Detecting Zen: The Novels of Janwillem van de Wetering

In Zen studies, the representation of this religion in the “west” has been a hotly debated topic for some time now. Debates on the particular western understanding of Zen as a “philosophy” or even a “universal experience” have tended to focus on either the non-fiction of “initiates” like Daisetz Suzuki or Alan Watts, or on the presentation of Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and other members of the so-called “Beat” generation.
This project takes another angle. It examines how ideas about Zen were spread in popular novels not ostensibly “about” this tradition, using Janwillem van de Wetering’s bestselling detective novels (published from the 1970s-1990s) as a case study. Drawing both on my work on Van de Wetering’s “Zen trilogy,” a series of memoirs describing the author’s experiences living in various monastic environments, and my study of how a bestselling Japanese novel represents Zen as the “Way of the Samurai,” I examine how these novels reconcile the teachings of Zen with detective work and violence. In doing this, I begin to uncover the roots of contemporary understandings of Buddhism as “mindfulness,” i.e. a technique that can be applied to any type of activity regardless of its moral content.

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