I step from my taxi onto the driveway of the Koko-an Zendo in Honolulu, three hours early for my interview with the eminent Zen master Robert Aitken. I had planned to use the time for extra research; instead, I’m hijacked by another visitor. Kobutsu Malone is a Zen priest, visiting from Maine. Portly, bald as a pink bowling ball, with wild white eyebrows that jut from his face like jagged tumbleweeds or lightning bolts, he wears green-brown Zen robes and steps slowly down the center’s lawn to meet me. Hands in a thoughtful posture behind his back, he resembles a medieval European monk, a character out of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Taking him first as the sangha’s manager, through whom I’ve arranged the interview, I thank him for coming out to meet me and ask for a place to keep reading. Malone’s first words are a threat—namely, to chain me to the radiator so I won’t get into trouble. He pauses for the joke to sink in, erupting in a hoarse roar of laughter. I smile awkwardly.

I had been invited by Tricycle to fly to Maui and interview the new U.S. poet laureate, W. S. Merwin. A longtime fan of Merwin’s writing, I jumped at the chance, not hesitating when asked if I could also interview the Zen roshi Merwin originally went to Hawaii to study under. Recognizing Aitken’s name from my older habit, hardly kept up, of reading Zen classics, and knowing this would make the trip all the more worthwhile for the magazine, I said yes enthusiastically. Only later did I realize I’d have little time to prepare for both interviews. All of which would prove even more complicated when, the day after I sent follow-up questions to a difficult interview, Robert Aitken Roshi died of pneumonia.

Photographs by Tom Haar
Photographs by Tom Haar

On the first Monday in August, a day overcast with fog, I’d scheduled a 10 a.m. interview with the legendary teacher, who—at 93 and now quite frail—was, I learned, in the midst of a kind of war. Aitken had started a blog in May. On Thursday, May 20, Tom Aitken posted a letter signed by his father that read, “This is an open letter to Eido Tai Shimano Roshi: Dear Tai San, There are many reports of your abuse of women published on the web which indicate that you have been involved in breaking the precepts over a period of more than 40 years. I would like to urge you to come forth and make a statement in response to these accusations.”

In 2003, Aitken donated his complete papers to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, but he had left a batch pertaining to Shimano sealed. In the summer of 2008, he instructed Lynn Davis at the university to unseal them. A website named the Shimano Archive has been making them widely available ever since. Now that letters and affidavits from women alleging they were coerced or inappropriately seduced to sleep with Shimano were publicly available, and with Aitken’s blog publicly requesting a response, Eido Shimano’s community, the Zen Studies Society, announced on July 4 his stepping down from the board. To some in the broader Zen community, this appeared to be a step toward resolution. To others, it looked like mere window dressing. As I would see, Aitken fell into the latter category. Malone, who works on the archive, did as well.

I had planned to focus my piece on Aitken’s career as a Zen teacher in helping transplant Buddhism to the West. In his extensive writings, he had elucidated with uncommon skill and clarity essential Buddhist concepts for generations of Western students: “Unpack karma and you get cause and effect. Unpack cause and effect and you get affinity. Unpack affinity and you get the tendency to coalesce. Unpack the tendency to coalesce and you get intimacy. Unpack intimacy and you will find that you contain all beings. Unpack containment and there is the goddess of mercy herself.”

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