“When trying to understand the real mysteries, the brain stops short. The brain can contain neither the questions themselves, nor the answers. To come to real understanding to enlightenment, quite another instrument has to be used.”
– Janwillem van de Wetering
The Empty Mirror is Janwillem van de Wettering’s memoir of his time at a Japanese Zen monastery where he stayed for over a year in the late 1950s. Entering the monastery in search of his life’s purpose, he quickly learned about a way of life that was strenuous in its discipline, with monks putting in 20-hour days filled with often uncomfortable and long periods of work. This scene is the story of his first encounter with the monastic teacher, facilitated by an American translator called Peter, during which he had to perform the notorious task and formality of requesting entrance into the monastery.
I had read enough about Zen masters to know that they do not like long stories and prefer methods without words. According to the books Zen masters will shout suddenly, trip you up while out for a quiet walk, beat you on the head or say something which, apparently, doesn’t make sense at all. It seemed to me that it would be better to make my statements as short and concise as possible.
‘I am here,’ I said carefully, ‘to get to know the purpose of life. Buddhism knows that purpose, the purpose which I am trying to find, and Buddhism knows the way which leads to enlightenment.’ While I tried to explain my intentions in this way I already felt ridiculous. I felt that life must have a purpose, and it seemed very stupid to have to admit that I didn’t know the purpose of the creation of what is around us and also what is within us. But I didn’t know what else to say. To my surprise the master answered immediately. I had thought that he would be silent. When the Buddha was asked if life has, or does not have, a purpose, if there is or isn’t, a life after death, if the universe has, or does not have, an end, if we can speak of a first cause or not, he did not answer, but maintained a ‘noble silence’. He would have done that to indicate that these questions about life were not expressed in the right way. Our brains are given to us as instruments, capable of a specific, a limited task. When trying to understand the real mysteries, the brain stops short. The brain can contain neither the questions themselves, nor the answers. To come to real understanding to enlightenment, quite another instrument has to be used.
‘A joke,’ said the American, and stared seriously at me. ‘Life is a joke; you’ll learn to understand that sometime—not now, but it will come.’
Intuitive insight has to be developed by following the eightfold path, the Buddhist method. What Buddha wanted was in disciples should use the method which he had found and perfected. Buddha was a practical, a pragmatic man.
But the Zen master, in his simple grey gown, an old man wel into his seventies, but with clear glittering eyes, did not maintain a noble silence.
“That’s fine,’ he said. “Life has a purpose, but a strange purpose. When you come to the end of the road and find perfect insight you will see that enlightenment is a joke.’ ‘A joke,’ said the American, and stared seriously at me. ‘Life is a joke; you’ll learn to understand that sometime—not now, but it will come.’
I asked if I could be accepted as a disciple. The teacher nodded. His consent surprised me. Obviously the books which I had read about Zen were faulty, written by inexperienced writers. Zen masters, I had been assured, do not readily accept disciples. Admission is always apparently blocked by obstacles. The disciple is told that the master is too old, or too ill, or too busy, to accept new disciples. Or the disciple hears that he hasn’t developed himself sufficiently to become a disciple but that he can be admitted, temporarily, as a woodcutter or farm labourer.
I tried to formulate intelligent questions but they all boiled down to the same thing: does life have a purpose or not? 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… I can pour tea but you’ll have to produce a cup.
But no, I could be accepted. If (there was a condition) I was prepared to stay for eight months; during a shorter period I wouldn’t be able to learn anything. ‘I can stay three years,’ I said. ‘That isn’t necessary,’ said the master. ‘Three years is a long time in a man’s life. You do not have to commit yourself, or promise anything, but you should stay eight months. That period you’ll have to fix in your mind-you should get used to the thought that you have to be here for eight months. It isn’t easy here. We get up at three o’clock in the morning and we do not go to bed before eleven at night. We meditate a lot, there is work in the garden, there’s a lot of tension, and you’ll have the extra problem of being in a very strange environment. Everything will be different for you, the language, the way we sit, the food. You can’t make use of anything you have learned. But that is good; a little extra training will be all right.’
The master spoke for a long time, interrupting himself every now and then so that Peter could catch up with the translation. When he finished I thought this to be a good opportunity to ask a few questions. I tried to formulate intelligent questions but they all boiled down to the same thing: does life have a purpose or not? 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.’
Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008)
From: The Empty Mirror