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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
29 winter 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Aitken Roshi was not my formal teacher, but he was my friend and guide and mentor through thirty years of practice. I call him Roshi because the word perfectly expresses both the respect and the affection in which I hold him. Roshi is an honorific Zen title meaning “elder teacher,” and the sound of the word reminds me of Nonie, or Bubbi—someone grandmotherly and kind. I met Aitken through friends who were his students, and in 1978, I sat a weeklong ses- shin with him in Port Townsend, Washington. This was no ordinary sesshin. It was a Zen/ Catholic sesshin, organized in connection with some young people Roshi knew and admired from the Catholic Worker House in Seattle, where they served free meals to many people every day. A Catholic priest offered commu- nion to all the sesshin participants, whether they were Catholic or not, as part of our daily schedule, and we chanted psalms as well as sutras. In that sesshin, Roshi gave lectures not just about traditional Zen teachings but about the teachings of Jesus, Trident missile protests, and a poem by Wallace Stevens as part of the Way of the Buddha. And it was seam- less; it was all part of the Way. These were the threads of Roshi’s life and teaching, and this was what made him extraordinary, this joining of rigorous traditional Zen practice, radical work for social justice, and love of literature and art. It was in that same year that Aitken Roshi, his wife, Anne, and his student Nelson Foster, talking on the porch of the Maui Zendo, founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, though I didn’t know about it at the time. And it was the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that would bring me back into contact with Aitken Roshi more than a decade later. I CAME TO know Roshi in a new way when, in 1990, I became the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. During my seventeen years there, Roshi wrote articles on a wide variety of topics, including money, right speech, and anarchism. Scholar that he was, he often sent his arti- cles along with footnotes. I would say, “It’s not really our style to have footnotes. Could we just insert the references into the text?” He would graciously yield, but then he would send me another essay with footnotes. After a few years, when I had more confidence as an editor, I decided, “If Roshi wants footnotes, Roshi gets footnotes.” But he was the only one. He started an important dialogue in the pages of Turning Wheel on sexual miscon- duct, speaking clearly about the need for ethi- cal guidelines and calling Zen teachers, both Asian immigrants and Americans, to account- ability for their actions. He didn’t name names but he didn’t mince words, either. In one of his most controversial pieces, he made a radical suggestion: to bring back from the Buddha’s time the drastic practice of “shunning” as a way to deal with Buddhist teachers who sexually abuse their students. I don’t believe any sangha took up his sug- gestion, but it gave depth and strength to the dialogue. As his editor, I was particularly moved by his honesty about himself. In this same 1995 article, he wrote about how some- times a young woman would come into the interview room in a low-cut dress, and when she bowed to him, she might partially expose her breasts. “In the early days, I would shut my eyes for the crucial moment, then open SUSAN MOON is the former editor of Turning Wheel. She has been a Zen student since 1976 and is the author of This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Dignity and Humor (Shambhala, 2010). From Teishos to Trident Missile Protests Susan moon remembers Robert Aitken Roshi’s lifelong commitment to the unified path of Zen and social justice.