A Glimpse of Nothingness
Experience in an American Zen Community
By Janwillem van de Wetering
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1975 Janwillem van de Wetering
All rights reserved.
A waiting room at a New York airport. A shed, rather. I had travelled cheaply, with a charter company, at a much reduced price. The plane hadn't been full. The company was begging for passengers. An inexperienced charter company, the entire trip had been characterized by mix-ups and slowdowns.
We had already spent hours under the corrugated iron roof of the shed. It wasn't just hot, it was clammy. There were no chairs but low wooden benches, as in an old-fashioned school, placed along the walls. A few children were crying. Women, with puffed up faces, complained, and men with loosened ties and red necks were running to and fro, trying, vainly, to arrange something.
We were waiting for immigration and customs who were supposed to come to us from the other side of the airport.
The establishment was temporarily represented by a fat black policeman, whose large revolver was loosely stuck into its holster, and who observed us pleasantly, in an indifferent manner.
* * *
The loudspeakers, hung in the four corners of the ceiling, addressed us croakingly, at regular intervals. As soon as the mechanical voice introduced itself in a nasty, hoarse, and loud whisper the passengers panicked. Almost everyone jumped up and rushed towards the luggage. The women pushed their way through, using elbows, till they were close to the policeman, whose expression never changed, and the men lumped together while children shouted and wailed, trying to stay close to their parents.
The passengers glared at the ceiling and sat down again. They mumbled and lit cigarettes. They lined up at the lemonade and coffee dispensers which, after a while, were sold out. Most of them were out of order anyway, saying so on crumpled bits of carton stuck to the glass with sticky tape.
I had found a corner, as far away as possible from the luggage.
* * *
The loudspeakers croaked again and the automatic bustle followed, perhaps for the tenth time. I looked at the few passengers who hadn't joined the crowd.
There was a young couple, perhaps on their honeymoon. They held hands and smiled. An old man, perhaps a grandfather on a family visit, sat on the same bench. His small suitcase protected his back against the hard wall. His eyes were closed but he wasn't asleep. His forehead was moist with sweat, but I saw no irritation on his face. A woman, some thirty years old, was sitting in a corner, not a pretty woman, with a bitter mouth. She didn't look up when the loudspeakers addressed her.
Love, a sense of relativity, indifference: three feelings to protect us against bustle and panic, murder and slaughter, against the tentacles of the "I" which, according to Buddhism, does not exist, doesn't exist in reality, but which does have an apparent identity, through which it can act.
I began to feel very stifled. At first I had read, then slept, uneasily and with a wobbly head because the wall didn't give it proper support. The temperature seemed to be rising. I found some open space where I could walk up and down. I tried to walk as slowly as possible and tried to concentrate. Once, in Japan, a long time ago now, more than ten years back, I had been given a meditation subject by a Zen master. This subject had appeared to be a silly question at first, a question without any possible answer. I had lived with that question for more than ten years. The question had possessed me then, and it still possessed me. The Zen master had told me that the question did have an answer.
* * *
The question is a koan. A koan is a question from the Unknown.
What is the sound of one clapping hand?
Show me your original face, the face you had before your father and mother were born.
I am turning off the light. Where did the light go?
That sort of question.
What is one supposed to do with a question like that? You try to explain to the master that you don't know what he is talking about. You try to argue. You think of anything. You do anything. But the master shakes his head and insists that you give the answer, the right answer.
And then you know that you are stuck. The question has got you. It walks around with you. You sleep with it. You know that the answer is of the utmost importance. The answer is the door to the infinite, the hole in the wall which has been built around you. The wall has been there for a very long time and you really want to break it, that's what took you to the Zen master. And now, finally, there is a way out. The master knows the way out. You think that if you can get the master into such a position that he will nod at you, then the wall will crack and there will be a way out. Then you can begin to understand why you are alive.
And when, in your desperation, you ask what you are supposed to do in order to find the right answer, the master tells you to meditate. He explains what you have to do, how you have to sit. He shows you statues of the Buddha. He sits in the lotus position. The Zen master imitates the Buddha statue, left foot on right thigh, right foot on left thigh, back straight, head bent forward a little. He shows you how to breathe. He tells you how to become one with your koan. He tells you not to think, not to dream. You repeat your koan, over and over. You push back the evercoming thoughts. You feel a warm glow, somewhere near your navel. Is that it? What is a warm glow near your navel going to do for you?
Every now and then something pops up. You think it is the right answer and you repeat whatever it was to the master, when you visit him, early in the morning, to report your progress. He shakes his head. He always shakes his head. You become despondent and he is very kind. You are arrogant and he hits you on the head, with his hand, or with his stick. But there is no answer, just a question.
I still had the question. The Japanese master had shown me that one of the words, which made up my question, was a special word, a mantra. He had told me to forget about the answer to my question and to repeat the mantra. I had to repeat the mantra once with every breath. I had learned that meditation isn't limited to the meditation hall, it can be done anywhere. For example when you are waiting for something.
And now I was waiting, for illusionary authorities who wanted to peer into my luggage and into my passport. I repeated the mantra while I paced up and down, as slowly as possible, in a tin shed at a New York airport. After a few minutes the stuffy feeling wore off and my unpleasant surroundings disappeared.
* * *
My concentration weakened and I began to think about a story which I had heard and which featured a disciple of my Japanese master. The disciple, at the time, was an American soldier, serving in the occupation army in Kyoto, just after World War II. The soldier had met the old master by accident in the street and had recognized him. How does one recognize a man one has never met? He had spoken to the master a few times.
The soldier returned to America but his own country seemed stale, empty. He wanted to return to Japan. He borrowed some money and sailed to Yokohama, on a freighter, with a fourth class ticket. The master had told him to meditate and the American did nothing else. On the freighter he sat with his legs painfully crossed. He always sat in the same place, on deck, next to a pile of rope. He gazed dead ahead and only moved when the pain became unbearable. His fellow passengers asked him what he was doing. "I am meditating," he would say.
* * *
A very fanatic disciple. Perhaps I should have sat down as well, but I kept pacing up and down, comforting myself with the thought that Zen Buddhist training has a special word for walking meditation. It is called kinhin. The student walks with a straight back, hands folded and pressed against the stomach. I did kinhin and repeated the mantra, the key to the fathomless nothing, a nothing which isn't empty.
"Don't try to get anywhere," the master had told me. "Concentrate, that's enough. If ever you manage to really concentrate you will be where you want to be."
"Will everything drop away then?" I asked, but he didn't answer. But when I prepared to leave his room that morning he did say something.
"Just repeat the mantra. Let every breath hold one repetition of the mantra. Become the mantra. Forget everything else. Pay no attention to your thoughts."
So it was just because he said it.
Master. A strange word. A master and his disciples. A master and his slaves. Yes, master. No, master.
A guide. You don't have to follow a guide. But if you trust him you may as well follow.
And a disciple who doesn't trust his master leaves him.
I had left, but not for lack of faith. I had thought that I could go no further.
The American disciple stayed. When I met the American he had been with the master ten years. After I left Japan he stayed another six.
The American, whom I have called Peter, helped me when I was in Japan. When I arrived at the Kyoto monastery I had found him in the master's room, where he acted as our interpreter. I had said that I wanted to find the explanation of Life, the meaning of illusion, the clue to the mystery. They had listened to me. Even when I said that the answer to my question might be in the point where two parallel lines cut each other they hadn't laughed. When I said that there appeared to be a wall around my thinking and that the wall might be destroyed they had nodded, both at the same time.
Peter had looked after me a little, while I stayed in the monastery for a year, and after that he had taken me into his private temple where I lived for six months.
When, in the end, I left, the master hadn't shown any disappointment. "By leaving here nothing is broken," he said, "your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." Encouraging words, I had lived on them for ten years.
And my training had continued, but not in the way I had imagined. I had thought that I would have met, in odd places, guides who would have shown me the way. Accidentally, in a strange city, in an alley, or in a marketplace. Mysterious messages would be whispered, or I might suddenly receive an anonymous note giving the address of some loft where wise men would wait for me to pass a key word. But no mystic spent any time on me. For ten years I learned, but the wise lessons were restricted to hints on how to increase capital, other people's capital. The only detached spirit I met was a very old Catholic bishop who lived in a hut in an Indian village in the South American jungle, and I was travelling and couldn't stay. We had coffee together and he smiled at me.
But whenever I was forced to stop and think, which was often, I thought of the time I had worked under the old master and remembered the question which he had planted and which was still alive. The feeling that there might be some purpose, on this small planet suspended in limitless space, increased. The depressing gloom which had, once, forced me to ring the bell in the monastic gate, had disappeared. I now suffered sudden attacks of unexplainable cheerfulness as if nothing which concerned me could really affect me. Meanwhile I continued to worry and was plagued by the usual assortment of human weaknesses and faults but it seemed as if a reserve had been formed, an escape, an oasis of freedom. And the promise, embodied in the old master's farewell speech, continued to exist.
I wandered through several countries and busied myself with matters which grew from nothing to something and then declined to nothing again until, at last, fate took me back to Amsterdam. The causes which moved me were beyond my control. Once again I was a puppet, a doll which is activated by bits of string and metal hooks, programmed in an incomprehensible manner, and put down, now here, now there, to continue its little dance. But it had become a dance, not a depressive and painful thumping. I had begun to enjoy the game which some force, or forces, were playing with me.
* * *
The morning Peter phoned me in Amsterdam was a morning like many others. I was reading the morning's mail in the office. I recognized his voice, the American accent, the slow and careful way in which he expressed himself, a voice of a past which was still with me. He told me he was travelling and that he intended to stay a week in Holland. I asked him to stay in my flat. He thanked me. I asked him how he knew my telephone number. He laughed. "I had been told you live in Amsterdam, and the number is in the book." I blushed. I remembered how often he had told me not to ask, but to find out. I picked him up at the airport and he stayed two weeks.
A meeting between old friends, on the surface it seemed nothing more. He told me that the old Japanese priest was dead and that he had returned to his own country, the States. He now lived in the north, somewhere near the Canadian border, in empty country, in a forest where he had started a small farm.
I took a few days off and showed him a little of Holland. He seemed relaxed and made everyday conversation. An intelligent tourist. He seemed happy to hear that I had become a family man and that I liked my job and was doing well. An older brother, glad to hear that his younger brother has succeeded.
I showed him my office. My desk is an old-fashioned cylinder desk and on its top sits a Buddha statue. When Peter saw the Buddha he growled happily, a rumbling sound reverberating in his wide chest. The expression on his face at the moment was a mixture of craziness and solemnity. He looked like the fool of the folk tale, a man who does not act the fool but who is a fool. No nut or clown, but a fool who feels so deeply, and sees so far that it is an effort to return to everyday life. And when Peter, after his growl, tumbled all over my office floor I wasn't really amazed.
"Good," he said, in the way the Japanese master had said "good" on the very few occasions he had approved of what I had been trying to do at that time.
* * *
As long as Peter stayed in my apartment we got up at six and meditated for an hour. He never mentioned Buddhism or Zen. One evening I brought him his coffee and found him sitting on the floor of his room. I recognized the powerful peace which I had so often felt in Japan. I sat down next to him and reached a fairly deep concentration, much better than I had thought possible and quite beyond my own power. He left the next day and, while we were driving to the airport, I asked him whether he had finished his Zen study.
"Then you are a master," I said, putting it as a half-question. He didn't answer.
"Do you have any disciples?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, after some consideration. "I think you can call them disciples."
His reply shook me. In Japan I had always seen him as a fellow-disciple. An advanced disciple, of course, but no master, no authority. I could joke with him and tell him to lay off. He hadn't changed much in ten years. A little bald maybe, somewhat fatter. But a white man, with a face vaguely resembling the round innocence of Charlie Brown of the "Peanuts" strip, cannot be a Zen master. Zen masters have wrinkled faces with tufted eyebrows and slanting eyes. Their skulls are bald and gleaming and they are dressed in neat brown or grey robes, and in brocades on special days. Peter was wearing a corduroy jacket, old and shabby, and pants with bobbly knees.
But why not? I thought after a little while. Vestdijk, my favorite Dutch writer, describes Christ as a waiter with rabbit teeth and his Christ is incredibly holy and unbelievably powerful. Wisdom is not limited to Orientals. Buddhism states that all beings have the Buddha nature.
I remembered a lecture, delivered by the Japanese master in the assembly hall of the monastery. I had been there a few months and some of the monks had difficulty in accepting my presence. The master made a point of telling his disciples that all beings have the Buddha nature, even beings with pink faces and large feet. And when a being has the Buddha nature he can realize it, and if he does, he is a master, pink face and all.
But I was still speechless. We drove in silence and, at the very last moment, when he had his boarding pass in his hand, I asked Peter if he would accept me as his disciple and if I could come to see him in America.
"But of course."
Then he embraced me, patted me on the head and walked to the desk of the border police.
He waved from the other side of the barrier, laughed again (I was staring at him with my mouth open), and disappeared. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Glimpse of Nothingness by Janwillem van de Wetering. Copyright © 1975 Janwillem van de Wetering. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.