Authors & Thought Leaders

Robert Aitken on the Art and Poetry of Zen

Published on February 8, 2017

Article by Robert Aitken

photo of Buddhist Teacher Robert AitkenRobert Aitken came to Bodhi Tree Bookstore from his native Hawaii in October 1994 to talk about his Zen practice. Aitken Roshi (the term “Roshi” literally means “old teacher” and is used in the United States to refer to a person who has been authorized as a fully independent Zen teacher) has been practicing Zen for more than 40 years and has been actively teaching for two decades. During this archived presentation, he read passages from his books Practice of Perfection [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print], Encouraging Words and Ground We Share (written with David Steindl-Rast), and answered audience questions and comments.

Aitken Roshi’s published writings (listed at the end of the presentation) provide comprehensive information for those wishing to learn about Zen, and especially for those who would like to experience Zen meditation. His many years of practice and study are evident in his frequent use of koans (recorded sayings and actions of the great Zen masters) through which he challenges his readers to arrive at their own realization of the meaning of Zen. At the same time, he is careful to provide background information that makes these unique expressions of Zen insight accessible to the Western reader.

Aitken’s Life and American Zen’s History

Aitken Roshi was extensively trained in the Japanese Zen tradition and encouraged his students to study the art and poetry through which Zen has found expression in China and Japan. At the same time, his teaching demonstrated what might be the beginning of “American Zen.” Traditionally, Zen has been primarily a monastic practice. However, Aitken Roshi was a layperson whose students typically had careers and families of their own. In addition, he strongly emphasized the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism and was known for his work promoting world peace.

Co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Aitken Roshi was also a Master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in 1959 with his late wife, Anne Hopkins Aitken, in Honolulu. Aitken Roshi passed away in 2010. His last book, The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock], was published in 2011. —Justine Amodeo

The following excerpt from Aitken Roshi’s 1994 presentation begin with his response to a question about “everyday mind,” after Aitken Roshi had read a passage from his book Encouraging Words, which defines perennial truth as “the mind of every single day of all time and in the dimension of no time.”

Addressing the Everyday Mind

Audience: What is “everyday mind?”

Robert Aitken: This is a very interesting point. We’re not speaking about the everyday mind that turns on the TV to watch a rerun of Gilligan’s Island, see? When you look at the implication of everyday, that means unchanging. In a famous koan involving two great teachers, Chao-chou asked Nan-ch’uan, “What is the Tao? What is the way? What is realization?” Nan-ch’uan said, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” It becomes clearer that this is not the tedious mental tape that Nan-ch’uan is talking about, but rather, when you fully realize the Tao, you will find it is vast and fathomless as outer space. “How can this be discussed at the level of right and wrong?” This is the way Nan-ch’uan ends his little homily to Chao-chou. That which is always at rest and does not move, does not come or go. It is total peace. It is that which does not change, because it has no substance. Substance is always changing, you know, but this has no substance. So, that is ordinary mind. That is everyday mind, which we seek to uncover in our practice.

The Buddhist Take on Perfection

Audience: I have to say I’m somewhat troubled by the title The Practice of Perfection. What is the point of aiming for perfection?

Aitken: One does not aim for perfection. One practices it. It’s like an attorney practices law or a doctor practices medicine. But this is a very interesting point because, as you know, perfection can be a neurosis and it’s something that parents always need to struggle in regards to their children. A child might cry, “I made a blot on my letter to Grandma,” and the mother says, “It’s all right, Grandma wants to see your letter, blot and all.” “But it’s got a blot in it,” you know. [Laughs] Well, we need to work carefully with children to encourage them to do their best and as my mother used to say, “Angels can do no more.” Once when I was an apprentice teacher, I was working with students who were also working with my teacher, Yamada Roshi. And in speaking about one of the students we had in common, I said, “I feel he tends to be perfectionistic.” And Roshi said, “Well, isn’t it all right to want to be perfect?” Good point. But, in Zen it is said that the Buddha Shakyamuni is still practicing somewhere and he is only halfway there.

The perfections are lights on our path. They are modes of practice. Actually, another meaning for paramita [which means “perfect” or “perfection”] is to cross to the other shore—to the other shore of Nirvana. I chose perfection rather than “crossing to the other shore” because there is something, you say, rather absolute about that implication of the latter. We are always in process of crossing.

The Buddhist Take on Imperfection

Audience: It seems to me that the awareness of imperfection is just as important.

Aitken: Oh. [Laughs] I couldn’t agree more. But, one does not punish oneself with one’s sense of one’s imperfection. With that self-punishment, one is stymied. But, the consciousness that, “I didn’t do it very well then and I will do it better next time,” that is a kind of practice. I didn’t call it The Perfection of Practice, you see. [Laughter] OK?

The Importance of Peak Experiences

Audience: You spoke about Buddhist and Christian peak experiences. Could you speak about viewing daily experience from the context of a peak experience, and how that relates to fear?

Aitken: Yes, of course. Coming back from that peak experience, you are aware that there is no fear, even when you are afraid. And incidentally, I must say, that the Chinese ideograph which we translate as fear (referring to a passage in the Heart Sutra about having “no fear”), actually means terror—the terror we feel when we stare into the abyss. David Hume came to the end of his philosophical research and looked into the abyss and said, “Ohhh… I’m not going in there.” In effect, he said, it’s much better to come back and enjoy a good game of backgammon with my friends. It’s too bad, see? Don Quixote, at the edge of the abyss, commends himself to his god and to his mistress and spurs his horse and leaps with his full armor on into this horrible sea full of monstrous creatures, and before he knew what was happening to him, he found himself in fields beautiful beyond Elysium.

That is the conviction that the pilgrim of any religion has, that I walk through this valley of the shadow of death and it is the context of my practice—it is the mood or mode of my practice. And, I go right through. We don’t have a god to comfort us in Buddhism, so we can only go step by step with the confidence that others have gone this way before and it’s been all right.

Audience: Satoris and Kenshos and peak experiences are so temporal. How have either the masters or you or advanced students been able to hold on to enough of it to carry you?

Aitken: It’s important not to hold on to it. If these peak experiences are genuine, they are transformative. Your life is changed by them. John Wu, in a class I took from him years ago, told the story from the Book of Saints about a young priest who had a vision of the Virgin Mary. He devoted the rest of his life in his cell to painting that vision on the wall of his cell, rubbing it out and repainting it. That’s really too bad. What might have he gone on to, you know? All these peak experiences are milestones on our path. And the be-all and end-all experience for some is only the beginning for others.

What is American Zen?

Audience: Do you see Zen practice taking on an American flavor? Have you seen that happen in your experience, since Zen centers tend to be Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese?

Aitken: Well, it’s interesting to look at history. Dhyana Buddhism came from India with Bodhidharma, they say, in the sixth century. When you look at the writings attributed to Bodhidharma, you find them quite Indian in their flavor—quite philosophical, really. Even in the Platform Sutra of the sixth ancestor, you find a certain Indian flavor. But, in two more generations—that’s eight generations after Bodhidharma—you have clearly a Chinese way that has somehow married Taoism. Then when Chan came to Japan and became Zen, while it was certainly less obvious and less radical, there was nonetheless an integration with Japanese culture, particularly Shinto. Coming to this country, inevitably, there is going to be an acculturation. For example, things I’ve said tonight would never be said in Japan, I’m sure. The whole worldview that has arisen in the last 120 or so years with psychology just permeates our culture—permeates it. Christianity and Judaism permeate our culture.

I grew up as a little boy in Central Union Church in Honolulu, and I used to sit there in the sermons. I knew that the sermons were boring. I thought this was just something you did. You sat there and you entertained yourself while the sermons were going on and I used to make the minister go out of focus and come into focus. [Laughter] I would see him as a little boy, I would see him as an old man and so I would pass my time in this way. But the extraordinary thing is that when I began teaching, those words from the Bible came readily to my lips when it was pertinent to say, “Put away childish things,” or whatever. Or to say, “Love never faileth,” which was emblazoned in gold letters above the altar. Anyway, something is certainly happening in Western Buddhism, but I represent only the first generation of native teachers.

The Importance of Community

Audience: You were talking about how some states of emptiness, or something, aren’t exactly a peak experience, they’re more terrifying or almost destroying. It seems with those types of experiences that you really can’t go back and play backgammon just knowing that that’s there. You were saying that just the confidence that other people have gone before you is enough to carry you through that?

Aitken: Oh, it’s more than that. It’s the Sangha (the Buddhist community). It’s the fellowship, the kinship of people that you’re sitting with. It’s the teacher who is kidding you along, and encouraging you, and it’s the reading that you’ve done. Hakuin Zenji (the great Japanese Zen Master) said, “I felt as though I were in a profound cave frozen in primordial ice. I couldn’t move. I would hear the voices of others as though from an infinite distance.” Well, that wasn’t my experience. But I can relate to it, because I had similar experiences. Every dark night experience is different and is expressed differently. But, that dark night experience, whether it’s being frozen in this deep cave or whether it is being in a desert, where there’s not a drop of water or a blade of grass, or whatever the experience, there is an experience of unity that goes with it. Whether you’re frozen in that unity or whether you have this experience of vast emptiness—literal, horrible emptiness—there is some hint there, you see, that this can be a teacher. And you walk through. As you say, you can’t step back—well, you can, you see, but you mustn’t. [Laughter]

How to Reconcile Zen Ideas with Western Culture

Audience: One of the things I find difficult about Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, is this whole idea of no goals and being humble and being process-oriented, when we live in a Western culture, which is very much oriented to tooting your own horn and being results-oriented. I like the feeling you get when you meditate, but…

Aitken: I don’t think we need to blame it on the Easterners, you see. [Laughter] It’s not an East-West dichotomy. There are plenty of viciously ambitious goal-oriented people in China. After all, the Chinese invented bureaucracy. [Laughter] Riddled with ambition, riddled with achievement orientation, corruption, the whole works. So, the Zen students who stepped aside in Chinese culture stepped out of the equivalent of our kind of ambitious society. But one thing that differs is our technology—that’s about the only difference. And our missionizing, so to speak, that comes out of perhaps a perversion of the words of Jesus. That’s part of our culture. But, we’re not that different. It’s very important that one be confident, that one be able to come forth and to express oneself. When the Dalai Lama was in Honolulu recently, he gave a few talks and I was struck by the fact that he frequently made the point that confidence and equanimity are the same thing. Now, that’s very different from charismatic confidence. The confidence that I’ve got a way that is going to bring me lots of money and I’m going to show you the same way. When I was a boy, the popular book in the drugstores was Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. It’s still in print. [Laughter]

What we need to do, for example, in breath counting (a basic meditation practice), is not to hold out the idea of reaching 10, but rather to be intimate with each point in the sequence as it comes up. Intimacy and realization are the same word in the old texts. They’re synonyms and the point has no dimension. There is eternity itself. Right there. We learned in geometry, the point has no dimension. So, we focus on that single point. And, after all, what are we attaining? We are attaining the place in the hospital where interventions fail. And that’s the end of it. That’s the attainment, really. We have to get off that timeline. Or at least incorporate the eternal in that timeline. OK?

Why Christians Find Solace in Zen Buddhism

Audience: Can you talk a little more about where your personal experience has touched common ground with Christian teachers you’ve met like David Steindl-Rast?

Aitken: Yes. When I first began working with Yamada Roshi, the teacher from whom I received transmission, he told me about the Catholics who were coming to study with him in Kamakura and how impressed he was with their earnestness and their diligence. Then, Anne Aitken and I went to Kamakura to study and we saw this for ourselves. One of the sisters, who at that time was 38, said to us, “Zen Buddhism brings me what I expected to find when I joined the Order 20 years ago and didn’t find.” There is almost a deep memory that once there was a teaching of a kind of Zazen meditation in Christianity though it was not as complete. I’ve read Christian meditation in manuals that instruct you to put your beard on your chest. Well, that’s not the way to meditate; you’ve got to keep your head up. But, the Cloud of Unknowing and The Way of the Pilgrim and such books (and certainly Meister Eckhart) are struggling to express the perennial through their own cultures and through their own words, their own languages. When Meister Eckhart says, “The eye with which I see God is the very same eye with which God sees me,” this is a very complicated way of expressing what the old Zen teachers would do with just a word or two.

So, what David and I did not try to do was to reach commonalty across cultural and sectarian lines, but rather to find the perennial common ground. This is very dangerous because what is common ground, and what we enunciate as common ground for the Buddhists, will sound a lot different from the common ground that’s expressed by Christians. So, we talked a lot. Coomaraswamy says, “All paths reach the top of the same mountain.” I don’t believe that. I think there are all kinds of mountains. Let a hundred mountains rise.

Books by Robert Aitken

The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective (1994) [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print]

Aitken shows how Zen practice is grounded in the Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and in turn, how that tradition is expressed through Zen. The Paramitas or “Perfections” are the qualities such as giving, patience, meditation and wisdom that lead to enlightenment.

Encouraging Words: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students (1993)

This book contains talks given by Aitken during Zen retreats and essays that demonstrate the development of his insights during the past two decades. The book conveys the flavor of Zen practice and offers skillful advice for meditators; it also includes texts that are recited as part of Zen practice. 

The Ground We Share Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian with David Steindl-Rast (1994)

This is a remarkable weeklong dialogue in which Aitken and a leading Christian contemplative both challenge and appreciate one another’s viewpoints.

The Dragon Who Never Sleeps: Verses for Zen Buddhist Practice (1992) [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print]

Brief verses to encourage the meditator along the path.

The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan) translation and commentary by Robert Aitken (1992)

Aitken reveals a classic Zen textbook (koan collection) for the modern reader, inviting us to enter into the spirit of the great Zen Masters and realize that “each being is infinitely precious.”

The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics (1984)

Aitken discusses the Buddhist precepts and his beliefs and insights regarding religious activism.

Taking the Path of Zen (1982)

An excellent, practical manual for beginners that includes detailed Zen meditation instructions along with general information about Zen practice. Includes Aitken’s autobiographical account of his own Zen studies.

A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen (1978) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

This unique and enjoyable book explores the famous Haiku poetry of Basho from the standpoint of Zen, and life from the standpoint of poetry.

Other Books by Robert Aitken

The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki (2011) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

Miniatures of a Zen Master (2008) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom from Ming China on Life and Living with Daniel Kwok (2007) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

The Morning Star: New and Selected Zen Writings (2003) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

Zen Master Raven: Savings and Doings of a Wise Bird (2002) [Editor’s Note: The publisher is out of stock]

Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays (1996) [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print]

branches in fog

Published on: February 8, 2017

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