American obituary writers have nothing on the Brits, where you may be excused for thinking you're reading a roast rather than a tribute. I'm glad we have a more respectful tradition, but sometimes the obit can come off a bit dry. But this obituary in the Los Angeles Times was a captivating read. It tells some highlights of the story of Robert Aitken's life. One of the first Americans to be "fully sanctioned" as a master of Zen Buddhism, Robert Baker Aitken Roshi died last week at the age of 93. Elaine Woo began with his significance to the community:
Aitken was one of the first Americans to be fully sanctioned as a master of Zen Buddhism and trained several generations of Zen Buddhist teachers. He established the Honolulu center as a lay community that was particularly notable for an egalitarian approach that was welcoming to women.
"He made Zen Buddhism workable for Westerners," said Michael Kieran, who studied under Aitken and now oversees Diamond Sangha's main temple as master teacher. "He removed a lot of the patriarchal language from the tradition, which had been mainly transmitted to us through the monastic tradition."
Known for his commitment to social justice, Aitken helped found the Berkeley-based Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He also wrote 13 books, including "Taking the Path of Zen" (1982), a classic primer on Zen practice, and "The Mind of Clover" (1984), a highly regarded exploration of Buddhist ethics.
It may have been helpful to include a bit more about his activism in support of Native Hawaiians and gays, but it's always a challenge to fit everything in. There's also his significance as a teacher. I've read that in addition to his formal students, he was generous with his time and wisdom with others. Or since he's in the Harada-Yasutani tradition, maybe we could learn who some of his famous students are. The obit did mention some of his teachers.
What I liked best was the dramatic conversion story she included:
His introduction to Zen came with the outbreak of World War II, when he was a civilian construction worker on Guam. He was captured by Japanese troops in 1942 and spent the duration of the war in an internment camp in Kobe.
In the camp, a Japanese guard lent him a copy of British scholar R.H. Blyth's "Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics." Aitken was fascinated and read the book many times.
After the 10th reading, the world "seemed transparent," Aitken wrote years later, "and I was absurdly happy despite our miserable circumstances."
A prison camp conversion -- fascinating. And then he ends up actually meeting Blyth, who was detained as an enemy alien, and decides to learn meditation under a Zen master. We learn many details about his path and his liberal activism, including anti-draft efforts and anti-war efforts.
There was one thing I was confused by in the last paragraph:
Aitken's first marriage, to Mary Laune, ended in 1953. He married Anne Hopkins in 1957; she died in 1994. He is survived by his son from his first marriage, Thomas, and three granddaughters.
Isn't it customary to explain how a marriage ends? Did Mary Laune die? Did they divorce? It seems key information, particularly with the mention of children from the marriage. I'm trying to think of the journalistic reason for not including this detail.
In any case, this obituary was a nice tribute to an influential and significant Zen Buddhist.