Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear

Overview

In Afterzen, van de Wetering provides unorthodox solutions to a collection of classical koans found in Walter Nowick's The Wisteria Triangle. Van de Wetering gives them his own distinctive touch of humor, down to earth reality, and tough spirituality in the context of meeting and adventures with personalities "collaged from bits and pieces of teachers and fellow students who kindly came my way."

In this third book of the trilogy, van de ...

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Overview

In Afterzen, van de Wetering provides unorthodox solutions to a collection of classical koans found in Walter Nowick's The Wisteria Triangle. Van de Wetering gives them his own distinctive touch of humor, down to earth reality, and tough spirituality in the context of meeting and adventures with personalities "collaged from bits and pieces of teachers and fellow students who kindly came my way."

In this third book of the trilogy, van de Wetering is at his accessible, honest, funny, and genuinely spiritual best.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Throughout the book van de Wetering's voice is sincere . . . Those looking for an honest memoir . . . wil lfind this to their taste."—Publishers Weekly
From The Critics
"Throughout the book van de Wetering's voice is sincere . . . Those looking for an honest memoir . . . wil lfind this to their taste."—Publishers Weekly
Andrea Martin
...[Reflects] on the flawed nature of the spiritual quest and [the author's] fellow travelers without rejecting the value of the quest itself. —Utne Reader
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 Cahners Business Information.
Andrea Martin
...[Reflects] on the flawed nature of the spiritual quest and [the author's] fellow travelers without rejecting the value of the quest itself.
Utne Reader
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312272616
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/8/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Janwillem van de Wetering lives with his wife on the rocky coast of Northern Maine where he writes, paints, and composes typically unusual sculptures.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The Good-Bye Koan


Koans are vastly overrated. A Hindu teacher, whom I will call Baba, an Indian (from India) in whites whom I met at the Boston airport during a long snowbound wait, told me that. But then he might have been overrated himself. There's a lot of competition in religion. Jealousy too. Jealousy is a fact of life. One of my Zen teachers told me that, shortly before his center collapsed and we, the disciples, were out in the big bad world again. Most of us left the area, never to be heard of again, but, riding in a small plane over the Maine woods, I found one of my former buddies.

    This man, whom I will call Ben-san, had once been an idealist, and in the idealist sixties had traveled to Japan to study Zen. By happenstance he went to the same temple I did, but we missed each other; I left a few weeks before he arrived. Meeting him later in America was quite an event, for we knew all the same people back in Kyoto. Same abbot, same head monk, same regular monks. Same bars in Kyoto's famous Willow Quarter, which we visited on our off nights.

    Like me, Ben stayed a few years in the Japanese Zen temple, was given the Mu koan, never passed it, and left. There were other similarities: same age; we were both white males from Protestant, in his case fundamentalist, backgrounds; we were both drinking men. There seemed to be a similar artistry in both of us that pushed him into creating pagodas in oriental-style gardens and me to write tales and build junk sculptures when my back needed stretching.

    In America, inthe early seventies, we both finished up with the same teacher, whom I'll only call Sensei here. Sensei had spent many years in Japan and, according to the Zen grapevine, "had his insights confirmed by qualified authorities." Ben and I enrolled at Sensei's North American center as students of Zen koans and practitioners of the wayless way.

    Those were the same koans that "Baba," the Indian guru at Logan Airport, said he had studied from a Hindu point of view and found, with some exceptions, somewhat clever, a trifle contrived, and definitely wanting. He smiled forgivingly. "Given the reputation of Zen, I had really expected a little more." I had to laugh. Those were the exact words Sensei liked to use after a strenuous week of meditation, but he would stay it sternly. Sensei always seemed genuinely disappointed at the failures of his students.

    Among the travelers hanging out at Logan Airport during a blizzard, with all chairs taken and the bathrooms overflowing, Baba stood out as an exceptional-looking man. Always eager to learn, I approached this figure in flowing robes below and flowing hair on top.

    "Are you a guru, sir?"

    "For sure." Baba spoke with a clipped, high-pitched Indian accent. "Are you a truth seeker?"

    "I used to be a Zen student, sir."

    "You gave up?"

    "Not on my questions, sir."

    "But on Zen you gave up?"

    "Not really, sir. But I seem to be on my own now."

    Baba nodded. He knew all about Zen. The practice of zazen, meditation, and koan study, solving of dharma riddles while facing a teacher at sanzen, the early morning meeting in the master's temple.

    I said that was what I had been doing for many years, evenings and weekends, for I usually worked in day jobs. "How come you are a guru, Baba?"

    He looked at me loftily, from under impressively tufted eyebrows. Had I misaddressed this evolved being? I didn't mean offense. "Shrih Baba? Shrih Baba Maharaj? You have a title, sir? Your Holiness, maybe?"

    He smiled and bowed. "Never mind my titles. Holy titles are all hogwash, my friend."

    I liked that. It was the sort of thing Bodhidharma would have said to the emperor of China, before stalking out of the imperial palace to meditate for another nine years in his cave.

    A fresh foot of snow was covering Boston's runways. Baba had time to chat. He told me he felt comfortable in airports, for he had started his own career at an airport too, at JFK in New York. As a pre-guru, Baba was an illegal alien and cleaned restaurant tables for a living. This was, again, the sixties, a spiritual time. America developed a demand for esoteric teachers. The law of demand and supply made holy men enter the country. Busboy Baba noticed that the teachers flocking into JFK from his native country wore white clothes and had much facial hair. They were Hindus. They had big expressive eyes and sharp features. They quoted the Bhagavad Gita. They recited mantras, Sanskrit syllables charged with holy power, and held their hands in certain ways, a practice known as doing mudras. They were invariably met by well-dressed ladies and their long-haired male attendants, couples who had expensive cars waiting for them in the airport parking lot.

    "What," Baba asked me, "prevented me from declaring myself a guru?" The title is not protected. Baba had shareable insights galore, gathered in previous lives and from the poverty and pain of the present. In order to show his true status he needed a white dhoti and matching jacket, and sandals to show off his muscular long toes—items that weren't hard to get. The other requirements were already rightfully his. He had been raised in a priestly, Brahmin, top-class (albeit starving) family, knew Hindu scripture by heart, kept up a home altar, burned incense and performed daily prostrations. He even meditated from time to time, although meditation, Baba told me, is not all it's cracked up to be. When overdone it gives you a pain in the ass. Had I noticed?

    I had. Prolonged zazen gave me chronic hemorrhoids. Baba told me the human body is not designed to sit in the double or even the half lotus position for long periods of time. The postures put excessive strain on the rectum. I found that easy to believe. Preparation H is a staple in Zen monasteries, together with Maalox, for eating too hot meals too fast, peer pressure by zealots, too little sleep, and the relentless master's constant urging to solve a koan create mental tensions that ulcerate Zen stomachs.

    "Right," Baba said. "Forget all that. Your own precious Buddha told his disciples to walk the middle way, to avoid excess."

    "No spiritual practice?"

    "Just daily life," Baba said. "Apply some awareness. Take daily time to perform a short ritual of your choice, but mostly just be, my friend." He dropped his voice and stared at me hypnotically. "Just be."

    "But what about suffering?"

    He shrugged. "What about it?"

    I told him suffering wasn't nice.

    "Do you suffer?" Baba asked me.

    I told him I was doing just fine, thank you. Being fairly well off seemed to be my karma. I shouldn't be complaining—heaven forbid—but my habitual fate could be, at times, a bit boring. Whatever I did, wherever I went, I always seemed to be doing just fine. Look at me now: new tweed jacket and just the right zippered mud boots, a four-wheel-drive vehicle in good repair parked at my home airport, a wonderful wife waiting in a comfortable house on landscaped acres, okay income, overall good health, the complete recordings of Miles Davis, and good sound equipment shelved next to the word processor. Now look at other people. I showed Baba a two-page color photo of the coast of Bangladesh, printed in a magazine I had just bought. Recent floods had caused numberless people and cattle to drown; when the sea receded the coast was set off by a white line consisting of dead people in their white cotton clothes, and a brown line consisting of dead cattle, going on for miles.

    "So?" Baba asked.

    "The suffering of these Bangladeshians makes me doubt."

    "Doubt what?"

    "Whether there is a purpose."

    "To suffering?"

    "Yes," I said, "to life."

    "A purpose to life?" Baba patted my shoulder. "There isn't any.

    "So all this is just painful chaos?"

    Baba raised a hand to draw my attention, then recited in his high voice, "There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering ..."

    "... and no path," I said.

    "You know the Heart Sutra," Baba said. "It's not Hindu, but Buddhism is Indian too and all Buddha did was revive part of our original religion. And you're right. No path, forget `path.' `Path' is highly overrated."

    I was beginning to like Baba. He seemed to be a master of the Far Eastern method of negation. Neti, neti. That what is not. Destroy all constructions, then enjoy empty space. "You have a temple?" I asked.

    He had one, in the Catskills, but advised that there was not much there for me. I should make use of my present lack of status. Why get interested in yet another inflicted discipline? Baba, at his spiritual center, was merely keeping people busy by providing them with a nonharmful routine, such as limited meditation and chanting of scripture. The place was partly run as a farm so there was work to help deal with depression and stress. Rules were structured to keep disciples upright. Everyone was to wear white dhotis and jackets and open-toed sandals while on the grounds (most disciples came for the weekend, sometimes also for "training weeks"). There was to be no frolicking with any abusable substance, no guitar music after hours, no dillydallying except for those with guru or guru-escort status, no excessive donations to buy being-teacher's-pet, and during farewell ceremonies (in private, when disciples left the center to go home for a while) he would hand out praise and cookies.

    "Chocolate chip," Baba said. "Don't care for them myself, but Americans associate them with parental loving guidance. British disciples I give digestive biscuits."

    "You bake your presents yourself?."

    Baba bought them at Stop & Shop.

    There was some slyness about him that I, coming from a trading background in the Holland city of Rotterdam, thought I recognized. I tried to phrase a respectful inquiry as to whether Baba was into money perhaps. Shearing his silly sheep. He cut me short as soon as I used the word money.

    "You mean Greed?" An interesting impediment, but he had given it up. There was the temptation, for he had been poor for so long. He did indulge during his early days on his spiritual health farm. Baba drove a Jaguar for a while, ate gourmet, charged high prices for special interviews, obtained tax-free status, even increased his income by operating a health-food restaurant that was staffed with disciple labor at no cost, but an overdose of material success had made him nervous. He closed the restaurant and reduced the contributions that his disciples paid on a monthly basis. The Jaguar was driven by "my number-one lady" now, who used it for community shopping. Baba rode a bicycle, as back in Calcutta, but this one was a ten-speed.

    "And sex?"

    "Sex." He nodded wisely. "There is that, too."

    I told him that sexual desire, first frustrated, later perverted, had helped bring down the Buddhist center where I had studied. Baba kept nodding sympathetically. He could understand that. After all, a holy man is still a man and a man has needs. He didn't want to go to Manhattan for his needs. It was nicer if sex came to him at his temple. He never meant to be a self-denying recluse. One young lady had wrapped herself in gift paper and rolled into his quarters in a shopping cart pushed by two girlfriends in bikinis. Was it wrong if an enlightened teacher accepts the gift of an attractive disciple's ego? Ego is the mask that has to come off to show pure being. Only in pure being can divine insight be clear.

    Sensei used to say, "If you present me with your beautiful mind, why can't I have your beautiful body?" I told Baba.

    "How interesting," Baba said. "Now tell me about the koans you managed to solve during your many years of Zen practice, my friend."

    There was no time; a runway had opened up and Baba's plane was waiting. He gave me his card. "Come and see me sometime." He caressed my shoulder. "But don't bring me your personal problems. I cannot help people carry their ego loads." He squeezed my hand. "I don't want to, either."

    Off he went, a bundle of human light. Wouldn't it be fun to spend time at his chocolate-chip-cookie heaven? But no. Baba was probably right. It's hard for a man in his fifties to dance in the meadow again, pleasing Daddy and his numbered egoless escorts.

    Didn't I feel contented on my own now? Doing exactly what Baba recommended: using daily life as my practice, my sadana, chanting the Heart Sutra at my altar every morning, burning incense to the little plastic skeleton of a dinosaur, an extinct being, like Homo sapiens would be pretty soon, that I kept in an open box between ritual candles?

    I hadn't minded leaving the Buddhist center, but I sometimes missed my pals, especially Ben-san. I wondered how he was coping.

    Suffering is caused by desire, and I definitely wished to see Ben-san again. I wasn't going to make a special effort, but desires, once clearly stated, have a way of being fulfilled, most often within the lifetime.


A technical man in the village had built himself an airplane and asked me, one sunny winter day, to join him for a spin. We flew around Mount Katahdin and, coming back from skimming lakes and rivers and crossing vast areas of wild woods, spotted a pagoda not too far from the Purple Hill airstrip. My pilot friend circled the structure and found a long, winding track that led to it. We were both impressed. The pagoda was a mini version of what I recognized as a famous Kyoto temple. It had three stories with what appeared to be living quarters on the first. There was also a landscaped garden, in outline visible under the snow. I could detect what would be moss patches around decorative giant boulders that would no doubt show glowing orange and yellow lichens once the thaw set in. There was also a flat, some forty-foot-square, slightly rippled area with three rocks off-center that looked as though it would be raked daily during the milder part of the year. There was a frozen pond where I guessed large multicolored carp would be hibernating under the ice. A very Zenlike landscape. The pilot had known Ben-san, too. "Must be Ben's. So that's where he hides out now." We circled the pagoda again, much lower than the legal five hundred feet, and we saw a man come out, waving a shotgun.

    "Ben all right," the pilot said.

    "Got to walk out there sometime," I said.

    The pilot checked his instrument panel and handed me a note with the location's coordinates. "Shouldn't be hard to find. You can borrow my handheld positioner. The path to there is basically north-south and leads out of Sorry. Starts at Blackberry Brook. Can't miss it if you take a compass and my GPS. Better make sure you don't get shot, though."

    Sorry is a suburb of the Maine coastal city of Rotworth, where I have been living for a good while now. I waited for another good clear day, with the right kind of snow to support my snowshoes. According to my map, the distance out of Sorry would be some ten miles. I left early and got to Ben's pagoda by noon.

    He came out with his gun but put it down and hugged me lightly. "You smell better now," he said, "in the zendo you stank."

    He ought to know; we used to sit next to each other during bathless weeks. I recalled his fragrance too.

    "You're a hermit now?" I asked.

    Ben-san said he liked that better than the practice at our Buddhist center. Living alone in the pagoda had also helped him quit drinking. I had quit drinking too. I told him, "Alcohol no longer fulfills my needs." He thought that was a silly way of putting things and probably untrue. "Your wife confronted you. Told you either you quit or she left. Now you need a macho excuse. Always trying to impress the audience. Haven't changed much, have you?"

    "So what do you do for money now, Ben?"

    Very little, he told me. He wasn't always at the pagoda. He worked some of his summers, away in New Hampshire, staying with employers for free, saving some dollars. Spring, fall, and winter he stacked up on staples and hermited away, surrounded by wildlife.


There were several jays around, a squirrel or two, a tribe of chickadees, some juncos. I saw that there were feeders placed in strategic spots, designed like little temples. Ben-san was still bitten by the building bug. He looked lonely to me.

    "Get a woman," I said. "Some pleasant and caring soul tired of being abused by her sadistic boyfriend. Pick her up late, some Friday night at the Lazy Loon in Rotworth. You'll be king of the castle. Those women haven't seen a sober man in years."

    He didn't care for making women happy.

    "Male soul mate, perhaps? A charming disciple?"

    He told me he had given up on people. Ben-san the misanthrope. He crossed his arms defensively. I left him to his posturing and admired his backdrop. The pagoda was an impressive structure, built from hand-hewn mismatched logs, dovetailed together like a Chinese puzzle. All wooden pegs, no nails anywhere. The intricate handiwork must have consumed months of lonely winter time. The delicately sloping roofs were covered with old-fashioned cedar shakes, cut with a giant chisel. A jewel in the woods. I bowed and recited the ancient Tibetan mantra. Om mani padme hum, Hail to the jewel in the lotus.

    "Never understood what that meant," Ben told me.

    "Still doing Zen practice?" I asked when he finally uncrossed his arms.

    He nodded. "Sure."

    "Zazen?"

    Some zazen. Not too much. "I never liked it. Half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening. That's all I can put up with now. That endless Zen sitting never did shit for me."

    I noticed a Direct TV dish on the pagoda's top roof and a rusted Honda generator in a lean-to.

    "I follow the cult-movie channel." Ben-san said. "Some opera, too. Not for too long on end. It's hard to carry in the gas for the generator."

    I didn't believe him. There were several fifty-five-gallon drums away from the building, under their own roof, and I spotted a sled and an old but functional-looking snowmobile. Ben-san is a powerfully built man—it wouldn't trouble him even to hand-pull a heavy load for ten miles.

    I hadn't given up on peer pressure yet. "Still do koan study? Must be hard without Sensei telling you what's what."

    "Sensei." He shrugged. "Good riddance of twisted nonsense."

    "But you still work on a koan, Ben?"

    The arms were crossed again against a puffed-up chest. "What's my koan study to you?"

    "But Ben-san, we are dharma brothers." I reminded him how far back we went. How we had been drinking buddies. How we had sworn to use each other's lives as mirrors. "Sake for two," I sang to the tea-for-two tune while I skipped around him.

    He unfroze a bit. Just one koan he was still working on, Ben told me over baked beans and tofu over rice with chili sauce and pickled daikon. The one he had received some months before Sensei's hermitage went back to nature. Students aren't supposed to discuss their koans but as Ben and I had both been released, we could consider ourselves free now. "Tell me about your last koan," I said, thinking I might show some superiority here. Not that he would want to be helped out. Zen students consider themselves the cream of the Buddhist crop, those who walk the steep short way. We are potential high-class bodhisattvas—just one more koan and we can step into nirvana.

    "Tell me your koan, dear Ben-san."

    "Nah."

    Okay. I was on the pagoda's front steps, nudging my boots into my snowshoes. The hell with Mr. Do-It-Himself. He could rot in his pagoda. It was a nice building, though. I had told Ben his creation reminded me of a toy pagoda my mother brought back from Indonesia, in the twenties, from the "Dutch Indies," as she still called the country.

    The little pagoda had been crafted out of an elephant tooth and had, like Ben-san's, three stories. My mother said she had bought it at the Borobudur, Java's great Buddhist temple covering an entire hilltop, an elaborate piece of architecture abandoned after Buddhism was replaced by Islam. Each story had a set of tiny hinged doors. I liked to open them and peer inside. There had been Buddha statues in each compartment but as they could be taken out, they got lost. My mother bewailed their disappearance but a Chinese Buddhist friend told us the pagoda made more sense without its former tenants. "Form is emptiness. Better to show nothing."

    Ben-san's pagoda's second and third stories were empty too. They didn't even have doors. The wind passed freely under their swept-up roofs. Only the lower floor was walled in, insulated, and fitted with doors and storm doors. "I've got to live somewhere," Ben told me, showing me his sparse furniture. He was frowning again. "You still fill up all your outbuildings with possessions? The villa? The double garage? The studios? The gazebo? The guest house?"

    He knew what he was talking about. He had designed and built my compound. In those days he needed more money, to finance travels during the Zen training's off seasons, and I kept providing him with work.

    "Thanks for the tofu," I said. "Bye now."

    He held me back. "I'm working on the bull koan."

    There are probably a dozen bull koans in use in the various Zen sects. "Which bull?"

    "Why can't-the-tail-pass-by bull koan," Ben-san said. "It's driving me crazy."

    Koans are designed to drive the Zen student crazy. I kicked off my snowshoes and allowed Ben to guide me back into his living quarters. We had coffee.

    "Gozo En Zenji," I said. "That's the Zen master Sensei was quoting. I remember Gozo's tale. Something to do with you're in the sanzen room, early in the morning, and Sensei is confronting you, squatting on his cushions wearing the Japanese roshi gown he had outgrown since he gained weight. He points at the small window above his head. He tells you that it's like `Gozo's water-buffalo bull, passing by that window—his huge head, his big horns, his four feet go by, but that's it, the tail never shows up. What of that, eh?'"

    "Right," Ben said. "So you were on that koan too?"

    Ben-san and I, during our student days, were probably always on the same koans.

    Now, what are koans? They are riddles that are deliberately phrased obscurely. There are pieces missing. No Zen student, not two thousand years ago in China, not a thousand years ago in Japan, not today in the Maine woods or in a California valley or on an Arizona mesa, can make sense of any given koan until the teacher does some explaining first. And he won't. He wants you to squirm in stupidity. Sensei himself, when I knew him in Japan where he was an advanced disciple with much seniority and many years of sanzen behind him, complained about koans, calling them "word mazes." He was working on a long story that involved a white crane, and a white crane means something in Chinese mythology (I forget now what it means) and if you don't know what it means you'll never figure out what the white crane is doing in that long koan, and you won't solve the Zen riddle. In Sensei's case, his Japanese teacher didn't know that Sensei, an American, didn't know about the esoteric meaning of "white crane," so master and student were butting their heads together in the sanzen room and "precious time was lost." At the time I thought that that complaint made no sense either. Was Sensei in a hurry? Did he want his degree tomorrow? Was he eager to hang out his shingle as a teacher himself?.

    Sensei probably did. Ben-san, however, never showed any interest in a Buddhist career. Most likely he just wanted to know things, like if there was a purpose to him being born into a fundamentalist Protestant community that served a harsh and unforgiving divinity Ben only wanted to get away from. And what was the miracle of life, which he, with his love of wildlife and beautiful structures, felt he was close to, but could never grab hold of, not even after the third jug of sake? Why the Vietnam War? Why the need to pollute a perfectly good planet? Every time he was given a new koan he thought the answer might solve his quest, but there was always another mountain on the horizon. The bull koan was the last one he ever meant to work on. He absolutely had to know the answer. Did I have it?

    "Your bull koan is an overrated koan," I told Ben-san. "It's not like the Mu koan, or The Sound of One Hand. The tail-of-the-bull-koan has nothing to do with Nothing. It does not indicate the great void. It doesn't comprise the entire Heart Sutra into a single negation. It's your final koan and it's minor."

    "So how do you know?" Ben asked. "Did you pass the damned thing?"

    "But there is nothing to pass," I said. "It's just a little illustration of a problem that won't go away. You know what `tail' stands for in Chinese mythology?"

    "Something to wag?"

    I shook my head. If this had been sanzen and if I had been the Zen master throning on cushions stacked on a platform and Ben had been the disciple groveling below on the tatami, I would have picked up my little bell and shaken it and he would have to prostrate himself three times and leave and be back the next day, bright and early.

    "Close," I said. "It's something to get stuck with. The idea `tail,' in Far Eastern symbolism, means `ego,' `personality.' The tail stands for `being-me-ness,' and no incarnated spirit, whether he comes as the Dalai Lama, or as Allen Ginsberg, Christ, you, the latest U.S. president, or me, can get away from the personality we happen to come equipped with. Cradle to grave, it's always there, constantly changing but never quite fading out. Concern for Number One can't help holding us back. I'm not going to cut my tail off, at best I can try being aware that I'm tied down by the appendage."

    "Did you read that somewhere?"

    Sure I read that somewhere. Zen doesn't believe in books, but there were forty thousand Zen books in print in Asia before the West started multiplying that figure. Most "official" Zen books, that is, most treatises published by qualified masters, list and somehow explain koans, a few quite openly. There's The Sound of One Hand, two hundred eighty-one koans and their answers, a work compiled by a genuine Zen master in 1916, and commented on by several genuine Zen masters since (some say it can do no harm; others say it should be burned), translated by the scholar Yoel Hoffmann, published by Basic Books in New York, in 1975. The original version of this telltale book was bought up and destroyed by several Tokyo Zen masters, but the publisher printed new editions. There was, and is, The Green Grotto Record, with a hundred koans explained by Zen masters Engo and Dai-e, tenth and eleventh centuries, and available in at least two English translations. There are Mumonkan and Kekiganroku, two classic koan collections translated and demystified by Katsuki Sekida, and published by Weatherhill in 1977. Big buffalo bulls and their restraining tails perform in these works.

    "It was Sensei's parting koan," I told Ben. "He was saying good-bye to us, his first disciples, whom he knew in Japan and who followed him out here to the Sorry hermitage. It shows that Zen teachers have egos, and that he was no exception. Sensei wanted us to know that all he did so blatantly wrong could not be helped. He excused his flopped show here. He showed us, by the bull's tail that would never pass the light of the enlightenment window, that part of him was stuck in the mud."

    "So what is the correct answer?" Ben asked, for all "little" koans have single correct answers. You've got to give them before the teacher of the Rinzai Sect, the sect that Sensei belonged to, releases you from the present stage of insight and provides the next "little" koan, which may clear up another minor aspect of Mu, the gateless gate, the subject of the real, the basic, riddle. ("Does the puppy dog have Buddha nature too?" the monk inquired of the priest Joshu. The priest said, "Mu," meaning "No.")

    The correct passing answer?

    "What you do," I told Ben, "is you shuffle a little closer to the platform, on your knees, smiling politely, and then you reach out, behind Sensei, and you give a terrific jerk on his robe, so that he almost tumbles over backward, and you say "Well now, you're pretty well stuck yourself, aren't you, old boy?"

    "That's all?"

    That was all.

    It was time to leave the pagoda. Ben put on his snowshoes too, and accompanied me a little way on the path to the village of Sorry. "So it was Sensei's good-bye koan, was it? His ego had pretty much tripped him up, broken his career as a teacher, and he wasn't going to waste any more of our time and effort? Or of his?"

"Possibly," I said. . . "You don't know for sure?"

    I said I had made it up. I knew nothing for sure. And I wished Ben-san "Bless Buddha." He turned back. It had started snowing heavily again.

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Table of Contents

The Good-Bye Koan 1
What Happened to Harry? 19
Who the Hell Was Buddha? 31
Sixty Zen Masters Can't Be Wrong 39
Joshu and the Old Woman 49
Then Carry It Along 57
Seeing into Your Nature and Other Pastimes 67
Bad Cop, Good Cop 81
There Are Lots of Little Ends 91
Liberating Western Thinking 99
Tomorrow Nobody Has Heard of Buddha 107
Gurus Waft in and Out - Only the Not-Guru is Real 115
999 Ways of No-Direction 121
It's the Only Way Rimpoche Could Stay Here 137
The Master's Feet Turn Right in Front of Your Head 151
Dreams 163
Three Nice Things 173
Emptiness Is Form 181
The Koans 189
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  • Posted January 22, 2013

    After many years of intense Zen study at monasteries around the

    After many years of intense Zen study at monasteries around the world, Mr. van de Wetering concluded there was nothing there and who he was was just fine. The irony here is that many Zen masters would probably nod their head in agreement as if to say ‘that’s what we’ve been trying to tell you for all these years’. How MR. van de Wetering came to this conclusion is a fabulously readable tale filled with interesting characters, interesting adventures and interesting place, all tied together through his interest and direct knowledge of Zen. The structure of the narrative is loosely based around a number of famous koans, with each chapter relating an incident that sometimes, more or less, sort of… (?) relates to the koan and his interpretation. While Mr. van de Wetering may not describe his lifestyle as ‘Zen-like’, the book makes it seem that his earlier pursuit of Zen did have a major impact on his life and in pushing him to realize and accept who he was. And the rest of us, especially his readers, are better off for it. Highly recommended. Readers who enjoy this book should also check out Bill Porter's "Zen Baggage."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2000

    An absorbing, first-person account of the author's life in and out of Zen

    van de Wetering's 'insider/outsider' account of his experiences with Zen is outstanding. Devoid of the usual details of many spiritual autobiographies, the author simply and often-humorously illuminates many of the principles (and problems) of Zen in his koan reflections and mondo-esque dialogues with both himself and other masters and 'questioners'. His comparison of Zen to Nietzche's understanding of nihilism is fascinating (though annoyingly brief). A thoroughly enjoyable book, particularly for those readers with some background in the topic.

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