I have two heroes that have helped bring great happiness to my life. They come from two seemingly divergent backgrounds. What stuck me was their ideas about their arts came to the exact same endpoint: You must pay attention.
The first role model is and was the great surfer/shaper Ben Aipa. The other individual is my Roshi or Zen teacher Robert Aitken. He is currently 94 and still as sharp in wit and way, true to his Zen study. It would help a little to talk of his background. Aitken Roshi was imprisoned in a Japanese camp for Westerners during World War Two. He could have had the option of hating the Japanese (as most of us would), yet instead he embarked on the study of Zen in the prison camp itself. After the war he continued his study and was ordained a Zen master in an eponymous line of Japanese Rinzai Zen sect, the first Westerner to do so. He came to Hawaii and taught and established the Daimond Sangha Zen Buddhist center. He is considered as one of the primary founders of Zen in the west along with Daisetsu Suzuki and even my father, T. Barrow.
The hardcore Surfers path which crosses roads with the Zen path, as I shall explain, stands in a dichotomy to our modern “worlds” of hyperactivity, cell phones, texts, Facebook, the internet and 60 hour weeks. Sadly, in everyday life, many of us move around like automatons. I know people whose lives are devoid of passion and interest. They drive to work from a suburb every day in grueling traffic. This is then followed by a job that they dread and another hour drive home in a moving parking lot. They then go home to their three bedroom home (that looks exactly like the next) in a planned suburb subdivision which sits on rezoned public land. It is as if we are taught to be Lemming competitors in a suicidal race to the nearest cliff or black whole. If this is the American Dream then I am terrified of it. This is not a dream, This is a hallucination.
This may be an overly grim depiction of our culture yet I am not alone in my sentiments. Many surfers and water people are what psychologists call “non-normative” (not normal) and rapidly figure out what is happening is “lame” and decide on another course of living that they see as more sane. Many surfers are also attracted to different patterns of thinking (as opposed to Occidental or Western models) which include Asian philosophy and even Zen Buddhism in its scope. In these models surfers are more “normal” and actually quite sensible in their views.
In my early twenties I was bombarded by society with criticisms of my lifestyle as an avid surfer. You see, surfing is seen to be cute when you are in high school and the girls love you, yet surfing loses its mystique to others as a person gets older. One may ask why? In Anglo-American culture one is taught to shed his childhood “habits” of play (such as avid surfing and other fun things) and get on to the Protestant work ethic. As a Religious Scholar , I have studied this phenomena anthropologically. This work ethic (as Described by Jon Calvin and Martin Luther) is directly related to ones goodness. Jon Calvin believed in predestination. In other words you are predestined to go to Heaven or Hell. It has been decided by god before you were born. Yet, there is a twist to this. A sign that you are going to heaven is seen to the degree too which you are hard working and well off. A sign that you may be going to hell is if you are poor and supposedly not working hard. When I studied these ideas as an Anthropologist I understood why I was maligned by so many. The people that criticized me were not doing so consciously. They were doing this because it was part of the Protestant, Anglo-American narrative or Mythology which was drilled into everyone from a young age hence when they saw a person who was “not with the program” they reflexively criticized or marginalized the person. Some how, I missed out on the message of this narrative.
In the past my mother had routinely called me “Lose money” or “Beach Dum” (not a typo). I watched in horror as many of my childhood hardcore surfer friends were sucked up by society. They quit surfing, sometimes at the urging of their wives, got full time jobs that they hated and rapidly became mechanical, uncreative and depressed. One of my good friends told me that his wife should allow him to surf as it was better than a psychiatrist’s bill. I still have the common experience of being given the “stink eye” by strangers as I drive to the North Shore in my dilapidated 71 VW van with board in tow, God forbid, on a workday. I was even told semi-jokingly by an economist friend that I was part of a “superfluous population” that included the very poor that were not factored into his economic models that he learned in school due to the fact that we barely spend any money on products hence cannot be profited off of in the “Free Market”.
In my twenties, I was both perplexed and angry at Anglo-American society. I was being accused of being lazy hence going to Hell for pursuing surfing. My friends followed the protestant work ethic to the “T”; hence were on a strait shot to Heaven. If this were the case, why were they miserable, depressed beings in life!? Surely there existed something amiss in this situation.
Please don’t get me wrong. Hard work is good, in fact I spent a full fourteen years to attain a Ph.D., but to go overboard by working maniacally to myself sounds strange.
My frustration about being a frenzied surfer in Anglo-American society was relived by forays in to Asian philosophy which my father urged that I take. In fact he arranged for myself a meeting with the esteemed Roshi who was described earlier in this paper.
My first meeting with Zen Master Aitken Roshi was wonderful. For the first time in my whole life, I felt justified in my decision to be a surfer. I was interviewed by the Roshi in the normal ritualistic manner. He sat in a tiny room and out of protocol, one had to crawl in, bow over the threshold and then make a 45 degree turn and bow toward him. I totally screwed up the process and was rather embarrassed. Surprisingly, the Roshi gestured to me and told me not to worry about it. There the Roshi sat, in his full Zen regalia and staff. It totally blew me away, as it was the first time that I was participating in a culture other than my own.
The conversation that ensued altered my life forever. I had come to him as I had been struck by an idea while surfing and staring at the ocean. I will let the ideas unfold in a question and answer format as this was the format that was required when one is engaged with a Zen master of Aitken’s standing. The conversation went something like this:
Len: How are You?
Roshi: How are You?
Len (perplexed): Pretty Good, I guess.
Roshi: What do you do?
Len (blandly): I surf, go to school, and I take care of a family in Kahala for rent.
Roshi: Then you are a caregiver.
Len (surprised): Yes, that's true
Roshi (attentively): How is your father?
Len: He is well and he collects books on Zen. In fact he has a huge collection that drives my mother nuts. She says the house will sink one day due to the weight of the books.
Roshi: Good. I must see it one day
Len (impatient): You know, I was struck by an idea. I had learned in my physics class that the equation E=MC² was that matter was an interplay of energy and energy was and interplay of matter. In fact they were different aspects of the same thing. I also learned that energy is conserved and that you could not destroy our create it. Well Roshi, I did a little bit of thinking and was blown way. If E=MC² applies to me, as it must due to the fact that I am an interplay of matter and energy (what the hell else could I be I thought) I am neither created nor destroyed, neither alive nor dead, in fact there cannot be coming or going. I was also surprised to find that Einstein called the notion of self as an “optical illusion of the mind”.
Roshi: You surf right?
Len (irritated: what kind stupid answer was that?): uhhhhh, Yea
Roshi: It is partially due to surfing that you have some insight of no coming, no going, no life, no death, no creation nor destruction. Roshi rang a little bell which means “now get out”. I did my bows and left excitedly.
I was utterly amazed. For my whole life, I was taught that my world view was not only incorrect but I was going to burn in hell for all eternity for it. Here was a little old man, who had nothing, sat in a little room and meditated extensively. He did not even surf yet he bizarrely came across as the most experienced surfer on the planet. How did he know my experience came in the surf or because of it? That he said I had a little insight, was a tiny nod to my E=MC² babble. I was so happy that I was not the only one to think like this and was even more thrilled to get a type of approval (albeit tiny)from a master of the Roshi’s caliber. It was a great affirmation for my self and for my choice of a surfing path. It was a turning point in my life and I have been on a happy path ever since in my study.
The Roshi suddenly “peered” out the door and stated with an amusing smile: “When you get thoughts like that just move on and by the way.........How can you practice if you don’t pay attention?
” I am not a Buddhist but this little Koan (Zen riddle) has taken me a long way. It is OK to be an avid surfer and pursue a path of peace and concentration rather than that of hyperactivity, inattention and conformity so engraved in parts of Anglo American culture.
Thanks Aitken Roshi
Altken Roshi recently passed away and this article is dedicated to him in the most humble and thankful form possible.
Aloha Nui Aitken Roshi