Shambhala Sun – Robert Aitken’s Amazing Life (November 2010)

Shambhala Sun – Robert Aitken’s Amazing Life (November 2010).

This article is a tribute by John Tarrant to Aitken-Roshi.

The board of Directors of the Honolulu DS seems to be unhappy about it, and has called it “not entirely respectful toward Roshi”.

I guess it’s not… but then, I’m not a sucker for “portraits from the chocolate side”.

Respectful or not, appropriate or not, it shows facets of the great old man that not many have talked about before, and that only serve to enrich his memory, and deepen my thankfulness.



PLS read in the comment section the letter that Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker sent to the Shambala Sun.


About Armin

Hermit, free-lance monk, laughing pessimist, hopeless optimist, standing upright after being bowled over too often, crawling when he should fly and flying without a pilot's licence. Clinging to bushes and grasses in his free time.
This entry was posted in Robert Aitken Roshi and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Shambhala Sun – Robert Aitken’s Amazing Life (November 2010)

  1. Armin says:

    Below is open letter by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker to the Shambala Sun concerning the Article above.

    Dear sangha,

    Below please find an Open Letter on Journalistic Integrity from Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker addressing the unfortunate publication of a “Tribute to Aitken Roshi” by John Tarrant in the November issue of the Shambhala Sun.

    Thank you,

    Roland Sugimoto

    Honolulu Diamond Sangha

    2747 Waiomao Road

    Honolulu, HI 96816



    An Open Letter on Journalistic Integrity and the Shambhala Sun

    We adopt this means, as a last resort, to air a concern about a gross failure of journalistic ethics on the part of the Shambhala Sun. The world of American Buddhist publishing has been relatively small and honorable to date, so such a failure is conspicuous and, we feel, warrants public notice and remedy. Unfortunately, as we’ll report in detail below, our efforts to obtain an appropriate correction directly from the Sun came to naught. Thus our recourse to this posting.

    Before proceeding to specifics, we need to make clear that, by its actions, the Sun besmirched the memory of a man we hold very dear, our late teacher, friend, and collaborator, Robert Aitken Roshi. We’ve pursued the matter in part out of loyalty to him, feeling an obligation to correct the worst errors of fact in the Sun article. But Aitken Roshi’s reputation is probably as secure as anything in this ‘burning house’ can be, and what’s at stake here — integrity in Buddhist journalism — is both larger and more imminently perishable.

    The problem began with the Sun commissioning an article about Aitken Roshi from a writer who had an axe to grind, a long-alienated Dharma successor named John Tarrant. When the article was published last year in its November issue, we expressed our concerns to Sun editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod, who responded, “Of course we were aware that we were treading into dangerous territory in asking John to do this homage, and we did sound out some people to ask whether they felt it would be resented by current students of Aitken Roshi’s.” We have no idea whom Mr. McLeod and his staff consulted or how seriously they took the process of consultation, but we do know that they didn’t speak with the people most likely to be offended and also best positioned to gauge potential negative reactions — those of us who remained close to Aitken Roshi at the end of his life and who represent the tradition that he and his wife established, the Diamond Sangha.

    Despite awareness of the risk involved, the Sun commissioned the article from Dr. Tarrant and published it without any indication of concern and without disclosing the author’s estrangement from Aitken Roshi. This is the error that troubles us most. While Mr. McLeod is certainly free to choose who writes for his magazine, journalistic ethics require that periodicals disclose personal history that might compromise their writers’ fairness. Lacking such information, unsuspecting readers are ill-equipped to assess the reliability of what they read.

    If the Sun maintained these professional standards, it would have needed to acknowledge that Dr. Tarrant’s relationship with Aitken Roshi ruptured in the late 1990s and never recovered. Concerned that Dr. Tarrant’s approach to Zen had gone seriously awry, for a year Aitken Roshi discreetly pressed him to pull his group out of the Diamond Sangha. This unhappy separation finally took place in 1999 but turned out to be a prelude to an even more painful break: when repeated and persuasive allegations of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant’s part — professional (in his work as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational — came to light, after private efforts to encourage resolution proved unsuccessful, Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter, urging their former colleague to mend his ways. Dr. Tarrant reacted angrily. Communication between the two men came to an end.

    Dr. Tarrant’s desire to gloss over these facts in his article is understandable, but in agreeing to write about Aitken Roshi for the Buddhist public, he forfeited the option of concealing them. Since he chose not to disclose them himself, it was incumbent on the Sun to do so, and the resulting article makes the reason for this apparent. Although the Sun advertised the story on its cover as an “homage” to Aitken Roshi and Dr. Tarrant termed it a “tribute,” it bore abundant signs that its author was still hurt and angry and had seized the opportunity to take revenge on his old teacher.

    It’s certainly peculiar for a tribute to a Zen master to feature the assertion that he “never stopped wondering if he had indeed ever had an enlightenment experience. . . . Sometimes he was quite sure he hadn’t.” Even more unusual is to couple a disparaging assessment of the master’s realization with a triumphant rehearsal of one’s own. How could the Sun serve this up as neutral and trustworthy reporting? Dr. Tarrant tells its readers Aitken Roshi “put down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness,” but somehow neither he nor the Sun seems to have noticed that he was trashing his own dead teacher — not in private conversation but publicly, in print.

    Just for the record, Aitken Roshi was appropriately humble about his awakening, but he spoke of it candidly as occasion required and wrote about it openly, too. Rather than relying on Dr. Tarrant’s account, we suggest that readers look up “Willy-Nilly Zen,” an autobiographical piece that Aitken Roshi prepared at his teacher’s behest in 1971 and later published as an appendix to his well-known book Taking the Path of Zen. As his own telling makes clear, it wasn’t a big-bang experience of the sort Dr. Tarrant trumpets, but it began a process of widening insight that ultimately made him a wise, compassionate, skillful, and upright teacher. Unfortunately, a big-bang realization doesn’t ensure such a result.

    The Sun story is as peculiar for what it omits as for its belittlement of Aitken Roshi’s awakening. An homage can ordinarily be expected to stress its subject’s strengths, but Dr. Tarrant and his editor managed to overlook a characteristic absolutely central to Aitken Roshi’s nature and to his teaching and writing: his emphasis on the precepts and on living out the Dharma in all its ethical dimensions. This is the contribution to Western Buddhism for which he surely was best known and will be best remembered. How Dr. Tarrant and the Sun could neglect it we can’t fathom.

    Altogether, the Sun “homage” bears only intermittent resemblance to the person we knew. When Mr. McLeod received our letter-to-the-editor objecting to the article’s inaccuracies and taking the Sun to task for not disclosing Dr. Tarrant’s broken relationship with his subject, he promptly engaged us in revising our letter for publication in the Sun. This entailed tempering the “tone” of our comments and finding adequate ways to make our point while respecting the magazine’s “pretty strong policy . . . not to get into detailed public discussions of possible misconduct.” (Note: the text of our original letter is attached, below.)

    We tolerated this extraordinary intrusion in the content of our letter, feeling it would be worthwhile to place even a watered-down critique before Sun subscribers. Accepting as sincere Mr. McLeod’s assurance, “I think you’re doing the right thing in writing this, and if there’s fault it’s mine for putting you in this spot,” we went back and forth with him by phone and e-mail, working out a text he’d be willing to print. After we acceded to his final suggestion, Mr. McLeod volunteered his satisfaction with both our collaboration and its result, so we were astounded when he wrote again, five days later, declaring that he wouldn’t use our letter after all.

    Instead, he proposed that we start over, taking a different tack — “to focus the letter exclusively on how you feel John [Tarrant]’s portrayal of Aitken Roshi was not accurate, and to offer your own view of him.” In this fashion, he suggested, the letter could “become a completely positive contribution, in itself an homage to and celebration of Aitken Roshi.” Maybe so, but it wouldn’t be our letter anymore and, in its complete positivity, would let the Sun off the hook on the point we consider most crucial: its failure to adhere to a basic principle of fairness in journalism.

    In making a case for this change of direction, Mr. McLeod advanced an argument that we find untenable, to put it mildly: “we have tried not to wash the Buddhist world’s dirty laundry in public — to avoid getting into detail about difficulties and divisions within Buddhist sanghas. This is particularly important in the Sun, with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience.” To the degree that this policy represents refusal to indulge in back-biting and gossip-mongering, we enthusiastically applaud it; otherwise, it seems to us that it infantilizes readers and may protect them from information that beginners actually need to be attuned to in exploring the profusion of Buddhist paths, organizations, and teachers on offer in North America today. How he applied the policy in the present instance seems utterly indefensible, for while it has shielded his readers from awareness of Dr. Tarrant’s misconduct and removal from the Diamond Sangha, it hasn’t spared them his biased “tribute” impugning the wisdom and character of a widely respected teacher.

    Needless to say, perhaps, we declined Mr. McLeod’s request, and we counterproposed that he, as editor-in-chief, publish a statement acknowledging the error of printing Dr. Tarrant’s article without divulging the fact and the causes of his bitter, ten-year alienation from Aitken Roshi. Mr. McLeod subsequently negotiated and ran (in the March issue) a letter from the Honolulu Diamond Sangha board of directors that politely laments his choice of author and corrects a few of the piece’s numerous misstatements. Nowhere, however, has the Sun publicly acknowledged, and taken responsibility for, the editorial failures outlined above.

    We feel that these failures are serious enough to cast doubt on the journalistic integrity of the Sun, and we urge other members of the American Buddhist community to register any concerns they may have on this subject, in the hope that Mr. McLeod and his staff will remember their mishandling of this story and exercise increased care when ethical questions arise in the future. If that were to happen, in the long run this sad incident might actually have beneficial results.

    Nelson Foster

    Ring of Bone Zendo and East Rock Sangha

    Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi

    Jack Shoemaker

    Editorial director, Counterpoint Press

    Literary Executor for Robert Aitken

    Original letter, e-mailed to Melvin McLeod on October 20, 2010:

    To the Editor:

    In publishing John Tarrant’s demeaning “tribute” to Robert Aitken Roshi, the Shambhala Sun has done a disservice not only to our late friend and teacher but also to its readers and the author himself. He professes surprise at discovering he had “any strong reaction” to Aitken Roshi’s death, but his feelings have a long history, and anyone familiar with that history can understand how his deep-seated hurt and anger might have lingered. Sadly, they also have twisted an ostensibly warm reminiscence of his “Old Man” into a covert or perhaps unconscious score-settling. We wish Sun editors had spared everyone this beautifully crafted but badly distorted account.

    Now that it’s in print, readers deserve information that enables them to put it in context. Although Dr. Tarrant did enjoy a close and trusting relationship with his teacher for some time, by 1998 his approach to Zen had departed so seriously from that of the Diamond Sangha as a whole that, for the better part of a year, Aitken Roshi pressed him and his group to withdraw. After their withdrawal, in response to convincing reports of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant’s part — professional (as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational — Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter calling on him to mend his ways. Communication between the two men ceased at that time, more than a decade ago.

    Dr. Tarrant’s reluctance to publicize these unhappy facts is understandable, and we take no pleasure in mentioning them, but journalistic ethics require that they be disclosed, if not by the writer himself then by the Sun. It’s apparent to us that hard feelings significantly affected his portrait of his former teacher, for it bears a dim resemblance to the man we knew, each of us for longer than Dr. Tarrant did.

    While faulting Aitken Roshi for “put[ting] down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness,” Dr. Tarrant has indulged in that vice himself, though seemingly without embarrassment. He manages to combine a glowing account of his own awakening with a disparaging account of his teacher’s, even claiming that “Bob never stopped wondering if he had ever had” one. Horsefeathers. Aitken Roshi was appropriately modest about his experience, but he spoke about it publicly when circumstances warranted and wrote about it, too. Any reader who cares to look it up will find his own description of the experience and its subsequent unfolding in “Willy-Nilly Zen,” an autobiographical piece he prepared in 1971 and published as an appendix to Taking the Path of Zen. Twenty-four years later, he repeated the tale at the request of a reporter in Bangkok!

    We find it galling to see Aitken Roshi’s humility and candor turned against him, not only in this matter but also with respect to his early uncertainties as a Zen teacher. These predate Dr. Tarrant’s arrival from Australia, so he, like many others, heard about them after the fact, precisely because Aitken Roshi spoke openly about them, expressing profound gratitude for the guidance and encouragement he received from Maezumi Roshi. Anne Aitken used to lament that her husband had “no carapace,” no protective covering, a trait that left him vulnerable to misrepresentation and mockery in life, as in death. It also made him approachable and inspiring, however, a man who showed by example how insight and character may mature over decades of practice. Dr. Tarrant’s characterization of him as “timid and anxious” will astonish people who saw him teach confidently before large audiences in the 1980s and ’90s.

    Other errors of fact and interpretation we will set aside here, but we cannot close without noting a curious omission from this remembrance: it leaves utterly unmentioned the contribution to Western Buddhism for which Aitken Roshi is most widely known — his attention to the ethical implications of practice and realization and his stress on embodying them in the social, economic, political, and environmental conditions of our day. He certainly had his share of failings, but he had greater and more important virtues than this account admits. We hope Sun readers will seek out less jaundiced appraisals of his life and work.

    Nelson Foster

    Ring of Bone Zendo

    Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi

    Jack Shoemaker

    Editorial director, Counterpoint Press

    Literary Executor for Robert Aitken

  2. guadalupe says:

    sad and searching the web on the issue, i found your website with your fresh comments. Thanks.
    Below i paste something (including my own) from Aitken Roshi’s blog (

    Say no more…
    In sad gassho

    Anonymous said…

    Liked Tarrant Roshi’s article. Didn’t read like a put down to me at all. fresh charmin’ and lovin’.
    As for Foster’s Holy War…. come on!!! as Bob said….”simmer down”!!!
    And i agree with “Sad and tawdry”:”The Foster and Shoemaker letter doesn’t do anything to right the situation, though. It’s just more vengefulness — calculated to do as much damage as possible to Tarrant (and timed to perfection to paint Tarrant in Shimano-Genpo colors). I find this cycle of “settling old scores” tawdry, a poor reflection on Aitken Roshi’s legacy and the Diamond Sangha school.”
    True true true.
    March 6, 2011 9:23 AM
    Anonymous said…

    Asking for “journalistic integrity” os just bare censorship?

    So Foster and Shoemaker are the ones who approve or not what can be said about the Roshi?
    They own him and what can or cannot be said about him?

    People who met him and had a different view that the “institutional” have to be excluded?

    Aitken Roshi himself in his “miniatures” tells about being in trouble with his lack of understanding even when he was appointed as a teacher, and that Maezumi Roshi trained him. Very humble.
    I feel Tarrant was not disparaging Aitken, at all, just sharing his life experience with the Roshi, and this is first hand and valuable.

    As for Foster attacking Tarrant with such a virulent heart, makes me think twice about practicing at hawaii, with shuch a heir.

    I never met the Roshi, but his books and talks have inspired my life and practice, and am grateful indeed.
    But, the Roshi is dead, and if his heirs (Tarrant is also one of them) do fight with such a bitter and defensive heart, i wonder about his legacy.
    Seems to me the Diamond Sangha has been seriously damaged because the words and heart of one of the main heirs, Foster Roshi.
    Sad indeed, and a pity. And maybe this cannot be undone…
    Only a few months have passed since the Roshi died, and look what is going on.
    I am sure Aiken was not a sacred saint, i hope he was human, and as such, with flaws and weaknesses.
    I appreciate the ones who can tell us of this aspects, in a loving and respectful way, as much as the ones who can share with us the bright sides of the teacher too.

    In sad gassho
    Guadalupe Morelos
    from mexico.
    March 6, 2011 1:54 PM

  3. Ben Quinn says:

    Sure, the Diamond Sangha is disappointed the article wasn’t more positive, but that’s not their main point, if you pay attention. Their main point (and I don’t know why I have to explain this, it’s already quite clear) is, Shambhala Sun violated widely accepted rules of journalistic integrity. They did so not by choosing a biased source as their writer (they have a right to do that) but by not revealing to their readers that the chosen writer was anything but neutral. JT was harshly criticised by Robert Aitken and split from the Diamond Sangha under a cloud of scandal. Shambhala Sun refused to publish this essential information when asked to, even as a follow-up, thereby forfeiting any semblance of journalistic integrity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s