Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 28, 2017

"The Empty Mirror" by Janwillem van de Wetering (Best Non-Fiction)

This small memoir, that ends on a tone of disillusion, is one of the best accounts of a Westerner coming to terms with Zen and meditation. The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, written by the Dutch adventurer, businessman and author Janwillem van de Wetering, is not perfect (the end is a bit abrupt), but it is an honest and factual account, larded with interesting Zen stories, and on top of that, it is full of humor.
"The empty mirror," he said. "If you could really understand that, there would be nothing left here for you to look for." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
In the past, my own interest in Zen was one of the motivators to study Chinese and Japanese in Leiden (coupled with my fascination for the philosophical Daoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi). At that time I did not yet know Van de Wetering's book - although it had just been published -, but in retrospect, when I read it in the late '80s, I found some truths here I had also sensed myself.

In other words, I realized why, despite my interest in Zen, I have never seriously considered entering a Zen monastery. In the first place a spiritual reason. By nature I am an academic rather than a practitioner. I approach Zen on an intellectual, or philosophical level. Objectively, this may not be the best way, but it is the approach that fits my personality.

The second reason is physical: I was never able to sit in the lotus position, not even the half lotus. I am just too large and too stiff. Janwillem van de Wetering had the same problem, and I feel his pain when he writes about his attempts to fold his legs!

The third reason is that I am too individualistic to fit in the groupist and hierarchic society of a Zen monastery. Van de Wetering had the luck to get his own room as a foreigner - the Japanese monks all slept in the same big dormitory. I don't like to do things at fixed times when others do them. I don't like to lie in awe on the floor in front of a Master, but as an egalitarian Dutchman would rather openly and freely discuss things with him.

The fourth reason is that there is too much beauty (next to the obvious pain) in the ordinary world. I can very much understand Janwillem's escapades from his restricted temple life to have a delicious beer! In my view, it should be possible to find the truth without giving up beauty... I am sure the irreverent and iconoclastic Van de Wetering must in the end have felt the same.
"Try!" the head monk said, "what a word! You mustn't try, you must do it." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
But back to the book. In 1958, Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), appeared at the gate of the Daitokuji Zen Temple in Kyoto, asking to be admitted as a novice monk. The young Dutchman, son of a merchant, had already led an adventurous life, as trader in Cape Town, as member of a motorcycle gang, and next as a student of philosophy in London. Although he was originally interested in existentialism, his professor there suggested that he consider Zen Buddhism. So Van de Wetering was off to Japan, a country of which he neither knew the language nor the culture, and where he had no contacts. He just vaguely knew he wanted to practice Zen. He was one of the first, many would follow...
"Nothing matters, nothing is important, but it does matter and it is important to do whatever you are doing as well as possible." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After promising to stay for at least eight months, Janwillem van de Wetering was miraculously accepted in Daitokuji, where he received guidance from Peter, an American studying there already for a longer time, who was also fluent in Japanese. Van de Wetering would stay for almost two years, struggling to find the meaning of life via Zen, until his money ran out.

The book provides a basic introduction to Zen, often via interesting stories. But more than that, it shows us the daily routine in a Zen monastery, not only the peaceful meditation, but also the arguments, the jokes the monks make, the cigarettes they secretly smoke, and the Master who likes to watch baseball on TV. Human life, in fact, is the same on the inside of Daitokuji's walls, as on the outside. We also see Janwillem struggling with his physical inability to sit for a long time in the lotus position, and with the Japanese language - there are times, he completely misunderstands the Master when Peter is not present to interpret.

Van de Wetering now and then escapes to Kobe to stay with the well-heeled Dutch businessman Leo, where he can drink beer and smoke cigars. Here he also reads his first Judge Dee novels by Van Gulik - much later, in the '80s, Van de Wetering would be active in promoting a rediscovery of these novels in The Netherlands; he also would write a biography about Van Gulik.

When it all ends, Janwillen van de Wetering has not found any big truths. But he has learned the notion of Zen-like acceptance, and how to be detached, even when striving hard. Perhaps that small bit of insight is more important than any broad and sweeping conclusion.
"By leaving here nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (The Empty Mirror, by Janwillem van de Wetering)
After moving away from Japan, Van de Wetering worked in Columbia, Peru and Australia. In Bogota he also married. From 1966 to 1975 Van de Wetering would be active in the textile business in Amsterdam. At the same time he served as a reserve police officer, an experience that gave him the materials for his most famous novels, the fifteen volume crime series about police officers Grijpstra and De Gier. De Gier is modeled on the author and is interested in Zen and jazz. These were the times that hippie culture reigned in Amsterdam, even among the police force - a very different situation from today's more grim climate.

One of the novels, The Japanese Corpse, is situated in Japan. Van de Wetering also wrote a novel about a Japanese detective, Inspector Saito, but this book was less succesful. The early "Grijsptra and De Gier" novels convince because of their authentic atmosphere of the Amsterdam of the non-conformist sixties.

In 1971 Van de Wetering published The Empty Mirror as his first book (in Dutch, the English version followed two years later). In 1975, he wrote a sort of sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, about his sojourn at the Moon Springs Hermitage in Maine. Although he left the Hermitage after four years, he stayed on in Maine - the part of the world where he finally found his home. He also died there - in the summer of 2008, just when I had started reading The Empty Mirror for a second time.
The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering (St. Martin's Griffin, reprint 1999)

Other recommended Zen books by the same author: A Glimpse of Nothingness, AfterZen. Published by St. Martin's Griffin. I you want to try his crime novels, have a look at Hard Rain, The Blond Baboon, The Corpse on the Dike, or The Japanese Corpse.


Update of a post originally written in 2008. 

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture
Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History

Literature

Memoirs
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig

Music

Philosophy

Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler

Science

Travel
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

"Daodejing, The Classic Book of the Way and its Power" (Best Non-Fiction)

One of the reasons I decided to study Chinese (a decision that shocked both my parents and my teachers at the Grammar School in the small town where I lived) was my discovery of philosophical Daoism. Not satisfied with what the protestant church my family officially was a member of, was teaching, already from a young age I had started looking for wisdom elsewhere. That was not easy in the pre-internet age (something now inconceivable!) – I only had the local library to rely on and that was not much in a conservative municipality.

Happily, at some time I discovered that a certain publisher at that time was bringing out so-called "esoteric" books, among them small-sized hardcover books with translations of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi and Liezi - the three central books of philosophical Daoism.

These translations were not by professional Sinologists, but they served well as a first introduction. I remember I also bought a Dutch version of Wilhelm's The Book of Changes (Yijing) and a direct Dutch translation of the earliest book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing). Unfortunately, I don't have those books anymore; they have fallen by the wayside during my frequent international removals, after I had acquired better and more reliable English translations. But I still can vividly remember the pleasure those small books afforded me... especially the short Daodejing was very intriguing...
The way (Dao) that can be spoken of
is not the constant way;

The name that can be named
is not the constant name.
The Daodejing is a small book (about 5,000 characters in Chinese) of 81 aphorisms. I have re-read it in the version by D.C. Lau (Penguin Classics), which also contains an excellent introduction and other materials. The Daodejing is the principal classic in the Daoist tradition. Traditionally, it has been ascribed to one Laozi, or "Old Master," a so-called contemporary of Confucius, but as the name already indicates, Laozi is most probably a fictional figure - he is also not mentioned in the Daodejing itself. There were probably many "old masters" and their wise, guru-like sayings were compiled into one book somewhere in the 3th c. BCE (around 270 BCE the text became very influential).

This was an age in which many schools of philosophy competed with ideas about the ideal government. As D.C. Lau, the translator, indicates, that is probably also how the Daodejing was originally meant - a treatise on government and personal conduct rather than a mystical treatise (or both, the one doesn't preclude the other). It advances a philosophy of naturalness and meekness as the way to survival in chaotic and disordered times.
"In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it."
Although beautiful poetry, the work in fact is quite disordered itself: many of the 81 chapters hang together as loose sand and Lau again subdivides them by numbering certain passages, so coming to a total of 196 aphorisms. The title "Classic of the Way and the Virtue ("The Way and its Power" in the rendering of the famous Sinologist Arthur Waley) has been simply taken from the starting words of the two books into which it has been (arbitrarily) divided.
"One who knows does not speak;
One who speaks does not know."
The Dao precedes and informs all other beings in the universe and is basically indescribable. You can only be in harmony with it by an attitude of naturalness, of passivity and of yielding. This quietistic attitude can also be applied to the ruling of the state: no do-goodism or hyper-active planning, but a certain amount of laissez faire is what is necessary. Or in the words of Michael Puett:
"The Daodejing argues that the universe changes spontaneously, without a conscious will driving it. The goals of the sage should be to act in accordance with these spontaneous changes. [...] In the Daodejing the universe operates through a constant process of generation and decay: things are naturally born and then they naturally die. Everything emerges from oneness and ultimately returns to it. The act of differentiation is a movement away from oneness, from stillness, from emptiness. The goal of the true sage is to become still and empty and thus achieve a state of returning to this oneness. This is called attaining the Dao. A true sage acts without conscious deliberation [...] Moreover he is amoral, for the Dao itself is amoral - morality is an artificial human construct and should thus be opposed." (from The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, Columbia UP, 2001, pp. 76-78).
It is the mystic, rhapsodic tone that makes this book so attractive and has ensured its survival long after its political message lost its relevance. It is subtle, elusive and suggestive and can therefore also be read on a "higher level" as a book of mystical wisdom. It is not for nothing the most translated book from the Chinese, every new translator can find new meanings in it, like an ancient Rorschach test.
"Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful."
But thanks to its transcendental attitude, there are many things in the Daodejing that still can interest us personally. It can very well for the basis for a personal philosophy of life. Although I can not claim I have always followed it, to me personally it is a very inspiring book.

Here are some things we can learn from the Daodejing:
  • Force begets force.
  • Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
  • The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Know when it's time to stop.
By the way, Daoism as a religion (with a different take on the Daodejing) is discussed by Kristofer Schipper in his interesting The Taoist Body.
This post quotes from / is based on: 
Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1976) 
Early Chinese Literature, Burton Watson (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001) 
Also see the page on Laozi in the excellent online "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy."
 This a revision of a post I published years ago on a different site.

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture
Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History

Literature

Memoirs
The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig

Music

Philosophy

Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler

Science

Travel
The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.