The following passage is from one of my favorite books of all time, Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America, the story of her 12-year relationship with her spiritual teacher, Zen master Katagiri Roshi, until the time of his death. Interwoven with her experiences as a Zen student is a memoir of her life, beginning in 1950’s Long Island, and how her journey to free the writer within herself was connected to her journey as a spiritual seeker. This passage resonates with me because it points to the true depth of responsibility involved in taking the seat of a teacher, and the potentiality of a beautifully functioning teacher/student relationship.
“We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way. Without it, or them, we are lost. It is not true. Impermanence teaches us this. There is no one thing to hold on to.
Once, a few years earlier, I told Roshi in anger ‘I’m never coming back here’. He laughed and said ‘The gate swings both ways, I cannot hold anyone’. Yet when I returned two months later I could tell he was happy to see me. But he had to go beyond his personal likes and dislikes. He could not say to me ‘Please Natalie, don’t go. I like you’. He was my teacher. As a teacher, he had the responsibility to teach me, to put forth the depth of human existence, whether he or I liked it or not.
Meetings end in departures is a quote from the early Sutras of Shakyamuni. No matter how long the meeting, or what the relationship, we depart from each other. Even marriage or monkhood end in death. ‘In the face of that truth’, he said, ‘you can go or come’. He was not tossed away by personal preferences. It was his practice to stand on something larger, regardless of his subjective feelings. And if I returned, the choice had to be mine. I was responsible for myself.
I drove my thick carcass out of Minnesota. I did not thank him for his great effort, did not bow in front of him, present him with a little spice cake, an orchid, a wool cap to keep his shaved priest’s head warm. I know he understood. He did not teach in order to receive anything, but gratitude may be the final blessing for a student. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know what I have received. Knowing that, the duality of teacher and student dissolves. The teacher can pour forth the teachings; the student absorbs them. No resistance, no fight. It is a moment of grace.”