Monday, July 27, 2009

Kaoru Nonomura's "Eat Sit Sleep": Book Review

"My Year in Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple," the subtitle explains. At 30, weary of the world, Nonomura tells of his year at Eiheiji, founded by Dogen in 1244. It reminded me often of Nancy Klein Maguire's recent "An Infinity of Little Hours" about five men who entered the Catholic equivalent, perhaps, the Carthusians. Whether Soto Zen or Charterhouse, a monastic life as its most ascetic, like marathon runners or Marines, attracts a few men young enough and driven enough to test their physical and emotional limits under extreme pressure. (For the Carthusian novices at St. Hugh's Parkminster in England 1960-65, see my review: "Swimming in Solitude's Cold Lake" May 4, 2006, Amazon US.)

Juliet Winters Carpenter translates this handsome 2008 edition of the 1996 bestseller in Japan. Nanomura in an afterword noted how he wrote it, standing or sitting, on the notoriously jammed commuter trains after his year; I admired the discipline he showed and the detail he evoked. Carpenter captures in English the quality I have found frequently pervading Zen practitioners in their prose: the poetic, resonant, evanescent, and tough-minded combinations that enable such as the monks at Eiheiji to endure considerable torment, mentally and spiritually, as they seek to detach themselves from cares by a brutal regimen meant to strip away their egos so as by habit, discipline, and sacrifice to find the purified, beautiful core.

Many natural descriptions capture beauty and harshness there. Snow falls "as if the sky itself had broken into a million pieces and was tumbling down on our heads." (287) "The monastery complex deep in the heart of the mountains was full of beautiful pools and shallows of darkness unknown to a city at night." (241) Zen seeks harmony, not conquest or overcoming nature, Nonomura reminds us; while no doctrinal discussions unfold within these sparely told pages, you do find insight by the setting into the extremes, not only of nature but of human endurance.

In subtlety, essence rests. The means is the end; denial and desire keep pursuing within us when instead, the monks strive to forget about self-satisfaction. They try to stop their longings, to listen to what remains afterwards. Difficult concepts to put into words. The year teaches him to "just sit." The moments follow each other, and it's useless to try to get used to sitting "zazen" or to get over the pain of it. The freedom in Zen, he finds, means "liberation from self-interest, from the insistent voice that says 'I, me, my.'" (292) In this, he learns the Buddha's lesson.

The nature of Eiheiji freedom, he sums up, depends on the beholder of it there. Shelter or holy place, the site sits there, century after century; "There is no compulsion to take up one view or the other." (281) Yet, when he sees himself bowed to in the eyes of first-year arrivals, or the gaze of elderly women whose sons or husbands died in WWII that come there to pray or sew washrags for the monks, who are charged with constantly cleaning their premises, Nonomura finds compassion, and humility.

However, he must sternly inculcate the ancient lessons of how to eat, sleep, pray, work, and defecate to the newest trainees. Those just above the entrants must force newcomers into shape quickly. The instructions for each task are exacting, and the boot-camp drill is told in fearsome and harrowing scenes. Nanomura came to the Zen temple expecting silence and meditation. What he finds during his first months: beatings, shouts, and punishments for the slightest infraction. But this is no masochistic regime, for the violence turns a "means of conveying living truth from body to body and mind to mind, a form of spiritual training and cultivation." (149)

Out of such reversals, you as the reader gradually learn to follow Nanomura as he adapts to the long day's routine, and to the necessary willpower, fortitude, and understanding he adopts as he figures out that the hundreds of "hows" perhaps lead to one simple "why": "Ascetic discipline at Eiheiji suppressed our desires to the point that the divide between body and spirit stood out inescapably forcing us to face this dilemma head on." (174) The mind-body problem, at the temple, reduces itself to this rationale for its willing trainees.

A few comments for the version we read; there's comparatively little on the "substance" of Zen-- I get the feeling that for the Japanese audience, Nanomura probably assumed more familiarity with its integration into the lives of some of those with whom he trained, who were preparing (details seemed vague about how long or how exactly) to return to take over their family's temple appointments on the outside. I also could not figure out how many monks lived there permanently as opposed to trainees, and how many, like the author, who came there by choice and not as a career choose to stay at the monastery for life. Finally, a few more endnotes were needed by the translator, who herself may have assumed a greater understanding of Japanese life than many of the English-language readers, like myself, may have.

P.S. A good companion to this, about running a Zen temple more along the lines of ancestral rituals than prolonged "zazen," is "Crooked Cucumber." For that, see also my recent blog post, and Amazon US 7-6-09 review of David Chadwick's biography of San Francisco Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki, whose career started as a temple priest in Japan and who spent time at Eiheiji: "Crooked Cucumber review". This "Eat Sit Sleep" review posted to Amazon US 7-23-09.

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