Book written by Janwillem van de Wetering
So few independent bookshops exist anymore, it is hard to believe the Mystery Lovers Bookshop was such a going concern a mere twenty five years ago. They managed to host author talks with a true who’s who of mysteries around 1990. More often than not, whatever the weather, the small store was crowded with fans as writers pontificated about their works and lives. (They remain a going concern– go there whenever you are close.)
Among the literary notables, Janwillem van de Wetering stood out for his foreignness and unique store of personal experience which he described entertainingly. To be honest, I think his description of his mysteries as being about two detectives in Amsterdam solving mysteries through Zen (or were they Zen mysteries solved normally?) felt somewhat lost in translation.
At the time, I knew nothing of the history of the relationship between Holland and Japan, let alone more than a faint glimpse of Buddhism. As it turned out, van de Wetering started out writing non-fiction about his experience joining a Zen temple in Kyoto as a young man.
The mysteries sounded difficult, which they are not. They are fantastic. Be that as it may, I tracked down his first memoir and was enthralled. Few writers about any mystical experience are so forthright about the challenges, odd moments, and general silliness. He does a tremendous job describing hardship while avoiding the implicit message that he has been a martyr. Really, van de Wetering simply did this thing and it was rather different from things that you might have done, so you might be interested. Perhaps that is the nature of Zen, in that it defies that piety that we assume of the faithful (which does a disservice to the dedication required of monks). On the other hand, the experience described in The Empty Mirror sounds horrible, at least for someone steeped in modern conveniences. A week doing without is one thing… add in tolerating a strict instructor…
As a younger man, for whatever reason, I always assumed that one did not write about his life until he had lived to some advanced age. Granted, that probably deprived us of some interesting narratives by the short-lived, but there you go. So, what to think about the serial memoirist? Janvillem van de Wetering was charming and kind in that single brief encounter. He wrote two more books about his experiences with Zen later in life and they make good reads as well, more time spent with an old friend catching up. David Sedaris and Bill Bryson have mined similar territory by living and then talking about it on the installment plan. And then, here we are, with the blog, this ongoing commentary on whatever we happen to be doing at the time. I can’t imagine van de Wetering blogging his way through his initiate phase at the temple any more than I can imagine any of the more creative types out there blogging as they go through life, and yet they are.
Could The Empty Mirror as a thoughtful piece of work exist in the moment? Consider a world in which you have the ongoing description of the experience followed by the thoughtful retrospective consideration. Surely we lose interest in the latter if we have been following the former. Do we then lose something for posterity? Perhaps even the ability to consider and learn from our history?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 259 more to go.
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