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  • Writer's pictureJohn McQuade

Robert Aitken Roshi: Contemplative

By: John McQuade


(Part One)

Robert Aitken Roshi was one of the major figures to establish Zen Buddhism in the “West.” Among many of his Zen Teachers, he held the lineage of Yasutaini Hakuun Roshi and Yamada Roshi. You can see their photographs in his book Zen Wave.

Besides being a Zen teacher, he was also a Contemplative. Indeed in my view, until his death, he held the best contemplative mind in the West. (I do not know enough about the East.) His particular contemplative interest was Haiku.

He first encountered Haiku when he was a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during W.W. II. Auspiciously, the great Haiku scholar Robert Blyth was also interned in that camp. Blyth, among his many achievements, authored the monumental four Volume history and View of haiku. After the War, he completed an M.A. at the University of Hawaii. His thesis focused on the Zen influence in Master Basho’s Haiku.

As a feature of Zen training, teachers often give teisho. A teisho is often a commentary on a Koan or some aspect of the Buddhadharma. Aitken Roshi gave a series of teisho on Zen and Basho. These were collected into a book: A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen. This book is essential reading for those interested in deep contemplative haiku.

Robert Aitken also wrote haiku. These are scattered here and there. Some are collected in an essay titled “A Garden of Haiku” in his book Morning Star: New and Selected Zen writings. Despite the title this book also includes contemplative essays. Here is one of his haiku:

A camellia flower falls/ the Basho scroll/quivers a little

(It is helpful to know that with the camellia flower the whole blossom falls rather than petal by petal. Also in the Japanese aesthetic resonance this is associated with the Samurai preference to a death by beheading.)

Towards the end of his life, he was working on another Haiku book, The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. These are the four great canonical haiku masters in the Japanese haiku tradition.

River of Heaven is a Chinese contemplative description of the star system we call the Milky Way. This would require a separate essay, but the Chinese Daoist and Contemplative universe is composed of the elemental regions of Heaven, Earth and Humankind. Furthermore, according to the River and Mountains Contemplative Art school of Painting and Poetry, the rivers, mist and so forth manifest emptiness and the female principle, while the mountains, islands and so forth manifest form and male principle. The River of Heaven is the Cosmic Heaven source of such manifestation within the domain of the Earth.

It is not surprising that Zen Wave is inflected with Zen teaching since it was presented in the context of Zen teaching. The River of Heaven is contemplative. It is a contemplation of Haiku as a contemplative way and expression.

It gives emphasis to contemplative haiku as its own incisive surprise event and intimate heart connection. It includes how the haiku of these masters were infused with the subtle and sublime Japanese contemplative aesthetics. Also, it gives hints of his personal haiku journey. In the commentaries here and there are woven moments of intimate memory and personal reflection. For example, although Master Basho was his main Haiku exemplar, he says that Master Shiki had become his “hero.” Master Shiki was for much of his life, very sick and bedridden, but within this circumstance was a revolutionary haiku figure. Of course, at this time Robert Aitken was very old, very ill and close to death.

This is an introduction to Robert Aitken as a contemplative with special reference to Haiku. In particular, it introduces his final and most contemplative presentation: The River of Heaven.

The next blog missive will focus on this book. I encourage you to purchase and contemplate this book and perhaps between now and then, we can have some e-mail and Zoom conversations issuing from our mutual engagement with his contemplations of these classic contemplative haiku masters.

The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. Counter Point; Berkley. 2011.

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