Book review: The Great Failure – A Bartender, A Monk and My Unlikely Path to the Truth.

We welcome your contributions and pieces from new contributors.  Here is Jan Shigetsu Jones first book review.

The Great Failure – A Bartender, A Monk and My Unlikely Path to the Truth. Natalie Goldberg (2004)

I was fortunate in coming to write this review in that the author gave an interview about this book in Tricycle Magazine ‘Beyond Betrayal’ (Spring, 2005) which was republished recently. As I find it challenging to write at the best of times (despite my wish to do otherwise) I have drawn on some of the themes in that interview.

There is so much in this book to write about in my experience: the author is a writer, a teacher of writing, an artist and a long standing zen practitioner. Failure is a theme throughout the book, her own unashamedly ‘owned’ failures as a daughter, a writer, a teacher and speaker, a zen practitioner and the failures of others and the huge learning to be gained from them all.

I think what I really enjoy about this book is the author’s willingness to be so vulnerable around her feelings for her father and his infringement of her boundaries during her childhood, and her teacher Katagiri Roshi who she discovers following his death had had covert sexual relationships with some female members of the Sangha. In time she is confronted by, and works through, the delusions and disappointments she experienced within her relationships with both men. The parallels and differences between these relationships seem to be woven through the book alongside the love she feels for them both.

She is explicit about her emotional processes, her struggles and distress. Heartbreak is something she becomes intimate with and, at times, with hatred too. Her exploration of her own feelings of betrayal around Katagiri Roshi and her own father’s infringement of her personal boundaries are for me uncomfortable at times, but a subject area that is reluctantly discussed in many genres.

I really like her approach to writing as a form of zen practice and a personal discipline. For her, life and practice invites her to adopt a willingness to enter into the feared and still stay grounded. Her willingness to eventually forgive the two men in her life and see beyond her personal fantasies and projections but still remain without bitterness is for me a wonderful example of letting go of ‘self’.
‘My understanding of zen’ says the author in the interview ‘is that involves a willingness to see things as they are, not as we want them to be’. She says of her experiences, how lucky she was to be allowed to maintain her illusions for so long as, through those illusions, she was able to strengthen her connection with her heart and extended the capacity of her heart. In accepting the absolute and the relative she sees the equal value in both.

Looking over my words I realise they make this book seem depressing and earnest but the author speaks with humour, wit, humility and, for me, with engaging colourful creativity.

Jan Shigetsu Jones