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Lions Roar : November 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN NoveMBer 2010 23 also been interned. Blyth was a mentor in an unlikely place, and introduced the newcomer to Zen, koans, haiku, and the value of surprising events. After the war, with funding to study haiku and koans, Aitken re- turned to Japan, leaving his wife and infant son with friends. This led to his unmarrying; later he felt qualms but told me, “I had no choice, really.” By this he meant that he was obsessed with the big questions and could have no peace or joy without solving them. When he remarried it was to Anne Hopkins, an heiress with a gracious and floating physical presence. For their honeymoon they went to Japan and straight into sesshin, a period of intense Zen meditation. It turned out not to be her idea of a honeymoon, although it was a source of amusement later on. Anne was a part of all he did in Zen, and she cofounded and funded his zendo. It began in their living room in Honolulu, and something of that informal tone always stayed with his groups. Anne moderated his emotional connections with colleagues and students, and he found it hard going after she died. In the seventies, Bob, as he was known (later he became “the Old Man”) and Anne ran temples in Maui and Honolulu. A big part of his presence in the Buddhist world was to link left-wing politics and Zen. When I met him, at Kahului Airport in the late seventies, he was returning from a demonstration at a Trident submarine base near Seattle. He was wearing tennis shoes and was excited and anxious because he had nearly been arrested. It seemed very innocent to seek arrest as a gesture of political Robert Aitken’s Amazing Life A giant of Zen in the West and pioneer of Buddhist activism, remembered by John TarranT. pHOTOByROBInScAnlOn Some people want it pure white but sweep as you will, you can’t empty the mind. —K e IZAn JOKIn eARly On DeceMBeR 7, 1941, Japanese bombers came low through the gap in the mountains of Oahu and sank the great warships in pearl Harbor, and, by the law of unintended consequences, doomed the Japanese empire and exported Zen Buddhism to the United States. When the Japanese invaded Guam, among the Americans working there was a civilian in his mid-twenties, thin, physically awkward, scholarly, looking for a direction. The Japanese army decided his direction for him by hauling him off to an internment camp in Kobe, Japan. Unlike prison- ers of war, interned civilians were accorded no special cruelty, though stragglers were shot. The young man keeping carefully in line was Robert Aitken. He played a great part in bringing Zen to the West. I was close to him from the late 1970s, when he was coming into his own as a teacher, until the late 1990s, when he retired, and his stories and our meetings around koans are the things I remember most. Through the timing of my arrival, I was the first person to complete koan study with him, and also the first to receive transmission to teach. He died on August 5, at the age of 93, and this piece is a tribute to him. In the internment camp a guard lent him a book called Zen in English Literature, by R.H. Blyth, an english translator in love with Japan. Aitken read the book over and over; it made him happy in dark circumstances, offering a link between his own tradition and the meaning of life. When the camps were con- solidated he met Mister Blyth, as he always called him, who had John TarranT, roShi directs the Pacific Zen institute in northern California, where he has developed new ways of teaching Zen koans to make them more accessible. he is the author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save your life.