In ways her birth father never was, Katagiri became a trusted mentor, and she practiced Zen with him for 12 years. But the idealized image she had of her beloved teacher shattered when she learned, after his death, of an inappropriate relationship he'd had with another student. 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.
In "The Great Failure" Goldberg faces the demons of both her father and her teacher. Using her own experiences as a guide, she spoke with us about how difficult times can help us grow spiritually.
How can failure be useful to us spiritually?
Failure is what we're all running from, we're always running toward success with failure at our back. And actually, which one of us has never failed or never been disappointed or betrayed? What I learned to do was to step back and enter the heart of failure. There are a lot of jewels there for awakening.
Are there particular ways to work with failure, other than acknowledging it?
I think what I did in the case of my father and Katagiri Roshi-two people I loved very much and who also betrayed me-I really entered that betrayal. I didn't cut off the love; that's what we usually do-we either make it black or white, success or failure. "The Great Failure" is about embracing both.
And how do you do that? Well, you can practice, you can go to therapy, you can write about it, cry a lot-you know, it's kind of a practice of grief because we have an idea that we won't fail. You know so it's a process that we're human beings and on this earth and that we're going to fail, we're going to be betrayed, we're going to be disappointed, and the world is not the way we thought it was. So it's really entering a process of grief in some ways and being willing to enter that pain.
Do you think it would be harder or easier for you to come to terms with the ugly truths about your father and Roshi if they were alive now?
I think that in some ways that's beside the point. It was a path that I would have liked to be able to face them and talk to them, but the people who we love live inside us and so I had to work with that part of me. We carry it around whether we can confront the person or not. And it's best to deal with it.
It would have been nice to talk with Roshi, but I couldn't have expected anything. He came from a very reserved society and I don't think he would have talked to me about it. And I don't think my father would have either. So ultimately, I would have been left on my own anyway.
At a particularly difficult point in your life, you indicate that you retreated into meditation-but almost as a way of hiding from, rather than dealing with the pain. You write about the "cool illusion of serenity."
Yes, I was avoiding things then.
I think that's something a lot of people could relate to. 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.
You're meeting your own mind [when you write]. And when I say writing practice-I've developed this whole thing that I've written about in "Writing Down the Bones"-this is rooted in 2,000 years of watching the mind. So it's not just "some creative thing that Natalie does." What it is is you keep your hand going and whatever goes through, you put it down. Just like in meditation: Whatever comes up, you keep sitting with it and you don't run from it... hopefully. At least, if you're really doing the work. Writing is a taskmaster because it's on the page. You can't fool yourself.
On the one hand Roshi was a revered Zen master, but at the same time he had this less admirable side to him. What did you make of this sort of split or dual personality, once it was revealed to you?
Well, I understood that people are cut off-including me-and that we can cut ourselves off even in meditation. That, you know, we can do meditation in perfect peace but there's a whole animal roaring at our back that we're not paying attention to.
So understanding that split helps me to understand what was going on with him. He was really a wonderful teacher and a wonderful human being. And then like all of us, we have darkness and some of us play it out more than others. When you bring the darkness to the table, it doesn't rule you or hurt other people, but when we keep it secret, it's dangerous.
And I hope that somehow-because we're all interconnected-that my doing this helped him in some other universe.
Would you have any advice for young students who may be confronted by a teacher pursuing them inappropriately?
Well first of all, don't get involved. If they do pursue you in that way because that person has really poor boundaries and is dangerous.
You're going to be hurt. And not only are you going to be hurt, you're going to hurt the spiritual community. And not only that, I think I would speak up about it. It's very scary but I wouldn't just be silent about it. It's the silence that continues the suffering.
Since you have spoken up about Roshi, how have people reacted?
I'm afraid, in silence. I haven't heard hardly from anybody in the Zen community and they didn't want me to publish it. They wanted to keep their dream of Katagiri Roshi. They have this idea, "Well, he was a great teacher and don't mar his name."
But I'm saying this is to deeply honor him, is to be willing to see all of who he is, love him enough to embrace all of him and take him off the pedestal. Because it was partially putting him on the pedestal that allowed this to happen. He became isolated and probably lonely too and didn't get any feedback.
I feel that "The Great Failure" is really a book written out of great love and a willingness to face all of who a human being is.
You write that death gets harder each year and as time goes on because it sinks deeper into your consciousness.
Yes, it penetrates more deeply that this person you love is not coming back. You know, someone goes away and then they come back. We're not programmed that they never come back. It's hard for our little human brain to get it.