I have no personal involvement with Zen, but I've read a couple-- is "about twenty" considered "a couple," or does that qualify as "a number," or even "a lot?"-- of books about it. The first ones I read were recommended to me by martial artists, and were about the intersection of Zen and martial arts. Then I read some more because they were memoirs about living in Japan, and I'll pick up books on life in Japan regardless of their particular focus. (Both the books I'm reviewing here fall into that category.) Then I read some more because I'd become curious about the subject.

Like the "no it's not a religion it's a spiritual path" I was brought up in, Zen is elusive and hard to define. After reading those twenty-some books, I have an excellent idea of what life in a Zen monastery is like, or was like at the time of writing, but no firm grasp on the philosophy behind the practice. The point where it intersects with martial arts, apart from a historic connection, is the idea of being simultaneously focused on the present action and aware of what's going on around you apart from that action, and perhaps also of being simultaneously totally alert and totally relaxed/detached. Plus some people call martial arts a form of "moving meditation." There are certainly some striking correspondences between the way a lot of the Zen practitioners describe their feelings about and during their practice, and the way martial artists describe their practice.

So though the particular disciplines described in these books sound like nothing I'd ever want to do-- sitting still while being bitten by mosquitos, four hours of sleep a night, boring food, a regimented schedule with no time allowed for reading, and many more painful and annoying practices-- they do seem to produce a state of mind which I prefer to pursue in other ways, with a different philosophical backing, and toward a different goal... but still, on some level, a rather similar thing.

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering

This features one of the most unpromising blurbs I've ever encountered: "His personal experience in a Japanese monastery should be very encouraging for other Western seekers." --Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche, author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

The author was a young Dutch man who was obsessed with finding the meaning of life and especially with questions central to Buddhism: What is the point of living when some day we must die? How can we enjoy anything when all pleasures must end? Is not desire the root of suffering? Personally, I kept waiting for someone to say, "How can you enjoy eating that sandwich when it will be gone once you finish it? Doesn't that knowledge destroy the pleasure of the sandwich?" But maybe it does, if you're the sort of person who thinks that the existence of death invalidates life.

He goes to a coyly unnamed Zen monastery in Kyoto, in a coyly undefined time at least ten years after WWII, and there is given a coyly unrevealed koan to ponder. A koan is a puzzle which cannot be solved logically, and which has a number of possible interpretations. The most famous one is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I believe that the statement Saiyuki's Sanzo quotes, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," is also a koan. Sanzo provides one possible interpretation; a Zen expert in Mark Salzman's lovely novel on mentorship, creativity, and the search for meaning, The Soloist, provides another.

van de Wetering finds life in the monastery stressful and frustrating. He can't solve his koan, he doesn't fit in, and though he recounts a number of amusing anecdotes set in the monastery, he rarely gets outside, so there's virtually no sense of post-war Kyoto. At the end, he returns home, his koan unsolved. Whether he gained anything from the experience-- answers, enlightenment, perspective, disillusionment-- is left to the reader to decide. I found this lack of closure so frustrating that I looked him up. After leaving the monastery, he wrote two more books on his later experiences with Zen, and also a number of mystery novels, some of them set in Japan. Apparently he did solve his koan.

A Zen Romance: one woman's adventures in a monastery, by Deborah Boliver Boehm

Though this is also about a foreigner in a Zen monastery in post-war (1960s) Kyoto, it's more vividly written, funny, and has much more local color. Boehm did not go to Japan to study Zen or find the meaning of life, but met some monks while she was living in Kyoto and became so fascinated by them and their lives that she ended up spending a great deal of time at the monastery. She's also a rather overage virgin when she arrives, and her conflicted attempts to hang on to and get rid of her virginity make up a large part of the book. A lot of the content is similar to that in van de Wetering's book-- the culture clashes, the language difficulties, the practice, the inner state-- but it's all described in a far more engaging and lively manner.

The romantic aspects of the book sometimes succeeded in their portrayal of a woman struggling with her appetites-- in a monastery, no less-- and sometimes became annoyingly repetitive, when it begins to seem like every man she meets who isn't a monk or married makes a pass at her, and when she crushes individually on every monk she meets. Still, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and would recommend it regardless of whether you're interested in Zen or not.

I have no desire to ever study Zen or become a Buddhist, but I have to confess that some of my most memorable moments in Japan took place in monasteries and temples, like the time when the twang of a bowstring led me into a private garden and a conversation with a monk about the art of kyudo, or Japanese archery, which he described as a form of meditation.

Yesterday I remembered Koya-san-- the same Koya-san that X/1999's Sorata is from-- and missed it despite the unbelievable hassle of getting there, which involves about six trains, a bus, and a funicular. I remembered the amazing mushroom-intensive feast the monks served to the visitors at their temple, and the sweet old couple from Kumamoto who sat next to me and told me what everything was, and the two-thousand-year-old cemetary where the towering cedars looked and smelled exactly like the redwoods in Boulder Creek where I grew up. As I walked through the cemetery I was missing it already, because I could only stay for a day.

But isn't an ancient cemetery the perfect place to contemplate the transitory nature of things? If I was more detached, less attached, less a creature of desire, would the fountain of fan-shaped ginkgo leaves over the gray stones have imprinted itself so clearly into my mind's eye, so that I have the photo of it in my memory, even though I lost the roll of film I took in Koya-san? If I had that Zen awareness, perfectly seeing, perfectly perceiving, would that one pretty picture have stood out to me as much as it did, or would it have seemed no more or less worth noting than the beat-up bus stop I got off at-- just another brightly colored bit of illusion?

I desire to return to Koya-san.


ETA some pictures of Koya-san:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4901.html

http://www.kitaro.us/images/koyasan-011.jpg

http://homepage1.nifty.com/k-a_kawamura/WakayamaKoya.htm

http://www.protein.osaka-u.ac.jp/biophys/ensoku/koyasan/koyasan_images/hex5.jpg

http://www.chrisgroenhout.com/hires/holga3.jpg
I have no personal involvement with Zen, but I've read a couple-- is "about twenty" considered "a couple," or does that qualify as "a number," or even "a lot?"-- of books about it. The first ones I read were recommended to me by martial artists, and were about the intersection of Zen and martial arts. Then I read some more because they were memoirs about living in Japan, and I'll pick up books on life in Japan regardless of their particular focus. (Both the books I'm reviewing here fall into that category.) Then I read some more because I'd become curious about the subject.

Like the "no it's not a religion it's a spiritual path" I was brought up in, Zen is elusive and hard to define. After reading those twenty-some books, I have an excellent idea of what life in a Zen monastery is like, or was like at the time of writing, but no firm grasp on the philosophy behind the practice. The point where it intersects with martial arts, apart from a historic connection, is the idea of being simultaneously focused on the present action and aware of what's going on around you apart from that action, and perhaps also of being simultaneously totally alert and totally relaxed/detached. Plus some people call martial arts a form of "moving meditation." There are certainly some striking correspondences between the way a lot of the Zen practitioners describe their feelings about and during their practice, and the way martial artists describe their practice.

So though the particular disciplines described in these books sound like nothing I'd ever want to do-- sitting still while being bitten by mosquitos, four hours of sleep a night, boring food, a regimented schedule with no time allowed for reading, and many more painful and annoying practices-- they do seem to produce a state of mind which I prefer to pursue in other ways, with a different philosophical backing, and toward a different goal... but still, on some level, a rather similar thing.

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering

This features one of the most unpromising blurbs I've ever encountered: "His personal experience in a Japanese monastery should be very encouraging for other Western seekers." --Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche, author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

The author was a young Dutch man who was obsessed with finding the meaning of life and especially with questions central to Buddhism: What is the point of living when some day we must die? How can we enjoy anything when all pleasures must end? Is not desire the root of suffering? Personally, I kept waiting for someone to say, "How can you enjoy eating that sandwich when it will be gone once you finish it? Doesn't that knowledge destroy the pleasure of the sandwich?" But maybe it does, if you're the sort of person who thinks that the existence of death invalidates life.

He goes to a coyly unnamed Zen monastery in Kyoto, in a coyly undefined time at least ten years after WWII, and there is given a coyly unrevealed koan to ponder. A koan is a puzzle which cannot be solved logically, and which has a number of possible interpretations. The most famous one is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I believe that the statement Saiyuki's Sanzo quotes, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," is also a koan. Sanzo provides one possible interpretation; a Zen expert in Mark Salzman's lovely novel on mentorship, creativity, and the search for meaning, The Soloist, provides another.

van de Wetering finds life in the monastery stressful and frustrating. He can't solve his koan, he doesn't fit in, and though he recounts a number of amusing anecdotes set in the monastery, he rarely gets outside, so there's virtually no sense of post-war Kyoto. At the end, he returns home, his koan unsolved. Whether he gained anything from the experience-- answers, enlightenment, perspective, disillusionment-- is left to the reader to decide. I found this lack of closure so frustrating that I looked him up. After leaving the monastery, he wrote two more books on his later experiences with Zen, and also a number of mystery novels, some of them set in Japan. Apparently he did solve his koan.

A Zen Romance: one woman's adventures in a monastery, by Deborah Boliver Boehm

Though this is also about a foreigner in a Zen monastery in post-war (1960s) Kyoto, it's more vividly written, funny, and has much more local color. Boehm did not go to Japan to study Zen or find the meaning of life, but met some monks while she was living in Kyoto and became so fascinated by them and their lives that she ended up spending a great deal of time at the monastery. She's also a rather overage virgin when she arrives, and her conflicted attempts to hang on to and get rid of her virginity make up a large part of the book. A lot of the content is similar to that in van de Wetering's book-- the culture clashes, the language difficulties, the practice, the inner state-- but it's all described in a far more engaging and lively manner.

The romantic aspects of the book sometimes succeeded in their portrayal of a woman struggling with her appetites-- in a monastery, no less-- and sometimes became annoyingly repetitive, when it begins to seem like every man she meets who isn't a monk or married makes a pass at her, and when she crushes individually on every monk she meets. Still, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and would recommend it regardless of whether you're interested in Zen or not.

I have no desire to ever study Zen or become a Buddhist, but I have to confess that some of my most memorable moments in Japan took place in monasteries and temples, like the time when the twang of a bowstring led me into a private garden and a conversation with a monk about the art of kyudo, or Japanese archery, which he described as a form of meditation.

Yesterday I remembered Koya-san-- the same Koya-san that X/1999's Sorata is from-- and missed it despite the unbelievable hassle of getting there, which involves about six trains, a bus, and a funicular. I remembered the amazing mushroom-intensive feast the monks served to the visitors at their temple, and the sweet old couple from Kumamoto who sat next to me and told me what everything was, and the two-thousand-year-old cemetary where the towering cedars looked and smelled exactly like the redwoods in Boulder Creek where I grew up. As I walked through the cemetery I was missing it already, because I could only stay for a day.

But isn't an ancient cemetery the perfect place to contemplate the transitory nature of things? If I was more detached, less attached, less a creature of desire, would the fountain of fan-shaped ginkgo leaves over the gray stones have imprinted itself so clearly into my mind's eye, so that I have the photo of it in my memory, even though I lost the roll of film I took in Koya-san? If I had that Zen awareness, perfectly seeing, perfectly perceiving, would that one pretty picture have stood out to me as much as it did, or would it have seemed no more or less worth noting than the beat-up bus stop I got off at-- just another brightly colored bit of illusion?

I desire to return to Koya-san.


ETA some pictures of Koya-san:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4901.html

http://www.kitaro.us/images/koyasan-011.jpg

http://homepage1.nifty.com/k-a_kawamura/WakayamaKoya.htm

http://www.protein.osaka-u.ac.jp/biophys/ensoku/koyasan/koyasan_images/hex5.jpg

http://www.chrisgroenhout.com/hires/holga3.jpg
.

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