Robert Aitken, a retired lay Zen Buddhist priest in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, was a Straight ally and an icon to socially-engaged Buddhists and Gay Buddhists worldwide. In 1995, Aitken gave written testimony supporting same-sex marriage to a commission authorized by the Hawai‘i State Legislature, and instituted same-sex marriage within his own congregation. Aitken is also attributed having said the following: “You can’t find enlightenment in the closet.” He died in Honolulu on August 5, 2010.
Robert Baker Aitken was born in 1917 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in Hawai‘i, moving to the islands at five years of age. While working construction in Guam, he was detained by the Japanese during World War II and held in internment camps until the end of the war. During this time, he met Zen scholar Reginald Blyth in 1944 while interred in Kobe, Japan. A few years after he was released, he met Nyogen Senzaki in Berkley, California, and studied Zen with him in Los Angeles. At that time, Aitken was also involved in social causes such as pacifism and the rights of workers, activities that got him investigated by the FBI.
Aitken returned to Japan in 1950 with a grant to study haiku poetry. In 1959, he and Ann Hopkins Aitken began a meditation group in their Honolulu home, which became the Koko-an Zendo (zendo: meditation hall). They named their community the Diamond Sangha (sangha: Sanskrit/Pali word for “community” or “assembly”). The Diamond Sangha espouses socially-engaged Buddhism, interfaith dialogue, peace, prison reform, AIDS awareness, and gender/sexual orientation equality.
Performance as Roshi
In 1985, Aitken was certified as roshi (“master,” title for a person authorized to teach Zen) in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. As such, he could confirm for Zen practitioners that they have reached states of spiritual awareness that result from intense discipline, meditation, and mind-to-mind transmission of the dharma (teaching of the Buddha) from their teachers. According to tradition, the dharma is passed on from teacher to student in a chain of transmission that goes all the way back to the Buddha himself when he silently held up a flower and his disciple Kashyapa smiled at him, an unspoken expression of enlightened understanding.
Aitken Roshi kept his status as a layperson, and continued to engage in activism for peace, protesting the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons, promoting interfaith dialogue, and supporting women’s rights. As roshi, he would give public lectures in plain but intellectually-engaging language, presenting a form of American Zen Buddhism that was accessible to those who may never have encountered Buddhism before. Buddhism adapts, he said, and there is nothing wrong with it taking on its own indigenous form within the United States. He also had a strong sense of humor. When asked by Mickey Weems if the question “Why is there suffering?” (a problem that drove the Buddha to seek enlightenment) was the first koan (a short story or phrase that can bring one to enlightenment), Aitken Roshi smiled and said, “The first koan was when Eve looked at Adam and [pointing crotch level] said, ‘What’s that?’”
In October 1995, Aitken presented written testimony concerning Buddhist views on same-sex marriage for the Hawai‘i State Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law:
Over a twenty-year career of teaching, I have had students who were gay, lesbian, trans-sexual and bisexual, as well as heterosexual. These orientations have seemed to me to be as specific as those which lead people to varied careers… In the same way, some people are attracted to members of their own sex. I am not particularly attracted in this way. But we are all human, and within my own container, I can discern homosexual tendencies. I keep my checkbook balanced too. So I find compassion – not just for – but with the gay or lesbian couple who wish to confirm their love in a legal marriage … I urge you to advise the Legislature and the people of Hawai‘i that legalizing gay and lesbian marriages will be humane and in keeping with perennial principles of decency and mutual encouragement.
Aitken’s public support for LGBTQ people predated his written testimony by over a decade. He is especially remembered for going to a conference in San Francisco in 1981, and asking point-blank what was being done for Gay Zen practitioners. During that conference, he supposedly made two remarks to Richard Baker Roshi: “If you are not in touch with your sexuality, you are not practicing Zen” and “You can’t do zazen [Zen practice] in the closet” (alternate version: “You can’t find enlightenment in the closet”).
Robert Aitken’s son, Tom Aitken, is openly Gay, and is active with organizations such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).
Aitken is not the only supporter of the LGBTQ community and same-sex unions in the Buddhist world. Vietnamese Zen leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who supports same-sex wedding ceremonies in his congregation, has publicly declared, “God is a lesbian”:
When I look at a rose, a tulip, or a chrysanthemum, I know, I see, I think, that this flower is a creation of God. Because I have been practicing as a Buddhist, I Know that between the creator and the created there must also be some kind of link, otherwise creation would not be possible. So the chrysanthemum can say that God is a flower, and I agree, because there must be the element “flower” in God so that the flower could become a reality. So the flower has the right to say that God is a flower … So when a lesbian thinks of her relationship with God, if she practices deeply, she can find out that God is also a lesbian … God is a lesbian, that is what I think, and God is gay also. God is no less. God is a lesbian, but also a gay [man], a black, a white, a chrysanthemum. It is because you don’t understand that, that you discriminate. [from a Dharma talk [discussion of Buddhist law] given in Plum Village, France, July 1998]
Other Buddhist Denominations
Zen is not the only Buddhist denomination with leaders who support full equality for Gay people. Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is another. Based on the belief that the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha) made a vow millions of years ago to save all beings by creating a Pure Land for easy enlightenment in the next life, some ministers in Jodo Shinshu do not feel that homosexuality or same-sex marriage disrupts the saving power of Amida’s Vow. In addition, Soka Gakkai International-USA, a denomination based on the teachings of the thirteenth century Japanese Buddhist reformer Nichiren, authorized conducting Gay marriage ceremonies in 1995.
Other leaders and denominations are somewhat supportive of LGBTQ people. According to Tenzin Gyatso (the fourteenth Dalai Lama, in exile from Tibet), homosexuality is sexual misconduct. But after engaging in dialogue with Gay Buddhists and activists, Gyatso declared in 1997 that homosexuality is no worse than heterosexuality (at least for non-Buddhists), called for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and welcomed more dialogue concerning scriptural interpretation. In the Theravada Buddhist community, homosexuality may be seen as karmic punishment for heterosexual misconduct in a past life, which also means that LGBTQ people should not be persecuted for a condition that they must endure until their next incarnation.
Thomas Kasulis on Robert Aitken
Thomas Kasulis, Comparative Studies professor at The Ohio State University and renowned specialist in Japanese Buddhism, said the following for the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife:
Probably more than any other American Zen master, Aitken Roshi has worked to connect Zen Buddhism to the moral issues of today, making American Zen Buddhism as inclusive and relevant as possible.
Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan). San Francisco: North Point, 1990.
“Dharma Talk Given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 20, 1998 in Plum Village.” http://www.abuddhistlibrary.com/Buddhism/G%20-%20TNH/TNH/Questions%20and%20Answers%20July%2020th%201998/Dharma%20Talk%20given%20by%20Thich%20Nhat%20Hanh%20on%20July%2020.htm. Accessed May 2010.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. New York: Cambridge University, 2000.
Prebish, Charles S. Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. Berkeley: University of California, 1999.