What is religion, and what is faith?
Most Westerners have a deep and profound misunderstanding of Zen. There is an image of calm monks “being one” with things, in a relaxed state of serenity, with some sort of special insight lacking in the hustle and flow of the busy modern day world. This is the picture sold to us by dealers in Orientalism, who emphasize the “otherness” of Eastern cultures and want you to participate in their weekend seminar of “detoxification and relaxation.”
The truth of Zen, the harsh discipline, the manual labor, the emphasis on the repetition of overly-complicated ceremonies for simple activities like going to the bathroom, is not such an easy sell. This aspect of the religion is mostly ignored by Westerners, who do not want to expend the physical effort to achieve the longed-for mental state. Nonomura Kaoru’s “Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple” is, thus, a real eye-opener.
Unlike other books in the same vein, such as A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, “Eat Sleep Sit” is not really here to explain Zen Buddhism. It is much more of a personal memoir, of a record of what happened over the Nonomura’s year as a monk-in-training at Eiheiji, one of Japan’s two major training centers of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. Much of the book is little more than an explanation of the day-to-day mundane activities Nonomura was forced to perform. And that is what makes it excellent.
The Soto sect has a reputation as being the “kinder, gentler” form of Zen Buddhism, in contrast with the Rinzai sect which was also known as “Samurai Zen,” as the harshness of its training appealed to the warrior caste. However, to those unfamiliar with true Zen Buddhism will probably find Eijeiji’s routine strict enough. The beatings by senior monks, the mindless and slavish adherence to ancient rituals, the breaking of the slightest of which brings swift and harsh punishment, are all designed to break down the ego and sense of self of initiates, reducing them to the empty vessel required to enter the empty state of Zen.
Nonomura takes the reader through the same process. Instead of attempting to “explain Zen,” which cannot be explained at any rate, he shows you the path. He takes you through the tasks and ceremonies, the manual labor and punishments, because that is how one gains insight. Even though “Eat Sleep Sit” is not specifically about Zen Buddhism, I learned more about the mind-set of monks than I have learned from any number of books that more directly explain the religion.