The Great Failure

I just finished “The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My unlikely Path to Truth” by Natalie Goldberg. Yes, that Natalie Goldberg – the author of “Writing Down the Bones” and  “Wild Mind.”  There’s a quote in Part 1 that reads “Don’t worry if you write the truth. It doesn’t hurt people, it helps them. –Dainin Katagiri Roshi

Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg

I suppose if I’d read more of Goldberg’s books I may have surmised that she’s been a Buddhist for the past 30 years. I’m sure at some point I must have noticed she was Jewish with a name like Goldberg. Not that there’s anything wrong with that as they say.
In this tome, she painstakingly tries to come to grips with news of betrayal about her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, and her bartender father who sexually violated her. The book is written a relatively short time after her father has died  and years after Roshi’s death when she learned that Katagiri Roshi, the teachert she loved so much (and the subject of Long Quiet Highway), carried on affairs with female students. Goldberg was stunned; she’d wanted to believe Roshi was the ultimate guru … perfect in a way her father was not.

Disillusioned, she walks readers through this life-threatening disappointment in what is considered memoir but feels more like a journal in which she holds onto the pain until it takes on a life of its own.

Do not make the mistake of buying the book thinking it will help your writing. Although it may, if inadvertantly, if it convinces you that writing about your spiritual hernias is helpful. That’s probably true but only for the writer. In fact, Goldberg has been soundly criticized by the Zen community for publicly denouncing her Buddhist teacher of 12 years. Here’s what writer Lisa Schneider says on the beliefnet site:

Goldberg’s decision to write about his transgressions publicly has cost her many friends in the Zen community who want to protect their teacher’s reputation. Goldberg believes she is in fact honoring Katagiri by acknowledging the whole truth of his life, both good and bad, and considers his flaws with compassion rather than judgment.

I don’t think I agree that Goldberg considers his flaws with compassion rather than judgment. There is certainly enough criticism to support that statement. But the book is fascinating from the perspective that we walk through life unaware of the patterns we have been set up to live out. And that facing our demons rather than burying our heads in the sand can help our spiritual growth.

Goldberg’s answer to a couple of questions Schneider asks her were pretty profound I thought:

…Do you think that sometimes, instead of spirituality being a way to work through a problem, it can become a way of avoiding something difficult?

Yes. We can use anything as a way to avoid things. It’s very tricky. And in a way it’s trickier with religion because you can say you’re sitting but you can be sitting but daydreaming the whole time. So it’s a very tricky thing.

How do you catch yourself, become aware that you’re doing this?

Well, for me, I do a lot of writing. I consider writing practice a true Zen practice because it all comes back at you. You can’t fool anyone because it’s on the page. You know if you’re writing bullshit or not. So that’s what I do. I can’t prescribe things for everybody.

I love that line “You can’t fool anyone because it’s on the page.”

Write on!