Images: Photographs by Tom Haar
Images: Photographs by Tom Haar

In late summer of 1972, Robert Aitken was 55 and lived in Hawaii with his wife, Ann, at the Maui Zendo. He had taken a hotel room in Honolulu for the duration of the conferences of the Association for Humanistic Psychology and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, where he was speaking as a leading Western Zen Buddhist.

It was near the end of the Vietnam War. Robert—or Bob, as he liked to be called—and the other conference attendees, myself included, had been forced out of our original hotel because General Ky and Henry Kissinger were meeting there, and our group was considered a security risk. Some of us from the conference staged a die-in at the hotel, adorning ourselves with red paint and collapsing in the grand foyer.

Bob had studied Zen in Japan and had helped bring such Zen masters as Soen Nakagawa Roshi and Hakuun Yasutani Roshi to America, as well as hosting the Buddhist scholars D. T. Suzuki and Masao Abe. At the time of the conference he was directing two residential Zen training centers in Hawaii: Koko An Zendo in Manoa Valley on Oahu and the Maui Zendo on Maui.

I was 25 and debating how to commit my life energies. I had been accepted into the Buddhist Studies doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin. I was attending these conferences and had arranged to meet with Robert Aitken to decide on a career in academia, psychotherapy, or Zen. I was poised to travel to Japan to enter a Zen monastery.

When I arrived at Bob’s hotel room and knocked, he answered the door, an extremely tall and gaunt figure, very serious and sensitive-looking—not exactly severe, but certainly austere. He had black hair combed back and a salt-and-pepper goatee. His way of moving was deliberate and dignified, later reminding me of a line he had translated: “Don’t you see that leisurely man of the Tao…?”

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