This Aitken Roshi obituary comes our way from the good people at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, the lay Zen organization that Robert Aitken founded with his wife Anne Hopkins Aitken in 1959.
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.