The Empty Mirror
Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery
By Janwillem van de Wetering
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1973 Janwillem van de Wetering
All rights reserved.
The gate of the monastery, a chicken, and a vendor of noodles
The gate of a monastery in Kyoto, the mystical capital of Japan. Tokyo is the wordly capital, but Kyoto is a holy city, so holy that it was saved by the American bombers in exchange for the Japanese promise that there would be no antiaircraft guns. Kyoto contains eight thousand temples, mostly Buddhist. I was facing one of these temples, a Zen monastery. I was alone, twenty-six years old, neatly dressed, washed and shaved, for I was applying for a job as a monk, or lay brother. It was a hot morning in the summer of 1958. I had put down my suitcase, which contained only some clothes, books and toilet gear. The taxi which had taken me there had driven off. Around me I saw grey-white plastered walls, about six feet high, topped with tiles made of grey baked clay. Behind the walls were beautifully shaped pine trees, cut and guided by trained and careful hands; behind these rose the temple roof: flat-topped, with sides that sloped down and then turned upwards abruptly at the ends.
I had only been in Japan for a few days. The Dutch ship which brought me from Africa via Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong had left me in Kobe.
No contact addresses, no acquaintances of acquaintances, no letters of introduction. I did have money, enough for about three years of careful living with a short burst of extravagance now and then. I didn't stay in Kobe, but traveled to Kyoto, an hour's journey by train. I had seen the green Japanese fields, greener even than the green of Holland, mottled with grey advertising boards which, because I couldn't read them, had a surrealistic effect. I had studied my fellow passengers: the men in European, somewhat old- fashioned suits and white shirts, most of them without a tie; the women in kimonos, small and submissive but with sparkling, curious eyes. Perhaps I seemed curious, too, for they covered their mouths with their hands, looked down and tittered. I understood that although in Europe my size was normal, I was a giant here, a giant and an outsider, a representative of a minority. A student, in a uniform which reminded me of photographs of World War I, addressed me in bad English. Was I a tourist? Yes, a tourist. "My country is beautiful," he said. Yes, I could see that. The conversation halted. We smiled at each other, I was given a cigarette which tasted good. I looked out of the window again.
I had been told that Kyoto is a city of temples. Temples and monasteries. Mysterious buildings with puzzling contents. Buildings full of wisdom. And that was what I was looking for. Wisdom, peace, indifference of a high order. Every monastery has a gate, a door, an opening which admits those who look for wisdom, provided the seekers are sincere and honest.
I now looked at the gate in front of me, a wooden structure in the classical Chinese style, with an artfully shaped roof of tiles, and many embellishments; really a small building in itself. The massive doors stood open.
I studied the temple street again. I wasn't alone any more. A chicken walked around my feet, busily looking for food in the sand. In the distance I saw a man approaching, pushing a mobile food-stall, and the wind brought me the smell of fried noodles. He was turning a wooden rattle, and the musical sound would have cheered me up if the thought of the gate hadn't depressed me. In the monastery nobody knew of my arrival. The previous night I had slept in a small hotel. The doorman spoke English, and I had asked him for the address of a Zen monastery, an active monastery, where Zen could be studied. He had looked at me as if my question bewildered him. That type of monastery wasn't open to the public. Why didn't I go to this place or that place — there were gardens there, and statues for anyone to look at. If I liked he would get me a guide; they were proud of their city and he would show me many interesting sights. But I wanted to study Zen.
He didn't understand me. He thought I wanted to spend an afternoon interviewing a Zen master, that I was a journalist, looking for a story. The idea of my wanting to live in a monastery to become a monk if necessary, to stay for years, seemed beyond him. But I got an address and some directions.
His explanation of how to get there was too intricate for me, so I took a taxi. And now I was where I wanted to be. The noodle-vendor had reached me. He stopped his cart and looked at me invitingly. I nodded. He started filling a bowl with noodles and vegetables. The smell was very good. He hesitated, then offered me a pair of chopsticks; he didn't have a spoon. I didn't know the price and offered him a handful of coins. He hissed politely, breathing in, and selected from my palm a sum equivalent to sixpence. When he saw that I could handle the chopsticks he bowed happily. A noodle which he had dropped to the ground was attacked by the chicken as if it was a living worm, and we both laughed. Well, I thought, the people are not unkind here. Maybe I should give it a try. And I pulled the bell, a huge green-copper bell which hung in the roof of the gate. The noodle-vendor gave a start, bowed hastily, and started pushing his cart away. Later I found out that the bell was holy, only to be used during certain religious ceremonies. Visitors were supposed to enter without announcing themselves. To experience this moment I had made my journey, and broken with the life I had lived up till then. This was the beginning of a new life, a life which I could hardly imagine. A solemn moment. Here I was, new born, a blank page. At once cheerful and nervous, I walked into the temple garden and saw the monastery in its full glory, lower part no longer hidden by the protecting wall. It seemed cool and unchallengeable, sunk in an unassailable peace. It was as if it had grown up from the ground as part of the garden, a garden without flowers, laid out with rocks, shrubs, trees and neatly raked paths. And moss everywhere — many varieties of moss, from soft grey to deepest green. Quiet, peaceful colors. The monk who came towards me didn't seem at all peaceful. I had difficulty in recognizing this apparition as a man of the present time. A ludicrous dwarf, on wooden sandals supported by laths, so that he walked about two inches off the ground. With his wide black gown, drawn up in a white belt so that his legs showed to just below the knees, he might, at first sight, have been taken for a woman, a washerwoman or a charwoman, interrupted while busy with buckets and mops. He approached quickly and the wide sleeves of his gown flapped nervously about him. His head had been shaved and his smile, the refuge of every agitated Japanese, seemed tinny because his teeth were made of silver.
A few paces from me he stopped and bowed. This bow was quite different from what I had got used to. The Japanese always bow when greeting you, but usually quickly and from habit, without much care — the back is bent and then returns to its normal position. But this bow was solemn and almost military. He kept his hands on his thighs and bowed stiffly from his waist, so that his hands glided down far below his knees. I imitated the bow as well as I could.
"Good day," the monk said in English. "What do you want?"
"I want to meet your master," I said. "I want to ask him if I can be allowed to live here."
Although I spoke slowly and clearly, he appeared not to understand me. I pointed to my suitcase, and then at the temple. He followed my explaining index finger and looked at my face, but comprehension had not yet dawned. We looked at each other for a few seconds in silence, and then he gestured to me to follow him.
In the temple porch he pointed to my shoes, and I took them off. Then he pointed at a statue of Buddha, visible between the open temple doors made of latticework and paper. I bowed in front of the Buddha just as the monk had bowed to me. Then we climbed the wooden stairs together and I was taken to a room where he left me alone. To reach this room he had to open two doors, sliding doors moving between wooden rails. Each time he knelt on the thick straw mats which form the floor of Japanese rooms, opened the door respectfully, waited till I had entered, and then repeated the ceremony at the other side of the door to close it. I was on holy ground. There were no chairs in the temple room and I sat down uncomfortably on the floor. I should have liked to light a cigarette but there was no ashtray and I thought that it would be impolite to smoke in such surroundings without having been invited to. Behind me was a niche, built from unpainted and unplaned wood which could have been smooth, thin tree trunks or thick branches; it contained another statue, this time a lifesize image of a Japanese or Chinese monk, in the meditation position of the double lotus. His glass eyes stared, unfocusing, towards the floor, gazing at a point about nine feet away. Nobody came in and I had time to observe the statue at my leisure. There was a striking difference between the Buddha statue in the temple porch and this monk. The Buddha appeared loving because of its faint smile; it exhaled peace, mixed with compassion. This monk seemed different, powered by will, more intense. The lips were drawn in to an expression of tremendous concentration, aimed at a subject which couldn't be of this earth. A superhuman force came from this statue, an intense energy. But the two statues also looked alike in a way, for both were free, free of any care which can be felt or imagined. Later I was told that this statue represented the founder of the monastery, a Zen master who lived in the Middle Ages, one of the most spectacular characters from the history of Zen.
The wooden master intrigued me, but when his glass eyes began to frighten me, I turned and looked outside. It was a warm day and the garden doors were open. Behind me smouldered incense, and the heavy smell calmed my mind. The doors gave on to a veranda behind which I could see a rockgarden with a pond where red goldfish swam about in a leisurely way, nibbling at pieces of bread which had been thrown into the water. Suddenly a monk came past, mopping the veranda. He was pressing on a large rag with flat palms, while moving his legs quickly. He made me think of a scene in old-fashioned comedy film. A little later he came back, moving in the same fashion, and this time he looked like a large bug or water-beetle. Although I was gazing at the garden I still saw the wooden statue of the master and I felt threatened by the will power of the man. I couldn't know then that he was the legendary master who, having become a master after many years' training, didn't use his title, but made himself unfindable for twenty years. He lived with the dregs of society under the bridges of Kyoto and didn't show any outward sign of being different from them. The emperor, a follower of Zen, heard that a great master was hidden in his city. A rumour went round that the master kept company with the scum of the city. The emperor was told that the master fancied a certain type of melon. The emperor disguised himself, took a basket full of melons and walked through the city till, under a bridge, he found a beggar with remarkable sparkling eyes. He offered the beggar a melon and said: "Take the melon without using your hands." The beggar answered: "Give me the melon without using your hands." The emperor then donated money to build a temple and installed the master as a teacher.
I remembered, sitting in the temple room and waiting for someone to show himself, that I had heard that looking for God is a twofold movement. The seeker tries to find a way by climbing painfully, but he is, without at first being aware of it, pulled up as well. It would be nice, I thought, if this strong master would make a little effort and guide me towards the higher regions.
While I was thinking the monk came in. I made a confused bow, and the monk nodded and gestured in an inviting manner.
We returned to the porch, where I put on my shoes again. After a short walk through a pathway, roofed in the same way as the gate, we arrived at a small house. I understood that this must be the house of the monastery teacher. I had read that Zen masters live apart and do not worry about the running of the monastery. The daily routine passes them by; their task is the spiritual direction of the monks and other disciples whom they receive every day, one by one.
We came to another porch and I saw a pair of large sized western-style shoes standing between the Japanese sandals. The monk pushed the door aside and disappeared. I was in a room with an old Japanese gentleman and a young wide- shouldered westerner who looked at me attentively. I bowed, in the prescribed manner, and was acknowledged by two friendly nods.
"Sit down" the westerner said in American-sounding English. I estimated him to be in his early thirties and it struck me that his jeans and striped summer shirt didn't clash with the surroundings. "My name is Peter," the American said, "and you are lucky that I was in the neighborhood, because the only language here is Japanese. The master would like to know why you want to put your suitcase in the temple hall." After that the conversation was between the master and myself. The American translated and didn't comment on anything that was said.
I had read enough about Zen masters to know that they do not like long stories and prefer methods without words. According to the books Zen masters will shout suddenly, trip you up while out for a quiet walk, beat you on the head or say something which, apparently, doesn't make sense at all. It seemed to me that it would be better to make my statements as short and concise as possible.
"I am here," I said carefully, "to get to know the purpose of life. Buddhism knows that purpose, the purpose which I am trying to find, and Buddhism knows the way which leads to enlightenment." While I tried to explain my intentions in this way I already felt ridiculous. I felt that life must have a purpose, and it seemed very stupid to have to admit that I didn't know the purpose of the creation of what is around us and also what is within us. But I didn't know what else to say. To my surprise the master answered immediately. I had thought that he would be silent. When the Buddha was asked if life has, or does not have, a purpose, if there is, or isn't, a life after death, if the universe has, or does not have, an end, if we can speak of a first cause or not, he did not answer, but maintained a "noble silence." He would have done that to indicate that these questions about life were not expressed in the right way. Our brains are given to us as instruments, capable of a specific, a limited task. When trying to understand the real mysteries, the brain stops short. The brain can contain neither the questions themselves, nor the answers. To come to real understanding, to enlightenment, quite another instrument has to be used. Intuitive insight has to be developed by following the eightfold path, the Buddhist method. What Buddha wanted was that his disciples should use the method which he had found and perfected. Buddha was a practical, a pragmatic man.
But the Zen master, in his simple grey gown, an old man, well into his seventies, but with clear glittering eyes, did not maintain a noble silence.
"That's fine," he said. "Life has a purpose, but a strange purpose. When you come to the end of the road and find perfect insight you will see that enlightenment is a joke." "A joke," said the American, and stared seriously at me. "Life is a joke; you'll learn to understand that sometime — not now, but it will come."
I asked if I could be accepted as a disciple. The teacher nodded. His consent surprised me. Obviously the books which I had read about Zen were faulty, written by inexperienced writers. Zen masters, I had been assured, do not readily accept disciples. Admission is always apparently blocked by obstacles. The disciple is told that the master is too old, or too ill, or too busy, to accept new disciples. Or the disciple hears that he hasn't developed himself sufficiently to become a disciple but that he can be admitted, temporarily, as a woodcutter or farm laborer.
But no, I could be accepted. If (there was a condition) I was prepared to stay for eight months; during a shorter period I wouldn't be able to learn anything. "I can stay three years," I said. "That isn't necessary," said the master. "Three years is a long time in a man's life. You do not have to commit yourself, or promise anything, but you should stay eight months. That period you'll have to fix in your mind — you should get used to the thought that you have to be here for eight months. It isn't easy here. We get up at three o'clock in the morning and we do not go to bed before eleven at night. We meditate a lot, there is work in the garden, there's a lot of tension, and you'll have the extra problem of being in a very strange environment. Everything will be different for you, the language, the way we sit, the food. You can't make use of anything you have learned. But that is good; a little extra training will be all right."
The master spoke for a long time, interrupting himself every now and then so that Peter could catch up with the translation. When he finished I thought this to be a good opportunity to ask a few questions. I tried to formulate intelligent questions but they all boiled down to the same thing: does life have a purpose or not? The master shook his head. "I could answer your questions but I won't try because you wouldn't understand the answer. Now listen. Imagine that I am holding a pot of tea, and you are thirsty. You want me to give you tea. I can pour tea but you'll have to produce a cup. I can't pour the tea on your hands or you'll get burnt. If I pour it on the floor I shall spoil the floormats. You have to have a cup. That cup you will form in yourself by the training you will receive here." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Empty Mirror by Janwillem van de Wetering. Copyright © 1973 Janwillem van de Wetering. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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