Adventures of a Zen Student Out on His Ear

By Janwillem van de Wetering

Norton. 194 pp. $21.95

Reviewed by David Guy

From Zen's early beginnings in 7th-century China comes an astonishing poem that seems to deliver the whole of the teaching in a series of pithy couplets. "The Supreme Way is not difficult," it begins, "it just precludes picking and choosing." Several lines later, it echoes that sentiment with a different focus. "Don't pursue worldly concerns, don't dwell passively in emptiness; in the peace of absolute identity, confusion vanishes by itself." On the one hand, the poet is saying, we can be too caught up in worldly success; we chase it as if it matters, when it will soon turn to dust in our hands. But we can also get obsessed with the dust, convinced that nothing matters. We must find between these two, as the Buddha famously said, a Middle Way, in which we live our lives fully but don't care what happens.

Janwillem van de Wetering recognizes this Middle Way. In a passage that stands out brightly in this often grim book, he describes the "antique" masters: "Thinking nothing of their careers, futures, possessions, wives or sweethearts, offspring, aged parents, spiritual status, Zen folks would go all out to do the best they could think of under any circumstances, and be unconcerned about any results." He wonders what happened to that spirit in the austere, difficult and often humorless Zen he practiced, first in Japan and later in Maine.

Van de Wetering is a beloved writer in the world of Zen. He detailed his experiences in Japan in The Empty Mirror, which is naively and often painfully honest; though it speaks of apparent failure -- he never solved his koan (a training question that some Zen students take up in their meditation) -- it has the open hopeful feeling of a successful experience. A Glimpse of Nothingness, on the other hand, which tells of his return to Zen in Maine and his eventual solution of the koan, is less successful as a book. Van de Wetering writes with the free-floating improvisation of a jazz musician, and the earlier book seems clearer just because everything is so new. (Van de Wetering is also well known as a mystery writer, creator of the Grijpstra-de Gier series, which takes place, for the most part, in Amsterdam.)

Afterzen is being billed as a third volume in a Zen trilogy but comes across as a jaded look back at the whole experience. Van de Wetering is an older man now, successful at least as a writer. But he no longer practices Zen, and the experience seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth. One problem is that he approached it with an agenda: "I just wanted my nihilistic theories confirmed by living masters." That was what he looked for, so that was what he found. But the real problem seems to be that he had one good teacher, the Japanese man he calls Roshi in this book, and one bad one, the American he calls Sensei (who had studied under Roshi in Japan).

Zen teachers are famous for their eccentric behavior, trying to get their students to quit figuring things out and just live. But Sensei -- at least as he is presented here -- took such behavior to a loutish extreme, as if rudeness and boorishness represent wisdom. Roshi, on the other hand, never confirmed that the young man had solved his koan but extended a deep acceptance toward him, and a kindness, that van de Wetering has always remembered.

Sensei was the more recent teacher, however, and van de Wetering hasn't gotten over him. In Afterzen, he looks back on his experiences by examining a series of koans. My understanding of koans is that they are irrational puzzles whose purpose is to take the student beyond the process of thinking, but van de Wetering treats them as clever riddles that are difficult just because they have left some clues out. A series of hoaxes, like everything else in life.

That doesn't leave him with much to believe in, or much to do. Nothing matters, so like a dispirited old man he does nothing (except keep writing). But there is another way to see things, that of those ancient Chinese masters: Nothing matters, so they did everything. Everything crumbles, so it is all the more precious while it is here. The old man who wrote this book would do well to take another look at the old teacher he wrote about in The Empty Mirror. That man took endless pains over his young student, even as his own body was failing him. But when the young man screwed up, he just laughed.

David Guy's most recent book is "The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex."