Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple
Kaoru Nonomura, Juliet Winters Carpenter (translator)
Published in English by Kodansha, 2015
At the beginning of a successful career, the author decided to enter a Buddhist monastery. Putting everything else on hold, he entered the priestly training program of Eihei-ji, Japan’s most famous Soto Zen monastery. Founded in the 13th century by master Dogen, Eihei-ji is Soto Zen’s main training temple and is renowned for its difficulty and rigorousness.
Entering Eihei-ji at the age of thirty (c. 1989), Eat Sit Sleep chronicles his first-person account of the training program in which every aspect of monastic life and practice is very strictly regimented. Nonomura recounts his struggles progressing through the training. After a year he left the temple and returned to his outside career. During his daily commute, he began to transcribe his experiences at Eihei-ji. This book comprises these recollections written on the train.
Nonmura gives a pretty detailed account of trainee life at Eihei-ji and the vast amount of information and protocol that the trainee priests must memorize and execute flawlessly. The author includes numerous passages from relevant instructions by Dogen on the proper methods to carry out tasks (as diverse as cooking to using the toilet). It’s a tale that is not un-tinged by fear, loneliness, and temporary defeat. It is also a story marked with an over-riding determination.
Eat Sleep Sit gives a fascinating glimpse inside a Zen training monastery. At times the details can be tedious, but this is part of the overall picture of the minutia of practice that must be memorized.
It is interesting that the book is essentially devoid of the spiritual aspects of or reflections on the practice. There is very little explicit “Zen” philosophy contained within its covers. If the reader is looking for a Zen book, they should look elsewhere—Soko Morinaga’s Novice to Master would be a good bet. Rather the text is a fascinating glimpse inside Japan’s most famous training monastery in all its deeply formalized intricacy.