1:16:23 The Empty Mirror, a book review

book cover

I first read Janwillem van de Wetering's The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery years ago. I'm not sure when, but it was before 1999. That year I went to Kyoto and stayed in a hostel next to the Daitoku-ji Temple complex. One night there, I awoke about three in the morning and heard the ringing of a gong. Because I’d read The Empty Mirror about life next door, I immediately pictured monks getting up, walking to the meditation hall for hours of sitting still.

Re-reading The Empty Mirror only builds on a positive first impression of this personal memoir. In 1958, van de Wetering left work in South Africa with his savings and took a freighter to Japan. Then went from Kobe to Kyoto and literally threw himself upon the kindness of any Buddhist temple that would take him on as a sincere Buddhist novice.

Janwillem spends two years at Daitoku-ji and to his credit spares the reader arcane details of Buddhism, preferring to focus on dramatizing the monastic struggle he had.

What is it like physically to meditate with each foot levered upon the opposing leg in a double lotus posture if you do this as many as seventeen hours a day? Excruciating. And you do this in an unheated meditation hall, even with snow outside on the ground?

Janwillem has no contact with urban Kyoto life around him. But his portraits of those with him at the temple are quite engaging.

Courtesy of a Wikipedia article about van de Wetering, I learned the Gerard the poet at Daitoku-ji, who befriends Janwillem, was actually poet Gary Snyder, back for his second stay in Kyoto to practice Zen meditation. Janwillem introduces Gerard (aka Gary Snyder) as a “professional beatnik,” which is apt. Although Snyder can come across as somewhat of a wiseacre for struggling Janwillem, he also offers numerous acts of compassion for his fellow Westerner that help Janwillem through the ordeal of a very austere monk’s life at Daitoku-ji.

Another portrait is of his master, whom he meets one-on-one once a day to see if he's solved his assigned koan (a obdurate riddle key to gaining Buddhist insight).

Appropriately, Janwillem does not give the reader his koan, but offers examples of other koans (Does the dog have Buddha nature?). And at the end of the two-year odyssey, he leaves Kyoto without solving his koan, which is okay. The effort of meditating to solve it was what mattered.

Read The Empty Mirror as an honest account of what life was like for one seeker within the walls of a Buddhist temple.

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery by Janwillem van de Wetering. Ballantine Books, New York, 1987. ISBN: 0-345-3 3946-0.

Image credit: goodreads.com


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