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Appreciating Aitken



Robert Aitken Roshi died on August 5, 2010, at the age of 93. He was among the most important of the early American Zen Teachers. At Zen funerals and memorials, we talk directly to the departed.


Ah Roshi, what would have happened if I had met you before I met Bernie?


Since I never met you, have never, as far as I know, ever met any of your direct successors, it impossible to say for sure. But what is clear to me from the many books of yours which I have read is that your social action practice was much closer to mine at the time that I met Bernie. And my social action practice was most important to me. It was probably the way that I defined myself. I had come to Zen in search of peace in my activist life but not to escape from it. I knew that I had found my Zen home with Bernie when I heard him say that “social action and zazen were both aspects of a balanced life.”


Bernie’s vision of social action and mine were, however, very different. For many years, that was a source of tension between us. You, I think, would have been an easier fit for me.


My job, my way of making a living, was not my social action practice. I felt good about my decision to become a social worker. What if I had gone into advertising? I was a creative. I was clever with words, probably could have made it in advertising. Advertising was still a pretty prestigious way to make a living in the 60’s when I graduated from college, when the biggest advertisers were the tobacco companies. I was an English major. The perfect major for advertising. After I learned of Buddha’s Eightfold Path, of Right Livelihood, I was enormously grateful that I had not opted to become a purveyor of poisons, a purveyor of death.


But my job was not my social action practice. My job was at best, a compromise. Working for the overwhelming white Brookdale Hospital, bringing community mental health services to Brownsville, the most impoverished community in New York City, I felt I was being honest when I referred to myself as a “colonial administrator”. I may have been a revolutionary in my heart. I may at times have been able to blunt or slow the “imperialist” regime, but at work, I was not, in the words of Mario Savio, words which were still very much in the air in the late 60’s, putting my body “upon the gears” of the imperialist machine, not at work.


Perhaps I was carrying on a family tradition. My father’s cabinetry was not his political work. My mother’s teaching was not her political work. It was what they did to earn a living, the livelihood that supported our family and their social action practice. I was following their model, if not all of their allegiances. My social action practice was protest marches and meetings. We all laughed at Oscar Wilde’s witticism: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” We weren’t complaining. We could, we felt, have made the revolution if there were more evenings in the week.


Roshi, your social action practice seems so close to what I grew up with, to the social action practice that I brought with me to Zen. It would have all felt so completely natural.


How much easier it would have been.


I spent years fighting with Bernie, trying to drag the Peacemakers onto the streets. “If you are not on the streets protesting, you are not engaged in social action,” could have been my mantra. How ironic it sounds today. Street Retreats became a signature Peacemaker offering.


“If you are not getting arrested, you are not engaged,” was a mantra of my youth. When I was finally arrested for the first time during a Welfare Rights sit-down demonstration I felt that I had completed a rite of passage.


In the earliest days of the Zen Peacemakers, the Tibetan genocide was demanding attention. A major protest march in Washingston, D.C., had been announced. “We have to be part of that,” I argued. “We have to march with a Zen Peacemaker banner.”


Bernie would hear none of it.


“If we can’t protest the genocide of Buddhists, when will we take action? What kind of engaged Buddhists are we?”


Bernie was unmoved.


Muryo, Peter Matthiessen, activist and author, Bernie’s first Dharma successor, was more receptive. Muryo and I talked in Krakow at the end of the first Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. I had found the retreat powerful, moving; but it seemed too easy for Americans to travel to Poland to bear witness to German atrocities. Why travel to Poland to bear witness to genocide when we live in the land of some of history’s greatest genocides?


I knew that Muryo had been involved with the movement for Native American justice. I had too. My work with the Native American Solidarity Committee in support of the American Indian Movement (AIM) was important to me. I suggested to Muryo that the Peacemakers should do a Bearing Witness Retreat at Pine Ridge, the site of an 1890 massacre by the US Cavalry and of the 1973 occupation which marks in many ways the “first shot” in the late 20th century revival of Native American resistance.


Muryo had an alternative proposal. “Leavenworth,” where Leonard Peltier remained imprisoned for his part in the Wounded Knee occupation. “Let’s do a Bearing Witness Retreat at Leavenworth.”


“Wow,” I thought. “This guy is even more into in-your-face, direct action than I am.”


Even with the proposal coming from Muryo, Bernie wasn’t interested, although the Peacemakers would eventually begin going to South Dakota and Wyoming annually to bear witness.


Jennifer Dohrn and I talked about the possibility of bearing witness in New York City, at the Wall Street site of the slave market. Bernie wasn’t interested. It would take the Peacemakers even longer to bear witness to slavery and racism.


Bernie’s very different approach to social action was epitomized by The Greyston Foundation, the network of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises which he and Jishu created in Yonkers in order “to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded.”


It was this practice that took me down a social entrepreneurial path and inspired me to take the lead in building a network of charter schools on Staten Island which would fully integrate students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. By the time I retired we were serving 1500 students in 4 schools, one third with disabilities, almost all students of color, the overwhelming majority living in poverty.


I am very proud of what we accomplished in our schools, in what I have proudly come to see as a manifestation of the approach to social action which Bernie exemplified.


At the same time, I have to admit that I haven’t been on a protest march in years. How different, Roshi, my path might have been had I found you before I found Bernie.


Would my path have been easier?


Would I have grown as much?

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