Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Empty Mirror

As promised, I finally got around to re-reading "The Empty Mirror."

I already had a keen interest in Zen way back in the mid-1970's, but I didn't know where to look to learn more about it. I had read Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and Pirsig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and although I had found both books interesting, they didn't really tell me anything about Zen. I eventually got a copy of Alan Watts' "The Way of Zen," which told me a great deal about Zen history, philosophy and role in the arts, but the door still hadn't opened for me.

So keen was my interest that in the very first semester of my freshman year in college, I took an elective course in "Eastern Religions" to learn more about Zen. The professor was Indian and he spent most of the semester talking about the development and evolution of Hinduism, Indian art and music, and the Bhagavad Gita, but didn't get around to Buddhism until literally the last lecture of the course, and at that he only discussed Zen in the last 10 minutes of that last lecture. They were, frankly, easy credit hours, but I still hadn't found what I was looking for.

Somewhere during this period, I came across a copy of the Dutch author Janwillem van de Wetering's "The Empty Mirror - Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery." I was excited - this seemed exactly what I was looking for - a first-hand account of someone actually practicing Zen, written by a Western practitioner and not a poser (Kerouac), an abstractionist (Pirsig), or an academic (Watts). I stayed up late at night reading the book through cover to cover.

And was horrified by what I found. Zen, I learned, meant sitting in one painful posture for hours on end, getting yelled at and beaten with sticks by Japanese monks, getting up at the ghastly hours of 4 a.m., and eating pickled radishes for breakfast. Chapter Two of the book is titled "Meditating Hurts," and van de Wetering didn't hold back explaining the physical discomforts he experienced. To my horror, from all of the sitting, he eventually developed a hemorrhoid "the size of a pigeon's egg," and had to suffer the indignity of having his fellow monks and even the head Abbott point and laugh at him when the word got out about his condition. And perhaps most dismaying of all, at the end of the book, he abruptly quit the monastery without regret or explanation and went home, with no discussion of what, if anything, he had gained.

Well, that sounded absolutely dreadful to me. If that's what Zen was, I wanted no part of it. It was the mellow, laid-back 70s, and my appetite for self-induced suffering was minimal. I focused back on my collegiate studies, collecting jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, and a relentless pursuit of sexual adventure.

"The Empty Mirror" turned me off of Zen for about 25 years, as it wasn't until a time of intense introspection and personal crisis in late 2000 that my thoughts turned back to Zen again. By this time, there were more books available and, better still, the Internet to guide me, but best of all, I found that there were actually, not one, but two, Zen centers in my city where I could learn and explore the practice more.

Since first walking in through the zendo doors, I've gone through many stages of practice. Like van de Wetering, I had to go through the pains of learning to sit cross-legged for hours on end, and although it still hurts sometimes, I no longer seem to care as much. I've experienced the intensely austere quiet of sesshin and retreats, and have even come to welcome the strike of the stick. Fortunately, no pigeon's eggs have developed. After two years of active practice, I was initiated and given my Zen name, and a year after that entered into discipleship.

So last year, it was exciting for me to find a copy of "The Empty Mirror" in Powell's Bookstore in Portland. I looked forward to re-reading it, and seeing how my perception of the book had changed after eight years of practice.

I finished the book last month. Reading it again, I can't believe that I was such a coward back in my youth. Yes, van de Wetering found it painful and difficult to sit at first, and yes, he developed that unfortunate hemorrhoid, but over time he adapted and voluntarily stayed on at the monastery for month after month, ultimately spending a year and a half in the monastery. True, he never solved his koan and he did leave abruptly, but you can practically hear his fondness of the experience in his voice as he recalls his year and a half.

Overall, the book discusses the basic teachings of Zen quite well and accurately describes life in a bona fide Japanese Zen monastery, at least as I imagine it (I've not yet been there). Reading the book now, I commiserated with van de Wetering's suffering, laughed along with his self-deprecating humor, and appreciated his explanation of the teachings. It's a very good beginner's Zen book, and what a shame that I used it as a wedge between myself and practice all those years ago.

[T]he master said, "Before you leave I want to tell you a short story. Perhaps you know it". . . I didn't know the story and the master asked us to sit at ease; he lit a cigarette and allowed us to smoke as well. Peter fetched ashtrays and the head monk poured more tea and gave us each a sugar cake, from an ornamental box which an old lady from the neighborhood had presented to the master that morning.

"Some two hundred years ago a gentleman, who lived by himself in a large house not far away from here, saw a devil in a cage when he was visiting the market; a devil with a tail, yellow skin, and two long sharp fangs - he was about the size of a large dog. The devil sat quietly in a strong bamboo cage and gnawed on a bone. Next to the cage a merchant was watching the crowd and the gentleman asked him if the devil was for sale.

"'Of course,' the merchant said. 'otherwise I wouldn't be here. This is an excellent devil, strong, diligent, and able to do anything you want him to do. He knows how to do carpentry, he is a good gardener, he can cook, mend clothes, read you stories, chop wood, and what he doesn't know he can learn. And I don't ask much for him, if you give me 50,000 yen ($50) he is yours.'

"The gentleman didn't haggle and paid in cash. He wanted to take the devil home at once.

"'One moment,' the merchant said. "Because you haven't bargained with me, I want to tell you something. Look here, he is a devil of course, and devils are no good, you know that, don't you?'

"'And you said he was an excellent devil,' the gentleman said indignantly.

"'Sure, sure,' the merchant said. 'And that's true as well. He is an excellent devil, but he is no good. He will always remain a devil. You have made a good buy, but only on the condition that you keep him going all the time. Every day you'll have to give him a routine, from this time to that time you have to chop wood, and then you can start preparing the food, and after dinner you can rest for half an hour but then you really have to lie down and relax, and after that you can dig in the garden, etc. etc. If he has time to spare, if he doesn't know what to do, then he is dangerous.'

"'If that's all,' the gentleman said, and took the devil home. And everything went beautifully. Every morning the gentleman called the devil who would kneel down obediently. The gentleman would dictate a daily program and the devil would start his chores and work right through the day. If he wasn't working he rested or played, but whatever he did, he was always obeying orders.

"Then, after some months, the gentleman met an old friend in the city, and because of the sudden meeting and the thrill of seeing his old buddy again he forgot everything. He took the friend to a cafe and they started drinking sake, one little stone jar after another, and then they had a very good meal and more to drink, and they landed up in the willow quarter. The ladies kept the two friends busy and our gentleman woke up in a strange room, late the next morning. At first he didn't know where he was but gradually it all came back to him and he remembered his devil. His friend had gone and he paid the bill to the women, who looked quite different now from what he remembered the previous evening, and rushed home. When he reached his garden he smelled burning and saw smoke coming from the kitchen. He stormed into his house and saw the devil sitting of the wooden kitchen floor. He had made an open fire and was roasting the neighbor's child on a spit."

(from The Empty Mirror, Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery by Janwillem van de Wetering)

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