A Passage From Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway

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.”

 

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Nothing Else

How do we carry out our solitary work?  How do we live in just one body, be in just one place, with so much wild possibility spread out before us, urging us to leave our withered husks behind and investigate the effervescent.

Where is the cat curled on the hearth?  The mother, the rising voice of her bread finding its way from oven to counter, the father with watering eyes and handkerchief, the children with their tiny toes, guarded by shepherds until deemed self-sufficient.  Gone from here, you and I to follow – what else?

The silky flesh of an avocado for nourishment, a blushing apricot for astonishment, hot tea for purification.  A trio of stocky, red-breasted robins eat a breakfast of insects in the rain, knowing nothing of coats, hats or umbrellas. Is there anything else?

No small town sitting with hands folded in its lap, where change is slow to occur, where it’s easy to listen and record what is heard. No vast city arching its back, inviting temptation. No slender valley sitting in the sun, rubbing its feet together like two lamps containing dormant genies.

Nothing to miss out on, nothing else, nothing to do, blind in one eye and deaf in the other.

May we carry out our solitary work, be of some use.

 

Zen

This poem appeared in the February 2014 issue of Poetry Pacific Literary Journal, along with A Measure of Grace.

http://poetrypacific.blogspot.com/2014/02/2-poems-by-cm-rivers.html

Zen

Fingers of light

touch down on the garden

Wild green things grow thick

‘round the entranceway

Spotted fawns have come by,

mother not far behind

Cat sits and watches

Fastenings

What if you yourself didn’t want anything, what if you spent measureless lengths of time just people-watching, ruminating, taking notes of where your mind traveled to, at once engaged yet unaffected, an explorer holding the oar gently as he rows upriver, a tourist observing wide swaths of gold made by the afternoon sun as they spill through the windows of shops while people pass on a street familiar to them. Somewhere deep down inside, these people all know the truth surrounding the illusion of having. No one has anything, there’s nothing to have.

Nothing is fastened. Anything might come undone at any time, and it’s all arbitrary and out of control. Tiger at the window, wolf at the door. At the same time, hummingbirds are drawn to honey suckle, joy is rounded out by sorrow, grief is more thoroughly digested with a little exaltation.

It makes me think of my mother and what it was like, losing her. While I am water – calm and usual at the surface, with everything going on beneath, hidden by murky light – she was fire. She wore her heart on her sleeve most of the time. My mother possessed a tremendous playfulness, tending toward joy, leaning into laughter. But she also had about her a vast, lonesome sorrow. Not the easy sorrow of a bow drawn across the strings of a cello on a dreary morning. An elusive sorrow of wind and bone marrow, the sorrow of long straight highways across the Midwest, the sorrow of a thousand widowed women going up the creaking stairs of a thousand old farmhouses. I can only hope to embrace the two sides as fully as she embraced them.

Sometimes, as I wander through all the rooms in the house of being human, the wandering seems to be the only thing I’m determined to do. I have a habit of giving the living and the dead equal attention, one foot planted firmly in the world while the other extends into the ether, reaching for the unworldly. Listening without ears for some message in the heart of stillness.

Song Lines

Listen. A voice inside you is singing. You are following your song lines, you are singing the world and the land into being as you walk upon it.

We are surrounded by teachers: the path we take, the wind, the people on the street, the people in our lives, the one who makes us crazy, the one we admire, the one we envy, the one we pity, our peaceful feeling, our desperation, the goldenrod, the baby’s breath.

There are times when the sky is so blue and the clouds so soft at their frayed edges, that it all hardly seems real. Sometimes the magic of the sun shining on water makes us wonder how we’ll ever leave this place. Sometimes it’s “how will I do this, how will this work, this can’t be happening, I can’t do this anymore, I’m so tired, this is my life”. Meanwhile the sun rises, incredibly, and moves across the sky. The wind blows, incredibly. A bird sings, incredibly.

If your eyes shift to the rearview mirror for too long, you risk crashing into what’s in front of you. Time to go on walkabout again. Time to return to the song lines. Time to just be, time to remember every step is taken on a frail sheet of glass. Everything we do, we do while standing on a falling snowflake. Every time we give up is a new beginning.

So you arrive, from your long and arduous climb, at the platform where your voice has been waiting for you, and you know the sound of it. You know the lines of the song you are following. You are an instrument, the music of the land moving through you as you sing it into being. Alone as you are, you shall be with all the world.

 

Mythology

Some say I look like a walrus

with my faded apricot shirt and untrimmed moustache,

but here’s the thing:

never has my mind been filled to such an overflowing

with such an uncountable number of things

flickering through me at an untraceable speed,

equal only in their ranking

as items of stunning insignificance.

In any case,

I’ll meet you at the corner of Vanity and Age,

where the brushstrokes of dawn dress casually

and a lone star stands, unobtrusive,

before taking its last drag off the night

and flicking the roach away

to the opposite curb of the world.

And me, spilling out onto the street with two Mary’s –

one bloody, one virgin, singing:

Goddess Pele, purify me with your volcano fire.

Help me remember to see and embrace

what is before me,

and not search too hard for what isn’t.

Help me to not strain my eyes

trying to look too far ahead,

not stare back behind me for too long,

hypnotized by what has passed,

mesmerized by the highway lines.

May I be like the cat

who practices heliotropism so effectively,

who lounges and, smiling, is ever hopeful

about his next meal.

May I not get so tangled in thought and emotion

that I bind myself.

May I honor desires, dreams, fears.

May I remember things are just what they are,

on either side of any hill,

and that there are no sides,

no hills.

 

Above Taughannock Falls

Viewed from the sky, the circle in which you expedite your daily life is a speck on the surface of the planet. But that doesn’t mean you’re any less the center of the universe than anything else. We are all whiling away the What Has Been, the What Is, and the What Is To Be, hurtling forward through our small lives with all their small details.

Maybe that’s why I was so relieved when, the other day, you coaxed me out of the car to walk through a tropical downpour, the defibrillator of thunder charging my arrhythmia back to life. How does apprehension unfold into exhilaration so seamlessly?

If given the chance, it can, and it will.

I followed you to the rain-ripened creek and we sank in, the seam of the water rising to meet our throats. You sang a lullaby, siren-like, and I – half drunk sailor – was caught by it. We held each other beneath the soft water and the rain left us. The sun returned, its dazzle commanding our attention as steam rose from stones. A billowing thunderhead shifted against the blue, reminding you of New Mexico’s big sky.

Emerging, we drip-dried below whispering treetops. A rustling wind made friends with us then, a wind whose kind voice suggested I view all things with sleepy eyes. Standing there with you, I thought I might be riding some sort of stationary current, aware of external motion from the vantage point of perfect stillness.

Standing there with you, I leapt from the fire of doing into the cradle of not-doing, the two places rubbing together and making sparks.