This is Where We Find Ourselves

William Sloane Coffin, the Yale University chaplain who famously opposed the Vietnam War, had himself been an undergraduate at Yale, and a classmate of George Bush's. Long after both men had defined their positions, Coffin's observation of President Bush's ascent was that, "skim milk does rise to the top."

It's a funny way of putting it, but a damning rebuke of the democratic process nonetheless; and the current situation seems particularly pathetic because, for so many people, comparing Clinton to skim milk is a compliment.

Well, well, grumble, grumble, love it or leave it, go back to Russia. To anti-Semitism. Stalin. Communist dictatorships and five-year plans. Escape to America only to develop laryngitis denouncing Larry King's guests. Practice the politics of monkey-mind.

In the midst of a deteriorated congressional dogfight, I flew to Hawai'i's Big Island to interview Robert Aitken, America's Zen elder. The old warrior greeted me wearing a button in support of gay marriage. Now in “semi-retirement” and aided by two assistants, Aitken lives across the way from his son, who is extensively engaged in state politics. I joined them in grumbling about Washington: on walks, during meals, and—all the way to the voting booth.

For fifty years, Robert Aitken's commitment to Zen and to social action has informed a life of seamless dedication. Now, at eighty-two, he was failing—I was told. I was expecting to meet with an elderly, frail man, and agreed to space out the interviews so as not to tire him. And all the time I'm thinking, “What is wrong with this picture?”

Finally, I remember: It's 1983. I'm flying to Hawaii to interview Robert Aitken for a profile that I'm writing. That was fifteen years ago. And I had been cautioned then that he was very old and frail.

Aitken has said of himself that he has been frail all his life. A sickly child. Lungs handicapped by early asthma. A lifetime of bronchial infections. Hideously ill during a Zen retreat in a damp, cold Japanese temple almost fifty years ago. Year after year, sickly. Demonstrating against nuclear testing, for unilateral disarmament, against Trident submarines. Frail, perhaps, but robustly so. Counseling draft resisters; co-founding the Buddhist Peace Fellowship; developing the Diamond Sangha with his late wife, Anne Aitken.

In 1982, the Aitkens crossed the legal line by withholding from the Internal Revenue Service that portion of their federal income taxes slated for military expenditures. This departs radically from the Japanese Zen tradition in which opposition to political authority has been negligible and civil disobedience unknown. Not exactly an anemic gesture.

Aitken speaks of a reality that transcends Zen, of a truth that is neither the construct nor the philosophical territory of any culture or religion. He also addresses those social circumstances that have—and have not—been conducive to Buddhism. Of our era, he speaks of the degeneration of dharma and of human values. Yet, he is “content,” as he puts it, to work with the situation, sitting zazen, leading retreats, and writing. And still he still grumbles, and votes, and views with empathy our blundering, because, as he explains: “This is where we find ourselves.”

Back in New York, I watch the Clintons gloat over the mid-term elections; then get cocky; then blow it again. Yet in between my arguments with thirteen angry men, all white Republicans (including Bob Barr and Trent Lott who, on record, have attended white-supremacist meetings), I find myself repeating, “This is where we find ourselves.” Odd, how such a familiar, unprepossessing refrain can suddenly be washed clean, as if swiped with a windshield wiper, and take on new meaning, even assume a kind of mantramic resonance: This is where we find ourselves. I also came back from Hawai'i knowing one sure thing: Should I live to be frail and sick at 82, I would consider myself blessed to find myself where Aitken Roshi is now.

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