I want to say a few words to commemorate the passing of Willem Van De Wetering, an author who died this summer on July fourth and I only found out about it in the last couple weeks.
He wrote what was for me a very influential book about his Zen practice. The first: “The Empty Mirror which came out in 1974 just as I was coming to New York and it was a big impetus in my willingness to actually begin practicing rather than read yet another book about Zen.
I believe he was born in 1931 so as a child, a teenager he went through the Second World War. He grew up in the aftermath of the war and his interest in Zen grew out of that post war experience of deep disillusionment with what had happened and what everyone believed in and what it had come to.
And in the mid 50’s he found his way to Japan where was able to practice in one of the sub temples of Kyoto monastery that welcomed foreigners and that was in the same temple at that time with Gary Snyder. I was just looking back at a copy of “The Empty Mirror” this morning where it describes his first interview with his teacher when he wants to be admitted to the monastery to be allowed to practice. And the teacher asks him “Why do you want to practice”?
And he answers “I want to find out the purpose of life. I know that Buddhism has the answer and I need to find it”. In a way it was a symptom of what a terrible state he was in to even ask such a question. Your life has to be very fractured fundamentally split from itself to ask “What’s its purpose?”. You ask the purpose of something only when your life has gone in some fundamental way awry. When it becomes this strange thing we don’t know what to do with. And it was interesting that the master responded to this question by saying “Life does indeed have a purpose, but you’ll find it is a very strange purpose and that after years of practice you might come to realize that enlightenment is a joke.” This was a funny thing to say to somebody on the first interview entering the monastery. More than most people can take in or can understand but he wrote two more books about Zen.
The first was “A glimpse of Nothingness” about his experience in the Rinsai community in Maine of Walter Nowick in the 50´s and a third book called “After Zen” which indeed is really a book of Zen jokes, somewhat bitter and cynical jokes looking back at a lifetime of practice from a very different vantage point.
My sense in looking back at these books now and looking back at his life in a way focuses on the kind of distress that it tells people to practice in the first place - and how strange it is in some way that one would do this intensely, disciplined, rigorous practice in order to answer a question like the meaning of life as if it was something that could be learned or earned only through intense effort and physical pain. And one of the things I remember about that book when I read it back in the 70”s is how much it emphasized how much Zen was about pain in your knees not just creating funny exchanges between masters. It made it very real, very physical and in some ways it was also something an ordinary person can do: they would have a very hard time but they could do it. I found that in it own way inspirational.
I think that over the course of the three books that he wrote on Zen you see him evolving his whole sense of what practice is for and what we count as an answer to his original question about the purpose of life. And in a way you see that the whole function of practice is really in the end not to answer a question like that but to dissolve it. And we answer the question about a purpose when there is a deep fundamental separation between ourselves and our lives and all that rigorous practice in a sense serves to immerse us almost involuntarily in the immediacy of our experience. There is nothing like pain to get you to be in the present. But it is the feeling of that gap, that separation that turns out to answer this question.
But what Zen provides, what enlightenment looks like turns out to be so very different at this end of the journey and than what we can see or any other subject than we could imagine decades ago. It is very much a different thing when enlightenment is embodied or represented by a Japanese man in exotic robes with mannerisms from a whole different world and culture than when the teacher turns out to be someone not so very different from you. What has been struggled for, what has been attained? - if anything at all.
This summer I got the chance to go out to give a talk at the Zen Center of San Francisco. And before I got there I paid a visit to Michael Wenger a teacher some of you know. He has taught and he has practiced there for many decades. He came to speak a few times at our Zendo on 86th street. We have a calligraphy downstairs he did in the Zendo. Over the years he collected more and more of these, hundreds of these that he has stacked up which he like s to show off. He is about my age give or two a few years and He practiced there for many years but he has very advanced early onset Parkinson disease.
He invited me over for dinner and he ordered in a pizza to be delivered sitting around his kitchen table and he was slicing up this pizza and as he sat there talking it soon became obvious he could not eat the pizza. He wasn’t able to get a piece of pizza from the plate to his mouth because of the severity of his Parkinson. But after a lot of unsuccessful attempts and you know I would ask him if I could cut that for you or do something but he just said “Well no, no I can’t do this right now: I have to stand on my head – one thing helps when something is shaken when I am upside down”. So we went out in the hall and he lie down on his back and put his feet over his head to stand on his head and I sat down in the hall next to him and we just got talking with him upside down. And we did that for 20 minutes or so and sure enough after a while it was shaken down and he came back in and he was able to eat a slice of pizza.
And I think that the answer to Van Der Wettering’s original question is displayed there. Not the kind of answer we thought we were going to get. It doesn’t look in any way esoteric or enlightened by any stretch of the imagination that we might have had 30 years ago. All it was, was a complete non separation between himself and this condition he finds himself in.
It is very simple: How do you handle yourself in the midst of “This” when “This” can be anything. It can include nothing more than to be able to hold a piece of pizza. And that turns out what a lifetime of Zen practice enables you to do.
I don’t know if I would have begun practice if I had thought that was what it was about at the beginning. I needed the carrot or something much more special to begin this practice and to chase it. We all need our fantasies in some way or another to be engaged in this practice to cure all our curative fantasies in order to begin. But we are all getting older together now and I think we need one way or another to be much more realistic about our practice and what it is about.
And I am very grateful to Van De Wetering for engaging, stirring up, mobilizing my fantasies of Zen practice 30 years ago, so I could start down this path many years ago to get much more realistic about what practice is and I am very grateful to Michael to to show where it ends up.