Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Empty Mirror

Two books I recommend which explain the basics of Buddhism in a narrative context are The Empty Mirror and a Glimpse of Nothingness. From Amazon: "Nearly 30 years ago, Janwillhewlm van de Wetering, who would later achieve fame as a mystery novelist, published The Empty Mirror, about his experiences at a Zen monastery in Japan in the mid-60s. In 1975, he published a sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, about his stint at the Moon Springs Hermitage in Maine…” From the original Time magazine review: “What makes this account extraordinary is that the book contains none of the convert's irritating certitude." Indeed, it contains quite the opposite.

I read both books in high school and return to them periodically over the years. I suppose what I like the most is that Van de Wetering is a skeptic at heart and approaches the somewhat mystical aura surrounding the quest for enlightenment with a jaundiced eye. The Empty Mirror was his first book. In the summer of 1958 Jan-San showed up at the door of a Zen monastery in Kyoto Japan, knowing no one, not speaking Japanese, and without a really good idea what he was doing there. Humorous misunderstandings and situations ensue. A Glimpse of Nothingness finds VanDer Wetering at a Zendo in Morgan’s Bay in Maine where he reconnects with an American protégé of the old master who died a few years earlier. This book chronicles Jan-San’s encounters with a variety of American mystics and seekers who travel to the Maine north woods to find their Buddha nature. You can order the books here and here. I would caution you against reading the third volume in the trilogy, Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear, which was written some 25 years later, until you read the other two. It’s better to read them in order to see the development of Jan-San’s consciousness.

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