Issue 8.4: August/September 2005

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.

Anne and Robert Aitken
at the Koko An zendo in 1991

I’m not sure what to do when I meet Aitken today in Palolo. I feel I should greet him in gassho, put palms together and bow, but I’d feel pretentious or inauthentic if I did. Instead, I wait until he maneuvers his walker all the way to the table and shake his hand. He smiles and returns the shake firmly.

Now eighty-eight years old and retired from formal teaching, Aitken is one of the few Westerners to be titled Roshi, meaning "old teacher"—or as he puts it, "a guide through unknown lands." He came to Hawaii when he was five years old, grew up here and studied literature at the University of Hawaii. With the specter of World War II looming in the Islands, he headed to Midway and worked as a civilian from June 1940 to June 1941. Next he worked on Guam, and it was there, in 1941, that he was taken captive by Japanese forces.

"I was interned in Japan during the war," Aitken Roshi tells me in a soft, clearly articulated voice. "I was in Kobe, which the Americans destroyed with two firebombing raids in April and June, 1945. We were on a hill above the city, and we ourselves were not directly bombed. Still, we saw it all. We saw the refugees. To see women and children and old people struggling... and to know the despair they had—it just made me realize that I couldn’t live my life apart from that kind of suffering." He pauses and his voice takes on a steely determination. "I decided to study Zen."

The study of Zen, perhaps the most rigorous of Buddhist sects, isn’t a commitment to be made lightly. One can’t just decide to study it and become a Zen teacher. Teachers of Zen must be able to trace their lineage directly back to that revered old Indian monk, Boddhidharma, Zen’s originator, who sat in a cave in deep meditation—zazen—for years before a stone thrown by a child hit him smack in the forehead and sparked a realization into the true nature of things. Aitken’s decision took him on a decades-long zigzagging path across the Pacific, from Hawaii to California to Japan and back to Hawaii. He studied Zen under Senzaki Nyogen Sensei, Nakagawa Soen Roshi, Yasutani Haku’un Roshi and Yamada Ko’un Roshi. It was Yamada Roshi who in 1974 granted Aitken the authority to teach independently.

Meanwhile, Aitken and his wife Anne were busy starting Zen study groups and creating places for meetings and meditation. The first such study group, or zazenkai, met in 1959 in the living room of the Aitkens’ home. The place became a zendo proper when Nakagawa Soen Roshi gave it the name Koko An, or The Small Temple Right Here. The zendo was also located near Koko Head, giving its name a double meaning. The tradition of double meanings has carried on: The Aitkens’ sangha, Diamond Sangha, was named after both Diamond Head and the venerable Diamond Sutra; the Haiku zendo the Aitkens started in 1967 was named after the Japanese poetic form—and situated in Maui’s Haiku district.

Studying Zen is one thing, but why go through the trouble of establishing a sangha? With a few quiet words, Aitken describes a central concept of Buddhism, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: "The Dharma-kaya is that everything is essentially empty, and there is nothing that is permanent. The Sambhoga-kaya is that we are all a part of the same being. And the Nirmana-kaya is that every individual is unique and precious. So these three things are all three at once true! The practice in the sangha brings out one’s innate sympathies, so if you really personalize the Three Bodies of the Buddha, then you can’t be for war." This explains the Robert Aitken I see at peace marches.

When I ask Aitken how he would describe himself now, a grin crosses his face. "Quoting Mae West, ‘Old age is no place for sissies.’ It’s hard, you know? I’ve had three strokes. I’m in the tail end of my life. What more is there?" He quickly answers his own question. "I continue to have a passion for my writing and for the dharma."

Aitken’s most recent book is Zen Master Raven. "It’s a fantasy..." he pauses, "of a Zendo in the forest made up of animals. It’s a book of koans. This is really my first book not devoted entirely to Zen." A book of koans not devoted entirely to Zen? Hmmmm. That seems a koan in itself to me. Aitken is now working on translating, with old friend and University of Hawaii professor emeritus Daniel Kwok, the Caigentan, a Ming Dynasty collection that he describes as "little bits and pieces of wisdom."

My time is up, and I must say goodbye. Again resisting the temptation to bow, I grasp Aitken’s hand with both of mine. I’m humbled by his courage and tenacity, his generosity, his aloha. I remind myself that Zen teachers have a tradition of living a long time. As I turn to leave, he stops me. "The point about the Three Bodies of the Buddha," he emphasizes. "That’s important."    HH