“The Empty Mirror,” by Janwillem Van De Wetering
I just finished The Empty Mirror, a young Dutchman’s memoir of spending 18 months in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery in the 1950s. It’s remarkable.
Jan struggles with the physical and mental discipline of life in the monastery. It’s engrossing to see this time capsule within a time capsule, a continuation of spiritual life from medieval Japan reenacted in post-war times.
But what I liked best about the book are the short Zen stories. As I’ve written in my own teaching book, stories are powerful teaching tools, and that’s probably why seemingly every religious tradition uses them. (Some would dispute that Buddhism is a religion, rather than a philosophy. Either way.)
The stories recounted in The Empty Mirror do not disappoint. These are my two favorite. This first comes after Jan asks the master if life has a purpose or not – his whole reason for coming to Japan and going to the monastery:
The master shook his head. “I could answer your questions but I won’t try because you wouldn’t understand the answer. Now listen. Imagine that I am holding a pot of tea, and you are thirsty. You want me to give you tea. I can pour tea but you’ll have to produce a cup. I can’t pour the tea on your hands or you’ll get burnt. If I pour it on the floor I shall spoil the floormats. You have to have a cup. That cup you will form in yourself by the training you will receive here.“
(p. 11) Here’s the second story, the one whose lesson I try to put into practice every day:
In China a Zen master travelled with a few disciples to the capital and camped near the river. A monk of another sect asked one of the disciples of the Zen master if his teacher could do magic tricks. His own master, said the monk of the other sect, was a very talented and developed man. If he stood on this side of the river, and somebody else stood on the other side, and if you gave the master a brush and the other a sheet of paper then the master would be able to write characters in the air which would appear on the sheet of paper. The zen monk replied that his master also a very talented and developed man, because he too could perform the most astounding feats. If he slept, for instance, he slept, and if he at, he ate.
(p.20; emphasis mine in both) This singleminded focus is exceedingly difficult for me. Life is full of distractions and I want to indulge them all. But my daily practice now includes trying to just do one thing at a time. I’m not sure that it makes me at all more efficient. But I do feel it’s making me a bit more mindful, which is obviously the point.
Today, trying to focus on doing just one thing at a time feels a bit like being a 20-something Dutchman studying at a Japanese Buddhist monastery. It’s hard to submit to the discipline; the frustration is palpable. And unlike in the monastery, escaping the practice of mindfulness - by checking email or visiting Reddit – is an effortless, private escape, rather than the public failure of leaving the monastery for good.
What’s the future of mindfulness? I have to think that, if we want anyone to be mindful – including ourselves – it’s stories like this that remind us that it’s a goal worth pursuing. Even if the work is hard, the goal elusive, and the hot tea spills on the floormats.