I was first required to read this title in an Introduction to Buddhism course in undergraduate school. Since then, I have read probably two dozen books on Zen and/or Buddhism and I owe it all to 'The Empty Mirror.' The author has done a great job of describing life in a Zen monastery, the Zen koan, and it's a great introduction to the religion/philosophy. I'd recommend it to any student of religion, philosophy, or Zen Buddhism or anyone wanting to expand their knowledge on Buddhist monastic life. Janwillem Van de Watering does a good job of keeping the reader interested with light humor and a mix of day-to-day experiences during his stay at the monastery.
I read this book when I became fascinated with the literature of retreat and monastic practice. Besides being a good introduction to how a Zen monastary in Kyoto operates, Empty Mirror is a heartfelt examination of one man's struggle to find meaning in life, and meaning in his search for meaning. Anyone who has wandered the path of truth will have had times when s/he wonders: what is this for? what am I accomplishing? what have I learned? will this mean anything to anyone but me? what is the larger meaning? Jan-san (as the author is called by his fellow monks) is totally honest in his account of his stay in Japan. His monastic life is mixed with occasional days off visiting brothels and eating food outside the monastary gates, while within its walls, the monks and master crack jokes, goof off, watch TV and share cigarettes. Empty Mirror can at times be disillusioning, but only in the best way possible: the author approaches his new surroundings and genuine attempts at truth-seeking with that wonderful Western virtue of skepticism. A quick, memorable book that reads as much like a novel as it does a memoir.
The major thing about this book is that it portraits life in a Zen monastery and the people there as really not so outlandish (for the uniniciated westerner) as one (I) would have believed them to be. You get to know much about Zen-Buddhism and also much about the effort of the author to find a right way to live. But probably the most enlightening bit of information for me was that serene Zen-masters also like to watch baseball on TV and laugh about jokes like everybody else. That made this encounter with Zen and the struggle of a person with the meaning of life so readable for me.
I read this when I first became interested in Buddhism and found it inspiring. On reflection, it is obvious that van der Wetering is a writer at heart, and he forges something like a story from his struggles and experiences. Having, in a less serious way, also gone on retreat in Asia (Thailand in my case) I recognise the sense of confusion trying to come to terms with truth in an alien culture. It seems to me that this book is inspiring because it does not attempt to hide that confusion and ambiguity. The sequel, A Glimpse of Nothingness, is also worth a read if you like this.
There are a lot of books about spirituality and Buddhism flooding the bookstores. They have their own shelves, their own sections... heck, they even their own bookstores. So why should one buy "The Empty Mirror" and not one of the many others that promise wisdom and enlightenment? Because in comparison this one adds a bit of realism to the lofty and idealistic view of spiritual practice found otherwhere. It is about the experience of the author, a westerner, in a Japanese Zen monastery in the late 50's. So what is described in this book is spiritual practice as authentic as it can be. It should be noted that this experience wasn't really a positive one. The main lesson of this book probably is that there is more to Zen than just seminars for managers and soft life improvement for the average desperate housewife. Zen originated as monastic practice in Japan and what is today seen as Zen in the west is often quite different from the original. At the same time it shows that understanding of Zen in the west was lacking back in the 50s. Sadly it's often still lacking today. People know about koans and enlightened masters, but only little about where Zen came from and how it was practiced before its journey westward. Above all, the expectations concerning Zen are often very unrealistic. I think this book can set many things straight in this regard. This is a book everyone seriously interested in Zen Buddhism should read. It provides perspective apart from the glossed over descriptions that are prevalent in much of today's spiritual literature, while still being written well enough to guarantee an interesting and sometimes even funny read.
My friend recommended to me Janwillem de Wetering's The Empty Mirror. After having read it I ordered also A Glimpse of Nothingness. Both are very good and sharp books. Now I have ordered the third one: Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear. I have not yet got it. Seldom this kind of books are very good. Wettering is critical in an exiting way. I'm a Sotoman, but I much liked these books telling about the training according to Rinzai tradition.