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Eric Arakawa holds one of his creations aloft in his workshop in Waialua.
Vol. 8, No. 4
August/September 2005

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Living Zen 

by H. Doug Matsuoka
photos by Tom Haar

Robert Aitken, photographed
at the Palolo Zen Center, 2005

The Palolo Zen Center is set at the very back of Palolo Valley, where the houses begin to give way to jungle. A set of beige one-story wood buildings set plainly on an open sloping field, it looks like an elementary school absent swings, seesaws and jungle gyms. The green wall of the valley rises behind it.

When I arrive, I see no robed monks walking about or sweeping the walkways with solemn deliberation. In fact, I see no one at all. Zen is a monastic tradition usually practiced by a community of priests and monks living together, the sangha, but this is a "lay center," and members are at home or at work. At the moment, the Zen Center has only five residents.

I’m here to meet with one of them, Robert Aitken. I was a draft-age kid protesting the war in Vietnam when I first met Aitken. He was a Zen Buddhist priest—weird, I thought, since all the Zen priests I knew of were Japanese, wore robes and grim scowls, shaved their heads and carried sticks to use on monks who were a little slow to "get it." Aside from being a haole, Aiken had a head of wavy gray hair and a goatee. He looked more like a tenured professor of American Beat literature. I knew he counseled draft resistors and conscientious objectors.

The last time I bumped into him was about a year ago at a peace march. He used a walking stick and an attendant to get around. In the thirty-five years between the first and last time I’d met Aitken, he’d done some writing. Quite a bit, actually—ten books, all centered on Zen: Zen poetry, Zen ethics, Zen fables. Zen.