The Urban Dharma Newsletter - August, 2010

In This Issue: Robert Aitken Roshi, 1917 - 2010

1. Robert Aitken Roshi, 1917 - 2010 – Barbara O'Brien
2. Robert Aitken Roshi –
3. Ten Grave Precepts of Zen Buddhism – Robert Aitken Roshi


Been a busy month…

IBMC the center I call home is celebrating 40 years this month. It seems like a miracle, with the ups and downs every center goes through, and yet somehow we are still here. The founder, the abbess, the monks, nuns and dharma teachers, students and residents all had something to do with IBMC’s success as a Buddhist center.

I am teaching a course on Buddhist Afterlife at Loyola Marymount University in September, if you might be interested in taking the course see below.

Peace… Kusala

Course - Do Buddists Go To Heaven

Course Code YGPX879.0451591

Description - "Practice everyday... There is very little time left. Think about death often, it will give your life urgency and with good health and exercise you can die in the slowest way possible." Buddhism has a rich cosmology based on ancient Indian beliefs that answer the question... Is there an afterlife? The Buddha's contribution to afterlife was Nirvana, the end of suffering, karma and all future rebirths... Breaking the cycle of birth and death, a path to immortality he once said. Buddhism also has a vast array of heavens and hells, realms of existence... Where gods, animals, humans and hell beings exist to die and be reborn again and again. With humor, stories, and personal insights Ven. Kusala Bhikshu using materials from a variety of sources, will explore the ups and downs of Buddhist afterlife.

Teacher Bio - Ven. Kusala Bhikshu ( is an American born Bhikshu (monk) ordained in the Zen tradition of Vietnam. In 1994 Kusala took novice vows, and was given the Dharma name Kusala Ratana Karuna (skillful jewel of compassion). In 1996 he received full ordination as a Bhikshu, and was given the name Thich Tam-Thien (heavenly heart mind). Ven. Kusala lives and works at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. He leads meditation and discussion groups at the Center and continues to give presentations at local high schools, colleges and churches on Buddhism and social action. Kusala is web-master of -

Session Fall 2010

Days Thursday

Dates 9/09/10 - 10/07/10

Times 7:30 PM-9:30PM

# of Classes 5

# of Weeks 5

Credit(s) Earned 1

Location/Map Link LMU Campus, University Hall, 3230

Coordinated by Ms. Alana Bray, the Center's Yoga Studies program can be reached at or by phone at 310.338.2358

1. Robert Aitken Roshi, 1917 - 2010 / Saturday August 7, 2010 – Barbara O'Brien - Barbara's Buddhism Blog

Robert Aitken Roshi

A great patriarch of western Zen, Robert Aitken, died this past Thursday of pneumonia. He was 93 years old.

Aitken Roshi established the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu, Hawaii, which grew into a network of Zen centers around the world. He was the author of many books widely read by Zen students everywhere, including Taking the Path of Zen, The Mind of Clover, The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-menkuan (Mumonkan), The Dragon Who Never Sleeps, and Zen Master Raven.

The story of how Robert Aitken came to Zen is remarkable in itself. Aitken was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii when he decided he needed a break from studies, and he took a construction job in Guam. So it was that he was an American civilian in Japanese-occupied Guam when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was taken into custody the day after the bombing and spent the entire war in civilian prisons in Japan.

One of the guards loaned Aitken a copy of R. H. Blyth's book Zen in English Literature and the Oriental Classics. Aitken read the book several times until the guard took it back. But then Aitken was moved to a new prison, and his cell mate was -- R. H. Blyth. Blyth was a student of Zen who had been teaching English in Japan when the war began, and so he also spent the war in Japanese prisons. So it was that Aitken's misfortune became an opportunity, and he and Blyth had long discussions about Zen.

After the war, Aitken's journey eventually brought him to koan study under the Rinzai teacher Yasutani Hakuun Roshi and then Yasutani's successor, Ko'un Yamada Roshi. Yamada Roshi conferred dharma transmission to Aitken in 1974. Aitken and his wife Anne Hopkins Aitken established the Kokoan Zendo in Manoa in 1959, which was the birth of the Diamond Sangha.

Aitken's principal heir is Nelson Foster Roshi, who heads the Palao Zen Center in Hawai'i, which is the main training center of the Diamond Sangha network; and Ring of Bone in North San Juan, California.

The mere facts of Aitken Roshi's life do not convey the profound impact his life had on western Zen. Aitken was one of the first westerners to receive dharma transmission, thereby lighting the way for many who came after. His books are remarkable for their clarity and remain recommended reading for Zen students. Even those of us who never met him were touched by him, both by his writing and through the work of his many students.

After I learned of Aitken Roshi's death today, I picked up my dog-eared copy of The Gateless Barrier, opened it randomly, and found this --

“When people write to me from a place where there are no Zen centers and where it is impossible to find even a single Zen friend, I advise them, "Just sit with the awareness that you are sitting with us in the Diamond Sangha. Just sit with the awareness that you are sitting with everyone and every being in the whole universe, past, present, and future."

And so, may we continue to sit with Robert Aitken Roshi, and with all beings, throughout space and time.

2. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Aitken Gyoun Roshi, beloved teacher and founder of the Diamond Sangha, died August 5 in Honolulu at the age of 93. Although he had been in declining health for many years and was confined to a wheelchair, he continued to be active, attending weekly zazen at Palolo Zen Center, where he lived his final years, and working virtually to the minute his caregiver drove him to the hospital emergency room.

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 Bishop Museum. After growing up largely in Hawaii (with several intervals in California, living with one set of grandparents or another), at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific he was captured on Guam, where he had been working as a civilian. His amazingly fortuitous 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 Roshi resumed his interrupted college studies at the University of Hawaii, graduating in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He returned to the university for a master’s in Japanese studies, which he received in 1950, and his thesis, concerning Zen’s influence on the great haiku poet Basho, later became the basis of his first book, A Zen Wave.

Between his degrees, he married society-page columnist Mary Laune, and the two of them lived briefly in California, where Roshi started graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles and began Zen practice with Nyogen Senzaki, a disciple of Shaku Soen Zenji and himself a returnee from internment by the United States. Although he revered Senzaki Sensei and quoted him fondly ever after, this first stretch of practice with him was short lived, and Roshi’s next step, on the advice of D.T. Suzuki, was to go to Japan to practice.

His travel to Japan, funded by a fellowship, was nominally for the purpose of pursuing his academic interest in haiku but driven by his fervent desire to deepen his Zen practice. It came at considerable personal expense, carrying him away not only from Mary but also from their infant child, Thomas Laune Aitken, born just months before he departed.

Dr. Suzuki referred Bob, as he was then known, to Engaku-ji, the monastery in Kitakamakura where both Suzuki himself and Senzaki Sensei had trained half a century earlier under Shaku Soen. Its abbot at the time, Asahina Sogen Roshi, welcomed this rare American recruit kindly. Ill-prepared for the rigors of his inaugural sesshin, Aitken suffered such painfully swollen knees that afterward he took refuge from the monastery at the home of Dr. Suzuki and his wife, Beatrice.

While recuperating, he hit on the idea of going to Ryutaku-ji, where Senzaki’s close friend, the monk Nakagawa Soen, resided. With Soen’s encouragement, Roshi moved there and took up study under its venerable master, Yamamoto Gempo Roshi, who soon named the astonished Soen to succeed him as abbot. Soen promptly raised eyebrows himself by taking the young U.S. layman as his attendant when he paid the expected round of formal calls upon other Rinzai abbots, including the esteemed Shibayama Zenkei of Nanzen-ji.

Aitken Roshi returned home to find his marriage headed for divorce and two years later moved back to Los Angeles, where he found employment in a bookstore and resumed practice with Senzaki Sensei. The mid ’50s was a difficult period for him until he landed a position teaching English at Krishnamurti’s Happy Valley School in rural Ojai, north of Los Angeles. In February, 1957, he married the woman who, as acting head mistress, had hired him the year before—Anne Hopkins, of San Francisco.

The Aitkens spent their honeymoon in Japan, where Anne “in spite of myself,” as she later put it, was drawn into Zen practice too, joining her husband and Soen Roshi in a seven-day sesshin with Yasutani Hakuun Roshi. An impassioned Soto priest, Yasutani had founded and was director of the Sanbo Kyodan, a small independent sect blending Soto and Rinzai traditions. The karmic repercussions of this first encounter, though not evident at the time, are still resounding.

After another year at Happy Valley School, the Aitkens moved to Honolulu, wanting to be closer to Tom, by then eight. They established first a bookstore and then, in 1959, a Zen group, initially in their living room. Senzaki Sensei had died in 1957, so the Aitkens sought the guidance of Soen Roshi, who endorsed the formation of the new group and served as the founding teacher. Soen named both the temple, Koko An, and the new organization itself, the Diamond Sangha. He also installed an altar figure of Bodhidharma seated in a chair, fulfilling a prediction he had made upon its purchase in 1951, when he had insisted that Aitken buy the unusual figure during the time the two had travelled together visiting Rinzai abbots.

Besides visiting regularly to conduct sesshin, Soen Roshi sent long-term advisors to live at Koko An and guide the nascent group—the priest Eido Shimano (1960-64) and the layman Katsuki Sekida (1965-71). These advisors doubled as translators for Soen Roshi during his visits for sesshin and, beginning in 1962, for Yasutani Roshi. Soen Roshi soon turned leadership of the Hawaii group over to Yasutani Roshi, and the Diamond Sangha’s bonds with the Sanbo Kyodan were cemented formally. Yasutani Roshi came annually for sesshin through 1969, when at age 85 he gave up such demanding travel.

Aitken Roshi’s day jobs during this period were mainly administrative positions with the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, though at one point he taught college English. After returning from Japan in 1951, he worked as an organizer in Honolulu community agencies, and after moving home once again in 1958, he maintained steady involvement in organizations dedicated to peace, social justice, and civil rights. He helped to establish both the American Friends Service Committee program in Hawaii and a local office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1969, Roshi retired from UH, the Aitkens put Koko An in the hands of its members, and they moved with Mr. Sekida to Maui. There, with support from a handful of Zen students, they created the Maui Zendo, initially a sort of mission to the hippie population inundating the island, morphing by degrees into an ever-more-serious residential Zen training center. Soen Roshi stepped in again to lead sesshin there and at Koko An until 1971, when Yamada Koun Roshi, Yasutani Roshi’s successor as abbot of Sanbo Kyodan, began his own long series of teaching visits.

The Diamond Sangha flourished in the 70's, riding the U.S. Zen boom of the day and inspired particularly by Yamada Roshi, who, besides being 21 years younger than Yasutani Roshi, was sufficiently fluent in English to deliver teisho and conduct dokusan without a translator present. The Aitkens intensified their own training by travelling to Japan annually, residing for several months each time near Yamada Roshi’s temple in Kamakura. In 1972, Yamada Roshi sanctioned Bob Aitken, as he was still known, to begin guiding students under his supervision. Two years later, Yamada Roshi authorized Bob—henceforth Aitken Roshi—to teach independently, though it was another decade before all the formalities of Dharma transmission were completed.

By the mid-70's, Maui Zendo had outgrown its original site and moved to a much larger property. Major sesshin became more frequent, students started to arrive from such distant points as Australia, and Aitken Roshi himself began traveling to teach and published his first books. A Zen Wave appeared in 1978, with his primer, Taking the Path of Zen, following in 1982. With the Aitkens’ backing, Maui sangha members founded a preschool to serve the indigent community in the temple’s vicinity, launched the nationwide Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and began publishing Kahawai, the first journal to address gender issues explicitly in a Buddhist context.

Eventually, demographic changes shifted the sangha’s energy back to Honolulu. The Aitkens moved there themselves in 1983, and later the Maui property was sold to underwrite purchase of land and construction of Palolo Zen Center. An almost entirely volunteer-built project, the Palolo temple was designed to provide housing for the Aitkens as well as offices and a complete facility for residential training. Koko An was ultimately sold, consolidating the Honolulu program and its resources.

Meanwhile, groups that Roshi had been visiting elsewhere began to seek formal affiliation, and by the mid ’90s, the Diamond Sangha had mushroomed into an international network. Today it has affiliate groups in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, and Chile as well as in a number of states across the U.S.

In 1988, Aitken Roshi announced the designation of his first four successors—Augusto Alcalde, Nelson Foster, Fr. Pat Hawk, and John Tarrant. By the time he retired, he had added five to this number: Subhana Barzaghi and Ross Bolleter (authorized jointly with John Tarrant), Jack Duffy, Rolf Drosten, and Joseph Bobrow. He recognized Danan Henry as a Diamond Sangha master as well, Sr. Pia Gyger as an associate master, and two apprentice teachers, Marian Morgan and Donald Stoddard.

Roshi delivering the teisho on June 24, 2007 Aitken Roshi continued to teach after Anne Aitken’s death in 1994 but at the end of 1996 retired to Kaimu, on the island of Hawaii, to live near his son. From there, he continued his work while also increasing his active participation in peace vigils and social justice causes. Teaching responsibilities at Palolo passed to Nelson Foster, who shuttled between Honolulu and his home temple, Ring of Bone Zendo in the Sierra foothills, until 2006, when his own successor, Michael Kieran, of Hawaii, was installed as the teacher at the Palolo temple.

Roshi and his son Tom moved back to Honolulu in 2004. Two years later, after trying out various housing arrangements and with his health weakening, Roshi settled in again at the Palolo temple. With the support of the Honolulu sangha and financial assistance from many friends, he lived out his days there productively and comfortably, assisted by a dedicated and loving cadre of Tongan caregivers. Among the principal joys of these late years was becoming grandfather to Tom’s three daughters.

In the years after his retirement, Roshi published four additional books—Zen Master Raven, The Morning Star, Vegetable Roots Discourse (with Daniel Kwok), and Miniatures of a Zen Master. A final book, his fourteenth, tentatively titled River of Heaven, was in the works when he died. Most of these titles were originally published by his longtime editor and friend, Jack Shoemaker. Many have also been published in one or more translations.

Roshi’s death came peacefully, of pneumonia, just over 24 hours after he had been admitted to the hospital. The outpouring of tributes it touched off are testimony to his work and the spirit in which he did it. The memorial service is to be held at the Palolo Zen Center on August 22.

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: 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,, and at Roshi’s blog,

3. Ten Grave Precepts of Zen Buddhism – Robert Aitken Roshi

Shila is the mnemonic listing of precepts, and by extension it is Vinaya, the moral way. Vinaya is the first of the "Three Baskets" or Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon, the others being Sutra and Abhidharma, the teachings and the commentaries. Formally becoming a Buddhist is a matter of accepting the precepts in the ceremony called Jukai. To understand how morality and Buddhism go together, it is probably best to review the Buddhist teaching itself briefly:

The basic teaching of the Buddha is that there is no abiding self. Our being is made up of and constantly depends upon other people, animals, plants, soil, water, air, the planet earth, the other planets, the sun, moon and stars. Our very genes are programmes provided to us by our ancestors and from unknown sources back to the earliest green slime and before. Nothing is my own and everything makes me up: my parents, grandparents - the birdsong, portraits by Rembrandt, the scent of the Puakenikeni, and the laughter of a friend. Also forming my being are death in the family, the danger of biological holocaust, misunderstandings, and malicious gossip.

This formation that is me, flowing along, eating and adapting and adopting, is the same formation that is you, with very small variations in our combination of genes and experience that give us our uniqueness. This uniqueness is our own personal potential, and we depend upon each other for sustenance to fulfill it.

Each centre in our multi-centred universe is dependent in this way. Nothing abides and we find that everything is fundamentally insubstantial -- shunyata, emptiness. It is not a vacuum that we perceive, but the absence of a fixed self in ourselves and in the multitudinous things of the universe. With this perception, or with an understanding that such an experience is possible, we glimpse the Dharma: the peace of the fathomless void and the harmony of the many centres as they flow about and through each other - out there and as this 'me'.

We also perceive misuse of harmony as habitats are destroyed, nations threatened, childlren and spouses abused and friends slandered.

The Ten Grave Precepts, which make up Shila for the Zen student, are ten ways to prompt our awareness of the Dharma, the peace and great harmony of life and death that is our universe. They not only prompt our awareness, they are expressions of perfection in the Dharma. Each precept is a paramita.

The Ten Grave Precepts.

l. I take up the way of not killing. This First Precept echoes the first of our Great Vows for All, "Though the many beings are numberless, I vow to save them." The Precept is specific and negative in wording; the Vow is universal and positive. The emphasis in the Precept is upon protection and nurturing: the emphasis in the Vow is upon spiritual encouragement. Both are expressions of perfections: both enhance the process of perfection.

Usually, nurturing a specific being is clearly also a matter of saving the universe, but sometimes options of abortion, spraying bugs, and trapping rats seem to offer ways to keep the world organism thinned and healthy. Such issues can becone agonizingly difficult, and it is tempting to make decisions on the basis of persuasive arguments that are over-simple and reductive. They are koans and must be faced with a clear sense of proportion.

Decisions about the quantitatively larger issue of war and peace have been clarified by the unprecedented technological capacity for killing which science has achieved. There is no longer an argument for a "just war", or for "mutually assured deterence". Incredibly murderous weapons are prepared to destroy all human life and almost all animal and plant life. The koan here is how to speak out appropriately and take action that is instructive in opposition to such weapons and their so-called rationale.

Less obvious, but no less dangerous, is the probability of biological disaster through the destruction of forests, meadows, wetlands, lakes, rivers, seas, and the air. I vow to moderate my lifestyle and reduce its demands, and to encourage you to do the same, for the protection of all beings in their infinite variety.

2. I take up the way of not stealing. This and all the subsequent Precepts are variants of the first, "Not Killing". "I take up the way of not stealing" means I will respect the order of things - the paramita of harmony.

Peasants who occupy unused private land in Central America are demonstrating their view of the fundamental order. "We are taking what is rightfully ours", they say. The landlords say they are stealing. The question is, which view kills? Which view gives life?

3. I take up the way of not misusing sex. Sexual intercourse is misused when it is an addiction rather than the peak experience of love between a committed couple. All the Precepts point to addictive behavior, stealing, lying, using alcohol or drugs, slandering, even killing. Addiction reveals a lack of confidence, a need for something from others, the interdependence of all things inverted for just one being. It is no good condemning promiscuity as immoral behavior, for it is only a symptom of general immaturity. Like anybody else, the addict needs guidance to find a way to forget the self.

4. I take up the way of not speaking falsely. Speaking falsely is also killing, and specifically, killing the Dharma. The lie is set up to defend the idea of a fixed entity, a self image, a concept, or an institution. I want to be known as warm and compassionate, so I deny that I was cruel, even though somebody got hurt. Sometimes I must lie to protect someone or large numbers of people, animals, plants and things from getting hurt, or I believe I must. What is the big picture? "Buddha nature pervades the whole universe." 1

5. I take up the way of not using drink or drugs. This can be extended to anything that clouds the mind: silly conversation, noisy music, most TV programs. But Buddhism is not absolute. A little wine warms my bones and relaxes my inhibitions, and casual conversation enhances my humanity and the humanity of others. This Precept is warning against addiction and dependency. When I am completely honest at the very source of my thoughts, what is the path of the Buddha?

6. I take up the way of not discussing faults of others. Again, this Precept too deals with an aspect of killing. More people get hurt by gossip than by guns. The point is that nobody has a fixed character. Everyone has tendencies, and those tendencies can be used or misused, read or misread. The tendency to be accommodating can be seen negatively as passivity, and positively as patience. Encourage the tendency, and it will find its own perfection.

7. I take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others. The reason I praise myself and abuse others is that I seek to justify and defend myself as a certain kind of rather superior being.

Actually, I am not superior or inferior. My actions and words are appropriate or inappropriate to the needs of people, animals, plants and things, including myself. If I am authoritarian and put myself up and others down, then I am not meeting their need to grow and mature or my own to listen and learn. The Buddha Dharma is obscured. The world suffers.

8. I take up the way of not sparing the Dharma assets. The Dharma assets are all phenomena in their precious uniqueness, the interdependence of everything in perfect harmony, and the absence of any abiding self. When I am not stingy with the Dharma assets, I conduct myself and say things that enhance my own understanding of uniqueness, harmony and peace - and understanding on the part of others, so that my family members, friends and everyone and everything can maintain their path of perfection. Another way to say this is: I conduct myself so that the original perfection becomes more and more clear to all beings.

9. I take up the way of not indulging in anger. You and I have had the experience in sesshin of bathing in anger. Something unreasonably tiny, perhaps something you don't even notice, punctures a nasty bubble of angry gas, and you sit there playing out scenarios of retribution. Perhaps you blame yourself for this condition, but it is needless blame, and it only adds to the confusion. Even such a nightmare of anger is not a violation of this Precept, because if you are sincere, you return to the practice whenever you possibly can. Anger itself is the field of your practice, and you pursue the little puck Mu on that field.

Blake says, "the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Kwan-yin hurls a thunderbolt of anger from time to time. Indulgence in anger is the addiction, and it rests upon pain. What is it that troubles you?

l0. I take up the way of not slandering the Three Treasures. The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These are variously the Historical Buddha, his teaching, and the fellowship of his followers - and realization, the path to realization, and the harmony of all beings. Slandering such Treasures is belittling them, and the grossest kind of belittling is conceptual analysis that reduces and quantifies - obscuring the unknown and unknowable source, the marvelous subtlety of the Buddha's words and the words of his great followers, the synchronicity and symmetry of experience, and the precious nature and aspiration of each individual person, animal or plant.

I take up the Ten Precepts of the disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, and I invite you to join me.

The Ten Precepts

l. I take up the way of not killing.

2. I take up the way of not stealing.

3. I take up the way of not misusing sex.

4. I take up the way of not speaking falsely.

5. I take up the way of not using drink or drugs.

6. I take up the way of not discussing faults of others.

7. I take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others.

8. I take up the way of not sparing the Dharma assets.

9. I take up the way of not indulging in anger.

l0. I take up the way of not slandering the Three Treasures.

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