Thursday, 16 July 2009

Zen: The Boot Camp

Zen. It’s a word so much bandied about, in our Western culture, with often so little understanding that it has come to mean, to paraphrase the Red Queen, whatever we want it to mean. Most of us agree, though, that its many associations encompass a special kind of discipline of mind, a special kind of formal perfection in all things material, and an acknowledgment of the irreducible enigma of human existence.

Now learn about Zen as it is practiced in the training monastery at Eiheiji in Kaoru Nonomura’s book, Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple, originally published in Japanese in 1996 and recently translated into English—(and not to be confused with Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”) Nonomura, renamed Rosan for his life as a Zen monk trainee, chose to drop out from the Tokyo business rat race at the age of thirty in order to find deeper meaning for his life, and signed up instead for a demanding existence of hard work, spiritual practice and self-denial at Eiheiji. As we find out from his story, he got more than he bargained for.

I have always admired what I have known about Zen, but I have honestly never warmed to it. Rosan’s experience helps me to understand why. To describe Eiheiji as boot camp does too much honor to the US Marine drill sergeants, who seem positively avuncular by comparison with these monks. Subjected to a daily regimen of constant physical, verbal and emotional abuse, sleep deprivation, and illness-inducing dietary insufficiency, the trainees at Eiheiji are required to perform every task to perfection or risk the kicks, beatings and tongue lashings that rain down upon them at the slightest deviation from accepted standards.

The rules are written down in the 13th century text by Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism. They are prescriptive down to the last detail and cover everything from washing the face and use of the toilet to the sounding of each bell and gong—and there are many of these at Eiheiji, each sounded for a differently prescribed occasion at a differently prescribed moment in the day. The rules are also inflexible. They must be learned and followed. Infraction is punishable, and punished without mercy. The same with procedures for cleaning, sitting, serving, eating… A new trainee may not make eye contact with an older one, but hurry past with eyes averted and hands clasped in respect. Eye contact, even inadvertent, is rewarded with an immediate cuff and a shouted rebuke.

Rosan’s narrative in this short book is as crisply detailed as the monastery’s rules, following the day-to-day physical existence of a trainee and describing the rituals and practices with such precision that we are drawn in to feel actually present and engaged ourselves. We feel the hard edge of the winter’s cold and the incessant pain in legs and knees that accompanies motionless sits that last for days on end. There comes a point when you begin to wonder, in all this insistent physical detail, where the spirit enters into this religious life—and then you remember that, for the Zen practitioner, the spirit is precisely IN the physical detail. It’s a matter of surrendering the distractions of self and the self’s needs, and paying unwavering attention to what is there—even if only the blank surface of the wall in front of you—or to the task at hand. “Eat Sleep Sit” provided me with an experience as close to Zen as I’m ever likely to come.

As a footnote to this reading, I happened to tune in to "Nova" last night on the television, and found myself watching a marvelous episode, Secrets of the Samurai Sword. It's a fine reminder of the symbiosis between Zen practice and others aspects of Japanese culture. In the sword-making process, strict attention to detail and observation of ritualistic detail, from the preparation of the steel to the honing of the sword's edge, assures a quality unmatched in any other part of the world. Distinctions between craft and art vanish in this process, as do traditional distinctions between matter and spirit. In the context of our culture of mass production and mass consumption, the patience, focus, and insistence on perfection leave the viewer awe-inspired and nostalgic for a time when such qualities were valued.


  1. I was watching this documentary about how they used to make swords in feudal Japan after the introduction of Zen. The time and effort and skill that was put into each and ever sword was absolutely incredible.

    "Most of us agree, though, that its many associations encompass a special kind of discipline of mind, a special kind of formal perfection in all things material, and an acknowledgment of the irreducible enigma of human existence."

    Beautifully said!

  2. A "wacky" thought I like to entertain once in awhile; What if Dogen was the only one to read his monastic rules when he was alive because they were just for him.

  3. Zen seduces me and I don’t know why. I have sat Zazen with a local Zen group. I am drawn to it on an annual basis but once I commit to practice, after a few months, my mind brings me to various conclusions, like: Zen is too focused on attaining enlightenment; I perceive that Zen practitioners have a smugness about themselves, as if to say, “I get it and you don’t”; Zen teachings are used to extol the intellectual superiority of the teacher (I can understand perhaps 20% of what they say). Yes, I understand that Zen is about stripping away the mind so that our thought process is removed from our mundane activities. But, when you sit, just sit, (as long as it is the Zen way, or else) just rubs me the wrong way.

    I clicked on the link to the book (I’ll probably buy it) and felt that his teachers were indeed torturing the author. Is this not a violation of the Buddha’s admonition about doing harm to others or is the quest for enlightenment excluded? If I did a Buddhist word association test on myself, I would say compassion when responding to Tibetan, lovingkindness in response to Theravada but intellectual in response to Zen. Perhaps that’s all I need to know in order to follow the right path for me.

    I would like to hear what others think. Is my ego hard at work driving me to faulty conclusions? Thanks.


  4. I have always admired what I have known about Zen, but I have honestly never warmed to it. Rosan’s experience helps me to understand why.

    Why base your opinion on an extreme example of how Zen is practiced in a very different culture? For example, there is a very rich American Zen tradition that is more suited to the mores of that culture. Is it fair to judge an entire spiritual tradition based on one manifestation of it?

  5. I've never lived in a Japanese Zen monastery. The closest I've been to that is attending retreats (sesshins) here in Europe.

    It does sound quite strict. I wonder how much of that is from Japanese culture ? It would be interesting to compare it with a Chinese or Korean equivalent.

    Personally I find Zen suits me well because of the emphasis on experiencing awakening for oneself rather than studying books about other people's awakening - although you can certainly do that in Zen too. Also, Zen doesn't make any demands about what I believe. Which is nice.

  6. Even US sesshins can be rather strict for those who aren't ready or prepared.

    The thing is that with increased practice and experience some individuals do enjoy the stricter monasteries or regimes.

    Personally, I know my level of practice and it is pretty well-grounded in the standard "householder" practice of zen. A little daily meditation, kinhin and samu; an annual retreat if I'm lucky and a whole lotta bitchin and moanin'.

    We are also working on our Zen Buddhist Drinking Club. We call it "Drinking Mindfully".

    Try it...great way to experience zen.