Friday, November 18, 2011

Robert Baker Aitken Roshi (June 19, 1917 – August 5, 2010)

Originally published August 14th, 2010

I would like to add my name to the list of Bob’s former students who are paying tribute to him. I would also like to extend to his son, Tom, my deep sympathy. I remember so well the time we first met, Tom. Your dad took Ken MacDonald and me aside after sesshin and said, “Do you two have time to fly out to Big Island and meet Tom, my gay son.” Ken and I did just that. I have a picture of the three of us standing on the fresh lava flow that stood about 3 or 4 feet high along the edge of your driveway in Kona. Though I never visited your dad in the cottage you built for him close to that same flow on the ocean side of your property, I knew that it had to be beautiful and fit his needs perfectly—as did your care for him during his last years.

But getting back to tributes, for me the most enduring way to memorialize Aitken Roshi is to honor and carry on his teaching. And so, Roshi, I thank you first for faithfully passing on the traditional koan Teaching to my teacher, John Tarrant, and the other teachers in your lineage. This is a great gift to the world, and in itself would be more than enough to command our admiration and respect.

But there is more. I also want to thank you for stepping outside the tradition where you saw the need, where the “System Stinks” as your sign proclaims. Your testimony in support of same-gender marriage before the Hawaiian Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law in support of same-gender marriage (October 11, 1995) showed me your very down-to-earth understanding of the Way and its expression in our world. And when you agreed to allow me to revise your remarks and publish them during the “No on 8” campaign here in California not quite two years ago, with Tom acting as our intermediary, I learned another essential lesson—I had to make the dharma my own before I could embody and articulate it. Bob, I promise you that I will continue that work.


To honor your teaching, I have republished the piece we worked on together, “A Zen Master looks at Same-Gender Marriage.” (I am also including a link to the Spanish translation, Un Zen Master Enseña sobre el mismo Género Matrimonio). It is, as far as I know, the only published dharma teaching about same sex marriage by a Buddhist teacher of your stature. Thank you. We are all in your debt.


I know that you would have been delighted to know that your student Ian and his spouse Trevor were married on July 10th of this year in Canada. The ceremony they designed was very much in line with the form that you used for marriages in Diamond Sangha for years. Ian and Trevor may also be the first of many legally married same sex couples to pledge their love in the tradition of the Buddha Way that has been handled into our care. Your stand for the equality of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people is a part of your legacy that has touched all of us deeply.


For more information about Robert Aitken Roshi, his life, family and workhis Buddhist practice, the teachers in his lineage, or his writings, please visit the Robert Aitken Official Site, and the site of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha.