Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Zen: The Boot Camp

Zen. It’s a word so much bandied about, in our Western culture, with often so little understanding that it has come to mean, to paraphrase the Red Queen, whatever we want it to mean. Most of us agree, though, that its many associations encompass a special kind of discipline of mind, a special kind of formal perfection in all things material, and an acknowledgment of the irreducible enigma of human existence.

Now learn about Zen as it is practiced in the training monastery at Eiheiji in Kaoru Nonomura’s book, Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple, originally published in Japanese in 1996 and recently translated into English—(and not to be confused with Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”) Nonomura, renamed Rosan for his life as a Zen monk trainee, chose to drop out from the Tokyo business rat race at the age of thirty in order to find deeper meaning for his life, and signed up instead for a demanding existence of hard work, spiritual practice and self-denial at Eiheiji. As we find out from his story, he got more than he bargained for.

I have always admired what I have known about Zen, but I have honestly never warmed to it. Rosan’s experience helps me to understand why. To describe Eiheiji as boot camp does too much honor to the US Marine drill sergeants, who seem positively avuncular by comparison with these monks. Subjected to a daily regimen of constant physical, verbal and emotional abuse, sleep deprivation, and illness-inducing dietary insufficiency, the trainees at Eiheiji are required to perform every task to perfection or risk the kicks, beatings and tongue lashings that rain down upon them at the slightest deviation from accepted standards.

The rules are written down in the 13th century text by Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism. They are prescriptive down to the last detail and cover everything from washing the face and use of the toilet to the sounding of each bell and gong—and there are many of these at Eiheiji, each sounded for a differently prescribed occasion at a differently prescribed moment in the day. The rules are also inflexible. They must be learned and followed. Infraction is punishable, and punished without mercy. The same with procedures for cleaning, sitting, serving, eating… A new trainee may not make eye contact with an older one, but hurry past with eyes averted and hands clasped in respect. Eye contact, even inadvertent, is rewarded with an immediate cuff and a shouted rebuke.

Rosan’s narrative in this short book is as crisply detailed as the monastery’s rules, following the day-to-day physical existence of a trainee and describing the rituals and practices with such precision that we are drawn in to feel actually present and engaged ourselves. We feel the hard edge of the winter’s cold and the incessant pain in legs and knees that accompanies motionless sits that last for days on end. There comes a point when you begin to wonder, in all this insistent physical detail, where the spirit enters into this religious life—and then you remember that, for the Zen practitioner, the spirit is precisely IN the physical detail. It’s a matter of surrendering the distractions of self and the self’s needs, and paying unwavering attention to what is there—even if only the blank surface of the wall in front of you—or to the task at hand. “Eat Sleep Sit” provided me with an experience as close to Zen as I’m ever likely to come.

As a footnote to this reading, I happened to tune in to "Nova" last night on the television, and found myself watching a marvelous episode, Secrets of the Samurai Sword. It's a fine reminder of the symbiosis between Zen practice and others aspects of Japanese culture. In the sword-making process, strict attention to detail and observation of ritualistic detail, from the preparation of the steel to the honing of the sword's edge, assures a quality unmatched in any other part of the world. Distinctions between craft and art vanish in this process, as do traditional distinctions between matter and spirit. In the context of our culture of mass production and mass consumption, the patience, focus, and insistence on perfection leave the viewer awe-inspired and nostalgic for a time when such qualities were valued.


Al said...

The discipline (at a dysfunctional level) has as much to do with it being a JAPANESE Zen monastery as it has to do with it being Zen.

Zen in other places is not necessarily as unbalanced.

PeterAtLarge said...

Yes, Al, I do get that. If I suggested otherwise, mea culpa. Good to find your blog: I have added a link to my blogroll.

Al said...

The food thing is what gets me the most. I read "The Empty Mirror" and the issue of bad food comes up again and again. "Bad" as in "insufficient for healthy life."

Discipline is one thing but making people sick is just...odd.

Thanks for the addition.

PeterAtLarge said...

Al, re: food, have you come across this video?

mandt said...

Poor old Rosan, found too much dust on his For a better view of Dogen's Zen read Uchiyama Koso's "Opening the Hand of Thought."

khengsiong said...

If I were not mistaken, there are two major forms of training in Zen - koan (riddle) and zazen (sitting meditation). The latter is probably less rigorous.

Al said...


What makes you think that Soto is probably less rigorous?

Tornadoes28 said...

I also read the Empty Mirror and also wondered about the severe punishment related to unhealthy diet and extreme sleep deprivation. Other then that I love the simplicity of Zen practice.

Gary said...

This sounds like the BUDS training I was required to
endure without the choice of ringing the bell for the Navy needed hospital corpsmen to serve with the SEALS in NAM. I discovered the limits of human endurance are quite high when the alternative is death or prison. We did learn to eat anything that can be digested but our physical health was not compromised by bad food.

This Zen practice must not be a part of Mahayana practice which leads to enlightenment or awakening through meditation. Is it related to the Shaolin practice?

They call him James Ure said...

That's why I follow Thich Nhat Hanh's style of Zen. As far as I know it's not brutal in that way. I agree with you that at some point the whole big picture seems lost with that kind of punishment.

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release_in_extremity said...

Hi Peter,
I saw your blurb in Tricycle, so congrats for that!

I'm inclined to agree with Al that the book shows an extreme example of zen that's not typical. I did one sesshin and while I found it more intense and less friendly than vipassana groups I do, I thought it was refreshing and nice. Of course that's not everything either but I think there are a lot of levels of zen.

For James, I get confused about Thich Nhat Hanh. In American Buddhism, there seems to be "Japanese zen," a little "Korean zen," a tiny bit of "Chinese zen" and then "Thich Nhat Hanh zen." What about Vietnamese zen? I feel like he and his niece get a lot of cult-like followers -- which is not a comment on you! I've just met some of them and...I don't like it. I saw his niece speak and I found her both infantile and patronizing and she only paid lip service to the audience she acted like she wanted to engage with. So I'm just feeling irked by them right now, but I've liked a lot of TNH's books.