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Robert Aitken Roshi


Aitken Roshi with Michael Kieran at his 91st birthday celebration

Woe Unto Us!
[July 2008]

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!
Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink:
Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous!
Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust[1]

The Lord shall wreak such retribution according to Isaiah. Even without the Lord, cause leads inexorably to effect. What goes around comes around:
Woe unto those who continue to stop at the pump as prices rise twentyfold in a lifetime!
Woe unto those who encourage us to stop at the pump as primordial ice falls into the sea!
Woe unto those who maintain the many industries that induce unprecedented flooding and fires:
They gather for minuets as the deluge threatens to separate their heads from their bodies!
Therefore the flooding shall reduce all to rubble, and fires shall consume the chaff. Our homes shall collapse as babies die in the arms of their mothers who then soon follow. Shakespeare himself shall vanish, together with Bach and Rembrandt. Kumarajiva shall vanish, together with Zhaozhou and Yunmen. The entire animal kingdom will be gone. The entire bird kingdom will be gone. Tall grasses and insects shall inherit the Earth!

[1] Isa 5: 20-24


Sesshu: Winter Landscape 1398

from Reflections
[The Morning Star, 2003]

I had the pleasure of meeting with Joanna Macy recently…Joanna points out that we live in a world that can die.  Whole species and life-support systems are already dying, and massive want, hunger, oppression, disease, and conflict assail a growing proportion of the planet’s beings.  We can do something about it and yet we tend to act as if we don’t believe what is happening.  She asks, “How can we become simply present to what is going on and let it become real to us?  Great adventures await us; what is it that erodes our will, our creativity, our solidarity?”

Joanna finds that many people (especially those drawn to Eastern paths) have developed notions about spirituality that hinder them from realizing their power to effect change.  Among the ‘spiritual traps’ that cut the nerve of compassionate action are these:

  1. That the phenomenal world of beings is not real.  With this view the pain of others and the demands on us that are implicit in that pain are less tangible than the pleasures or aloofness we can find in transcending them.
  2. That any pain we may experience in beholding the world derives from our own cravings and attachments.  With this view, the ideal way to deal with suffering becomes nonattachment to the fate of all beings, not just nonattachment to matters of the ego.
  3. That we are constantly creating our world unilaterally through our subjective thoughts.  Confrontation is considered negative thinking, acceptance is positive.  Therefore it is concluded that when we confront the injustice and dangers of our world we are simply creating more conflict and misunderstanding.
  4. And the corollary, that the world is already perfect when we view it spiritually.  We feel so peaceful that the world itself will become peaceful without our need to act.

Shackles and traps drop away in such lucid exposition of Wrong Views.  Our responsibilities stand forth clearly.


Hasegawa Tohaku, 16th century, Pine Trees

Envisioning the Future
[The Morning Star 2003]

Great corporations, underwritten by equally great financial institutions, flush away the human habitat and the habitat of thousands of other species ruthlessly....International consortia rule sovereign over all other political authority. Presidents and parliaments and the United Nations itself are delegating decision-making powers and oversight that enable faceless and increasingly unaccountable corporations to plunder resources and pillage economies.

Citizens of goodwill everywhere despair of the political process. The old enthusiasm to turn out on election day has drastically waned. In the United States, fewer than 50% of those eligible cast a ballot. It has become clear that political parties are ineffectual—and that practical alternatives must be found.

We can begin our task of developing such alternatives by meeting in informal groups within our larger Sanghas to examine politics and economics from a Buddhist perspective. It will become apparent that traditional teachings of interdependence bring into direct question the rationale of accumulating wealth and of governing by hierarchical authority. What, then, is to be done?

Something, certainly. Our practice of the Brahma Viharas—kindness, compassion, goodwill and equanimity would be meaningless if it excluded people, animals, and plants outside our formal Sangha. Nothing in the teachings justifies us as a cult that ignores the world. We are not survivalists. On the contrary, it is clear that we’re in it together with all beings.

The time has surely come when we must speak out as Buddhists, with firm views of harmony as the Tao. I suggest that it is also time for us to take ourselves in hand. We ourselves can engage in the very policies and programs of social and ecological protection and respect that we have heretofore so futilely demanded from authorities. This would be engaged Buddhism where the Sangha is not merely parallel to the forms of conventional society and not merely metaphysical in its universality…This greater Sangha is, moreover, not merely Buddhist. It is possible to identify an eclectic religious revolution that is already underway, one to which we can lend our energies.


Senior American Zen master Robert Aitken is a dharma heir of Yamada Koun Roshi, Abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan in Kamakura. In 1941, he was captured on Guam by invading Japanese forces, and interned in Japan for the duration of World War II. In the camp, he was introduced to Zen Buddhism by the British Haiku scholar R.H. Blyth. After the war, he practiced Zen in Japan under Nakagawa Soen Roshi, Yasutani Haku'un Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi. In 1974 he was given approval to teach, and in 1985, transmission as an independent master by Yamada Roshi.  Aitken Roshi is the author of over ten books on Zen Buddhism. He was instrumental in founding several Zendos and sanghas in Hawaii and today a number of centres in Europe, North and South America, and Australasia are part of this Diamond Sangha network. Aitken Roshi was a co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and his writings reflect his concern that Buddhists be engaged in social applications of their experience.

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