Kaoru Nonomura is one of a relative handful of people to have completed a year of training at Eiheiji, one of the strictest Zen monasteries in the world. Established by 13th-century Buddhist monk Dogen, to this day Eiheiji operates largely on the rules of discipline laid down by Dogen, with detailed rituals for everything from sleeping positions to toilet use. The details of every activity are clearly spelled out, and every trainee is expected to meet the rigorous standards. Failure to perform tasks properly results in the trainee being verbally abused, slapped, punched, kicked, or all of the above.
Eiheiji’s training program is not a lavish retreat for those who dabble in Buddhist philosophy; it is a black hole into which students cast their individual personalities and desires in order to serve all sentient beings. As Nonomura explains,
“…by allowing no latitude for personal feelings whatever, but forcing us to fit ourselves body and spirit into an unforgiving, constricting mold, the experience obliged us to give up all attachments.” The privilege of training at Eiheiji requires a serious and long-term commitment, and is appropriate only for those who are prepared to “do everything for the Dharma, do nothing for yourself.” You won’t find Hollywood celebrities signing up for admission to this program.
Why would a successful young man give up his job, family – his life - in order to be starved, beaten, and humiliated? “I’d grown weary of my life,” Nonomura tells us early in his story, although further information about this is provided in one of the Afterwords. It’s enough to know that Nonomura had given considerable thought to his choice. He could have changed jobs or cities. He could have practiced sitting meditation in his own home, or attended a pleasant retreat at Eiheiji. Instead he gave himself over to the brutal regimen at Eiheiji, from which escape is possible but also unthinkable.
Often we assume that people like Nonomura are dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment. In fact, the purpose of pursuing the path of Zen is to travel beyond the impermanent trivialities of everyday life. “Freedom in Zen means liberation from self-interest, from the insistent voice that says ‘I, me, my.’”
Those of us raised in cultures where we are encouraged to value our unique abilities, to develop our own skills and talents, or to be all that we can be find the philosophy of Soto Zen incomprehensible. We cringe at Nonomura’s description of life at Eiheiji. Certainly we would never submit ourselves to the harsh treatment those monk trainees endure. For that reason, Eat Sleep Sit is an incalculable treasure, allowing readers to step inside not only the monastery but also the mind of the dedicated trainees and monks.
Nonomura’s simple, elegant, and evocative writing style in the gifted hands of translator Juliet Winters Carpenter conjures vivid images of the men and the place. Despite the intent to lose himself, Nonomura’s devout faith and hunger for understanding burst from the pages. So, too, do the personalities and enchanting quirks of the monks and other trainees as the year passes.
Eat Sleep Sit must be read without attachment for those people or for our own notions of fair play and dignity. Kaoru Nonomura offers us a rare and valuable gift in this intimate look inside the walls of Eiheiji. He shares with us the understanding he gained there, and as with any gift, this one should be received with gratitude and grace.