By Robert Aitken
Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays
Counterpoint: Washington, D.C., 1996.
256 pp., $22.00 (cloth).
This new collection of essays by Robert Aitken Roshi takes its title from case 42 of the classic Chinese koan collection Wu-men Kuan, “Gateless Barrier.” In this koan Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, arrives at the scene of a great assembly of Buddhas only to find that all have returned to their original dwelling place. This “original dwelling place,” not a specific location but rather a state of mind, is the recurring theme of Aitken’s book.
In the first set of essays, entitled “Ancestors,” Aitken offers remembrances of his spiritual guides, virtually all of whom, though now dead, were seminal figures in the transmission of Buddhism to America. “Remembering Blyth Sensei” recounts Aitken’s first encounter with Zen through his friend the English scholar R. H. Blyth. While Blyth was not a master, he is credited with starting Aitken on the path of Zen: “If we had not met, I might well have spent my life . . . saying and doing trivial things.” Nyogen Senzaki is recalled as the teacher who first introduced Aitken to formal practice, and Senzaki’s friend Nakagawa Soen Roshi (Aitken’s teacher in the 1950s), is depicted as “the Balanchine of Zen,” for the way he led his students - often physically, like a choreographer - through the movements of practice. D. T. Suzuki is remembered during the time he taught at the University of Hawaii, when a young Robert Aitken was “part of a clique . . . who attended (or crashed) many dinners and receptions given for him.”
In essays on “Classical Discourses,” Aitken discusses the Brahma Viharas (noblest attributes of demeanor):maitri, boundless kindliness; aruna, boundless compassion; mudita, boundless delight in the attainment of others; and upeksha, boundless equanimity. He offers in addition helpful explications of Emmei Jikku Kannon Gyo (the “Ten-Verse Timeless Life Sutra,” chanted in practice centers throughout America) and the “Bodhisattva’s Vow,” written by Master Torei Enji, presented here as “a homily on . . . the particular effectiveness of abusive words in bringing one to a realization of the Buddha Dharma.”
In “Practice,” the largest section of the book, Aitken addresses the greatest challenge facing the student of Zen: to mature as a human being through practice. He reminds us that while the goal of Zen practice may seem to be a condition of empty silence, true practice means not staying in this selfless condition but realizing “that the absolute is none other than this lovely, rich world in its many forms.” Likewise, he counsels us against taking an intellectual approach to Zen. “Early on, the student who elects to pursue the path of Zen Buddhism gives up history and philosophy as basic tools and takes up the way of poetry.”
In the essay “Death: A Zen Buddhist Perspective,” Aitken draws his subject matter directly from his own life. (The essay was, in fact, composed shortly after the death of his wife, Anne.) In our fear and grief, he shows us, lies our emancipation. Finding ourselves between birth and death, our task is not to be solitary but to learn to take care of each other and to flourish.
Further essays, on “Ethics and Revolution,” take up the subject of social justice. Here, as in his other writings, Aitken raises his voice against “Buddhist antinomianism,” in which “emptiness” is hideously misconstrued as the culmination of Buddhist practice. He takes the 19th-century Japanese Zen master Takuan Soho to the woodshed once more for his advice to a samurai that violence is sometimes justified because “all is emptiness.” To divorce the meditative experience of equanimity from compassion for all beings is a perversion of Buddhism, Aitken explains. The true nature of “ultimate reality” is no other than the reality of suffering beings.
The final section, “Taking Pleasure in the Dharma,” includes essays ranging in subject from pantomime to poetry to play. Here, more than anywhere else in Original Dwelling Place, we see the fulfillment of a lifetime of practice. In the world of life and death, how do we express our humanity? Everything is play, affirms Aitken. When the ball lands on your side of the net, you hit it back. The ability to respond without hindrance and in all circumstances is the mark of a mature student of Zen.
This book displays a unity of theme (insight) and purpose (the formation of character) that belies the fact that most of its essays were published elsewhere, over a period of many years. Perhaps that unity is itself ultimately more a matter of character than design. Certain lives hold together. We expect that from a Zen teacher. Sometimes we get it.
Michael Sierchio is a software designer living in Berkeley, California.