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.