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Does practice have to be torture?
Eat Sleep Sit: My Year At Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Kodansha International, 2009
328 pp.; $24.95 cloth
Near the end of Kaoru Nonomura’s memoir about his year at Eiheiji, Japan’s elite training temple for Soto Zen priests, his friend Choshu suddenly declares that he is leaving the monastery to attend college. “What made you decide to do that?” Nonomura asks, surprised. But the question seems disingenuous. From the beginning, Nonomura and his fellow trainees are slapped, slugged, kicked, and shoved down flights of stairs. Climbing back up only earns them more kicks and blows from monastery officials, as does virtually any violation of protocol, however minor—even eye contact with a superior. A better question might be, “Why on earth would you stay?”
As described by Nonomura, such violence (which also includes sleep and food deprivation so bad that trainees are frequently hospitalized) is pervasive and unrelenting in the lives of Zen initiates at Eiheiji. Even when the hazing does let up somewhat, it remains an urgent concern: Nonomura and his fellow trainees, having completed the first part of their initiation, are expected to brutalize the newer recruits. It speaks well of Nonomura that when a nervous newbie inadvertently catches his eye in a corridor, he can’t bring himself to administer the requisite blow. Nevertheless, Nonamura seems unwilling to recognize that something has gone fundamentally awry in the traditional training of would-be monks at Eiheiji.
Or is he? That is the question I struggled with throughout “Eat Sleep Sit”: Does or doesn’t Nonomura recognize the pathology inherent in the centuries-old system of hierarchical one-upmanship and ritualized abuse that characterizes traditional Zen monastic training in Japan, no matter what occasional spiritual insight might be gleaned along the way? That he gleans such insights in the course of his training is a matter of self-report, and all in all they seem worth it to him. But the story Nonomura wrote in red ballpoint pen while commuting every day to his design job in Tokyo is at odds with the story he tells with his feet—shortly after his friend Choshu’s decision to leave the monastery, Nonomura decides to leave as well. The message of the pen seems to be that a do-or-die approach to Zen training is worth every drop of blood and tears you put into it. The feet, however, say that Eiheiji may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there for a second longer than absolutely necessary. Which story is the real story? It isn’t clear. And therein lies the magic of the book.
At the heart of “Eat Sleep Sit” lies a profound ambiguity, experienced by postmodern people the world over, about age-old religious traditions that seem to embody profound spiritual truths even while they lack any real congruence with the world outside their walls. It was that ambiguity that drove millions of Japanese to embrace “Eat Sleep Sit” when it was first published in Japan in 1996—readers who, like the pre-Eiheiji Nonomura, probably had no idea what really happens behind the remote and venerable façade of Japan’s most famous Soto Zen temple. That ambiguity is also likely to engage readers of the English edition (gracefully translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), because the fundamental question raised by the book—is religion worth all the trouble it puts us through?—is the koan of our age.
With its endless parsing of Zen minutiae and overlong disquisitions by Eiheiji’s founder, the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen Kigen, “Eat Sleep Sit” doesn’t offer an answer to that koan. And the afterwords to both the Japanese and English editions also fail to reveal one. Fortunately, that is not the same as saying there is no final payoff for Nonomura’s efforts.