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Robert Baker Aitken
Robert Baker Aitken.JPG
School Zen Buddhism
Lineage Harada-Yasutani
Born June 19, 1917 (1917-06-19) (age 92)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Senior posting
Title Roshi
Predecessor Yamada Koun
Religious career
Teacher Soen Nakagawa
Nyogen Senzaki

Robert Baker Aitken Roshi (born June 19, 1917) is a Zen teacher practicing in the Harada-Yasutani lineage living in retirement in O'ahu, Hawaii since 1996. He is former head abbot and roshi of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in Honolulu, Hawaii, which he had led and co-founded with his late wife Anne Hopkins Aitken since 1959. He now lives in retirement at the Palolo Zen Center in Honolulu, where he is in declining health. Aitken was reluctant to embrace his role as an authority figure in Zen, deciding to live as a layperson following his receipt of Dharma transmission from his teacher Yamada Koun. He is a socially engaged Buddhist, having advocated for social justice pertaining to gays, women, and Native Hawaiians throughout his career. He was one of the original founders of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 1978, and never shirked away from speaking out against injustice.



Robert Baker Aitken and Anne Hopkins Aitken

Robert Aitken was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917, then was raised in Hawaii from the age of five. Living in Guam as a civilian working construction—at the onset of World War II—he was detained by the Japanese and held in internment camps for the duration of the war. In one such internment camp in Kobe, Japan in 1944 he met the scholar Reginald Horace Blyth, with whom he had frequent discussions on Zen Buddhism and anarchism. At the conclusion of the war he returned to Hawaii and obtained a BA in English literature and an MA in Japanese from the University of Hawaii.[1][2]

In the late 1940s, while going to classes briefly at the University of California in Berkeley, California, he met Nyogen Senzaki. Originally in California hoping for an encounter with Krishnamurti, he began to study with Senzaki in Los Angeles. Even at such an early stage in his Zen practice, Aitken showed his social conscience by advocating for pacifism and labor rights. As a consequence of his ideologies, he was investigated during this period by the FBI. In 1950 he went back to Japan, under a grant to study haiku and through Senzaki's advisement to study Zen there. There he experienced his first sesshin at Engaku-ji, a temple in Kamakura, Japan. Soon after he met Nakagawa Soen, who convinced him to come for a stay at Ryutakuji for the next seven months. During this period Soen took over for the ailing abbot of the temple, Yamamoto Gempo. Aitken then came down with a case of dysentery, and returned home to Hawaii in 1956 to find his marriage had ended. He soon married his second wife Anne Hopkins—opening a bookstore with her in Honolulu—and made occasional trips back to Japan.[3][4][1][2]

In 1959 he and Anne began a meditation group in Honolulu at their residence, which became known as the Koko-an zendo. The community that gathered at this zendo were then named the Diamond Sangha by the two. In 1961 Aitken left for an extended stay in Japan to study under Haku'un Yasutani. He was also teaching at the University of Hawaii at the time, retiring from his professorship in 1969 to devote more of his time to Zen practice. He and Anne moved to Maui, Hawaii that year and founded Maui zendo in Lahaina. Under invitation from Yasutani and Soen Nakagawa, Koun Yamada became roshi there in 1971. In 1974 he was given the title of roshi by Yamada Koun in Kamakura, Japan, receiving full Dharma transmission from him.[3][5]

Due to his skepticism of authority, and informed by certain anarchistic beliefs, Aitken Roshi accepted transmission but remained a layperson. He took over as abbot at Diamond Sangha and, though he was anti-authoritarian in his beliefs, he did have rules at the temple that he expected others to follow. While he took his duties as roshi quite seriously, he refused to run the center as if in a league of his own. He simply wanted to help students along on their paths, not to entrap them into seeing him as an exalted figure.[2]

Robert Aitken has been socially active throughout his life, i.e., his protestation of nuclear testing during the 1940s. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and became a strong opponent of the nuclear arms race that followed in the years ahead. He was among the earlier proponents of deep ecology in religious America, and was outspoken in his beliefs on the equality of men and women. In 1978 Aitken helped found the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an organization that advocates for conflict resolution globally.[2]


Aitken has been in declining health recently, suffering from a stroke in 2004 and facing numerous hospitalizations for respiratory infections in the years since. In 2006 he moved in to Palolo Zen Center in Honolulu, Hawaii—where he is looked after and plans to spend the remainder of his life. Aitken participates with the rest of the community for zazen and kinhin, both performed while in his wheelchair. In response to rising medical costs and expenses associated with tending to his care, the Friends of Robert Aitken have created the Dana for Aitken Roshi website.[1]

Dharma heirs

The following individuals are Dharma heirs of Aitken:[2]

Diamond Sangha

The Diamond Sangha is an organization of Zen Buddhist centers founded by Robert and Anne Aitken in their Hawaiʻi home in October 1959. The organization is known for making the rigors of traditional Zen accessible to practitioners, notably women, throughout the world.

Teachers are committed to the ethical application of the Ten Grave Precepts, and Aitken and his successors continue to encourage inter-religious dialogue and socially engaged Buddhism, including peace activism, prison reform, AIDS intervention, equality in gender and sexual orientation, and other issues of social justice.

Today, the Diamond Sangha has affiliate zen centers in South America, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United States and Europe.



  • Zen Training. A Personal Account; Honolulu: Old Island Books (1960).
  • A Buddhist Reader; Honolulu: Young Buddhist Association (1961).
  • Hawaii Upward Bound Writing and Art 1966; A Project of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Robert Aitken, Editor (1966).
  • A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen; New York: Weatherhill (1978). ISBN 0-8348-0137-X
  • Taking the Path of Zen;San Francisco: North Point Press (1982). ISBN 0-86547-080-4.
  • The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics; San Francisco: North Point Press (1984). ISBN 0-86547-158-4.
  • The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-menkuan (Mumonkan); San Francisco: North Point Press (1990). ISBN 0-86547-442-7.
  • The Dragon who Never Sleeps: Verses for Zen Buddhist Practice; Berkeley: Parallax Press (1992). ISBN 0-938077-60-0.
  • Encouraging Words: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students; San Francisco and New York: Pantheon Books (1993). ISBN 0-679-75652-3.
  • The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice. Buddhist and Christian with David Steindl-Rast; Ligouri, Missouri: Triumph Books, (1994). ISBN 0-89243-644-1.
  • The Practice of Perfection: The Paramitas from a Zen Buddhist Perspective; San Francisco and New York: Pantheon Books (1994). ISBN 0-679-43510-7.
  • Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays; Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press (1996). ISBN 1-887178-16-3.
  • Zen Master Raven: Savings and Doings of a Wise Bird; Boston: Tuttle Publishing (2002). ISBN 0-8048-3473-3

See also


  1. ^ a b Aitken, Robert, Merwin, W.S. (2003). A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen. Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers. p. xi, xii. ISBN 1593760086. 
  2. ^ a b c d Queen, Christopher S (2000). Engaged Buddhism in the West. Wisdom publications. pp. 70–73. ISBN 0861711599. 
  3. ^ a b Prebish, Charles S (1999). University of California Press. pp. 19, 20, 21. ISBN 0520216970. 
  4. ^ Wenger, Michael (2001). Wind Bell: Teachings from the San Francisco Zen Center (1968-2001). North Atlantic Books. p. viii. ISBN 1556433816. 
  5. ^ Chappell, David W (2000). Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace. Wisdom Publications. p. 93. ISBN 086171167X. 

External links

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