The author of ten books, Natalie Goldberg is perhaps best known for her 1986 classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Her 1993 book Long Quiet Highway is a glowing memoir of her relationship with her revered Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, who died on March 1, 1990. In her most recent work, The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, Goldberg revisits her memories of Katagiri Roshi in the light of the posthumous discovery that he had been sexually involved with a few of his female students. The Great Failure examines her connection with both Roshi, whom she views as her spiritual father, and her own biological father—two men whom she loved deeply, but by whom she felt disappointed and betrayed. Zen teacher Caryl Göpfert spoke with Goldberg last fall in Stanford, California, about The Great Failure and the lessons she continues to learn from her disillusionment.

So what possessed you to write about failure? It’s something we don’t talk about much in our society.

In our society we’re always running from failure and running after success. I knew that failure was the underbelly, the thing we keep hidden, the thing that we’re most frightened of. Usually the things that we’re frightened of have a lot of juice, a lot of power. And my understanding of Zen practice is that it’s about really sitting down with the underbelly, facing things like death and betrayal and disappointment that we never want to look at.

I don’t necessarily make a judgment when I say failure. The Great Failure is beyond good and bad. It’s about seeing through illusion to how things really are. I had a lot of deluded ideas about what it is to have a relationship with a father. Some of them were wonderful, but they didn’t really match up with my experience. And I had the dream of perfection with Katagiri Roshi. I had him up on a pedestal. Six years after he died, information came out about him that didn’t fit my idea of perfection, and so it broke down that illusion. And that helped me to wake up a lot.   

Disappointment and failure bring us down to the ground so we can see through our ideas to the way things really are. And when that happens, it is really the Great Success.

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