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The Great Spring


Best-selling author Natalie Goldberg moves to Minnesota in winter to search for her late teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi. Will she find him at the first sign of spring?

I lived for a year and a half recently in St. Paul, Minnesota practicing Zen with one of Katagiri Roshi's dharma heirs. Roshi had been dead for a long time and still I missed him and did not know how to complete the relationship that had begun over twenty years before. I was frozen in the configuration we had together when he died—he was always the teacher and I forever would be the student. Now over a decade had passed. I wanted to move on, and in order to do that it seemed I had to move back to that northern state of long winter shadows, a place I left fifteen years earlier to plant my roots in Taos, New Mexico. It seemed I had to go back to that cold place in order to unfreeze.

A few months before the move, though, I pulled a muscle in my groin that would not let me cross my legs in the traditional zazen position. This did not please me. I'd been sitting cross-legged for twenty-five years, so my reflex even at a fancy dinner party was to have my legs intertwined on the upholstered oak chair under the pink linen tablecloth.

Structure in the zendo had been everything to me: straight back, butt on black round cushion, eyes unfocused, cast down at a forty-degree angle. Bells rung on time. Clip, clip. Everything had order. In a chaotic world it was comforting. Sitting in a chair in the zendo with feet flat on the floor seemed silly. If I was going to sit in a chair, I might as well have a cup of tea, a croissant—hell, why not be in a cafe or on a bench under an autumn tree.

So I did go every single day, like a good Zen student, except in the wrong direction—not to the Zen center in downtown St. Paul, but to Bread and Chocolate, a cafe on Grand Avenue. I walked there slowly, mindfully, and it was grand. I didn't bring a notebook. I just brought myself and I had strict regulations: I could only buy one chocolate chip cookie. And I ate that one attentively, respectfully, bite after bite at a table next to big windows. I felt the butter of it on my fingers, the chips still warm and melted. In the past, seven good bites would have finished it off. But the eating was practice now, the cafe a living zendo. Small bites. Several chews. Be honest—was this mindfulness or a lingering? This cookie would not last. Oh, crisp and soft, brown and buttery. How I clung. The nearer, the more appreciative was I, as it disappeared.

"Life is a cookie," Alan Arkin pronounced in "America's Sweethearts." I fell over the popcorn in my lap with laughter. One of the deep, wise lines in American movies. No one else in the theater was as elated. No one else had eaten the same single cookie for months running. I gleefully quoted Arkin, the guru, for weeks after. I could tell by people's faces: this, the result of all her sitting?

But nothing lasts forever. My tongue finally grew tired of the taste day after day. Was this straw in my mouth, this once great cookie? In the last weeks I asked only for a large hot water with lemon and wanted to pay the price for tea, but they wouldn't let me. I had become a familiar figure. So I left tips in a paper cup, and I sat. Not for a half hour or until the cookie was done—I sat for two, often three hours. Just sat there, nothing fancy, alongside an occasional man chopping away at a laptop, a mother, her son and his young friends, heads bent over brownies, eating their after-school snack, an elderly couple, sighing long over steaming cups, a tall, retired businessman reading the Pioneer Press. I sat through the whole Bush/Gore campaign and then the very long election, through a young teenage boy murdered on his bike by the Mississippi, the eventual capture of the three young men who did it for no reason but to come in from the suburbs for some kicks, and the sad agony of the boy's parents who owned a pizza parlor nearby.

St. Paul is a small city with a big heart. If I was still enough, I could feel it all—the empty lots, the great river driving itself under bridges, the Schmidt brewery emitting a smell that I thought meant the town was toasting a lot of bread, but found out later was the focal point of an irate neighborhood protest. In early fall when the weather was warm I sat on the wood and wrought-iron bench that was set out in front of the cafe under a black locust. I even sat out there in slow drizzles and fog when the streets were slick and deserted. After fifteen years in New Mexico, the gray and mist were a great balm.

Sometimes if I was across the river in Minneapolis I sat at Dunn Brothers cafe on Hennepin and then, too, at the one in Linden Hills. Hadn't this always been my writing life? To fill spiral notebooks, write whole manuscripts in local luncheonettes and restaurants? But now here was my Zen life, too, happening in a cafe at the same square tables only without a notebook. Hadn't I already declared that Zen and writing were one? In and out I'd breathe. My belly would fill, my belly would contract. I lifted the hot paper cup to my lips, my eyes now not down on the page but rather unfocused on the top of the chair pushed under the table across from me.

My world of meditation was getting large for me. By leaving the old structure, I was loosening my tight grip on my old Zen teacher. I was finally letting go of him. I was bringing my zazen out into the street. But who wants to let go of something you love? I did all this, but I did not recognize what was happening to me.

There is a recorded interview of me on a panel with an old dharma friend on December 21, 2001. It was a Saturday evening, the second winter of my return to Minneapolis, and the weather had tipped to thirty below. I'd just been driven across town by a kind young Zen student. No, not driven—the car slipped across black ice. I was so stunned by the time I was in front of the audience, most of my responses to the moderator's questions were, "You can find the answer to that in one of my books. Which book? I dunno.” I only knew no matter how deluded you may be, the land told you you would not last forever. As a matter of fact, driving home that night might be the end of you.

By the last days of February, even the most fastidious homeowners (and believe me, St. Paul is full of them) had given up shoveling their walks. In early March I looked out my apartment window to the corner of Dale and Lincoln near posh Crocus Hill and watched the man across the street blaze out of his large many-floored old pale blue clapboard house, jacket flying open, with a long ax in his hand. While bellowing out months of confinement in piercing yelps, he hacked away at the ice built up by the curb. Behind him stood a massive crabapple, its branches frozen and curled in a death cry.

I had scheduled, for mid-April, a day-long public walking and writing retreat. I doubted now that it would take place. Where would we walk? In circles around the hallway of the zendo? My plan had been to meet at the zendo, write for two rounds, then venture out on a slow mindful stroll, feeling the clear placement of heel, the roll of toes, the lifting of foot, the bend of knee, the lowering of hip, as we made our way through the dank, dark streets of industrial St. Paul, across railroad tracks and under a bridge, to be surprised by a long spiral stone tunnel, opening into Swede Hollow along a winding creek and yellow grass (after all, when I planned it the year before, wasn't April supposed to be spring?), then climbing up to an old-fashioned, cast-iron high-ceilinged cafe with a good soup and delicious desserts where we could write again at small tables. I would not tell the students where we were going. I would just lead them out the zendo door into the warehouse district with cigarette butts in wet clusters, gathered in sidewalk cracks. We would walk past the Black Dog Cafe and the smokers hunched on the outside stoop and near the square for the Lowertown farmers' market where impossible summer and fresh-grown produce would arrive again.

In this city of large oaks, magnificent elms and maples, I managed to return to practice Zen at a zendo surrounded by concrete, where one spindly young line of a tree gallantly fought by a metal gate to survive. I'd renamed the practice center The Lone Tree Zendo. And, yes, in truth I did actually go there early mornings and Saturdays, Sundays, for weekend and week-long retreats. I was working on koans, ancient teaching stories, that tested the depth of your realization. I had to present my understanding and it never came from logic or the thinking brain. I had to step out of my normal existence and come face-to-face with images from eighth to tenth-century China: a rhinoceros fan, a buffalo passing through a window, an oak tree in the courtyard. The northern cold penetrated me as deeply as these koans. No fly, no bare finger could survive—even sound cracked. I was gouged by impermanence.

The first miserable weekend in April came. I looked at the roster of twenty-four faithful souls who had registered for the writing retreat. Two women from Lincoln, Nebraska were flying in. A woman from Milwaukee—a six-hour drive away—was leaving at 3:30 a.m. to make the 9:30 beginning. Such determination. Only in the Midwest, I thought. I noted with delight that Tall Suzy and her friend from Fargo were coming. She'd studied with me back in New Mexico. Mike, the Vietnam vet, from Austin, Minnesota was driving up too. I nervously fingered the page with the list of names.

The workshop date was the Saturday before Easter. The day came and miraculously it was in the low sixties. I hustled over early to Bread and Chocolate to grab a cookie and touch the recent center of my universe and then arrived a few minutes late for class. Everyone was silently meditating in a circle. I swirled into my place.

"We are going out for most of the day. You'll have to trust me. Remember: no good or bad. Just one step after another. We'll see different things. This is a walk of faith."

After two initial writing sessions we bounded outside, eager to be in the weak yet warming sun. But the weekend desolation of industrial St. Paul sobered us. One step after another. This was a silent walk so no one could complain—not that a Midwesterner would do such a thing. But I, an old New Yorker, had to shut up, too. I couldn't encourage, explain, apologize. We just walked bare-faced on this one early April day slow enough to feel this life. Over the still frozen ground to the tracks, crushing thin pools of ice with our boots. A left foot lifted and placed, then a right. The tunnel was ahead. Half of us were already walking through the yellow limestone spiral, built in 1856, a miracle of construction that seemed to turn your mind. Eventually we all made it through to the other side, to sudden country, the hollow, and the first sweetness of open land. Long pale grasses, just straightening up after the melting weight of snow, and thin unleafed trees gathered along the lively winding stream.

We had walked an hour and a half at the pace of a spider. I'd forgotten what this kind of walking does to you. You enter the raw edge of your mind, the naked line between you and your surroundings drops away. Whoever you are or think you are cracks off. We were soul-bare together in the hollow, the place poor Swedish immigrants inhabited a hundred years ago in cardboard shacks. Some people broke off and went down to the stream, put their hands in the cold water. I sat on a stone with my face in the sun. Then we continued on.

We didn't get to the cafe until almost two o'clock. The place was empty. We filled the tables and burst into writing. I remember looking up a moment into the stunned faces of two people behind the counter. Where did all these people suddenly come from? And none of them are talking?

I'd forgotten how strenuous it was to walk so slow for so long. I was tired.

When it was time to leave, I had planned to follow the same route back. Oh, no, the students shook their heads and took the lead almost at a trot. A short cut across a bypass over noisy 94 to the zendo. We arrived breathless in twenty minutes. Back in the circle, I inquired, "How was it?"—the first spoken words.

I looked around at them. My face fell. I'd been naive. They ran back here for safety. That walk had rubbed them raw. One woman began: "When we reached the tunnel, I was terrified to go through. It felt like the birth canal."

Another: "I didn't know where it would lead. I looked at all of us walking like zombies and began to cry. I thought of the Jews going to the chambers."

I remembered two kids in the hollow stopping their pedaling and straddling their bikes, mouths agape, staring at us. I had taken comfort in numbers and didn't worry about how we appeared to the outside. Of course, we must have looked strange.

What happened to us? they asked.

I checked in with my own body right then. Oh, yes, I felt the way I did after a five or seven day retreat, kind of shattered, new and tremulous. They were feeling the same.

One woman said, "I physically felt spring entering the hollow. It was right there when I slowed up enough to feel it. I opened my hand and spring filled it. I swear I also saw winter leaving. Not a metaphor. The real thing."

They were describing experiences I'd had in the zendo after long hours of sitting. But I’d thought that only within the confines of those walls and with that cross-legged position I loved, could certain kinds of openings occur. I’d wanted so badly to cling to the old structure I learned with my beloved teacher, the time-worn true way handed down from temples and monasteries in Japan, that he’d painstakingly brought to us in America. Yes, I loved everything he taught me, but didn't Buddha walk around a lot? What I saw now, with these students as witnesses, was that it was me who had confined my mind, grasped a practice I learned in my thirties, feeling nothing else was authentic.

Nat, what about writing? You'd said it was a true way, but even you didn't truly believe it. You only wanted to be with your old teacher again when you came back to Minnesota a year ago. You’d returned to St. Paul, it turns out, not to let go, but to find him. Like a child, you’d never really believed he'd died. Certainly you'd discover him again up here, but your body couldn't sit in the old way. You happened upon him but all new.

What was Zen anyway? There was you and me, living and dying, eating cake. There was the sky, there were mountains, rivers, prairies, horses, mosquitoes, justice, injustice, integrity, cucumbers. The structure was bigger than any structure I could conceive. I had fallen off the zafu, that old round cushion, into the vast unknown.

I looked again at these students in a circle. This day we were here and we experienced we were here. I could feel Roshi’s presence. I thought he had died. No one had died. And in a blink of an eye none of us were here, only spring would move to summer, if we were very lucky, and no one blew up the world. But maybe there were other summers and winters out there in other universes. Nothing like a Minnesota winter, of course—that single solid thought I probably would die clinging to, like a life preserver, the one true thing I'd met after all my seeking.

After the last student left, I bent to put on my shoes. I was tired of being pigeonholed as a writer. Limited to one thing. Not Zen separate from hamburgers, not writing divided from breath. Only the foot placed down on this one earth.

If we can sit in a cafe breathing, we can breathe through hearing our father's last breath, the slow crack of pain as we realize he's crossing over forever. Good-bye, we say. Good-bye. Good-bye. Toenails and skin. Memory halted in our lungs: his foot, ankle, wrist. When a bomb is dropped it falls through history. No one act, no single life. No disconnected occurrence. I am sipping a root beer in another cafe and the world spins and you pick up a pen, speak and save another life: this time your own.

That night at three a.m. one of those mighty midwestern thunderstorms suddenly broke the dark early sky in an electric yellow. I gazed out the cold glass pane. Either in my head or outside of it—where do thoughts come from?—three words resounded: The Great Spring. The Great Spring. Together my students and I had witnessed the tip of the moment that green longed for itself again. I realized in all these years, Roshi had never been outside of me.

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Long Quiet Highway, Thunder and Lightning, and Top Of My Lungs. She has been a Zen practitioner for the last 25 years. 

Originally published in the January 2003 issue of the Shambhala Sun.


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