- Original Dwelling Place: Zen Essays
Robert Aitken narrates his over forty-year journey into Zen, elucidating not only his spiritual journey but also reflecting the Americanization of Zen Buddhism. He was introduced to Zen Buddhism during World War II as an internee in a camp for enemy civilians in Kobe, Japan. Original Dwelling Place is Aitken’s ninth book to explore a series of topics that accent his personal journey into Zen. He has gathered a series of essays about the texts and lineage teachers with whom he studied over the years. In the opening section, entitled “Ancestors,” he pays homage to the masters [End Page 212] who influenced his own Zen practice. He writes, “All of my guides have passed away, but they are alive in my mind and body” (p. 5). The book reflects his continuing bond with those deceased teachers who exercised a vital presence and environmental influence within his life. He shares some stories, personal insights, and legacies of some of his guides, such as Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Roshi, Blyth Sensei, and D. T. Suzuki. I found his essay on the legacy of Dwight Goddard filling in many personal details of a pioneer Western Buddhist who significantly contributed to the Americanization of Buddhism. In many ways, Aitken’s own spiritual development and Original Dwelling Place recapitulate the Americanization of Zen Buddhism, providing some important insights into that process of Buddhist acculturation.
Yet Aitken does not limit his guides to twentieth-century ones. He brings alive the classical discourses and relates them to contemporary life. Throughout his essays, I was struck by how alive and dynamic Aitken’s Mahayana contemplative vision and practice are. There is a spirit of “contemplative action” that collapses the duality of meditative practice and living that discovers the truth dynamically within a matrix of open living. As a Christian practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, I found many parallels to the Jesuit ideal of being “contemplative in action.” Aitken’s essays elucidate an ongoing dynamic dialectic that fluctuates between meditative reflection and the world of experience—reminding me at times of the contemplative Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, and at other times of the Jesuit poet-activist, Daniel Berrigan.
The reader garners an aesthetic sense that classical Zen texts have been an integral part of his journey and have provided him with a platform to reflect on topics such as marriage, death, the use of money, sexuality, and Zen practice. Some of his essays have a meditative quality, drawing the reader into an web of intertextuality and experience where Zen teachers and Western poets engage in a contemplative path of pleasure expressed in awareness of the everyday dewdrop world. There were moments that I envisioned reading a particular essay on retreat, for they had a meditative quality that reminded me of some the writings of Thomas Merton. Like Merton, Robert Aitken does not merely probe meditative experience but attempts to interrogate the everyday experiences of Western Buddhists from meditative awareness. Most Japanese Buddhists, he notes, are married within Shinto ceremonies, and Western Buddhists have resurrected old Buddhist marriage ceremonies seldom used by Japanese practitioners. Western Buddhist marriage ceremonies, Aitken notes, are a relatively new tradition that often blends ceremonies from The Book of Common Prayer with Buddhist rituals. He ends his short essay on marriage with final reflections on how marriage and family form a little sangha.
In “Death: A Zen Buddhist Perspective,” Aitken breaks new ground by noting how Buddhists face the fact of death and find solace in impermanence. He quotes the Japanese haiku poet, Isa Kobayashi (1763–1827), grieving at the loss of his baby daughter:
The dewdrop world is the dewdrop world, and yet—and yet(p. 124). [End Page 213]
Isa looks desperately for something to give him hope but only finds comfort in his grief. Aitken points out that within grief is emancipation and that bereavement can be a good teacher. He develops some reflections on a highly underdeveloped topic within Buddhism: grieving and the transformation of grief into solace.
Aitken writes on political revolution and the matters of ethics. He addresses...