Better known for his detective novels featuring Adjutant-Detective Henk Grijpstra and Detective-Sergeant Rinus de Gier, detectives of the Amsterdam homicide division, Dutch author Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) also wrote a set of three books about his experiences as a Zen student. This, Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student out on His Ear, is the last.
The book is not arranged chronologically. Each chapter takes a koan, or Zen riddle given as part of a student’s study, as its theme. As a brief example, in describing a student who seems to have achieved near perfection, the author asks, “Where does one go from atop a 150 foot pole?”
The first line of the first chapter then tells the reader, “Koans are vastly overrated.” The author recounts hearing this during a chance encounter with a Hindu teacher while snowed in at Boston’s Logan Airport. The same teacher states that overdoing meditation while sitting in a double or half lotus position is “a pain in the ass.” While he wonders if it isn’t the teacher who is overrated (there is jealousy among religions) van de Wetering reluctantly confesses—at least to the reader— that prolonged sitting in meditation (zazen) has indeed given him chronic hemorrhoids. It’s an unnatural position that puts stress on the human rectum. Preparation H is common in Zen monasteries. How many books on Zen are going to tell you that?
In a narrative of this sort, a collection of memories rather than a straightforward chronology, it’s to be expected that people wander in and out. It takes several mentions of that person to make a complete story. The reader hears the story of the author’s early days in studying Zen and well as his disillusionment and departure. He presents stories of haunting tragedy (“The Master’s Feet Turns Right in Front of Your Head”) and joy, as there always is, but no meaning—only life and the author’s appreciation of it.
The story of van de Wetering’s introduction to Zen is told in the chapter titled, “Who the Hell Was Buddha?” The question is answered in an unexpected way, a Zen sort of shock therapy. The author describes his arrival at a Japanese temple:
“My introduction to Zen was in the Japan of the late fifties, in the temple city of Kyoto. No pollution, no gridlock. Things were like they were supposed to be, as I innocently walked into my Far Eastern dream. The temple my karma led to me was Daitoku-ji, a vast Buddhist complex built long ago in an even more ancient style, that of T’ang Dynasty architecture copied from Chinese records. Sloping roofs swept up at the corners, plastered walls with slate tiles, statues of ego-destroying monsters guarding monumental gates, raked rock and gravel compositions, evergreen trees and bushes carefully cut, carefully maintained moss gardens, giant goldfish in shallow clear ponds, curved bridges—it was all there, the ideal background of monks and priests on geta, jazzy sounding wooden clogs, and in simple robes under shiny shaven heads. Seeing this mystical splendor, I stopped doubting whether I would find at least some answers.
“…There was a huge copper bell, complete with wooden hammer, and I hit it. I felt like an actor in a classic Japanese movie. Were spiritual samurai going to come out to lead me to an enlightened master? I stood in awe. The booming sound of the huge bell brought out the monks, who were in awe too, for that bell is only hit on important occasions. It wasn’t New Year, there wasn’t a forthcoming gathering of high Zen officials, and it wasn’t the Buddha’s birthday; it was just me…”
Not understanding the furor he caused at the time, he later expresses gratitude toward the monastery’s abbot who accepted him when everyone else was ready to throw him out after his unintentionally rude behavior.
While the book seems to wander, the reader finds himelf/herself on point. This is beautifully, simply told. Reading the earlier books may prove of some benefit in understanding, though this stands easily on its own.
An earlier version of this review appeared on another site that is now defunct. It has been rewritten and expanded for its inclusion in Examiner. Speaking of which:
DISCLAIMER: I regret to say that it has become necessary to include this, but so it has. The material above was written by me, Denise Longrie, and no other. It is intended for atombash.com only. If you are reading it elsewhere, please be aware that you are doing so because it was appropriated without the author’s consent or knowledge and the website you are reading it on is ripping her off. Thank you.