Book Review - The Great Failure A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth

Cultic Studies Review, 5, (3), 2006, 451-453

The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth

Natalie Goldberg

Harper San Francisco, 2004. ISBN: 0060733993 (hardcover), $23.95 ($15.57 pages

Reviewed by Katherine V. Masís

Idealization of spiritual teachers can be so strong that news of their ethical misconduct is just as shocking after their death as it is while they are alive. In her latest book, The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth (Harper San Francisco, 2004), Natalie Goldberg poignantly reveals her dismay and disappointment at finding out, several years after his death, that Katagiri Roshi, her Zen teacher, had slept with some of his female students. Similarly, Goldberg shares her dismay at finding out after his death about her father’s extramarital affair.

Clients, patients, students, or employees might view their psychotherapists, doctors, school teachers, college professors, and supervisors at work as parental figures from the past. These current relationships may evoke in the clients, patients, students, or employees yearnings and expectations that might or might not be met. “I needed to be reflected in another,” Goldberg admits. (p. 101) This is what Freud called transference. The relationships between spiritual teachers and their students are fraught with potential for sticky transferences that can become difficult for those involved to work through—especially since these dynamics are rarely, if at all, acknowledged or commented on in the spiritual teacher-student relationship. As Goldberg notes, “Unknowingly, Roshi became my mother, my father, my Zen master.” (p. 102, emphasis added)

Spiritual teachers represent not only parental figures for their students; in a very real sense, they represent, for want of a better term, the Divine. For example, Zen students may believe that their Zen teachers are deeply enlightened individuals. With their many years of meditation and training, and the authority vested in them by virtue of ceremonies that sanction the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings, they become infallible spiritual heroes. “I had made him [Katagiri Roshi] perfect,” Goldberg confesses. “I was driven to get what I had longed for in my family.” (p. 101) “He spoke to me evenly, honestly. My hunger was satiated—the ignored little girl still inside me and the adult seeker—both were nourished.” (p. 118)

As Goldberg looks back on her six years as Katagiri Roshi’s student, she identifies moments when her idealization was weakened:

I had a glimmer then of the chasm between the Zen master and the lonely, insecure man. That moment was an opportunity to hold contradictory parts of him, to understand life doesn’t work in a neat package the way I wanted it to. I could have come closer to his humanity—and mine. But I wasn’t ready or willing. I had a need for him only to be great, to hold my projections. In freezing him on a pedestal I had only contributed to his isolation. (p. 115)

As a former Zen student of fifteen years, I recall how I, too, needed my former teacher of eleven years to “be great.” Would I have idealized her less if my own personal needs had been less, or if I had acquired enough perspective of how the Zen institution contributed to mythmaking through the centuries? Goldberg was fortunate to have that glimmer. Was she an unusually perceptive student, or did her Zen teacher allow himself to be revealed in some ways, however small? Many Zen teachers in the West put on a façade impossible to live up to, hide behind their role, and discourage students’ reading and study about Zen. That learning, though, is a necessary element for them to place the Zen institution and the teachers who represent it in an appropriate historical and cultural context.

Intense, long-term idealization is rarely sustainable, and one would expect that sooner or later it would come to an end, or at least be compromised. As Goldberg explains,

Eventually, as the teacher-student relationship matures, the student manifests these [projected spiritual] qualities herself and learns to stand on her own two feet. The projections are reclaimed.... We close the gap between who we think the teacher is and who we think we are not. We become whole. (p. 91)

One would hope. Goldberg describes the best-case scenario, and rightfully points out the student’s role in growing up spiritually. But spiritual teachers themselves have a part to play, as well. Zen teachers, for example, would do well to provide opportunities for students to air their concerns, to disagree with them, and to solve problems with both teachers and fellow practitioners in a fashion agreeable to all concerned parties. Unfortunately, these opportunities are rare in most American Zen Centers. Many longstanding Western Zen students are unable to acknowledge and work through their projections, precisely because their Zen teachers, perhaps threatened by such acknowledgement, prefer to ignore, invalidate, or dismiss them in true authoritarian fashion.

Goldberg describes her struggles with deep loneliness and lack of a sense of purpose after having lost her Zen teacher and her father. Years after the death of Katagiri Roshi, she realizes that the “regimented practice” of formal Zen meditation no longer fit her (p. 97) and, eventually, turns to writing as spiritual practice. Goldberg goes on to share her ongoing process of making peace with her Zen teacher’s and her father’s past, a process that she is clearly committed to, despite its difficulty.

Although at times Goldberg leans a bit too heavily on the individual student’s role in idealization and subsequent disappointment in Zen teachers, The Great Failure offers solid insights into the often problematic transferences that develop in students with respect to their spiritual teachers. Written with honesty and sensitivity, this book is recommended reading for anyone who has ever left a spiritual teacher for any reason, and for those who wish to understand the nature of the relationships between spiritual teachers and their students.