Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gassho Jan-san

Janwillem van de Wetering has died. Although he rated only six short 'graphs in the NY Times, most of which focused on his authorship of the Grijpstra and de Gier detective novels, I knew him for another reason: his The Empty Mirror, a chronicle of his experience as one of only a few Western students in the (thinly-anonymized) Daitoko-ji Zen monastery in Kyoto in the early 1950s, was one of the first explicitly Buddhist books I ever read. Growing up in Nazi-ruled Amsterdam, the experience had, as he said "caused him to ask questions about life which no one could seem to answer." The book, written in a simple, nearly monosyllabic tone which probably resulted both from his translating from Dutch, and from his own sense of the subject, is a remarkablyl, courageously unvarnished portrait of what the post-WWII Zen monasteries--the places from which revered North American teachers like Suzuki-Roshi and Katagiri-Roshi came--were really like. As such, they were a very different experience than the "American Zen" which those latter teachers, to their great credit and lasting merit, created in North America. At Daitoko-ji, in a Japan still largely prostrate from the economic and psychological disaster of the war, the Zen experience was still deeply Japanese and deeply uncompromising: van de Wetering writes at length of how much he didn't understand, of how psychologically (and physically) difficult it was--his descriptions of the physical discomfort of sitting zazen and the psychological stress of the week-long silent retreat called sesshin, 20 hours a day of cross-legged meditation, were almost terrifying, but also about how profoundly the experience was right for him (he only winds up sitting the sesshin because he thinks, in can't follow the conversation when the teacher tells him, beforehand, that he doesn't have to do it).

I encountered this book around the age of 19--pulled it off the shelf of the "Eastern Philosophy" section of the old Wordsworth bookstore in Harvard Square where I was night manager--and was immediately struck by the essential sanity of the account: the sense that, behind the sore knees and the mental stress and the seeming "failure" of the experience (van de Wetering closes the book by describing his abrupt decision to leave the monastery and sail away on another of the tramp freighters that had brought him to Japan), there was a profound sanity and clarity in Zen's stark sense of the world.

Life is suffering. The First Noble Truth. No one escapes: sore knees or rotten pickles, the loss of a loved one or the the ride on cattle cars to the gas chambers. We are all going to suffer and we are all going to die.

But somehow this was liberating. It was liberating to finally have someone say "No: you don't suffer because you're 'bad', or because you've 'sinned', or because 'God intends it'. You suffer because suffering is inevitable and no one escapes." This book hit me like a bolt out of the blue, not just because, for once and finally in my life raised in the West, someone had found another way to "explain" suffering than the guilt/shame/blame axis of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But even more because of the shock of recognition that I felt: the sense "Yes: I always knew there was another way to look at the universe and our place in it." In the hard-nosed clarity and bedrock, concrete method of Zen (e.g., "sit down, shut up, and count your breath. Pay attention to what you're doing while you're doing it: work when you work, sleep when you sleep, die when you die. Recognize that choices have consequences. Don't ask too many questions--watch and learn."), I caught my first glimpse of another way of experiencing the universe, one that made it possible to integrate all the aspects of existence--work and play, writing and talking, thinking and acting, eating and sleeping, teaching and learning--as part of a sacred way.

It's no coincidence that the other great Zen inspirations of my life have their own connections to van de Wetering: my great hero Gary Snyder is the "poet Gerald" who The Empty Mirror portrays and gently teases, and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, chronicle of an expedition to the Himalayas in the wake of Mattiessen's wife's death of cancer, was the other "first" book I encountered written from a Zen perspective.

Accepting the reality of suffering and the inevitability of death, coming to celebrate the way that, as Natalie Goldberg says "Death is howling at our backs and Life is roaring in our faces", is a profound liberation. It lets you live life as it is, and seek to make it better as it is.

Because it's going to end soon enough.

Janwillem van de Wetering taught me that.

Gassho, Jan-san.

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