California Literary Review

Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple by Kaoru Nonomura

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July 21st, 2009 at 9:49 am

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Eat, Sleep, Sit by Kaoru Nonomura
Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple
by Kaoru Nonomura
Kodansha International, 328 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

Dharma Drills

Why drop everything—a decent job, girlfriend, your family—and embrace rigor and sacrifice at a Zen Temple? Kaoru Nonomura, author of Eat Sleep Sit, never directly tells us why he goes to Eiheiji, but he brings us inside the walls and describes the year he spent there with remarkable detail and clarity.

First published in Japan in 1996, the memoir has been well received, especially in Asia, encouraging Kodansha International to recently distribute a translated edition in Europe and the US.

Although a good deal of Nonomura’s narrative exists in recounting the temple’s austere dos and don’ts (“You must not fill the bucket to the top . . . . Do not take the towel with you into the bath . . . . Do not eat from the center of the bowl.”), the learned disciplines render a mindset of remarkable consonance and calm.

Consider this leveling:

There is no differentiation between means and end. Monastic discipline is not something done in order to gain enlightenment; rather, the faithful observance of monastic discipline is enlightenment, in and of itself. It cannot therefore be left to others, but must be performed with one’s own body and mind. In the words of Dogen: ‘Dignity is itself the Dharma. Propriety is itself the essence of the house.’

The style isn’t sprawling, nor the tone chatty, but, then again, neither is the subject matter. While it’s a stretch to juxtapose this with Elizabeth Gilbert’s more breezy Eat, Pray, Love (published in 2006 to some acclaim), you wonder if the focus of Nonomura’s concern is a bit too neat and easy. What’s at stake? And so what if it’s meaningless that life is meaningless? So what if you’re alone in the freezing dark?

Sure, it’s about the discipline, the practice itself, but I wanted more of a beginning, an emotional center, and certainly more of a reentry than simply hopping back on the train to work. In all fairness, this is an honest book and there are moments and kernels that sound hard-won. Yet despite the high-level of detail, there was simply too much exposition and faith put into the sheer novelty of the frame. Nothing about how the author conveyed his journey struck me as visceral or compelling.

Not even this:

Every time I was pummeled, kicked, or otherwise done over, I felt a sense of relief, like an artificial pearl whose false exterior was being scraped away—an exterior that previously I had struggled fiercely to protect, determined not to let it be damaged or broken. Now that it was gone and I had nothing left to cover up or gloss over, 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.

Well-explained, but where is the pathos? Even the most empathetic reader would have to work too hard and imagine too much to feel included in this experience. If the language is dispassionate, it is also unsurprising and distant. Losing yourself only to reclaim yourself is not novel, but you’d expect a year at Eiheiji described from a particular point of view and in great detail to spark a fresh direction, even if the diary-like nature of the account is flat and lacks exigency.

“Looking back, I wonder what it was that led me to turn my back on the world in the first place,” Nonomura admits in the Afterword. I wondered this from the outset, though I would have been happy enough to dwell more in the question as a driving force, allowing the searching to breathe into the motivation.

Towards the close Nonomura imparts only a glimpse of what we’ve had to assume through the majority of the narrative:

Without a plan to restart my life, I felt trapped, cornered. As I neared thirty my mind began to fill with a dead weight that no comfort could relieve, and every aspect of society around me became increasingly irksome and repugnant. It was around then that the word shukke (“leaving home”: renunciation of the world to take Buddhist vows) first crossed my mind. Why it did, I had no idea. It was like tripping on a stone and then, instead of continuing on one’s way, stopping to pick it up.

The answer is not much and surely not enough to drive the narrative some 300 pages. What would’ve been lost if this was made more believable at the beginning? In the pilot episode of the 1970s television series Kung Fu, the protagonist Kwai Chang Caine, as a young boy, spends days in the rain awaiting entrance into the Shaolin Temple. He is hungry and homeless and his parents are dead. We understand his need and want him to walk the rice paper without leaving a trace. His actions and words often yield a lesson, even if it’s conveyed through Master Po asking a question. What’s more, we’re brought into scenes that are convincing and revealing because there is enough room for us to also participate in their creation.

Despite my misgivings about Eat Sleep Sit, Nonomura’s courage in going to Eiheiji is admirable. Regardless of how much his experience is made available to us, we might bend a bit to the laconic realization drawn from the outcome. He tells us, after all, that at last he is “capable of tears,” and presumably, we trust, closer than ever before at being alive.

  • Robert Scott

    I thought the book was perfectly written. The pace and simplicity of the narritive of the book, along with the stark realism is part of the story. It is not supposed to be “Kung-Fu”-like television entertainment. The book does not seek to gain anything, as the author of the review apparently does. That, in itself, is some evidence that the lesson of the book is lost on some.

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