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The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery Paperback – April 14, 1999

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; First Edition edition (April 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312207743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312207748
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,336 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nearly 30 years ago, 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. Now the author has written a follow-up, AfterZen, told from the perspective of an aging soul who dropped most formal Zen practice years ago but still carries an abiding respect for the gut truths of the teaching and for at least some of its teachers. Much of the book has the air of the classic Zen saying, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him": with humor and occasional crankiness, van de Wetering knocks koans, meditation and some of the trappings of the monastic Zen life. There are many flashbacks, to Japan, to his American experiences, to meetings with fellow ex-students, and the book has a somewhat chaotic feel, rather more like life than art. Throughout, van de Wetering's voice is sincere, if iconoclastic. Those looking for composed wisdom should read Basho; those looking for an honest memoir by a perhaps wise man will find this to their taste. One Spirit alternate. (June) FYI: Also in June, van de Wetering's two earlier books, which have been out of print, are being reissued by St. Martin's/Dunne; Empty Mirror: $10.95 paper 160p ISBN 0-312-20774-3; Glimpse: $11.95 paper 192p ISBN -20945-2).
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"This small and memorable memoir records the experiences of a young Dutch student who spent a year and a half as a novice monk in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery . . . What makes this account extraordinary is that the book contains none of the convert's irritating certitude."--Time Magazine

"What is accessible is the day-to-day description of life, of the monks themselves and of the others he met, of the jokes they played and the food they ate, of the moments of satori, the explosive moment of an understanding surpassing understanding."--Los Angeles Times

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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I recommend this book to anyone remotely interesting in Buddhism.
Buddhism is a paradoxical system, and as the reader struggles with it, so did the author as he experienced it.
A middling fencer
A quick, memorable book that reads as much like a novel as it does a memoir.
L. Rephann

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Andrew on April 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
I hadn't realized when I picked up this book that it was written in 1973 about experiences in the 1950's. Although it remains relevant in this time, it is rather surprising to think of a time when Eastern philosophy was difficult for Westerners to find. (Mind you, I say this as a resident of a Zen Buddhist abbey in Detroit.) At the time van de Wetering traveled to Japan, one wouldn't find Zen teachers in America or Europe, much less Zen communities. In this way, van de Wetering's journey paved the way for us, and for that I thank him deeply.
In some ways, the book provides a basic introduction to the Zen precepts and the monastic way of life. After all, when he was writing it, there were very few books on Westerners practicing Zen. So in some ways, this book covers ground that many more recent, more popular books have covered.
However, this book is full of surprises for people who might have a one-dimensional view of monastic life. There is peaceful meditation, but there are also arguments among the monks. Van de Wetering apparently expected to transcend human life in the monastery, but inside, he found the same problems as outside. He also found his own need to escape, to occasionally go out for a beer. It's a central paradox most readers who practice Zen will sympathize with; we want tranquility, but suffering is so darn interesting. Sometimes this paradox, as van de Wetering presents it, is hilarious. Traditional Zen stories can be vulgar, and so can contemporary Zen stories. We, like the author, must reflect on our expectations and assumptions to see what is really there
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By L. Rephann on July 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read this book when I became fascinated with the literature of retreat and monastic practice. Besides being a good introduction to how a Zen monastary in Kyoto operates, Empty Mirror is a heartfelt examination of one man's struggle to find meaning in life, and meaning in his search for meaning. Anyone who has wandered the path of truth will have had times when s/he wonders: what is this for? what am I accomplishing? what have I learned? will this mean anything to anyone but me? what is the larger meaning?
Jan-san (as the author is called by his fellow monks) is totally honest in his account of his stay in Japan. His monastic life is mixed with occasional days off visiting brothels and eating food outside the monastary gates, while within its walls, the monks and master crack jokes, goof off, watch TV and share cigarettes.
Empty Mirror can at times be disillusioning, but only in the best way possible: the author approaches his new surroundings and genuine attempts at truth-seeking with that wonderful Western virtue of skepticism. A quick, memorable book that reads as much like a novel as it does a memoir.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Scott Lynch on June 7, 1999
Format: Paperback
I was first required to read this title in an Introduction to Buddhism course in undergraduate school. Since then, I have read probably two dozen books on Zen and/or Buddhism and I owe it all to 'The Empty Mirror.' The author has done a great job of describing life in a Zen monastery, the Zen koan, and it's a great introduction to the religion/philosophy. I'd recommend it to any student of religion, philosophy, or Zen Buddhism or anyone wanting to expand their knowledge on Buddhist monastic life. Janwillem Van de Watering does a good job of keeping the reader interested with light humor and a mix of day-to-day experiences during his stay at the monastery.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By David M. Chess on January 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
In the summer of 1958 Janwillem van de Wetering showed up at the door of a Zen monastery in Kyoto Japan, knowing pretty much no one, not speaking the language, and without a really good idea what he was doing there. This book describes, with a certain amount of humor and what seems to be quite a bit of honesty, the months that followed (interlaced with Zen stories that he heard during those months, including some that I hadn't heard anywhere else before; I like Zen stories).

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.
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