(RNS) Robert Aitken Roshi, a prolific author, social justice activist and pioneer in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West, died last Thursday (Aug. 5) at age 93.
Born in Philadelphia, Aitken was introduced to Buddhism while imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Aitken had been working as a civilian in Guam when he was captured. After reading about Buddhism, Aitken later wrote, I was absurdly happy despite our miserable circumstances.
After the war, Aitken studied with Japanese Zen masters in the U.S. and Japan. He was ordained in 1974, becoming one of the first Americans to earn the Zen honorific roshi, which means master or teacher.
With his wife, Anne, Aitken co-founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, a Buddhist community with 10 branches in the U.S. and several others in Australia, Germany and New Zealand.
Aitken was perhaps most influential, though, through his 13 books on Buddhism ”he was working on a 14th when he died ”and his insistence that Buddhists be socially engaged, which some saw as a controversial break with traditional Zen practices.
In 1978, Aitken co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a non-sectarian group with 18 chapters in the U.S. He also helped open branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and American Friends Service Committee in Hawaii.
Aitken Roshi never `hid on his cushion, ’ Buddhist Peace Fellowship said in a statement. He maintained that social activism and Buddhism were not just compatible, but integral.