When the Candle is Blown Out: On The Death of Katagiri Roshi

Natalie Goldberg offers a remembrance of her teacher and a cri de coeur over all that is left incomplete and unanswered by his death.

Natalie Goldberg
1 September 2004
Photo by Shawn Carpenter.

In this adaptation from her book, “The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth”, Natalie Goldberg offers a remembrance of her teacher and a cri de coeur over all that is left incomplete and unanswered by his death. Where is enlightenment when the candle is blown out?

Te-shan asked the old tea-cake woman, “Who is your teacher? Where did you learn this?”

She pointed to a monastery a half mile away.

Te-shan visited Lung-t’an and questioned him far into the night. Finally when it was very late, Lung-t’an said, “Why don’t you go and rest now?”

Te-shan thanked him and opened the door. “It’s dark outside. I can’t see.”

Lung-t’an lit a candle for him, but just as Te-shan turned and reached out to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out.

At that moment Te-shan had a great enlightenment. Full of gratitude, he bowed deeply to Lung-t’an.

The next day Lung-t’an praised Te-shan to the assembly of monks. Te-shan brought his books and commentaries in front of the building and lit them on fire, saying, “These notes are nothing, like placing a hair in vast space.”

Then bowing again to his teacher, he left.

On a Thursday night I flew into Minneapolis and saw Katagiri Roshi’s body laid out in the zendo, dead eighteen hours from a cancer he fought for over a year. It was incomprehensible that I would never see my beloved teacher again.

My father was the only one I knew who had sneered at death’s bleak face as he fought in the righteous war that marked his life. Of everyone I knew, he alone did not seem afraid of the great darkness. “Nat, you’re here and then you’re not. Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal,” he told me as he placed a pile of army photos on my lap. “The Japanese, you have to give it to ’em. They could really fight. Tough, good soldiers.” Then he held up a black-and-white. “Here’s your handsome daddy overseas.”

Roshi also fought as a young man in World War II. He told a story about not wanting to kill and shooting in the air above enemy heads. I told that to my father. “What a lot of malarkey,” my father sneered. “You don’t believe that, do you? You’re in battle, you fight.”

My father met my teacher only once, about a year after I had married. 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. “I bet that’s Roshi.”

My father’s eyes grew wide. 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. My father was subdued, withdrawn, and Roshi too wasn’t his usual animated self.

I remember thinking, my father has become shy in front of a Zen master—finally someone tamed him.

I got it all wrong. He didn’t give a shit about that. He had just encountered the enemy face to face. After Roshi exited, he hissed, “I fought them, and now you’re studying with them.”

“If this were your last moment on earth,” Roshi cut the silence with these words late one night, “how would you sit?” We were waiting for the bell to ring. 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.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Just ring the damn bell,” was the only thought that raced through my head.

On other occasions when he asked similar questions, my mind froze. Me, die? Not possible.

Death was something aesthetic, artistic; it had to do with the grand words “forever,” “eternity,” “emptiness.” I never had known anyone who had died before. 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.

What a shock it was for me to see my great teacher’s stiff body. 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.
Don’t Be Tossed Away—Don’t Let Anything Stop You.
Make Positive Effort for the Good.

The last one Roshi told me when I was divorcing and couldn’t get out of bed.

“If nothing else, get up and brush your teeth.” He paused. “I can never get up when the alarm goes off. Nevertheless,” he nodded, “I get up.”

Once in the early days I was perplexed about trees. I asked at the end of a lecture, “Roshi, do the elms suffer?”

He answered.

“What? Could you tell me again? Do they really suffer?” I couldn’t take it in.

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. “Roshi, just once more. I don’t get it. I mean do trees really suffer.”

He looked straight at me. “Shut up.”

That went in.

The amazing thing was I did not take it personally. He was directly commanding my monkey mind to stop. I’d already been studying with him for a while. Those two words were a relief. Dead end. Quit. 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. Glory! Glory! 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. It allowed me to discover the largeness of my own psyche, but it wasn’t based on some illusion. 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. She said that even when no one understood his English and we weren’t sure of the Buddhist concepts he discussed, he bowed in front of the altar and walked out after his lecture as though all time and the universe were backing him.

I’d never even taken note of that. 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?

This projection process also can get more complicated if we haven’t individuated from our original parents. 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. I have read about Zen ancestors who practiced with their teachers for forty years in a single monastery, and I understand why. There would be no half-baked characters in those ancient lineages.

But, oddly enough, Te-shan only had that one meeting with Lung-t’an, and he woke up. Of course, he was a serious scholar of the dharma for a long time. Who is to say scholarly pursuits—studying books intently and writing commentary—don’t prepare the mind as well as sweeping bamboo-lined walkways, sitting long hours, or preparing monastery meals?

Zen training is physical. But what isn’t physical while we have a body on this earth? Sitting bent over books, our eyes following a line of print, is physical too. So that when Te-shan had that single evening in Lung-t’an’s room, he was already very ripe. Lung-t’an merely had to push him off the tree, and Te-shan was prepared to fall into the tremendous empty dark with no clinging.

Te-shan was shown true darkness when Lung-t’an blew out the light; he held at last a dharma candle to guide his way, but he still had a lot of maturation ahead of him. Don’t forget the next morning he made that grandiose gesture of burning his books in front of the assembly of monks. He was still acting out, choosing this and leaving that. He was not yet able to honor his whole journey, to respect everything that brought him to this moment. Te-shan still envisioned things in dualistic terms: now only direct insight mattered; books needed to be destroyed. He didn’t see that all those years of study had created a foundation that supported his awakening with Lung-t’an. Originally he traveled from the north with his sutras on his back to enlighten the southern barbarians. Here he was doing a complete reversal, torching his past and revering his present experience. Someday he would embrace the north and the south, unify all of China in his heart, and attain a peaceful mind. But he was not there yet. We see him engaged in drama, presenting a flaming pageant in front of the other monks.

His life has not yet settled and become calm.

After he left Lung-t’an, he wandered for a long time, looking to be tested and sharpened. He already had left his place in northern China to wander among what he thought were the southern barbarians. He might be the precursor to our fractured American way of searching for peace.

How can anyone survive if the way is so splintered? What we learn is it’s all whole, been whole all along. It is our perception that is broken and that creates a shattered world. But each of us has to discover this in our own lives. That is what is so hard.

“I wish you’d gotten to meet him,” I’d tell writing students.

“We are,” they’d say, meaning they did through knowing me.

I scoffed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At a party in San Francisco, Ed Brown, a longtime Zen practitioner and author of many books, pulled me over. “Nat, I have another story about Katagiri for you to steal.”

I laughed. I’d asked his permission and acknowledged him with the last one I used. I put my arm around him. “Sure, Ed, give it to me. I’d love to steal from you again.”

He began, “I’d been practicing for twenty years when the thought suddenly came to me, ‘Ed, maybe you can just hear what your heart is saying. You can be quiet and pay attention to yourself.’ It was a big moment of relief for me. Tears filled my eyes.”

He showed me with his fingers how they fell down his cheeks. “I’d tried so hard all my life. Made such effort, lived in a monastery since I was young. And now this. Could it be that simple?

“The next day I had an interview with Katagiri. I asked him, ‘Do you think it’s okay to just listen to yourself?’

“He looked down, then he looked up. ‘Ed, I tried very hard to practice Dogen’s Zen. After twenty years I realized there was no Dogen’s Zen.’”

Dogen was a strict patriarch from thirteenth-century Japan. We chanted his words each morning. He was a yardstick by which we measured ourselves.

I felt my legs buckle. I reached out for the back of a chair. Just us. No heaven Zen in some Asian sky out there.

I put my hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Ed, I vow to once again misappropriate your story.” He nodded, satisfied.

I was reminded again how simple, sincere, earnest Roshi was. I was happy, and then it ignited my anger. I was mad he died. I had found the perfect teacher.

I tried practicing other places. I did two fall practice periods at Green Gulch, part of the San Francisco Zen Center. While I was there, an old student told me about the early years at the Zen monastery in Carmel Valley.

Tassajara was in a narrow valley. The sun didn’t reach it until late morning, rising over an eastern mountain, and it dropped early behind the slope of a western one. The practice was difficult, and the days and nights were frigid and damp. But American students of the late sixties were fervent about this path to liberate their lives. One particular winter retreat, that lasted for a hundred days, was being led by Katagiri, fresh from Japan.

One young zealous woman, a fierce practitioner, a bit Zen-crazed, was having a hard time. She was full of resistance when the four o’clock wake-up bell rang on the fifth day of Rohatsu sesshin, an intense week that honored Buddha’s enlightenment and signaled almost the finish of the long retreat. Practice that day would again be from four-thirty in the morning until ten at night with few breaks except for short walking meditations and an hour work period after lunch. It was her turn that morning to carry the kyosaku, that long narrow board administered in the zendo to sleepy students’ shoulders. Her hands were frayed and her bare feet were ice on the cold wooden floor when she got there. She picked up the wake-up stick and passed quietly by the altar to do the ritual bow to Katagiri, the head teacher, who was facing into the room. The flame on the candle was strong. The incense wafted through the air. The practitioners were settled onto their cushions, facing out toward the wall.

A thought inflamed her just as she was about to bow in front of Katagiri: it’s easy for him. He’s Asian. He’s been doing this all his life. It’s second nature. His body just folds into position.

Though it is a rule of retreat that people do not look at each other, in order to limit social interaction and provide psychic space for going deeply within, at this moment she glanced up at Roshi. She was stunned to see pearls of sweat forming on his upper lip. Only one reason he could have been perspiring in this frozen zendo: great effort. It wasn’t any easier for him than anyone else. Was she ever wrong in her assumptions. She had gotten close enough to see what no one was supposed to see. All her rage and stereotyping crumbled.

My heart jumped. I imagined the small hard dark hairs above his lip—he did not shave for the whole week during sesshins. I recalled the shadow building on his cheeks and shaved head as the days went on, how he bowed with his hands pressed together in front of him, elbows out and shoulders erect. His small beautiful foot as he placed a step on the floor during walking meditation. Though retreats were austere, singular, solitary, there was also a rare intimacy that was shared in silence and practice together.

Just two weeks before the end of my second Green Gulch retreat, in December 1995, almost six years after Katagiri Roshi had died, in a stunning moment in the zendo that shot through me like a hot steel bolt, I realized this regimented practice no longer fit me. The known world blanked out, and I was lost in the moving weight of a waterfall. For me, the structure was Katagiri Roshi. I learned it all from him. If I stepped out of it, I’d lose my great teacher. I knew how to wake at four o’clock in the morning, to sit still for forty-minute periods, to eat with three bowls in concentration, but it was over—other parts of me needed care. Structure had saved my life, given me a foundation, and now it was cracking. It was a big opening, but I wasn’t up to it.

Roshi was the youngest of six children. His mother barely had time for him. He’d spoken fondly of the single hour that he once had with her when she took him shopping. No other brothers and sisters. Just the heaven of his mother all to himself.

My mother was mostly absent in my life, not because she was busy, but because she was vacant. She woke in the morning, put on her girdle, straight wool skirt, and cashmere sweater, and then sat in a chair in her bedroom, staring out the window.

“Mom, I’m sick and want to stay home from school.”

“That’s fine.”

The next day I wrote the absentee note for the teacher, and she signed without glancing at it. I was hungrier than I knew. I wanted someone to contact me, even if it was to simply say, “Natalie, you are not sick. That wouldn’t be honest. As a matter of fact, you look lovely today.” As a kid I needed a reflection of my existence, that I was, indeed, here on this earth. The attention I received from my father was invasive and uncomfortable. I hoped at least for my mother’s affirmation, but there wasn’t any.

Roshi was the one person who directly spoke to this hunger. When I went in for dokusan (an individual face-to-face interview with the teacher), we sat cross-legged on cushions, opposite each other. He wasn’t distracted, “aggravated” or impatient. He was right there, which inspired me to meet him in that moment. I had friends, acquaintances I interacted with, and we sat facing each other across luncheon tables, but this was a man whose life’s work was to arrive in the present. The effect was stunning. Life seemed to beam out of every cell in his body. His facial expressions were animated.

I could ask him a question, and he would respond from no stuck, formulated place. I think it was the constant awareness of emptiness: that although this cushion, this floor, this person in front of you, and you yourself are here, it isn’t of permanent duration. Knowing this in his bones and muscles, not just as a philosophical idea, allowed him a spontaneity and honesty.

“Roshi, now that I am divorced, it is very lonely.”

“Tell me. What do you do when you are alone in the house?”

I’d never thought of that. I became interested. “Well, I water the plants,” I faltered, then continued, “I wash a few dishes, call a friend.” The momentum built. “I sit on the couch for hours and stare at the bare branches out the window. I play over and over Paul Simon’s new album about New Mexico—I miss it there.”

His attention encouraged me. “Lately, I’ve been sitting at my dining-room table and painting little pictures.” I looked at him. Suddenly my solitary life had a texture.

“Is there anything wrong with loneliness?” he asked in a low voice.

I shook my head. All at once I saw it was a natural condition of life, like sadness, grief, even joy. When I was sitting with him, it didn’t feel ominous or unbearable.

“Anyone who wants to go to the source is lonely. There are many people at Zen Center. Those who are practicing deeply are only with themselves.”

“Are you lonely?” I entreated.

“Yes,” he nodded. “But I don’t let it toss me away. It’s just loneliness.”

“Do you ever get over it?”

“I take an ice-cold shower every morning. I never get used to it. It shocks me each time, but I’ve learned to stand up in it.” He pointed at me. “Can you stand up in loneliness?”

He continued, “Being alone is the terminal abode. You can’t go any deeper in your practice if you run from it.”

He spoke to me evenly, honestly. My hunger was satiated—the ignored little girl still inside me and the adult seeker—both were nourished.

I understood that Roshi too had been neglected in his childhood.

Even though he had tremendous perseverance, he was human, with needs and desires. All of us want something—even the vastly wise like a good cookie with their tea and delight in good-quality tea. Maybe it was that very perseverance that broke him. He couldn’t keep it up, and his human needs leaked out. “Continue under all circumstances,” he barked out, so often that that dictum penetrated even my lazy mind and became a strong tool for my life. But as I grew older I understood its drawbacks: if you are crossing a street and a semi is coming, step aside. If you have hemorrhoids, don’t push the sitting; take a hot bath. That one tactic—perseverance—can put you on a dead-end road, and then what do you do? Continue to march deep into a blind alley?

Touching Roshi’s frailty finally brought him closer to me, unraveled my solid grief. At the end of January I had a painful backache that lasted all day. At midnight in my flannel pajamas I got up out of bed, went to the window, and looked out at the star-studded clear, cold night sky with Taos Mountain in the distance.

“Where are you? Come back!” I demanded. “We have things to settle.”

I let out a scream that cracked the dark, but one raw fact did not change: nothing made him return, and I was left to make sense of his life—and mine. ©

Adapted from The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth by Natalie Goldberg. © 2004 by Natalie Goldberg. Available in September from HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within (Shambhala 1986), The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life (Shambhala 2016), and other books on Zen practice and the creative process.