Robert Baker Aitken

Robert Baker Aitken
Robert Baker Aitken
School Zen Buddhism
Lineage Harada-Yasutani
Born June 19, 1917(1917-06-19)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Died August 5, 2010(2010-08-05) (aged 93)
Honolulu, Hawai'i
Senior posting
Title Roshi
Predecessor Yamada Koun
Religious career
Teacher Soen Nakagawa
Nyogen Senzaki

Robert Baker Dairyu Chotan Aitken Roshi (June 19, 1917 – August 5, 2010) was a Zen teacher in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He co-founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in 1959 together with his wife. Aitken received Dharma transmission from Koun Yamada in 1985 but decided to live as a layperson. He was a social activist advocating for social justice for gays, women and Native Hawaiians throughout his life, and was one of the original founders of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.[1][2]



Robert Baker Aitken and Anne Hopkins Aitken

Robert Aitken was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917, then was raised in Hawaii from the age of five.

Living in Guam as a civilian working construction—at the onset of World War II—he was detained by the Japanese and held in internment camps for the duration of the war. In one such internment camp in Kobe, Japan in 1944 he met the scholar Reginald Horace Blyth, with whom he had frequent discussions on Zen Buddhism and anarchism. At the conclusion of the war he returned to Hawaii and obtained a BA in English literature and an MA in Japanese from the University of Hawaii.[3][4]

In the late 1940s, while going to classes briefly at the University of California in Berkeley, California, he met Nyogen Senzaki.[5] Originally in California hoping for an encounter with Krishnamurti, he began to study with Senzaki in Los Angeles. It was during this period that his commitment to social issues - such as pacifism and labor rights - became more vocal. As a result of his advocacy, he was investigated during this period by the FBI.

In 1950 he went back to Japan, under a grant to study haiku and followed Senzaki's recommendation that he study Zen there. There he took part in his first sesshin at Engaku-ji, a temple in Kamakura, Japan. Soon after, he met Nakagawa Soen, who convinced him to come for a stay at Ryutakuji for the next seven months. During this period Soen took over for the ailing abbot of the temple, Yamamoto Gempo. Aitken then came down with a case of dysentery, and returned home to Hawaii. He married his second wife Anne Hopkins in 1957 and made occasional trips back to Japan. In 1957 Aitken met Hakuun Yasutani and sat with him for the first time.[5][6][7][3][4]

In 1959 he and Anne began a meditation group in Honolulu at their residence, which became known as the Koko-an zendo. The community that gathered at this zendo were then named the Diamond Sangha by the two. The Diamond Sangha has affiliate zen centers in South America, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe and is known for making the rigors of traditional Zen accessible to lay practitioners.[8][9]

In 1960 Soen Nakagawa Roshi asked young monk Eido Tai Shimano to travel to Honolulu to assist Diamond Sangha center established by Anne and Robert Aitken.[10]

In 1961, Aitken made an extended stay in Japan to study under Haku'un Yasutani, eventually ending his studies with Soen. He was also teaching at the University of Hawaii at the time, retiring from his professorship in 1969 to devote more of his time to Zen practice. He and Anne moved to Maui, Hawaii that year and founded Maui Zendo in Lahaina. Koun Yamada Rōshi was invited to lead the Diamond Sangha and he moved to Hawaii in 1971. In 1974 Aitken was given permission to teach by Koun Yamada, receiving full Dharma transmission from him in 1985.[5][11]

Robert Aitken was a social activist through much of his adult life, beginning with against nuclear testing during the 1940s. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and became a strong opponent of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was among the earlier proponents of deep ecology in religious America, and was outspoken in his beliefs on the equality of men and women. In 1978 Aitken helped found the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an organization that advocates for conflict resolution globally.[4][12]

Aitken Roshi died after a brief bout with pneumonia on August 5, 2010 in Honolulu, O'ahu, Hawai'i.

Dharma heirs

The following individuals are Dharma heirs of Aitken:[1]


  • Zen Training. A Personal Account; Honolulu: Old Island Books (1960).
  • A Buddhist Reader; Honolulu: Young Buddhist Association (1961).
  • Hawaii Upward Bound Writing and Art 1966; A Project of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Robert Aitken, Editor (1966).
  • A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen; New York: Weatherhill (1978). ISBN 0-8348-0137-X
  • Taking the Path of Zen;San Francisco: North Point Press (1982). ISBN 0-86547-080-4.
  • The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics; San Francisco: North Point Press (1984). ISBN 0-86547-158-4.
  • The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-menkuan (Mumonkan); San Francisco: North Point Press (1990). ISBN 0-86547-442-7.
  • The Dragon who Never Sleeps: Verses for Zen Buddhist Practice; Berkeley: Parallax Press (1992). ISBN 0-938077-60-0.
  • Encouraging Words: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students; San Francisco and New York: Pantheon Books (1993). ISBN 0-679-75652-3.
  • The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice. Buddhist and Christian with David Steindl-Rast; Ligouri, Missouri: Triumph Books, (1994). ISBN 0-89243-644-1.
  • The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective; San Francisco and New York: Pantheon Books (1994). ISBN 0-679-43510-7.
  • Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays; Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press (1996). ISBN 1-887178-16-3.
  • Zen Master Raven: Savings and Doings of a Wise Bird; Boston: Tuttle Publishing (2002). ISBN 0-8048-3473-3

See also


  1. ^ Seager, Richard Hughes (1999). Buddhism in America. Columbia University Press. pp. 95. ISBN 0231108680. 
  2. ^ Robert Aitken dies at 93; American Zen master. Los Angeles Times (10-08-2010).
  3. ^ a b Aitken, Robert, Merwin, W.S. (2003). A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen. Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers. p. xi, xii. ISBN 1593760086. 
  4. ^ a b c Queen, Christopher S (2000). Engaged Buddhism in the West. Wisdom publications. pp. 70–73. ISBN 0861711599. 
  5. ^ a b c Prebish, Charles S (1999). Luminous passage: the practice and study of Buddhism in America. University of California Press. pp. 19, 20, 21. ISBN 0520216970. 
  6. ^ Yasutani, Hakuun (1996). Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen's Genjokoan. Shambala. pp. XXVI. ISBN 1-57062-1-3-9. 
  7. ^ Wenger, Michael (2001). Wind Bell: Teachings from the San Francisco Zen Center (1968-2001). North Atlantic Books. p. viii. ISBN 1556433816. 
  8. ^ "Honolulu Diamond Sangha". 
  9. ^ "Affiliates of the Diamond Sangha". 
  10. ^ Ford, James Ishmael (2006). Zen master who?: a guide to the people and stories of Zen. Wisdom Publications. pp. 114. ISBN 0861715098. 
  11. ^ Chappell, David W (2000). Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace. Wisdom Publications. p. 93. ISBN 086171167X. 
  12. ^ American Zen master Robert Aitken dies. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (13-08-2010).

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