A lot of us find places of worship quite peaceful. We see them as sites where the soul’s tranquility and life’s essence can be reached. Apart from the silence, even the Zen monasteries, where life flows through in all its might, bestow us with nonchalance and languor. ‘Come, come and forget all your troubles. Come and find peace. Forget about life’s absurd obligations…’
I just finished a book I bought probably due to the suggestive strength of these thoughts. Kaoru Nonomura’s Eat Sleep Sit recounts the year he spent in Japan’s most rigorous Zen monastery. Nonomura, who at the age of 30 is unable to take part in life’s meaningless rat race, leaves his job as a designer in Tokyo and bids farewell to his family and girlfriend to begin his journey to the monastery. However, in this novel, in which the author’s monastic life is described in much detail, just as it takes a year to achieve some mention of peace and tranquility, there is absolutely no mention of laziness.
Those who find life’s difficulties absurd would be in silent shock after witnessing the monastery’s rules. For example, to enter the monastery at all you have to shout as loud as possible to show how much you want it. If it is decided that your cries are not strong enough, you are kicked as you roll back down the precipice. If you are willing enough to enter the monastery, you have to climb back up in the freezing cold and knock on the door once more to shout even louder.
Severity is not just present at the door but all around the life of the monastery. You didn’t set your eating bowls in the right order? You get a slap. You dropped your chopsticks? You get kicked. You didn’t complete a task you were assigned? You get a kick and a slap. The monastery life is a long sequence of tasks, rules, and rituals. As you read, you feel the cruel discipline, the biting cold, the fainting spells of hunger, and the fear that grips the body, as you begin to suspect that shame and self-torment are the same thing. But no one is holding Nonomura there against his will; he is determined. There are people who flee, give up, or even commit suicide, but he endures.
The name of the book may be Eat Sleep Sit, but to me it was more like digest the beating, try to sleep if you can, and sit in the midst of all your pain. Without having read this book I would have never believed a Zen monastery to be such a tragic institution. But the author does explain that the physical punishments do not arise from egos but rather as necessitated by the strict rules and discipline. There, everyone’s pain is equal and there is no one to blame but yourself.
Perhaps enlightenment occurs after accepting this exact fact. The Zen monastery’s disciples mature by taking responsibility of their own decisions and their pain. They learn to pass through all emotions without judgment in terms of the realm of good or bad. Without ever asking ‘why?’ Without feeling the need to find a scientific explanation. Without conversing with their inner child.