hawai'i with my parents in 1922, when I was five years old. My father was an ethnologist at the Bishop Museum. His study, Ethnology of Tubuai is still in print. He was the first to earn a master's degree at the University of Hawai'i. I attended public schools here, with the exception of kindergarten at Hanahau'oli, two years of junior high at Punahou, and two years in California, including my final three semesters of high school. I attended the University of Hawai'i for 2 1/2 years before World War II, and two thereafter, graduating in 1947 with a degree in English Literature. Among my professors I was especially close to Daniel Stemple, Carl Stroven, Willard Wilson, Yukuo Uyehara, Andrew Lind, and A. Grove Day. Close friends among classmates included C. Frederick Schutte, late attorney in the Honolulu firm that bears his name, Jean McKillop (King), and Thomas M. C. Chang, retired professor of Educational Psychology at U.H. Acquaintances included Patsy Takemoto (Mink), Daniel Inouye, Duke Cho Choy, retired pediatrician, and Mary Whang (Choy). After the war, I lived near the University and had supper regularly at Hemmenway Hall with Marion and Allan Saunders. I was president of my senior class.
I returned to the University in 1949 for my masters degree in Japanese studies, graduating in 1950. Dr. Stemple was my thesis chair, and members of my committee included Cheuk-woon Taam, then East Asia librarian. I had a peripheral role in the East-West Philosopher's Conference the summer of 1949, and worked as a kind of gofer with Greg Sinclair, Charles Moore, and D.T. Suzuki. This was the beginning of a long friendship with Dr. Suzuki.
Later my connections with the University included a three year stint at the East-West Center as a program advisor in the Institute for Student Interchange, as student activities coordinator, and as alumnae secretary. Ms. Saunders was my supervisor during much of this time. I subsequently spent a year with the Youth Development Center as assistant to my friend Dr. Chang in the Upward Bound Program, and a year as English instructor at Kapiolani Community College.
Since the late 1960s I have been closely associated with the Religion Department of the University. I am a friend and colleague of David Chappell, Professor of Chinese Buddhism. I have spoken in classes in the Religion Department, taken part in colloquia and conferences which the department has sponsored, and written articles for its Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies.
My record of community involvements in Honolulu includes stints in the late 1940s and early 1950s at community association coordination in Mo'ili'ili and Wahiawa. In this work I profited from a consultations with my then father-in-law, Ferris Laune, Executive Secretary of the Honolulu Council of Social Agencies.
I have had a long association with peace and social justice movements in Hawai'i. I took part in the Mother's Day Walk for Peace in 1952 with and Marion and John Kelly, an anti-nuclear protest, and the first of many demonstrations. During the Vietnam War as I was active as a resister and draft counselor, and was close to James Douglass, Walter Johnston, Oliver Lee, George Simpson, and Anita and Allen Trubitt. In 1967, while at the Youth Development Center I took part in the Bachman Hall sit-in as part of the faculty contingent. In 1972, I walked around the island for peace and social justice in a group led by Jim Albertini and John Wittick.
I am a founding member of the American Friends Service Committee, Hawai'i, and served on its first board of directors, chaired by Robert Bobilin. I attended the meetings called by Dean Saunders to establish the American civil Liberties Union, and have been active in that organization since, taking part in its campaigns, including the Camp Smith Cross case and more recently the various actions in support of same-sex marriage.
My major work through the years has been as founder, leader, and teacher in the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society. With my wife Anne, I established the Koko An Zendo of the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu in 1959, and the Maui Zenda in 1969. In recent times the Diamond Sangha established a second Honolulu temple, the Palolo Zen Center, where I presently reside. The Diamond Sangha is now an international network, with centers on neighbor islands and in California, Arizona, Texas, Washington State, Germany, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
I have been fairly active in the local Buddhist community, beginning with a stint as a Sunday school teacher at the Hompa Hongwanji in 1957 and 1958, where my supervisor was the now retired Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani. In recent times I have been a member of the Hawaii Association of International Buddhists.
In the macro dimension I am well established as a teacher of Zen Buddhism. I take part in Buddhist symposia in North America, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am especially close to leaders of the San Francisco Zen Center. I am co-founder with Nelson Foster of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, now an international network of chapters concerned about the application of Buddhism in social, political and economic realms
On moving to Kaimu-Kalapana on Hawai'i Island in 1997, I built a small home across the driveway from my son, Thomas Laune Aitken, a school counselor. I became ill with Hodgkins' Disease, and underwent chemotherapy and radiation, which ultimately was at least temporarily cured. The Zen Center of San Francisco sent an attendant to look after me, and since I have hired a series of many people in that role. In time I also hired a secretary, again the first of a series. I started a Zen group in my home.
In the course of this retirement I have taken part in Ho'opakele, a group of mainly Hawaiian people interested in decarceration and prison reform. I helped to organize the East Hawai'i Island Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and have taken part regular vigils and periodic rallies.
I have continued to contribute to Buddhist and other publications, and am at this writing completing preparing manuscripts for my 10th book, The Morning Star: New and Collected Writings, and a revised edition of my first book, A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen.
After his passing, the online Buddhist community rallied behind him. I asked a few folks for words and or comments about him.
Received these wonderful words from Lama Surya Das
"Aitken Roshi was a great inspiration and spiritual friend to us all. His pioneering books, teachings, scholarship and example helped me grok zen Dharma during the past several decades. He and I both shared a great appreciation for and interest in haiku and oriental poetry, which we both wrote, translated and read widely. We never ran short of things to talk about, and he was always an Elder to me.
In my conversations with him over the years he always brought a different and interesting perspective to things, from his vast experience and Dharma wisdom, although he wasn't always right, which I found that amusing.
I remember once we were both at a Buddhist teachers Conference in San Francisco, discussing some particularly thorny issues around teacher-student relations in the American Dharma scene, and Bob advised shunning; that is, the practice of ostracizing, cutting off, isolating and shunning teachers who exploited their students. Along with my other colleagues, I thought that was just about the worst idea anyone had ever come up, since the time of the Puritans and Pilgrims; but we all had to laugh together, since we were united in being fond of the good ole roshi as well understanding, from knowing him personally, that it was somewhat consistent with his own patrician Protestant background.
A year or two later, when I visited Bob briefly in Hawaii and shared this little insider anecdote to him, he laughed and said, "It seemed like a good idea at the time and may still be, who knows? These things continue to go on anyway."
Robert Thurman was gracious enough to send us the following words re: Aitken Roshi
"Though I didn't know Aitken Roshi very well, his formation of BPF and his leadership in spurring Buddhist ethical activism against war and injustice was very inspiring to us all. I enjoyed some of his writings as well. The few times we met were occasions with lots of people around so never had very full dialogue. He made a great contribution and will be missed and remembered."
Roshi Joan Halifax had the following to say about Aitken Roshi
"Aitken Roshi brought into sharp focus for Western Buddhists the importance of a practice that was not only inward and spare, but as well outward and sharp. His tenaciousness in keeping social and environmental responsibility in the foreground of Buddhism in the West cannot be underestimated. For decades he was our elder, a source of deep inspiration, and as well a source of strength. His death leaves behind for all of us a legacy of integrity and courage."
We received this fantastic remembrance from James Ford of Monkey Mind
"My most vivid memory of Aitken Roshi was following a big Diamond Sangha event we were at a small party in someone's back yard in Northern California. As I was standing enjoying the Summer weather and the amazing view from that yard, I noticed the roshi talking with a young woman. Actually, she was talking to him. He was pretty tired and at first he seemed reluctant to enter into the conversation. Then she mentioned "base communities," communal projects closely associated with the Christian liberation theology movement. He was instantly excited and the conversation quickly expanded to include a number of us, each speaking from our hearts about how our practice, the Zen way, just as it is true for other traditions, has a deep responsibility for the health and well being of all people and, indeed, for the world itself. Only the most vivid of a number of moments where his larger vision of what we're about came to the fore. Now, as I've completed the "formal" aspects of my training and am now teaching, I never forget his profound understanding we are not in this world alone, none of us."
This link goes to a sit-a-long that Jundo Cohen of Treeleaf Zendo put together which was dedicated to Aitken Roshi
And we were pointed toward this post by our friend, and fellow judge here at the Blogisattvas, Reverend Danny Fisher which has more links to articles posted by Tricycle, Shambhala Sun and Mahasangha News.
John Pappas of Zen Dirt, Zen Dust/ Point Of Contact Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch had this to say:
"Aitken was a rough and tumble zen master. Simple, profound and with all the scrapes and stories that life can bring. Unlike other Zen rough-necks, Aitken Roshi presented a uniquely simple American dharma composition without settling into zen aphorisms. His words and actions represented a practice that was internalized spiritually, physically and politically ~ a practice that encompassed your life. As a person he was willing to present his humble and flawed side as well. I love his words.."
Old age ain’t no place for sissies...Yet I don’t mourn my loss of youth. What a confused mess I was! What time I wasted! All in all, I am really quite comfortable in these last years. Pass the marmalade.
While it may seem he left us all early, his body of work is nothing to balk at and will be studied for years to come. Those that met him were lucky to know him, those that have read his work are lucky to have studied him. It is with this we dedicate the first ever Blogisattva Lifetime Achievement Award to Robert Aitken Roshi. Thank you and safe travels Roshi!!
For those that would like to, feel free to add your comments below about what Aitken Roshi's teachings meant to you.