Robert Aitken Roshi’s Great Mu

Last Sunday at the Zen Center of Denver, we played a recorded talk by Robert Aitken Roshi, the well-known Zen teacher, author and founder of the Diamond Sangha. I was asked to give a brief introduction to the talk, as I served (along with my ex-wife, Lindsey Trout) as Aitken Roshi’s personal attendant, caregiver and secretary from Nov. 1999 – April 2001 in Kaimu, on the coast of Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The first time I went to dokusan with Robert Aitken Roshi, I was working on Mu. I sat there, breathing Mu quietly, until finally Roshi said, in his precise way, “Settle into Mu. Sink into Mu, and let everything else go.”

The second time I went to dokusan with Aitken Roshi, I did the very same thing. This time he said, “You must question Mu. Ask ‘Mu?’ with all your inquiring spirit.”

I often reflect that there is a sort of balance here. Aitken Roshi really was a practitioner of the Middle Way. He had certainly experienced the spiritual-samurai approach common to some Japanese monasteries, but that wasn’t his way. Where other teachers might exhort their students to stay up all night in sesshin doing zazen, Aitken Roshi was as likely to encourage us to get a good night’s sleep, since we would be up early in the morning. He was by no means slack; he was just precisely centered, settled in his life and practice, like a great mountain rising gently from the sea.

And at the same time, as he wrote in his book Encouraging Words: “You often hear me say, ‘Sink into Mu, settle into Mu,’ and it may seem that the important words are ‘sink’ and ‘settle.’ They are important, but more important is the question, ‘What is Mu?'”

Japanese visitors to Kaimu, where we lived when I was there, liked to observe that “kai” in Japanese means “great,” and so Kaimu would translate as “great Mu.” Roshi would always just sort of nod politely, having heard it one too many times, but you can understand why his visitors felt compelled to say it. This was his practice: a gentle but constant inquiry, a great Mu that suffused his whole life.

We often received visitors there at Kaimu, some of whom would stay just for a meal, some for weeks or even months. Danan Henry Roshi (our former teacher at the ZCD) came for a long stay, as he had for many years; Peggy Sheehan and Karin Kempe (now teachers at the ZCD) visited, as did many others, including many prominent Zen teachers, who came one and all for Aitken Roshi’s insight, instruction, and sound counsel.

Life at Kaimu followed a simple schedule. Each weekday morning we would have zazen, and Roshi would offer dokusan. Morning was for work, with Roshi parking himself at his computer to tap away at whatever writing project he was working on. Lunch was fairly informal and eaten in the guest house. Afternoon was for other chores, such as driving into town, though often, especially on the weekends, Lindsey and I, along with our guests, might pop off to the beach for a quick swim. But not to be missed was Aitken Roshi’s daily constitutional around 4 p.m., when he would walk down to the end of the road with whoever joined him, talking quietly, pointing out different kinds of trees, flowers and birds, and waving to each and every passing car. At 5 or 5:30 we would have supper, marked of course by the high quality of conversation at the table, with many a lively guest. Toward evening, finally, there would be informal zazen, sitting quietly in the little zendo, hearing the ceaseless crash of waves upon the lava. Saturdays were for rest, and on Sunday mornings we would be joined in the zendo by our small local sangha for zazen, teisho, and a question-and-answer period.

In delivery and message both, Aitken Roshi was precise and carefully considered. His voice is really inimitable. Once he told a story of meeting a man who prided himself on recognizing accents. Going around the room, this expert correctly placed each individual there in the state and sometimes even the county of their origin; but when he got to Roshi, he was stumped. He finally guessed California, which was not totally incorrect. In fact Robert Aitken was born in Pennsylvania, moved to Hawaii when he was five, and did live in California at various times in his life, along with Japan. These places shaped him, as did the voices of his family, his friends, his beloved wife Anne, his many formidable teachers, and the vast universe.

If you listen closely to the recording, you may hear birdsong in the background. Perhaps it was the cardinals continually flitting around Kaimu; or perhaps it was the melodious laughing thrush, a bird Aitken Roshi would name with a particular relish, as of one uttering a felicitous phrase. And if you listen still more closely, perhaps you may hear Roshi speaking as the thrush – singing still, all these years later.

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