The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery

by Janwillem Van de Wetering

Hardcover, 1973




Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974 [c1973]


Seen by many as a contemporary classic, Janwillem van de Wetering's small and admirable memoir records the experiences of a young Dutch student--later a widely celebrated mystery writer--who spent a year and a half as a novice monk in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, author ofCutting Through Spiritual Materialism, has written,The Empty Mirror "should be very encouraging for other Western seekers." It is the first book in a trilogy that continues withA Glimpse of Nothingness andAfterzen.

Media reviews

NBD / Biblion
'De lege spiegel' is de titel van een zenverhaal, dat de Nederlandse (detective-)schrijver Jan Willem van de Wetering, tijdens zijn anderhalf jaar durende zenstudie/opleiding in Japan, te horen krijgt. In zijn boek beschrijft hij hoe hij wordt aangenomen als discipel van een Zen-meester, hoe hij worstelt met de strenge discipline in het klooster en vooral hoe hij met grote inspanning mediteert op zijn koan. De koan is de raadselachtige spreuk, die boeddhistische Zen-meesters van sommige scholen, aan hun leerlingen opgeven als onderwerp voor de meditatie. Oplossen van de koan betekent het bereiken van een graad van Verlichting (satori). Behalve van de bewustzijnsverandering van de schrijver, krijgt de lezer van dit leerzame leesboek een heldere indruk van de gebruiken, de inrichting en het dagelijks leven in een 20e-eeuws Zen-klooster in Japan. (Biblion recensie, Redactie..)

User reviews

LibraryThing member iayork
A humorous, grouchy, true story: In the summer of 1958 Janwillem van de Wetering showed up at the door of a Zen monastery in Kyoto Japan, knowing pretty much no one, not speaking the language, and without a really good idea what he was doing there. This book describes, with a certain amount of humor and what seems to be quite a bit of honesty, the months that followed (interlaced with Zen stories that he heard during those months, including some that I hadn't heard anywhere else before; I like Zen stories).

There aren't many dates in the book (or I wasn't paying enough of that kind of attention to notice them), but I think he stayed at the monastery for more than six months and less than two years. His descriptions of the time are interesting, funny, warm, vivid, and all sorts of good words like that (and also rather dark, mordant and/or grouchy in tone, often frustrated, impatient, dissatisfied). He did not find the answers to life's problems, his knees hurt alot, he misunderstood the head monk and Zen master frequently, and he (like the other residents of the monastery) cheated and broke the rules with impressive frequency.

The writing is spare and specific; this is the story of what one particular set of months in one particular monastery were like. Any broad conclusions about The Meaning Of Zen Training or anything else are left pretty much entirely to the reader.

The author left feeling that the whole thing had perhaps been a failure; but the master said "now you are a little awake; so awake that you will never fall asleep again". Which altogether is more satisfying, I think, than perky converts describing how happy and fulfilled their new meme complex has made them.

One tiny annoyance that struck me as out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the book: on a crowded train ride during a brief trip away from the monastery to renew his Dutch passport, he concentrates so hard on the feeling of a woman who is pressed up against him that he convinces himself that he is mentally influencing her to rub herself against him, trembling. She got off at the next station (can hardly blame her!), and he concludes that the idea that "someone who has trained his will can influence others, without saying anything, without doing anything observable, had now been proved", but that that's not really the point of Zen and he probably shouldn't do it anymore. He doesn't seem to consider the possibility that he's just proven that he can fool himself, which seems to me much more likely, and something that should have occurred to anyone actually paying attention.

But that's just a nit (I like nits), and perhaps adds as much to the book as it takes away from it. I very much enjoyed reading it (and it didn't take long; it's 146 pages, with little or no bogging down). He has at least two other books about his experiences in other vaguely Zen-related places; I intend to someday maybe read those also.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
We follow the author through some of his experiences and gain insight into how difficult it can be to study a new religion in a foreign country. He seems to alternate between being amazed and being baffled.



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