February 25, 2011
Robert Aitken Roshi: The Last Interview
Joel Whitney in Tricycle:
I step from my taxi onto the driveway of the Koko-an Zendo in Honolulu, three hours early for my interview with the eminent Zen master Robert Aitken. I had planned to use the time for extra research; instead, I’m hijacked by another visitor. Kobutsu Malone is a Zen priest, visiting from Maine. Portly, bald as a pink bowling ball, with wild white eyebrows that jut from his face like jagged tumbleweeds or lightning bolts, he wears green-brown Zen robes and steps slowly down the center’s lawn to meet me. Hands in a thoughtful posture behind his back, he resembles a medieval European monk, a character out of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Taking him first as the sangha’s manager, through whom I’ve arranged the interview, I thank him for coming out to meet me and ask for a place to keep reading. Malone’s first words are a threat—namely, to chain me to the radiator so I won’t get into trouble. He pauses for the joke to sink in, erupting in a hoarse roar of laughter. I smile awkwardly.
I had been invited by Tricycle to fly to Maui and interview the new U.S. poet laureate, W. S. Merwin. A longtime fan of Merwin’s writing, I jumped at the chance, not hesitating when asked if I could also interview the Zen roshi Merwin originally went to Hawaii to study under. Recognizing Aitken’s name from my older habit, hardly kept up, of reading Zen classics, and knowing this would make the trip all the more worthwhile for the magazine, I said yes enthusiastically. Only later did I realize I’d have little time to prepare for both interviews. All of which would prove even more complicated when, the day after I sent follow-up questions to a difficult interview, Robert Aitken Roshi died of pneumonia.
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