Saturday, August 07, 2010

Aitken Roshi (1917 - 2010)

Robert Aitken, one of the more fascinating and under-celebrated Americans of the last century, passed away at the age of 93 on Thursday.

He was a civilian prisoner of war, held by the Japanese during World War II, when he heard about Zen Buddhism from a fellow captive, the scholar, R. H. Blyth. He survived the war and eventually made his way to California where he met a Japanese master and began to study Zen himself. He also attracted the interest of the FBI because of his political activism -- he was a pacifist and advocate for labor and ecology.

He spent years moving between Japan and his home in Hawaii, doing hard training. After receiving transmission from Yamada Koun he lived as a layperson, building a sangha in Honolulu. He was a co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He also became something of a mentor, a wise grandfather for American Zen. A great many of us converts to Zen were exposed to his books Taking the Path of Zen and The Mind of Clover. (For my money, one of the best - and forgotten - books of the last decade was his short novel from 2002, Zen Master Raven.) He was also a trusted spokesman on ethics even when several respected Zen teachers stumbled over issues of sex, power, and financial propriety.

Rather than grief, we at the Burning House reflect on his passing with immense gratitude.

Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal.


Tam said...

Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal.
And I was just thinking fondly about _Zen Maste Raven_ yesterday—great book!

Algernon said...

You bought me a copy, which is how I came to read it. That copy walked away with somebody in the years since but I've never forgotten it.

Jane R said...

He was, at a distance, one of my teachers. I often read The Ground We Share, the book of his dialogues with the Catholic Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, another teacher of mine whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice.

Here too, immense gratitude. A life well lived.