The Diamond Sangha, Robert Aitken, and Elizabeth Bishop
In 1987 my husband and I moved to Honolulu. I’d lived there as a child, so living in that intense and fluid beauty was like reliving a marvelous dream. The ever-changing clouds over the Koolau Mountains, the lush, ever-present gardens rich with the haunting scent of plumeria,memories of driving over the Pali on the old highway, all merged powerfully with the present. I visited Punchbowl, where my best friend James, our next-door-neighbor in Ohana Nui III, who died of kidney failure soon after we moved–his mother’s kidney didn’t help–is buried. I never wondered why this nice half-Japanese boy was interested in playing Monopoly with an eight-year-old girl day after day, but it was because he was sick. The old road down to Haleiwa on the North Shore was the same, rural and friendly. I’d always imagined that it was named after my loved grandmother, Eva, as it is pronounced “Holly-Eva.” Every weekend we would drive around the island, stopping to picnic and play along the way, often at Kaaava Beach Park, with its reef-protected flat water; my sisters were three and four years old. When I say “drive around the island” I really mean it. You could drive out to Kaena Point on the Farrington Highway on the northwest shore. That part was pretty flat. But once you round the point, you’re on a cliff. Back then, the road from the point to Makaha was still intact enough to travel on. My sisters and I would look out the car window at huge waves smashing against the cliff twenty or thirty feet below the potholed dirt road, which ended inches from our tires, and see the rusted carcasses of cars, which we imagined had crashed there, full of families like ours, who became food for sharks, but Dad told us that most likely they had been stolen for joy-riding and then pushed over the cliff. We didn’t believe him. We preferred to relish our terror, and scream.
In 1987, I walked out to the end of the point to relive this–the salt smell, the crashing waves, the small reef-pools ebbing and flowing–took pictures, wrote a piece about the railroad that ran out there, for a short time, from Honolulu, and published it in the Aloha Airlines magazine. All of the lovely photographs that I took in Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong that year are on slides. Used to be, you’d send several plastic-pocket pages of slides along with your travel pieces. I sold many articles and photographs back then. Now, of course, I will have to, at some point, get around to scanning all those slides. I’d like to see them again.
Those of you who have met me in the past fifteen years might be surprised, but back then I got up before the sun came up–around 5:30, perhaps–to sit. Or meditate, as they say. To be honest, because Hawaii is six hours earlier than on the east coast, it was not difficult, and anyway, I was used to getting up at six in Knoxville to open my school.
One morning a week I walked downhill a block to sit with some truly old Japanese Zen monks, who spoke only Japanese. I had to find an interpreter to ask permission to sit with them. They never seemed to notice me, and they probably didn’t, actually, being deep in zazen. Some mornings, I drove over to Manoa, near the University of Hawaii, and sat at the Koko An Zendo. I had read several of Robert Aitken’s books, and he was the Roshi there. The Diamond Sangha was mostly students, and they all revered Aitken. He was then in his seventies, and they took care of him. They spent weekends caring for his house and yard, and so on.
Finally, I asked for an audience. If you read a lot of Zen texts, the concepts of transmission (of the Dharma), enlightenment, and so on, come up often, and usually take the form of a solved koan.
Well, Aitken’s koan for me was: “You’re an English major. Have you read Elizabeth Bishop?” Aitken’s undergraduate degree is in English; his MA is in Japanese Studies.
“No,” I said.
His eyes twinkled. Really, they did. He is a good-humored man. “You should.”
Twenty-um years later, I am. I have two copies of Bishop’s ONE ART, her letters, a Collected Poems, and, just lately, I bought LIFE and the Memory of it, a biography by Brett C. Miller.
I have discovered several things. Her poems, which appear to be artless to my relatively uneducated eye, are not. She worked on most of them for months; sometimes years. She had deep formal training and was befriended by all the major poets of her time–Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, to name two. Her first book of poetry was not published until she had been writing poetry, and had been a professional poet and almost nothing else, for twenty years or so. She suffered from severe asthma, depression, and alcoholism. Her father died when she was young of Bright’s Disease, and soon thereafter her mother was committed to a mental institution and was institutionalized until she died, so, essentially, Bishop was an orphan from then on. I am about two-thirds of the way through the book. I am reading her poems, many of which I have read before, in a new light. I’m not a newcomer to poetry by any means; most of my college education was in English Literature from the Middle Ages until the early Nineteenth Century. Bishop would have been decidedly too contemporary to be studied at Virginia Tech in the early seventies. It seems that most of her breakthroughs came after she won the Pulitzer, for her first book of poems, and came about precisely because she was then able to break the rules, knowing what she was doing, which increases the tension as well as the impact–even if the reader is not really aware of what is going on beneath the surface.
I’m also reading what I think of as books related to one another–THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY, THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF ANIMALS, THE ELEPHANT’S SECRET SENSE, which have to do with my studies in neurology/behavior/brain development. And in human development, and how Montessori education relates to and enhances it.
And one more book, THE JAZZ EAR, by Ben Ratcliff, interviews with lots of jazz musicians. Very good.
Aitken’s communities have set up a page for him at http://aitkenroshi.org/about.html to help with his ongoing medical expenses. At age ninety-one, you have a lot of them.