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Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear Paperback – March 8, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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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 text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Throughout the book van de Wetering's voice is sincere . . . Those looking for an honest memoir . . . wil lfind this to their taste.” ―Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; First Edition, Thus edition (March 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312272618
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312272616
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,304,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I read Janwillem Van de Wetering's two earlier books on zen years ago, and after seeing David Chadwick's comments on Afterzen, I was itching to read it, and have just finished doing so. What a feast for zen students! Van de Wetering says things that some of us who have been practicing zen for decades have been muttering between our breaths for years but rarely saying outright. I laughed out loud through many of the chapters and was sobered by some of the others. The author muses on his life as a zen student and introduces us to as many gurus, senseis, and rimpoches as one life can encompass, thrusting us headfirst into koans along the way. By the time his story ends, we've been through hell, purgatory, and various heavens. I can't think of a healthier testimony to the fact that zen is alive and well in the West than Afterzen. Those who don't like what Janwillem has to say about zen are entitled to their opinions. I am grateful for the book, and to the author. If you've ever taken seriously the question Who am I and what the hell am I doing here? and sincerely looked for an answer in Eastern or Western skies, don't miss reading this book. It gets all the stars I've got.
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Format: Paperback
This is an honest post-script to the author's path through Zen. Jawillem van der Wetering's first and second books brought me to Zen; his third re-inspired me to get back on the cushion.

If you are "into Zen", take a pass on this book. If you are looking to be a better person, reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, or become one with the Universe, take a pass.

This is Zen and Zen is reality, and reality is hard, messy, discomforting, and stays in your face even when you turn away. Furthermore, reality is value-neutral, and, surprising to many, so is Zen. Zen masters in Japan supported their government's wartime policies, masters in America slept with their students, and van der Wetering's second, American, master was a moody S.O.B. instead of a smiley-faced spiritual mentor.

Van der Wetering put himself on the line between ordinary life in the default mode of perception into which we grow, and the exact same life informed by the progressive destruction of assumptions, opinions, and perspective through zazen and the intense interpersonal instruction of a Zen master. He put in the hours on the cushion, tested himself sitting before his master, and, finally, spared nothing in reporting back from the front.

He chronicles his disappointment; throughout the book he shares his sense of an important, yet unfulfilled, part of his life's mission and, after it all, withholds overt judgment of himself and his erstwhile master. (If judgment there is, I missed it.)

In short, read, and re-read, this book, and its predecessors, to disabuse yourself of any sense that your path to inner peace and tranquility lies through Zen. Then, if you're still "into Zen", put the books away and go find a master who makes you sweat.
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Format: Paperback
In his previous books, *The Empty Mirror* and *A Glimpse of Nothingness*, Van de Wetering shows us his earnest, serious phase when he seeks out and learns from a Zen master in Kyoto, Japan and later on in Maine, USA. In *Afterzen*, Van de Wetering weaves a delightful tapestry of post-zen stories that show the lighter side of life after involvement with dysfunctional spiritual teachers and centers.

Van de Wetering shares his encounters with two types of inappropriate spiritual teachers: (a) the outright, (usually male) rash teachers who drink and womanize and (b) the grim, unyielding and dogmatic teachers who feel they are somehow on a mission. In Maine, Van de Wetering seems to have worked closely with the grim and dogmatic kind. In *A Glimpse of Nothingness* he gives one such teacher the pseudonym of "Peter." In *Afterzen* it seems that he refers to the same person as "Sensei," simply meaning "teacher," a name used in most American Zen centers.

Some of Van de Wetering's encounters of his earlier phase are retold in a critical, yet humorous vein in his lighter, "afterzen" phase. The reason Van de Wetering didn't question the behavior of his earlier teachers in his previous books--both the teachers he worked with and the ones he met in passing--is that he simply couldn't. Western Zen students tend to take themselves and their teachers way too seriously. Respect turns into idealization and idealization turns into belief in the lineage myths of supposedly enlightened teachers. In this phase, it is all too easy to silence inner doubts about unwise or uncompassionate behavior in teachers.

That spiritual teachers are human, all too human, is a hard lesson to learn in the western Zen environment.
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Van De Wetering's previous books on Zen "The Empty Mirror" and "A Glimpse of Nothingness" weren't advocating Zen as a "solution" or a "path" for anynone, rather they described his personal search for meaning and his personal struggle with the practice.
While at the end of "A Gimpse of Nothingness" I had the impression that for him Zen turned out to be his "path" in the search for meaning, "Afterzen" - written several years later - describes a very different situation.

Apparently his Zen community has fallen apart, he as given up on any formal practice (at least within another community) and he is very critical, polemic and cynical about Zen, about his former teachers and about spiritual teachers in general, with the only exception being the Roshi in the Japanese Zen monastary he stayed in several years earlier (described in the book "The Empty Mirror"), whom he stills holds in high regard.

The book also describes encounters with fellow (former) Zen students, speaks about koans and gives some "solutions" to them. All in all it feels like Van De Wetering is creating a balance sheet of the assets and liabilities of his Zen experience. Yet he obviously isn't detached about it and his cynical and polemic - at times even self-righteous - style might turn some people off.

A Zen master once said "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha". Perhaps in a similar approach by giving up on Zen as a "solution" and a "path", Van De Wetering is in fact follow its intention and teaching the most, even though he's still trying to come to terms with it.
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