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.

Do you see a direct connection between your relationship with your father and your relationship with Katagiri Roshi?

Because there was pain in my relationship with my father, I unconsciously went seeking for someone I could believe was perfect, a relationship where I could feel safe enough to let my true heart out. And I did feel safe enough with Katagiri. I was lucky. I could keep my illusions for a long time. And through those illusions, I was able to connect with my true heart—connect with all the love that, with my father, I was always holding back in terrible fear. If I opened up to my father, I was afraid I’d be grabbed. So I never got to experience who I truly was with him. And with Katagiri, I did.

After Katagiri died, my heart was broken. But that heartbreak was also the entryway to waking up on a deeper level, by breaking through my misjudgments about who he was.

Natalie Goldberg © Ritch Davidson

What was your inner landscape like when you found out that Katagiri Roshi had been sleeping with students?

I was in incredible shock. I went into complete denial for several days after I heard the news. I couldn’t digest it. It was so far from my idea of who he was or my experience of him. And then, slowly, I took it in. I actually took off for three months. I canceled everything and went up to the Mesa, where I lived and just sat with it.

I cried a lot. I found myself remembering all the years I practiced with him in the zendo. It was almost like watching a movie that would run in front of my eyes automatically, without my calling it up. I watched that movie of him in the zendo, and I realized this behavior had been right in front of me all along. He flirted a lot, and he even came on to me. I just wasn’t willing to see it.

I went through hating him. I went through missing him terribly, really wishing I could speak to him about it—and yet knowing that, because he came from a very reserved Japanese culture, he probably wouldn’t be willing to talk about it, even if he were alive. But I really wanted one more time with him where I could say, “What the fuck did you do?”

It was agony. I had an outbreak of shingles from the stress. I just could not find equilibrium. It completely tossed me away, because he was such a strong foundation for me. I was heartbroken. But going all the way into it brought me to my own awakening, brought me to stand more solidly on the ground.

Why do you think it affected you so strongly? As some of your critics have pointed out, it wasn’t your boundaries he had violated.

If you put poison in one side of a lake, it doesn’t stay there. It poisons the whole lake. What a teacher does affects the whole community. We thought there was one thing going on, and something entirely different was happening. There was a secret. We didn’t really know who this teacher was. There was a part of him that we didn’t know about, a part that was suffering and dark and unclear. There was a shadow over our community and our practice that will affect us over and over again, until we look at it.

My understanding of Zen is that it involves a willingness to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. And that’s why I wrote the book.

Some students I know just repressed the new information and said, “Well, he’s a great teacher anyway.” It’s definitely true: He was a great teacher. And this also happened. Let’s incorporate all of it. It’s much more real. One of the ways to become an adult is to learn to hold ambiguity, polarity, the gray area. He wasn’t either great or bad. He was both great and bad. He had problems, and he was also wonderful. How do we hold both? And not cut off one?

The Great Failure is the large embrace of everything. How do we hold someone we love who has also betrayed us? Usually we grab for either black or white – we either love someone or hate them. If we love them, we ignore the ways they let us down and betrayed us. And if we hate them we ignore the gifts they gave us. How do we hang out in the gray area, which is much more real?

When you learned about Roshi’s affairs and deceptions, did you feel that somehow you had failed too? Was that part of your pain?

I definitely felt like a fool, naive and stupid. Like, “Natalie, wake up, you live in your own little dream world.” I definitely felt foolish and now I definitely am wary, on one level. On another level, I trust more deeply because I’m more deeply connected to myself.

I studied with Trungpa Rinpoche, and I remember a line in one of his poems that I always pondered. He said, “Don’t trust anyone.” I never felt like this instruction came from paranoia. And then I heard that Suzuki Roshi had said that to Yvonne Rand: “Yvonne, your problem is you trust people. I don’t trust anybody.” I think what they were saying is that when you have this limited idea of trust, you put someone in a box and they have to behave a certain way. So that’s a frozen idea of trust. “Not trusting anybody” means allowing them, moment to moment, to be different.

Now of course, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that your teacher shouldn’t be respectful of you and your vulnerability and your boundaries. On another level, trust is tremendously important. At the beginning of our practice, we come like a little puppy dog to our teacher. We’re encouraged to keep trusting and to open up and surrender.

And also, in the beginning, our illusions are important. In some ways, those illusions bring us to practice. Hopefully, in the process of practicing, we wake up to how things really are. But it’s not bad to have some dreams at the beginning. When I started writing, I didn’t know what it was to be a writer. I didn’t know what basic hard work it is. But my dream to be a writer brought me along, and then I met the task.

In betrayal and in failure, there are some real jewels. But wouldn’t we much rather have a relationship in which we mature slowly? For instance, isn’t it better to have a relationship with your parents in which you grow up and move away from them in a natural and beautiful way? Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. And in spiritual communities, it doesn’t always happen, either. So what do we do? We take what is in front of us and wake up from it.

I think that what I really did with this book is honor my father and Katagiri, because I was willing to go deeper than just my illusions about who they were. I was willing to go the next step because of my deep love for them. I was willing to try to see them as clearly as I could.