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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 11, 2006

Aitken, at 88, still enjoys work

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Robert Aitken's latest book, his 11th, is "Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom From Ming China on Life and Living."

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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"Vegetable Roots Discourse."

3 p.m. today

Social Hall of the Jodo Mission of Hawaii, 1429 Makiki St.


For more information, call 735-4822

Note: Aitken will speak and the Rev. Richard Paw U will be honored by the Hawaii Association of International Buddhists after the association's meeting; there will also be a "panel theater" performance by students from Shukutoku University in Chiba, Japan.

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Age: 88

Came to Hawai'i: In 1922 on the SS Manoa with his mother and brother; his father was on staff at the Bishop Museum.

Turned to Buddhism: During the war, when he worked at the Pacific Naval Airports and was shipped to Guam. There, he was captured and interned in a Kobe camp, where he was turned on to the writings of R.H. Blythe, an early student of Zen.

Founded: The Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist community, in 1959. It's one of the earliest Western Zen Buddhist centers in the U.S.

Retired: In 1996

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Robert Aitken, one of the grandfathers of the American Buddhism movement, is about to become another kind of grandfather at age 88.

His first granddaughter is due to be born in just a few weeks, and the proud grandpa-to-be is already amassing a list of books he wants to read to her.

As an author, intellectual and historical figure, Aitken knows how important transmission of information can be. The Zen master founded the Diamond Sangha, and his pupils or "dharma heirs," as they are known continue his work at the Palolo Zen Center. His flourishing community started more than 20 Zen centers in Australia, Europe and North and South America.

How important a historical figure is Aitken?

The head of the University of Hawai'i religion department, professor Helen Baroni, calls Aitken and his Diamond Sangha a "pivot point" in Zen Buddhism's transmission to the West through Sanbokyodan, the denomination founded by teachers who combined aspects of Soto and Rinzai Buddhist practices.

"In the context of Japanese Zen, Sanbokyodan appears small and not very important," she said in a 2005 lecture at the Buddhist Study Center. "When considering Zen in the West, it looms large in terms of its influence. Many of the prominent teachers of Zen during the latter-half 20th century and continuing today are dharma heirs from this lineage. This includes Robert Aitken, of course."

Aitken will present a reading and book discussion today at the Jodo Mission of Hawaii.

If you ask him, Aitken will say he's gotten more from Zen than he's given back.

"Where would I be without Zen?" he said. "I'd be dead or wandering on aimless legs. I'd have no motive for living."

He boiled his beliefs down to three basics: That there is no essential self, or soul this is one's life, so make the most of it; that one already contains the way, or as Walt Whitman said, "I am large, I contain multitudes"; and the belief in the infinitely precious nature of all beings and all things.

"It follows, naturally, that as a Buddhist I would be unable to eat meat but be eminently tolerant of those who do," he said. "(And that it would be) impossible to support a political process that supports war."

With that, Aitken, still the rebel, pointed to signs around his room that call for "Democracy Now!" and "The System Stinks!" and confesses his addiction to the "Democracy Now" Web site's daily headlines.

"If I don't get my 'Democracy Now,' I get pretty grouchy," he confided.

Aitken spent an hour with a reporter at his compact apartment in an O'ahu retirement facility to talk about a wide range of subjects, from his formative years as a student of Japanese Zen Buddhism to his founding of the Diamond Sangha, to his later years, suffering with physical ailments and yet facing a prospect that brings a genuine youthful glow to his face the impending birth of his grandchild.

Just below the framed announcement for the baby shower, held in the dining room of Aitken's retirement complex the weekend before, he points out books on the shelf: Robert Louis Stevenson poems; Harold Bloom's "Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages." And he certainly is planning to recite to her the magical poem, "The Listeners," by Walter De la Mare.

Transmission is a big theme for Aitken and other Zen Buddhists. Aitken remembers his own grandfather reading to him, though he was just a tiny thing at the time. And as a Zen follower might say, one someday will see the fruit of the seed planted in the past.

For Aitken, the imprint from his grandfather's read-aloud sessions would show up much, much later.

"During the war, I took up the study of German," he said. "A teacher gave me some German poems. It was as if I knew them by heart."

Aitken, or as members of the Palolo Zen Center or his myriad followers call him, Aitken Roshi, has a lot to look forward to, even as age continues to take its toll on his 88-year-old frame.

He's quite aware of the "disobedient" fingers and compromised lungs and other ailments "connected to my age." But the good news is that he has not succumbed to any of them.

"I am able to work," he said. "Even when I'm really sick, I totter to my computer every day."

This afternoon, he'll be discussing his latest book, "Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom From Ming China on Life and Living," which he co-authored with Daniel Kwok.

It's his 11th book, but who's counting?

"I'm not attempting to set any records or anything," he said.