But there is one thing that you can trust in: you are fully alive right now. Dec 13, Photo by Roman Kraft Unsplash In daily human life we are always encountering some problem, contradiction, or confusion. So very naturally we want to escape from problems and find a better way of living. Seeking a calm mind, we study philosophy, psychology, religion, even physics and mathematics, believing they can show us who we are and what the meaning of life is.
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Photo by Shawn Carpenter. Where is enlightenment when the candle is blown out? Where did you learn this? At that moment Te-shan had a great enlightenment. It was incomprehensible that I would never see my beloved teacher again.
Of everyone I knew, he alone did not seem afraid of the great darkness. They could really fight. Tough, good soldiers. He told a story about not wanting to kill and shooting in the air above enemy heads. I told that to my father. We had just bought the lower half of a duplex on a leafy tree-lined one-way street six blocks from Zen Center in Minneapolis. I was in my early thirties, and my parents drove out for a week in July.
They were still young, in their early sixties. In the middle of one afternoon when no one was around, we slipped off our shoes and stepped onto the high-shined wooden floor of the zendo. My parents peered at bare white walls, black cushions and a simple wooden altar with a statue and some flowers.
I heard the door in the hall open. His face swung to the large screened window, and for a moment I thought he was going to crash through in a grand escape. Pearls of sweat formed on his upper lip. Roshi turned the corner. They stood across the room from each other. The meeting was brief. They never shook hands. I remember thinking, my father has become shy in front of a Zen master—finally someone tamed him.
I got it all wrong. He had just encountered the enemy face to face. It was the end of a weeklong retreat. Our knees and backs ached. The candle flame hissed; the smell of incense from Eiheiji monastery the Japanese training center for Soto Zen , shipped in cartons to Minnesota, soaked our clothes. On other occasions when he asked similar questions, my mind froze. Me, die? Not possible. It was merely a practice point: everything is impermanent.
Sure, sure. But really it was inconceivable that my body would not be my body. I was lean, young, and everything worked. I had a name, an identity: Natalie Goldberg. This was for real? The man I had studied with for twelve years was gone? Stars, moon, hope stopped.
Ocean waves and ants froze. Even rocks would not grow. This truth I could not bear. I was guided by three great teachings I received from him: Continue under All Circumstances. Make Positive Effort for the Good. Could you tell me again? Do they really suffer? He shot back his reply. It pinged off my forehead and did not penetrate.
I was caught in thinking mind, too busy trying to understand everything. But my confusion had drive. I raised my hand a third time. I mean do trees really suffer. The amazing thing was I did not take it personally. He was directly commanding my monkey mind to stop. Those two words were a relief. Dead end. I rested back into my sitting position and felt my breath go in and out at my nose. The thought about trees that evening stopped grabbing me by the throat. With him extraneous things were cut away.
My life force stepped forward. After a sleepy childhood I was seen and understood. I had found a great teacher in the deep north of this country. Maybe that had been the purpose of my short marriage: to bring me here. Both Roshi and I did not belong in Minnesota, yet we had found each other. I positioned Roshi in the deep gash I had in my heart. He took the place of loneliness and desolation, and with him as a bolster I felt whole.
But the deal was he had to stay alive, continue existing, for this configuration to work. The third year after his death was the worst in my life. Our process had been cut short. In a healthy teacher-student relationship, the teacher calls out of the student a large vision of what is possible. I finally dared to feel the great true dream I had inside. I projected it onto this person who was my teacher. This projection was part of spiritual development.
Roshi possessed many of these projected qualities, but each student was individual. When I asked other practitioners what impressed them about Katagiri Roshi, the reported qualities were different for each person.
One woman in Santa Cruz admired his unerring self-confidence. She stood up and imitated his physical stance. What I loved was his enthusiasm, his ability to be in the moment and not judge and categorize me. He had a great sense of humor. I admired his dedication to practice and to all beings and his willingness to tell me the truth, with no effort to sweeten it.
Eventually, as the teacher-student relationship matures, the student manifests these qualities herself and learns to stand on her own two feet. The projections are reclaimed. What we saw in him is also inside us. We close the gap between who we think the teacher is and who we think we are not. We become whole. Roshi died before this process was finished.
I felt like a green fruit. I still needed the sun, the rain, the nutrients of the tree. Instead, the great oak withered; I dangled for a while and then fell to the ground, very undernourished. How many of us get to live out the full maturation process? Our modern lives are built on speed. We move fast, never settle. Most of us grab what we can, a little from here, then there. For twelve years I had one source. I should have been satisfied.
He gave me everything. I knew that when I saw his dead body, but how to live it inside myself? Then we present to the teacher those undeveloped parts too. Here the teacher needs to be savvy, alert and committed in order to avoid taking advantage of vulnerable students.
When the Candle is Blown Out: On The Death of Katagiri Roshi