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

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What was I doing standing up in front of everyone anyway? ... They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida — what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar title — ahh, relief on their faces — they had come to the correct lecture...

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2004 Hard cover Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 192 p. Audience: General/trade. Book Description: What was I doing standing up in front of everyone anyway? ... ...They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida--what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar title--ahh, relief on their faces--they had come to the correct lecture hall after all. Then everything dropped away. I had nothing to say. So begins the journey by one of America's favorite writing teachers. Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work. In this wry, nimble memoir, Natalie Goldberg candidly depicts her Read more Show Less

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New Ships From Canada. Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 192 p. Audience: General/trade. Book Description: What was I doing standing up in front of everyone ... anyway? ...They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida--what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar title--ahh, relief on their faces--they had come to the correct lecture hall after all. Then everything dropped away. I had nothing to say. So begins the journey by one of America's favorite writing teachers. Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work. In this wry, nimble memoir, Natalie Goldber. Read more Show Less

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Overview

What was I doing standing up in front of everyone anyway? ... They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida — what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar title — ahh, relief on their faces — they had come to the correct lecture hall after all.

Then everything dropped away. I had nothing to say.

•••

So begins the journey by one of America's favorite writing teachers. Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work.

In this wry, nimble memoir, Natalie Goldberg candidly depicts her father, Ben, an old-fashioned man's man who knew no boundaries — a trait that was at once his greatest strength and most profound weakness. In capturing the essence of this larger-than-life Jewish bartender, she reveals the intricacies of a precarious father-daughter relationship. The tenuous bond with her father leads her in many directions and ultimately to Dainin Katagiri Roshi, a dynamic, celebrated Zen master. In light of an eye-opening discovery that shakes her ideal of this beloved teacher, Goldberg revisits her many years of loyal practice under Roshi's guidance.

Elegantly weaving these tales together, this story is finally a search for truth when there are no easy answers. Filled with Goldberg's trademark gifts for both humor and teaching, The Great Failure touches our hearts and minds as we come to recognize the ways in which we fail to confront our illusions.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Of course, we are drawn to teachers that unconsciously mirror our own psychology," writes Goldberg in a memoir about her wrestling match with her particular devil. In Writing Down the Bones, she coupled writing with the insights of Zen Buddhism, showing writers how to use a stream of consciousness approach to move through blocks and understand their true experience. Here, however, as Goldberg explores the link between her elegant Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, and the gritty, charming bartender father who sexually violated her, she inadvertently demonstrates this approach's shortcoming. Years after his death, Goldberg learned that Katagiri, the teacher who taught her so much (and the subject of Long Quiet Highway), carried on affairs with female students. Goldberg was shattered; she'd wanted to believe he was an immaculate refuge. Liberation through disillusionment is a universal and durable theme, yet as Goldberg muses and tells stories-splicing in a long Zen tale for a little extra-dimensional oomph-her account closes rather than opens up. In spite of her fluid writing and honesty, the work feels insular and self-cherishing, like personal notes rather than a compelling narrative for the rest of us. Many readers will conclude that this is a not-so-great failure after all, or perhaps a heartache that hasn't really healed. Agent, Geri Thoma. Author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Teacher, writer, poet, painter, and ordained member of the Order of Interbeing (Thich Nhat Hanh), Goldberg shares her personal experiences of betrayal by her father and by Dainin Katagiri Roshi, the Zen teacher with whom she had studied for 12 years. In each case, the betrayal was sexual: her father's adultery and her teacher's affairs with some students, which she learned about only after his death. Goldberg writes with feeling, so that the betrayals are almost palpable, but they do not negate her love for these men. Her sense of human interconnectedness and of the power of paternalism and of idolizing relationships is conveyed through her hurt and the hurt of other members of her extended family and of other students of the roshi: a "private affair" involves more than the participants because group boundaries and relationships are violated and trust is betrayed. Goldberg reveals her compassionate forgiveness, growth, and learning as she lets go of idols and accepts these men as fallible. Highly recommended for public libraries. Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Univ., Farmville, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060733995
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/17/2004
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. She has also written the beloved Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a memoir about her Zen teacher. For the last thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in northern New Mexico.

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First Chapter

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

Chapter One

With orange leaves still clinging to branches in that unusually mild stretch of late fall, on a sweet street in quiet St. Paul, I was about to slip my key into the front door of the apartment building. I was returning from Zen Center, where I came to study for two months. It was Monday at nine in the evening; no one was on the street. Suddenly I jerked my head to the right. One step below me in the entryway stood a beautiful man, shining face, almost clear eyes, in his late teens, aiming the barrel of a shotgun right at my neck. Feeling the small opening circle on my skin, I jerked my head.

"How dare you!" I was about to be outraged when he hissed, "Don't make a move. Give me your purse."

On my left shoulder dangled a small black backpack with three hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills. Just that day I had been to the bank. To my chest I clutched my spiral notebook, the hefty 463-page Book of Serenity containing one hundred Zen dialogues, and a thinner black paperback, Transmission of Light.

On my right shoulder was a big blue plastic bag advertising a pharmaceutical company in white letters. My friend, a dermatologist, had picked it up for me at a medical convention. This bag held my old brown sneakers, black pants I bought when I returned a gift sweater that was too small, a Bob Dylan T-shirt a student had given me fifteen years ago, and a pair of good socks. I had gone to the gym only three times in the last month. That afternoon was my third time.

"C'mon, give it up."

I looked at him. He was nervous. Was this his first? Or was he on drugs? In a magnanimous moment I handed over my exercise bag.

"This is your purse?" He took a step back and surveyed me.

"Yes," I said emphatically.

"You sure?" I nodded my head up and down in earnest. We were having a fashion disagreement.

He turned and ran. I bolted through the front door. I had fooled him. He could keep those worn gym shoes. I felt a small victory.


Five days later I was standing on the podium during a conference at a Marriott Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Seven hundred people were staring up at me. The title of my talk was "Riding Your Wild Horses." I was supposed to be speaking about creative writing, but the night before I had decided to change the whole lecture. In St. Paul I'd been studying Zen koans, short interchanges between teachers and students from eighth- and ninth-century China that cut through conditioned ways of seeing, enabling a person to experience one's true nature. I wanted to talk about that in my keynote speech, then to link it up to my being robbed, another kind of wake-up experience. I was sure it would work. I loved giving talks. Eventually, I'd meander over and tie it up with writing to fulfill the obligation of my original contract. This felt adventuresome and I was pleased. I made three notes on the smallest torn-off corner of a piece of paper and went to bed.

A tall lovely man who had read my books introduced me. I stepped onto the stage and thanked him. I took a sip of water and began by telling an ancient teaching tale.

Te-shan, a learned Buddhist scholar, piled up all his sutras -- they weighed a lot -- put them in a bag on his back, and headed south. Te-shan thought the Zen practitioners in southern China who espoused direct insight not dependent on book learning had it all wrong, and he was going to set them straight. On the way -- of course he walked, maybe for a portion of the journey taking a boat down the Yangtze -- he met an old woman selling tea cakes on the side of the road. He stopped for some refreshment. But the old woman, instead of setting out the provisions, inquired, "What's on your back?"

"They are commentaries and teachings of the Buddha."

"They are indeed! Well, if you're so learned, may I ask you a question? If you can answer it, the food is free, but if you fail, you get nothing."

Our Te-shan with all his book learning thought this would be simple, like taking candy from a babe. He agreed.

The woman then asked -- and with her question I could feel my audience fading, that vital link between speaker and listener suddenly going limp -- "If the mind does not exist in the past, and the present mind does not exist, and there's also no mind in the future, tell me with what mind will you receive these cakes?"

What is she talking about? Before the old woman's question, the audience was willing to come along. After all, everyone loves a story, and certainly Natalie Goldberg was leading up to those wild horses advertised in the catalog. Maybe the old woman will even pull them out of her cakes. Oh, the audience was hopeful. I could feel it. This was a conference full of crystals, psychics, healing dances, drums, auras, afterlives.

The question stunned Te-shan. He could not fathom an answer. Speechless, he wasn't even a match for a roadside cake seller, no less an ordinary woman. He knew he had to abandon his bold decision to challenge the southern teachers of Zen. All his scholarly learning had led to nothing. No lunch for him.

Now, it was here in my talk that I planned to swoop down and point out that these unnamed old women in koans appear to have great wisdom, but they happen to be. . . what was I talking about anyway? Where did I think this was going to lead? Was I attempting to compare the old woman with my robber? The old woman had blown Te-shan's mind.

The Great Failure
A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth
. Copyright © by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2004

    Rich, Raw and Real!

    Goldberg's intensely personal account of how the two most important men in her life (her father and her Zen teacher) ran roughshod over the boundaries of the people they touched moved me to tears, laughter, angry outbursts and finally to acceptance. Goldberg's ability to hold her love for both men, see their flawed humaness and face her own searching confusion with compassion gave me hope that every person on this planet (myself included) may someday do the same.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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