Robert Aitken, one of the first Americans to be recognized as a master of Zen Buddhism, who founded Maui Zendo in the late 1960s, died this month in Honolulu. He was 93.
Students on Maui recalled Aitken as a charismatic and dedicated teacher who embodied the ideals of Buddhism not just through his teaching but also through social and political activism. His friend the Rev. Ryozo Yamaguchi, of Rinzai Zen Mission in Paia, now retired, said Aitken helped communicate Zen Buddhism to the West.
"He was never a monk," Yamaguchi said. "He was a layperson, so he could teach from the view of most American Zen students."
Memorial service planned Aug. 22
Yamaguchi said Aitken never stopped teaching and was working on three new books up until his death Aug. 5.
A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Aug. 22 at the Palolo Zen Center in Honolulu. For more information, call Roland Sugimoto of Honolulu Diamond Sangha at (808) 735-1347.
Friends and students held a gathering at a Maui residence Saturday to share memories of their teacher.
Aitken was born in 1917 in Philadelphia and moved to Honolulu with his family at age 5. He was working as a civilian on Guam during World War II when he was captured by the Japanese army, and he was introduced to Zen at an internment camp in Japan.
After the war, Aitken returned to study at the University of Hawaii, ultimately receiving a master's degree in Japanese studies. He founded Diamond Sangha in 1959, and the organization grew into an international network of groups dedicated to Zen practice.
Aitken founded Maui Zendo in 1969 and was given permission by his teachers to teach independently in 1974. Ten years later, he was formally named a roshi, or Zen master. His numerous books on Zen and Japanese culture made him well-known among students around the world.
Aitken's students on Maui include national poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin.
Michael Kieran, who teaches at Palolo Zen Center and Maui Zendo, said Aitken was both "demanding" and "trusting" as a teacher.
"He seemed to be able to sense or see what these young people who came to him could become, if they applied themselves to Zen practice, and he had great faith in that," Kieran said. "I think one of the things that happens sometimes in Zen training is that people kind of give it away, they say too much, and that's one of the great errors in our practice. People have to find for themselves, and he could allow that, in the kindest of ways."
He described an occasion when Aitken was approached by a student who felt he was practicing half-heartedly, and wanted to know how to become more committed.
"He said, 'Practice half-heartedly, whole-heartedly!'" Kieran recalled. "In other words, you have to begin right where you are, not by trying to be someone else. Right where you are - right there is where to apply yourself."
Val Dieguez, Maui Zendo board president, said Aitken had a "charismatic aura" that drew people to him. Dieguez said he once went to a Maui Zendo orientation session being offered for newcomers and met Aitken there.
"It didn't take me a whole day to realize he was going to be my teacher," he recalled.
The group's training centered on meditation practice, and Aitken attracted students from all over the world, Dieguez said. Maui Zendo periodically held multiday "retreats," which involved meditating from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"He always has said different people came to practice there for different reasons," Dieguez said. "Some came because they wanted to have a more peaceful life, to quiet their mind. Other people, like myself, we were trying to follow the Buddha's path, a path of compassion."
Student Masako Cordray said Aitken's practice went beyond teaching Zen and extended to social activism and community involvement. Aitken founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and on Maui he became active in numerous issues, including speaking out about the development of Makena more than 30 years ago, she said.
Dieguez said Aitken encouraged his students to volunteer in the community, including teaching meditation at Maui Community Correctional Center, and that he became involved in efforts to end the bombing of Kahoolawe.
Aitken had "a very clear sense about right and wrong in the world," Cordray said. "He really is the embodiment of my ideals - compassion, devotion to others, generosity and dignity, which is increasingly rare in our modern, flashy America."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.