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Robert Baker Aitken Papers

Autobiographical Summary of Robert Baker Aitken's Career in Hawaii (2003)

I came to Hawai'i with my parents in 1922, when I was five years old. My father was an ethnologist at the Bishop Museum. His study, Ethnology of Tubuai is still in print. He was the first to earn a master's degree at the University of Hawai'i. I attended public schools here, with the exception of kindergarten at Hanahau'oli, two years of junior high at Punahou, and two years in California, including my final three semesters of high school. I attended the University of Hawai'i for 2 1/2 years before World War II, and two thereafter, graduating in 1947 with a degree in English Literature. Among my professors I was especially close to Daniel Stemple, Carl Stroven, Willard Wilson, Yukuo Uyehara, Andrew Lind, and A. Grove Day. Close friends among classmates included C. Frederick Schutte, late attorney in the Honolulu firm that bears his name, Jean McKillop (King), and Thomas M. C. Chang, retired professor of Educational Psychology at U.H. Acquaintances included Patsy Takemoto (Mink), Daniel Inouye, Duke Cho Choy, retired pediatrician, and Mary Whang (Choy). After the war, I lived near the University and had supper regularly at Hemmenway Hall with Marion and Allan Saunders. I was president of my senior class.

I returned to the University in 1949 for my masters degree in Japanese studies, graduating in 1950. Dr. Stemple was my thesis chair, and members of my committee included Cheuk-woon Taam, then East Asia librarian. I had a peripheral role in the East-West Philosopher's Conference the summer of 1949, and worked as a kind of gofer with Greg Sinclair, Charles Moore, and D.T. Suzuki. This was the beginning of a long friendship with Dr. Suzuki.

Later my connections with the University included a three year stint at the East-West Center as a program advisor in the Institute for Student Interchange, as student activities coordinator, and as alumnae secretary. Ms. Saunders was my supervisor during much of this time. I subsequently spent a year with the Youth Development Center as assistant to my friend Dr. Chang in the Upward Bound Program, and a year as English instructor at Kapiolani Community College.

Since the late 1960s I have been closely associated with the Religion Department of the University. I am a friend and colleague of David Chappell, Professor of Chinese Buddhism. I have spoken in classes in the Religion Department, taken part in colloquia and conferences which the department has sponsored, and written articles for its Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies.

My record of community involvements in Honolulu includes stints in the late 1940s and early 1950s at community association coordination in Mo'ili'ili and Wahiawa. In this work I profited from consultations with my then father-in-law, Ferris Laune, Executive Secretary of the Honolulu Council of Social Agencies.

I have had a long association with peace and social justice movements in Hawai'i. I took part in the Mother's Day Walk for Peace in 1952 with Marion and John Kelly, an anti-nuclear protest, and the first of many demonstrations. During the Vietnam War I was active as a resister and draft counselor, and was close to James Douglass, Walter Johnston, Oliver Lee, George Simpson, and Anita and Allen Trubitt. In 1967, while at the Youth Development Center I took part in the Bachman Hall sit-in as part of the faculty contingent. In 1972, I walked around the island for peace and social justice in a group led by Jim Albertini and John Wittick.

I am a founding member of the American Friends Service Committee, Hawai'i, and served on its first board of directors, chaired by Robert Bobilin. I attended the meetings called by Dean Saunders to establish the American Civil Liberties Union, and have been active in that organization since, taking part in its campaigns, including the Camp Smith Cross case and more recently the various actions in support of same-sex marriage.

My major work through the years has been as founder, leader, and teacher in the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society. With my wife Anne, I established the Koko An Zendo of the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu in 1959, and the Maui Zenda in 1969. In recent times the Diamond Sangha established a second Honolulu temple, the Palolo Zen Center, where I presently reside. The Diamond Sangha is now an international network, with centers on neighbor islands and in California, Arizona, Texas, Washington State, Germany, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

I have been fairly active in the local Buddhist community, beginning with a stint as a Sunday school teacher at the Hompa Hongwanji in 1957 and 1958, where my supervisor was the now retired Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani. In recent times I have been a member of the Hawaii Association of International Buddhists.

In the macro dimension I am well established as a teacher of Zen Buddhism. I take part in Buddhist symposia in North America, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am especially close to leaders of the San Francisco Zen Center. I am co-founder with Nelson Foster of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, now an international network of chapters concerned about the application of Buddhism in social, political and economic realms.

I am an author of eight books, co-author of one more, on aspects of Zen Buddhism, brought out by major publishers, including North Point; Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; Pantheon; Parallax; Shambhala; and Counterpoint. Some of these books have been translated and published in Spanish, German, Dutch and Italian, with one to come in French. I am a frequent contributor to Turning Wheel, journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and have written also for a large number of other journals, mostly Buddhist, but also including Parabola and The Wallace Stevens Journal. I've also written a number of forewords to books by friends and colleagues, including a lengthy introduction to Hee-Jin Kim's Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist. I did extensive research on Dwight Goddard, an early pioneer in Buddhist studies, and contributed a long introduction to the reissue by Beacon Press of his seminal work, A Buddhist Bible.

On moving to Kaimu-Kalapana on Hawai'i Island in 1997, I built a small home across the driveway from my son, Thomas Laune Aitken, a school counselor. I became ill with Hodgkins' Disease, and underwent chemotherapy and radiation, which ultimately was at least temporarily cured. The Zen Center of San Francisco sent an attendant to look after me, and since I have hired a series of many people in that role. In time I also hired a secretary, again the first of a series. I started a Zen group in my home.

In the course of this retirement I have taken part in Ho'opakele, a group of mainly Hawaiian people interested in decarceration and prison reform. I helped to organize the East Hawai'i Island Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and have taken part in regular vigils and periodic rallies.

I have continued to contribute to Buddhist and other publications, and am, at this writing, completing preparing manuscripts for my 10th book, The Morning Star: New and Collected Writings, and a revised edition of my first book, A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen.

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