Face-to-face with Natalie Goldberg

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Natalie Goldberg is a writer and writing teacher living in Taos, New Mexico. Her books include the best-selling Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Publications) and its sequel, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life (Bantam). Her most recent book, Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America (Bantam), is an autobiographical work featuring reminiscences of her experiences with Dainin Katagiri Roshi (abbot of Minnesota Zen Center), her first Zen teacher. Katagiri Roshi came to the United States from Japan to help Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at San Francisco Zen Center and later went on to found his center in Minneapolis. A collection of his dharma talks, Returning to Silence, is available from Shambhala Publications.

Last fall, one year into Goldberg's two-year leave from the writing workshops she leads, Tricycle asked her about being a writer, Zen student, and writing teacher. Her responses are interspersed with excerpts from Long Quiet Highway.


I think there's nothing better than being a teacher and a student. It is an education. But Katagiri Roshi taught me what it was to go beyond the teacher, to be a great living, breathing, human being who gave a hundred percent to life—forget about the dharma—to life, to what it means to be alive and to love not just another person but to love every moment. He used to say, "Our goal is to have kind consideration for all sentient beings every moment forever." So that was very large. He gave me a big vision of not only what a teacher could be but what a human being could be.

Once I went to Roshi . . . and told him, "When I'm at Zen Center, I feel like a writer. When I'm with writers, I feel like a Zen student."

"Someday you will have to choose," said Roshi. "You're not ready yet but someday you will be. Writing and Zen are parallel paths, but not the same."

We never spoke about it again. I continued to write; I continued to sit.

Katagiri Roshi said to me, "Natalie, make writing your practice." I could have hit myself against the wall trying so hard with sitting meditation. But he saw that my energy was really in love with writing.

I think a lot about what it means to be a student. It's an important question. Writing is what I put my energy into, so I know the most about writing and am the clearest in it. When I listen to dharma teachers, they're always talking about writing.

Roshi was my great writing teacher. I studied the mind with him. One of the things I have come to understand more and more is that I wasn't just studying "mind," I was studying his mind. In studying his mind I got a vision of how the dharma can manifest—otherwise it's too abstract for me.

When I go deep enough with writing it takes me every place that Zen does. But with writing, in the end I have a book, a product, whereas in Zen you have nothing. Good writing is when someone gets out of the way. You have to call on larger forces—not your little mind—in the process of writing, and in some way everyone is doing the dharma, we just don't give it that name. Dharma is the truth of the way things are. What happens to writers is that because they haven't linked their work to a larger spiritual practice, they step away from the notebook or the computer and go back to their social mind and say, "No, I am not spiritual." But all writers are spiritual when they are writing.

In his list of essential rules for writers, Jack Kerouac wrote: "Be submissive to everything, open, listening." I could easily have missed who Katagiri was if I hadn't put myself in a position to go back, over and over again. I understood that I was not "submissive to everything," and that I often missed something good because of my ignorance, so I would persist at something for a long while until I tasted it.

I tell writing students to read a lot of books by one author that you fall in love with. Read until you and that author become one and you take on their mind. That's how you learn to write. But I also love to be face-to-face with the teacher.

Katagiri Roshi simply gave me another vision of the world. Reading that we are all one, that we're interconnected, interdependent, that's very abstract for me. It was actually having a relationship with Katagiri that taught me.

[One] year I was given the job of Zen host, which meant I took care of all guests and visitors. I was happy to have that job. Paul [another student] became doan . . . in charge of the zendo and was there almost every day.

Whenever a guest came, Roshi inevitably asked Paul to take care of that person. . . I became exasperated. Why didn't Roshi send them to me? After all, wasn't I the host, didn't I have that position? I went and visited him in his study.

"You know, Roshi, you should send people visiting Zen Center to me. I'm the host. Don't send them to Paul."

He looked at me, his head to one side. "It's okay to do nothing," he said, and nodded. 

I think a student actually creates the teacher. When a student is alive and eager it wakes up the teaching seeds in the teacher. In a way, it's the student's responsibility to create a teacher and also it's the student's responsibility to feel compassion for the teacher and understand that they are human beings and to ask: How can I help this person? How can I encourage them and feel great gratitude to someone who is willing to take on the position of being a teacher? I think students need to wake up and have compassion and feel great gratitude for anyone who takes on that position. From many years of being with Katagiri Roshi and really digesting his mind I began to understand how ungrateful I was.

I think if we feel gratitude, we're halfway home. It means you're open enough to receive this teaching, that we're not coming from the usual monkey mind and critical mind. You know, outwardly Katagiri Roshi was a simple person. I slept through half his lectures, probably most of them. But I loved him and stayed with him and was committed to him; but I think it was through my writing that I understood what he was talking about.

Three years after I took lay ordination, I went to Roshi. "I'm ready to take bodhisattva vows." A bodhisattva is someone who vows to return lifetime after lifetime to help all sentient beings and who does not enter nirvana until everyone goes before her.

Roshi laughed. "You've already taken them."

"When?" I asked.

"When you took lay ordination." He laughed and laughed.

Katagiri Roshi used to repeat what Dogen said about getting soaked with dharma: if you walk in the mist, you get wet. So I just kept trying to walk in the mist. I think I stayed pretty dry but I trusted that maybe it was coming in not through my mind but through my toes, my palms, my elbows—like poetry and writing. It was different than the usual way you learn. I just kept hoping it was coming into me in some way.

I remember specifically writing on artistic stability. Roshi used to talk about spiritual stability. When I wrote about artistic stability I meant that a writer lets everything out and runs from nothing that comes up in their writing. This gives a writer great stability so that anything that comes up is eaten and can be used for writing rather than making believe it doesn't exist. I realize that's what Katagiri Roshi meant by spiritual security and I realize that his spiritual security was based on never being tossed away under any circumstance. You stand up in your life. When I wrote about stability in writing, I understood what he was talking about.

What I wish for in a writing student is someone who just continues to write under all circumstances and doesn't care whether they are good or not good, and if they are boring it's fine, and if they are not boring, it's fine, but that they continue with the practice. That's the best.

I remember one Saturday afternoon I was sweeping in the kitchen. It was late March, gray, a bit windy, always cold, but bearable now, winter's back had been broken. You could stand outside and your face wouldn't freeze off. The phone rang. It was Pam. She was already twenty minutes late to pick up Roshi to drive him to the airport. She called to say she'd be another ten minutes.

Oh, my god, I thought. He'll miss his plane. I frantically went looking for him.

He was standing outside by the curb next to a valise. It was not a suitcase, modern with zippers and nylon. It was a valise, square, gold colored, with latches. Roshi just stood there in his black robes as though he had no idea Pam was late. He stood, not waiting, not impatient, just standing.

I ran to him. "Roshi," I called. "Pam will be another ten minutes." My hands were thrown up in the air. I was probably shrieking.

He nodded, unperturbed. "Thank you," and just continued to stand. He wasn't waiting; he wasn't coming; he wasn't going.

Katagiri Roshi died three and a half years ago. After he died I starting studying with Thich Nhat Hanh. I listen closely to what he is saying. I am studying another angle of the dharma: a man who came out of the Vietnam War, a man who is from Vietnam, who never married (Katagiri had married), who is a poet and an artist in his approach to the dharma. He teaches us to keep making the dharma interesting, to change it—not the dharma—but our practice, to keep it alive. That's what I do with writing. I'm writing a novel now because I've never written one.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that if you learn one kind of practice—like watching your breath—and you stay with it for ten thousand years, you might become bored with it or might not be awake to it, so you keep changing things.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a world leader, he's a movement, so my relationship with him isn't the way I experienced Katagiri as far as one-on-one teachings go. I have been looking for another teacher to whom I'm willing to reveal how stupid I am. It's a little harder now because when I went to Katagiri I was so ignorant and I could learn so much because I exposed myself in ways in which I am too smart to expose myself now. And I am well known as a writer now and often I call American dharma teachers and they say, "Oh yes, Natalie. I love your book." I needed to find someone with whom I could begin at zero.

When Katagiri was dying, the president of Zen Center went to him and said, "Roshi, when you die, if you die"—he was trying to be very polite—"what is your dream for Zen Center?" And Katagiri, being a very down-to-earth person, said, "I would like to get the roof fixed and the upstairs painted." And he said, "Natalie will raise the money." So last November I did a big weekend benefit in Minnesota for the Zen Center. At that workshop, during lunch, I sat down at the table with a man who had flown up from Tallahassee. He'd studied with different Zen teachers. I told him I was looking for someone and he just smiled at me and said, "Go find George Bowman in Cambridge, Massachusetts." I called the Cambridge Buddhist Association and left a message. George called back and said there'd soon be a three-day sesshin, and suggested that I come. I said, "Well, did you ever hear of me?" And he said "No." I said, "Okay, then I'll come." So I went and I have been working with George ever since. Of course, (laughing) now that I know George I want him to read all my books and get to know me, you know, get to know how famous I am. See how fast my ego comes right up?

After one lecture, I visited Katagiri in his study and said, "Now, that lecture was really boring! I had to do everything to keep awake."

His face fell and I could see he was hurt.

I stopped. "Roshi, you look hurt. How can that be? You're enlightened, you don't have feelings."

I didn't know for a long time that Katagiri was a human being because he was coming from a whole other worldview and he was pretty fantastic. I think now we understand that teachers are human beings and that everything they do doesn't come from an enlightened mind. We have a kind of backlash now and are very critical. I think it's wise to be more discrimnating, but I also think in some ways that naivete helped us to learn. In the seventies, we just opened up and were eager, and I think that openness and eagerness is actually what drew those teachers to America.

Recently I listened to a tape of Roshi lecturing. I was amazed how difficult it was to understand him, how hard I had to concentrate. In the years I was with him I grew used to his English and after a while it was fluent for me. Hearing the tape reminded me of how difficult it was for him. At the same time, how deeply he understood me, Jewish-American from Long Island, feminist, writer, rebel with a hippie past. How hard he worked to penetrate our culture.

Suzuki Roshi once said to the early hippies who came to him in San Francisco: "With your dress and long hair and beads, you all look alike. I can't tell the difference. Shave your heads, get in black robes, and I can see your individual uniqueness."

Katagiri said everyone was so willing to learn in those days. We'd do anything. But now we have the attitude of, "Well, how does the dharma fit in with my life?" The dharma can't fit in with our life. The dharma is our life, and it's not about convenience. And now, having American dharma teachers with us, we see that they are like us, so we are overly critical. First of all, we are very critical of ourselves and we project that onto them, and we also are more hip to what they are doing and not doing, and so sometimes it's very hard for them to transmit the dharma because we're stuck on what color socks they are wearing. But the American teachers also make us realize we are the dharma, each one of us. When I saw Katagiri, he was fabulous but he was magic and foreign. I thought I couldn't do it.

One day Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri were in a plane flying from New York to California. [At that time, they were still working together at the San Francisco Zen Center.] Katagiri told me that in the airport in Detroit, where they had to change planes, two businessmen in suits kept staring at them in their black robes.

Finally, one of them came over.

"My friend here says you're Korean, but I think you're Japanese. Could you tell us which you are?"

Suzuki looked up and smiled. "We're Americans," he said. Katagiri giggled.

When they were back in the plane, flying over the Iowa cornfields, Suzuki, who was sitting next to the window, motioned for Katagiri to lean over and look out. "This is where the Americans are," Suzuki said, pointing down, and they both nodded.

Katagiri longed to be there, where the Americans were. He longed for the workers to come and practice meditation after work, leaving their lunch pails and shoes by the door, bowing, and sitting zazen. . . .He wanted to teach ordinary people, farmers, mechanics, waitresses, construction workers, how to meditate. After all, he was an immigrant. He, too, had ideas about America.

At least now there's a chance of Zen happening here on American soil. And I love Zen and I want it to be here so I want it to be American. I feel part of my job is to make Zen American. With Writing Down the Bones I digested Zen, and even though I didn't talk about Zen in the book very much I think it grounded the teaching about writing. I think that what is important for us is to make Zen an American idiom, to digest it so that it's ours.

As Katagiri said, he just needed one student. One student who wakes up, who gets it. It's up to all of us now to be that one student.


Image 1: Dainin Katagiri Roshi (1928-1990)
Image 2: Natalie Goldberg

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tmark.com's picture

thank you natalie

mralexander99's picture

Me too.....I forgot how much "I gain" by listening to Natalie's story of how she is with her teachers' and that immeasurable process of what occurs due to their mingling of culture and dharma that bring us alive.

Wayoutthere's picture

I too got deeply touched. I think it's the message to let the dharma be your life and in order for that to happen you need it to join with your life's work. How beautiful for katagiri to recognize that zen sitting was not your way to make the dharma be your life. For you it is writing. For me it is yoga and as a doctor helping people heal their bodies. I still sit but the dharma comes alive in my work and how I use my body. thank you for the inspiring confirmation that sitting alone may not be the only path to make the dharma alive - and to be forgiving and kind with our teachers. It's so easy to criticize rather than look deeper within for he truth. Gabrielle

mfwilsonelm's picture

For years I have followed your work as a writer and never knew you were a "student" of Zen. Now I understand why you make things so clear and simple. Thank you Natalie.

sallyotter's picture

While reading this, I felt a teary joy. Don't know why, but Thank You.