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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


(Auto-) Biography

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



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



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


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.