Quaker Universalist Conversations

Quakers Join Buddhists in Mourning Robert Aitken

Friends have good reason to remember Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi who died at the age of 93 last August. He founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and helped organize an office of the American Friends Service Committee in Hawai’i. His long and influential life is honored in the current winter issue of Turning Wheel, the journal of the BPF as well as on the BPF web site (www.bpf.org).

Raised in the multicultural world of Honolulu, Aitken became interested in Zen Buddhism during World War II, when he was a civilian interned in Japan. A scholar and writer as well as a religious leader, he never hesitated at adapting Buddhist ethnic customs to the norms of Western society. He argued that Buddhism would not become rooted in the West without integrating the values of democracy, equality, and free speech. The Diamond Sangha, which he founded in Hawai’i, “represents a lay stream of Soto Zen which also includes aspects of Rinzai Zen, especially the intensive study of koans. It puts emphasis on the use of English in ritual, full equality of women, and constant re-evaluation of authority patterns.” (www.bisbeelotussangha.org/historydiamond.htm) Nor did he ever give up his own activism in the causes of peace and social justice. One of the last photos taken shows him at a protest against this country’s unending wars, waving a sign that says: “The System Stinks.”

Four essays in Turning Wheel, written by Nelson Foster, Alan Senauke, Susan Moon, and Mushim Ikeda-Nash emphasize different aspects of Aitken’s work and personality. Among them were his admiration for Catholic Worker Dorothy Day and for A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, his long study of anarchism, his gift for poetry, and his identification with racial and religious “outsiders” to society.

The example of Robert Aitken and those like him goes far to explain why so many Friends have been drawn to the practice and philosophy of Buddhism. The term “engaged Buddhism” is redundant, he argued, since engagement with human society was implicit in the Buddha’s own teaching. Therefore genuine Buddhism cannot be and never has been disengaged.

Rhoda Gilman