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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 10 30 them again before she made eye contact... I’m seventy-eight years old now, and the fires are banked, but under the ashes the coals are still glowing.” After submitting the essay to me, Roshi had misgivings about this admission and wanted to take it out, but I persuaded him not to. I was honored that he took me seriously. He was a crucial support to BPF during the years I worked there. When BPF went through the rocky times that are common for small nonprofits, Roshi would consult with us in conference calls and sometimes visit California. Roshi’s activism continued to the end. Well into his eighties he stood in the road with young people protesting the war in Iraq, holding up a sign that said, “THE SYSTEM STINKS.” And this was the man who wrote commentaries about the Zen koans of thir- teenth-century Chinese Zen Master Wu-men. His respect for the ancestors was woven together with a radical commitment to social change. When Aitken was seventy-nine, he stepped down as head teacher of the Diamond Sangha, and passed the reins on to his dharma heir, Nelson Foster. I went to the stepping-down ceremony at the Palolo temple on Oahu. The grand occasion included a shosan, in which Roshi sat in a ceremonial chair and visitors asked him questions about the dharma. In the only exchange I still remember, someone asked, “What is the most precious thing?” He replied, “A good night’s sleep.” I was moved by this intimate and hum- ble answer. Yes, I thought, he must be tired sometimes—he works so hard as a teacher and a writer. I hope he sleeps tonight. He moved to the Big Island to live near his son, Tom, and for several years he continued to teach, write, go to peace vigils, and agitate for justice. In 2004, as his health was weak- ening, he and Tom moved back to Honolulu, where he could get the assistance he needed. The last time I saw him was in 2006, when I went to Honolulu to visit him, and to inter- view him for a special issue of Turning Wheel honoring him. The day after I arrived, Roshi had to go to the hospital because of a respira- tory infection. In his hospital bed, hooked up to various tubes, he looked back on his life and recalled being a prisoner in an internment camp just outside Kobe, Japan, during World War II. He said that one day he saw American planes bombing the city of Kobe, and the next day he saw Japanese women and old men leaving their bombed-out homes and filing up the trail past the internment camp. “It hit me pretty hard, and I resolved at that point that in addi- tion to making my life one of Zen study, I was going to make it a life of social action.” “Did you think they would be two separate things?” I asked him. “No, they couldn’t be, because there was just one me.” As we talked, Roshi watched with pleasure a pair of sparrows billing and cooing on the balcony outside his window. When a nurse came in to check on him, he introduced me to her and told me about her five children, as if he and the nurse were old friends, though he had just met her. He was tired, sick, and discouraged to find himself back in the hospital, and yet he con- tinued to take joy in the life around him. One my favorite Robert Aitken books is The Dragon Who Never Sleeps, a collection of his gathas, or short verses, for practicing mindfulness in everyday life. His vows drop onto the pages like petals. Falling asleep at last I vow with all beings to enjoy the dark and the silence and rest in the vast unknown. Have a good night’s sleep, dear Roshi. FrAnCiShAArphotogrApherunKnown