Caryl Göpfert speaks with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg about her "failed" relationship with her teacher, Katagiri Roshi
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.
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.