Thursday, 3 July 2014

Good Book: Eat Sleep Sit

Most books available in the West on life in Japanese monasteries are written by Westerners. Perhaps that's why they tend to take a star-struck, romantically uncritical view of the exotic practices they encounter. Eat Sleep Sit: My Year At Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple doesn't suffer from this quirk. Its author is Japanese, and that makes all the difference.

In the mid-Nineties, thirty-year-old Nonomura Kaoru entered Eihei-ji, the Vatican of Soto Zen. His motives were credibly vague; discussing them with his girlfriend, he gets out little more than "I'm uneasy". (Which is what drives most of us to monasticism – the Buddha called it "world-weariness".)

His friends react with anything but joy. In Japan, taking orders is considered rash and self-destructive, as radical and potentially suicidal as any forest ango. (Surprise!) One of them points out that cœnobites have a lower life expectancy than those outside the walls. But Nonomura persists, and his record of what ensues is both a powerful account of monastic awakening and an important corrective to misconceptions about Asian practice models.

The only honest term for the training Nonomura endures at Eihei-ji is "military":
Then the door […] abruptly opened. Before our eyes there appeared a monk, on his face a scowl so bitter that he might have been shouldering all the discontent in the world. Following the orders he barked at us, we each shouted out our name in turn, summoning all our strength to yell as loud as possible.
"Can't hear you!" he'd snap in reply. "If that's the best you can do, you'll never make it here! Turn around and go home!" [...] Again and again we raised our voices, yelling with such might that it seemed blood would spurt from our throats. [...] Finally I was left standing alone. With every shout my voice grew hoarser, making it harder and harder to yell. How much longer could this go on, I wondered.
It's all here: the hammer-headed machismo, the abuse masquerading as instruction, the barking-mad superiors. For months on end recruits are humiliated and beaten, forbidden to defend themselves or even cringe, and denied sleep, food, leisure, and hygiene. Some have to be hospitalised; some never return.

But Eat Sleep isn't just, or even primarily, an indictment. Nonomura – an excellent writer, speaking through a talented translator – also relates the moving beauty, the timeless wisdom (especially of Dogen), and the penetration of his own nature and that of the world, that he finds "inside". It's another gift of Nonomura's nationality, inured to gratuitous authoritarianism, and so able to see past it to great treasures. Even the abuse has a certain purifying effect:
Every time I was pummelled, kicked, or otherwise done over, I felt a sense of relief, like an artificial pearl whose false exterior was being scraped away… Now that it was gone […] I knew that whatever remained, exposed for all to see, was nothing less than my true self. The discovery of my own insignificance brought instant, indescribable relief.
Perhaps Nonomura's greatest strength as a writer is his unflagging respect for his readers, eschewing condescending exposition, certain we'll get it on our own. Unlike Western observers, he never endorses or justifies the terrorism. Nor does he credit it with the insights he eventually gains. He simply relates events and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. I found this especially useful, as the contrast between ends and means in this system is dramatic. Eihei-ji is ambiguous and contradictory moral ground, and Nonomura is content (and Zen enough) to leave it so.

I have a fantasy that some day, somewhere, a Zen monastery will be founded on the interlocking principles of anatta and humility. Aspirants in this renewed lineage will be required to study with equal zeal ancestral wisdom and the errors that have been committed in its name. Because if you don't have both, you don't have Zen.

As regular readers will have guessed, I'd like the books I review here to be included on that shelf. And teachers in that future Zen Centre could do worse than assign Eat Sleep Sit to each novice on entry, right alongside mu.
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