Friday, November 11, 2011

Janwillem van de Wetering's "The Empty Mirror": Book Review

This iconoclastic memoir provides one of the earliest "I went to Asia and tried to find enlightenment" narratives from what became the counterculture. After philosophy studies, affairs, working here and there, at 25 or so, in postwar Japan, van de Wetering winds up in Kyoto, ringing a bell he should not to enter a monastery to study Zen as a voluntary monk. As a Dutchman with no knowledge of the language or culture, he stands out in many ways; he says that he was among only 27 Westerners in Kyoto in 1958. His brisk, reflective, but restless and anarchic account shows what few back then witnessed: how, just as for others Zen met Beats, a fidgety young man seeks to better himself and to find truth amidst a world he seeks and flees from alternately.

Buddhism appeals to him as "a possible path, not a vague theory" that refuses certainty but eschews "questions about the why of everything" by "a disregard of doubt." (32) If the Buddha could do it, and others could follow this way, van de Wetering figures it aligns better with his skeptical mindset than other methods. He seeks to cut down his self without committing suicide.

He tries to get over logical ruminations or god-centered ideas. His master, once a neurotic boy, now a composed presence, encourages his wayward student: "The intellect is a beautiful instrument and has a purpose, but here you will discover a different instrument. When you solve 'koans' you will have answers which are no longer questions." (51)

Unlike his fellow, native monks, who get a somewhat easier way to solve koans to speed their way along the standard three-year stint required before they are ordained to take over temples and make their careers, as a volunteer monk and a foreigner, van de Wetering struggles against the regimen. He feels like a "circus bear" compared to the native-born monks apart from whom he lives in a tattered dirty cell. He knows that the Japanese work by many written laws, but also unwritten ones that keep them from killing themselves too often, so he learns with Peter and Gerald, fellow Zen "gaijin," how to balance his life with the monastic rigor. 

He barely masters the half-lotus position, and how he can meditate remains to him and to the reader a mystery. He tries to stick with it for a year and a half. Anticipating the regular sessions of intensified practice: "that was why I had come, to visit an old Japanese gentleman who ridiculed everything I said or could say, and to sit still for fifteen hours a day on a mate, for seven days on end, while the monks whacked me on the back with a four-foot log lath made of strong wood." (79)

Peter reasons about "now" being synonymous with eternity, and doing what one must "now" for it to happen. Van de Wetering muses how so many answers given in Zen seem "brilliant, deduced from the one and only reality, but which I couldn't make use of because as soon as I started to have a good look at such an answer its message proved to be well outside my reach." (113) He seems to resist giving in to the compassion and detachment he admires and which he knows must be sought in dharma. But, in typical Zen form as non-form, is his master even a Buddhist? Han-san answers his pupil: "Is a cloud a member of the sky?" (140)

The later part of his stay gets blurred over. A shift inside's weakened him, but I felt this stayed too distant from the reader. It means he lives outside the walls of the monastery, with Peter as his tutor, but Janwillem appears to slacken in his discipline, as his wanderlust appears to return, and eventually he leaves Kyoto with little formal notice. He respects those he leaves behind, however, and this remains a jittery, self-deprecating, and honest attempt to make sense, fifteen years later, of what must have marked the author indelibly. For at his departure into where the "world is a school where the sleeping are woken up," the master tells him that he "is now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (146) 

(For another account, see my review of Kaoru Nonomura's fine narrative. At thirty, he enters forty years later at Eihei-ji: "Eat Sit Sleep: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple".) (Posted to Amazon 3-27-11 & 4-21)


Vilges Suola said...

Glad I read this - have been wanting to reread this book since borrowing it from the Cambridge public library in 1982-ish, but couldn't remember title or author.

Fionnchú said...

VS, glad to spark the memory; I found remaindered 1982-ish "The Power of Nothingness," this author's translation of the inimitable if to me verbose Alexandra David-Neel's rendering of Lama Tongden's Tibetan novel--apparently the first from a native to make it to the West. J Van led a colorful life and was most famed for his Zen detective Dutch mysteries set in Amsterdam, I recall.

Renegade said...

Good to see this here. One slight technical correction though, Zen monks are not ordained to take over temples, they are already ordained when they first become monks, but, if they do have a genuine awakening and deepen and clarify that through further training, then they are given the Transmission, authorized to teach and are then able to take over temples. This system though doesn't always work and many are in Zen monasteries purely to inherit the family temple.

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Renegade, for the correction. I may have been thinking more of a Christian seminary, the prep before ordination's bestowed and the ministry commences. This reminds me in turn of Nanomura's memoir, and the journals of Maura O'Halloran, both of whom diverged in their Japanese stints from the system's path: while van de W. didn't get Transmission, O'H did!