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.
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.