Original Dwelling Place: Zen Buddhist Essays
Robert Aitken
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 ofEmmei 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.”

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