I began to seriously study Buddhism about ten years ago. And by study, I mean reading copious books, highlighting and taking notes and incorporating various practices into my spiritual life. I’ve attended dharma talks at the Kadampa Centre but didn’t really connect to the community. It felt like everyone knew what they were doing except me. The myriad of Buddhist disciplines confuses me.
I’ve been to hear the Dalai Lama talk on several occasions and have even taken my first Bodhisattva vow in an elaborate ceremony over which he presided from his golden throne. And yet, I’ve received no formal teachings apart from the few dharma talks I’ve attended. For years I’ve longed to find my own teacher.
One of my favourite authors, Natalie Goldberg, studied with her Zen Buddhist teacher, Katagiri Roshi, for twelve years. It formed her life and infused her writing with powerful messages. I read her first book, Writing Down the Bones, almost thirty years ago, and have read almost every one of her fourteen other books she’s written since then. She has merged the words practice and writing and birthed a spiritual movement. Writing is a spiritual practice, not a craft to master, and this is both permission to let go of the critic, as well as a call to discipline. I’ve long wanted to study with Natalie, to attend one of her workshops to sit zazen with her and to write.
The Great Spring, Writing, Zen and this ZigZag Life is her latest memoir and her most intimate book yet. In her mid-sixties, with a bout of cancer newly behind her, she writes of how she is nearing the time to leave her body.
And I think, “Not yet! Not until I’ve had a chance to study with you!” With a new grandson pushing me even further away from my own birth, I’m imbued with the feeling of time pressing.
Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to listen to Natalie read from The Great Spring and answer questions. I’ve had this date marked in my calendar for weeks and wanted a good seat at this free event. I arrived at the Vancouver Public Library an hour before the 7pm start time to find over fifty people already lined up along the wall outside the room. Dratigan. I stand behind a woman in a silver parka and geometric leggings just as the line curves back in on itself. She swipes her finger along her phone and I watch as more and more people join their friends in front of me. Oh well, I think and smile to myself, I would do the same thing if I had a someone joining me.
I have an hour to wait, but instead of pulling out my own phone I take the time to gently meditate, feeling the energy vibrate through me and down into the floor. I scan the crowd and write silent stories in my head, eavesdropping on conversations around me. I wonder if it is too obtrusive and obvious if I take out my notebook and actually write. Will they know it is them I am transcribing?
The door at the front finally opens and the line slowly shuffles forward. I move into the already crowded room and begin scanning the back rows of chairs, looking for an empty one with optimum viewing. Lots of seats are being saved and just as I’m about to turn into the centre aisle I feel a hand and see an older woman leaning forward to block my path.
“Are you alone?” she asks.
“Yes,” I nod.
“Sit here.” She instructs, removing a rice-paddy-straw-hat from the seat beside her. “I need someone with calm energy to sit beside me. The energy in this room is too excited.” She slides the hat under her seat.
I thank her and sit, folding my puffy coat onto my lap and resting my purse on top of that.
“I’m a Buddhist nun.” She says, leaning towards me.
I truly look at her now and see the familiar burgundy garb and the shaved head covered in an orange knit toque. I can’t believe the incredible synchronistic happenstance. I’m sitting beside a Buddhist nun in the first row directly in front of the dias behind which Natalie Goldberg will soon be standing! Seriously! Ask and ye shall receive.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she confesses several times, “I’ve only read part of a book she’s written….Bones?”
“Writing Down the Bones.” I affirm. I know exactly why she’s here.
I go with what the Universe has handed to me and make my own confession. I talk about my interest in Buddhism and my scattered studying. She stumps me with question after question, whereupon I finally sigh my ignorance.
“All the different forms of Buddhism really confuse me.”
She smiles, “Everything is confusing.”
And so begins a remarkable conversation. She shows me picture after picture of her teachers on her phone. We share our thoughts on how energy affects us. She asks if I’m a writer and I find myself telling her about the book I’m working on, about how it’s about going beyond forgiveness.
“Beyond forgiveness?” she asks.
“Oh no”, I think, all of a sudden it feels like I’ve stepped into a world in which I’m wholly inadequate. Who am I to talk about going beyond forgiveness to a seventy-two year old Buddhist nun?
“When you’ve reached a level or an awareness that transcends forgiveness, where you realize that there is no need for forgiveness because there was no injury in the first place.” I’m talking about soul to soul contracts, but in the whispered confines of our conversation there is no time to expand. I wonder if I’ve jumped off the deep end and have lost my nascent connection with her.
“No injury…” She repeats, leaning back slightly, and then nodding her head she begins to share her own story about a physical injury she’s being challenged with. Now we are simply two women sharing tips on healing physical injuries and operating on an energetic level within a potentially litigious world.
Just before Natalie Goldberg takes the stage, my Buddhist nun friend takes my contact information and forwards me an email containing dharma talks that may interest me. She promises to text me and we make tentative plans to have tea together.
I spend the next hour listening to Natalie Goldberg read and share bits of writing-practice wisdom. I smile to myself. I’m sitting in the front row listening to one of my favourite writing and spiritual teachers, and beside me Karma quietly murmurs. The Universe has placed me exactly where I asked to be – both in front of and beside a Buddhist teacher.