The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Zen Monastery
Janwellem Van der Wetering
Watering's memoir of the time he spend in Kyoto (seeming at Daikokuji, though never named within) in 1958-59.
This book has many good points and some aspects that feel weak, and it is quite surprising how little it has to do with Japan or Kyoto, but in some ways that might be the point. Jan-san has come to this mysterious land, where he believes that, at the time, he may be one of less than 100 foreigners living in Kyoto (not fact checked) and is accepted by the Master to study and learn the ways of buddhism. And he does so, and because he does so, the where's and when's are not of great importance. What was Japan like in 1958? This book will not give many answers. What were the people of Kyoto like then? The reader will not find out. How did it feel to be one of so few foreigners? How had Japan recovered from the war? Who? Why? Where? These questions are not even considered, and to be honest, in that way this book is a bit of a disappointment.
But, beyond that, there is, of course, what this book actually is; and that is a book that does an incredible job of introducing a religion and the reasons why a young man at that time might be drawn into wanting to be part of it, while at the same time battling against it, and more often, not even understanding what it is. Buddhism (more specifically, Zen) is a final hope for a young man who appears to lack all hope in the world in which he grew up. Is Zen the answer? Maybe there is no answer, but as many who have spent time in Japan may agree, at times it's not that Japan is great, (though at times it certainly is) but that it's so different that it can be a relief from all the things we have come to know. And Zen works this way for Jan-san, being a break and challenge so different from what he knew that it offers a chance, even though it never does offer the answers he had hoped for.
As a spiritual memoir, this is work is highly recommended.
As a picture of Japan... much less so.