PRESS RELEASE August 9, 2010 — for immediate release Contact: Roland Sugimoto, Honolulu Diamond Sangha Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: 808-735-1347
Robert Aitken, Internationally Esteemed Zen Master (1917-2010) Robert Aitken, one of the first Americans fully authorized as a master of Zen Buddhism and the author of thirteen books on that subject, died August 5 in Honolulu at the age of 93.
Born Robert Baker Aitken in Philadelphia, he moved to Honolulu at the age of five with his parents and younger brother, when his father, an anthropologist, joined the ethnology field staff of the Bishop Museum. After growing up in Hawaii and California, at the outbreak of war in the Pacific he was captured on Guam, where he had been working as a civilian. His introduction to Zen came during his ensuing years of internment in Japan, through a fellow internee, the British writer R.H. Blyth.
After his release, Aitken resumed his interrupted studies at the University of Hawaii, graduating in 1947 with a degree in English literature. He returned to the University for a master’s degree in Japanese studies, which he received in 1950, and his thesis, concerning Zen’s influence on the work of the great haiku poet Basho, later became the basis of his first book, A Zen Wave. Aitken’s career as a Zen master and writer followed two decades of employment in other fields. After serving as an organizer in local community agencies during the late 1940s and early 1950s, he worked as a bookseller and English teacher in both Southern California and Honolulu as well as in various administrative capacities with the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii.
With his late wife Anne Hopkins Aitken, he founded the Diamond Sangha in 1959 as a community supporting formal practice of Zen, bringing a succession of Japanese masters to the islands to instruct the group. It flourished, especially after he received sanction to teach independently in 1974, and today the Diamond Sangha is a network of affiliated groups in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, and Chile as well as the United States. Its main temple in Hawaii is Palolo Zen Center in Honolulu; Maui Zendo and Hilo Zen Circle offer venues for practice on the neighbor islands.
After World War II, Aitken maintained a steady involvement in organizations dedicated to peace, social justice, and civil rights. He helped establish both the American Friends Service Committee program in Hawaii and the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union and continued to take an active part in the latter into his eighties. He also was a co-founder of the nationwide Buddhist Peace Fellowship, whose offices are in Berkeley.
His numerous publications include Taking the Path of Zen, The Mind of Clover, The Gateless Barrier, Zen Master Raven, and The Morning Star. The most recent of them — Miniatures of a Zen Master —appeared in 2008, after he turned 90. Many of these books have also been published in translation.
Aitken’s first marriage, in 1947, was to the late Mary Laune of Honolulu, and he is survived by their son, Thomas Laune Aitken, and three granddaughters. His death came suddenly and peacefully, following a long period of declining health, mostly spent in residence at the Honolulu temple.
No date has been set for the memorial service, which will be held there.
For further information on his life, consult a brief 2003 autobiography on the website of the University of Hawai’i library, whose Special Collections hold his papers: http://libweb.hawaii.edu/libdept/speccoll/aitken/autobiography.html.
A colorful account of his Zen background is available in “Willy-Nilly Zen,” an appendix to Taking the Path of Zen.
Additional material can also be found at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha website, http://www.diamond-sangha.org, and at his blog, http://robertaitken.blogspot.com.