Caryl Göpfert speaks with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg about her "failed" relationship with her teacher, Katagiri Roshi
Why do you think it affected you so strongly? As some of your critics have pointed out, it wasn't your boundaries he had violated. If you put poison in one side of a lake, it doesn’t stay there. It poisons the whole lake. What a teacher does affects the whole community. We thought there was one thing going on, and something entirely different was happening. There was a secret. We didn’t really know who this teacher was. There was a part of him that we didn’t know about, a part that was suffering and dark and unclear. There was a shadow over our community and our practice that will affect us over and over again, until we look at it.
My understanding of Zen is that it involves a willingness to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. And that’s why I wrote the book.
Some students I know just repressed the new information and said, “Well, he’s a great teacher anyway.” It’s definitely true: He was a great teacher. And this also happened. Let’s incorporate all of it. It’s much more real. One of the ways to become an adult is to learn to hold ambiguity, polarity, the gray area. He wasn’t either great or bad. He was both great and bad. He had problems, and he was also wonderful. How do we hold both? And not cut off one?
The Great Failure is the large embrace of everything. How do we hold someone we love who has also betrayed us? Usually we grab for either black or white - we either love someone or hate them. If we love them, we ignore the ways they let us down and betrayed us. And if we hate them we ignore the gifts they gave us. How do we hang out in the gray area, which is much more real?
When you learned about Roshi's affairs and deceptions, did you feel that somehow you had failed too? Was that part of your pain? I definitely felt like a fool, naive and stupid. Like, “Natalie, wake up, you live in your own little dream world.” I definitely felt foolish and now I definitely am wary, on one level. On another level, I trust more deeply because I’m more deeply connected to myself.
I studied with Trungpa Rinpoche, and I remember a line in one of his poems that I always pondered. He said, “Don’t trust anyone.” I never felt like this instruction came from paranoia. And then I heard that Suzuki Roshi had said that to Yvonne Rand: “Yvonne, your problem is you trust people. I don’t trust anybody.” I think what they were saying is that when you have this limited idea of trust, you put someone in a box and they have to behave a certain way. So that’s a frozen idea of trust. “Not trusting anybody” means allowing them, moment to moment, to be different.
Now of course, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that your teacher shouldn’t be respectful of you and your vulnerability and your boundaries. On another level, trust is tremendously important. At the beginning of our practice, we come like a little puppy dog to our teacher. We’re encouraged to keep trusting and to open up and surrender.
And also, in the beginning, our illusions are important. In some ways, those illusions bring us to practice. Hopefully, in the process of practicing, we wake up to how things really are. But it’s not bad to have some dreams at the beginning. When I started writing, I didn’t know what it was to be a writer. I didn’t know what basic hard work it is. But my dream to be a writer brought me along, and then I met the task.
In betrayal and in failure, there are some real jewels. But wouldn’t we much rather have a relationship in which we mature slowly? For instance, isn’t it better to have a relationship with your parents in which you grow up and move away from them in a natural and beautiful way? Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. And in spiritual communities, it doesn’t always happen, either. So what do we do? We take what is in front of us and wake up from it.
I think that what I really did with this book is honor my father and Katagiri, because I was willing to go deeper than just my illusions about who they were. I was willing to go the next step because of my deep love for them. I was willing to try to see them as clearly as I could.
Image 1: Natalie Goldberg, © Ritch Davidson.