At age 30, Kaoru Nonomura left his girlfriend, family and job to study Zen for a year at Japan’s most rigorous monastery. We Westerners often equate Zen with “peaceful and tranquil,” so that idea probably sounds like a nice, relaxing retreat.
But, as Nonomura writes in his memoir “Eat Sleep Sit,” the year was anything but comfortable. The monks at Eiheiji Monastery regularly beat and berate novices who fail to follow every one of thousands of rules that dictate everything from how monks sleep to how they go to the bathroom.
While the title evokes Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat Pray Love,” the books couldn’t be more different. Gilbert traveled the world, indulging her passions in search of herself; Nonomura meditated and swept the floors in a remote monastery, where every task and teaching is aimed at effacing the self.
I know enough about Zen to expect that life in the monastery is difficult and often dull, but the level of violence in Nonomura’s book was shocking. And I was a little surprised that Nonomura related relatively few “insights” about what he learned at Eiheiji. He was kind enough to answer some questions about those and other aspects of his book via e-mail from Japan. His essay is below in bold.
I can’t tell you how many questions I’ve had since this book was first published (Japanese first edition published in 1996). I’m not a Zen scholar or a great Zen priest. All I can tell you are the things that I myself experienced.
First, one thing I want you to realize is that the world described in the book is a world of traditions. Eiheiji, although it exists today, it exists within that “traditional” world.
Yes, I was beaten, kicked, and pummeled, and it was a shock to me too. But in Japan, where a student or disciple studies something traditional with a master, such as a traditional performing art or craft, this kind of physical beating is normal.
Traditional teachings are usually passed down through the generations in a kind of book, a training manual if you like, known as a “densho” in Japanese. Traditionally only experienced students with special permission from the master were allowed to read it. Beginning students were forbidden to read it. For beginners, being beaten by the master is a way of having lessons physically drummed into you. I touched on the subject of “Buddhist Revelation” in the book. It means that long ago basic Buddhist teaching was forbidden to be transmitted by the written word; it has to be memorized with the body.
When Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen sect, went to China as a young man, he was scolded by his master for his attachment to the written word. When he asked his master what is the written word, his master replied “one, two, three, four, five.”
The brand of Zen practiced at Eiheiji holds that “Dignity is itself the dharma. Propriety is itself the essence of the sect” and this belief forms the basis of ascetic training. Having the laws of Buddhism physically drummed into the body is the first gateway, and without this initial experience you cannot proceed further with ascetic training.
Through this method, first you crush the self, until the body and the spirit have reached an empty place, and then the lessons of Buddhism can start to be absorbed. There’s no polite instruction manual, no inspiring speeches, just fear and stress. You learn from seeing with your eyes, from feeling with your skin, from having the lessons drummed into your body.
I still believe that this feeling of teetering on the edge, at being at the end of your tether is the only way to get the basics of Buddhist teaching drummed into you in a short space of time. So when I was hit by my superiors, their aim was not to oppress us, to wound us. Whether you want to call it “violence” or not is up to you. I don’t know. It’s something that exists in that traditional world. It’s part of how teachings are transmitted at Eiheji.
In Japanese the word for ascetic training-shugyo-has a nuance of pain, of strictness, and we Japanese people are a race that find truth and beauty in this concept. We Japanese don’t consider taking a yoga class at the gym as “ascetic training”.
As for why I left home to take monastic orders, well I talk about that in the book. If there’s anything you didn’t understand about that, it’s probably because I didn’t understand it myself. People who need to ask this question probably already have the answer inside themselves. They will doubtless receive the same answer as their own conclusion.
I’m not saying, like Wittgenstein, that “what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” I believe that to have an answer to everything is not what this world is made of. Perhaps this is more of an Eastern point of view.
What I got from ascetic training at Eiheiji still remains in my body. At least I think it does. But it doesn’t matter.
The training that I undertook at Eiheiji, that is to say the “process,” as Dogen called it, does not have a result as such. The process itself is the aim.
So if you’re asking what Zen is, I would say it’s the process of realizing that there’s a small common truth out there, but there is no “result,” it is purely the “process” and unless you abandon everything you cannot achieve this realization.