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

Have you ever gotten to the point where all you can do is close your eyes and plan your escape? When all you can think about is finding a way to start your life over again?

In this exact spot, and with great anticipation that I might actually have identified the perfect place to run away to, I picked up Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple by Kaoru Nonomura.

The title had me convinced that this was the perfect book for me, but the Publisher’s description sealed the deal:

At the age of thirty, Kaoru Nonomura left his family, his girlfriend, and his job as a designer in Tokyo to undertake a year of ascetic training at Eiheiji, one of the most rigorous Zen training temples in Japan. This book is Nonomura's recollection of his experiences. He skillfully describes every aspect of training, including how to meditate, how to eat, how to wash, even how to use the toilet, in a way that is easy to understand, no matter how familiar a reader is with Zen Buddhism. This first-person account also describes Nonomura's struggles in the face of beatings, hunger, exhaustion, fear, and loneliness, the comfort he draws from his friendships with the other trainees, and his quiet determination to give his life spiritual meaning. Beautifully written, and offering fascinating insight into a culture of hardships that few people could endure, this is a deeply personal story that will appeal to all those with an interest in Zen Buddhism, as well as to anyone seeking spiritual growth.

It was Nonomura’s “quiet determination to give his life spiritual meaning” that resonated with me. Finding your life’s spiritual meaning at a Zen monastery was just the escape I needed. Compared to my life, how challenging could it possibly be to simply eat, sit, and pray? But I am getting ahead of the story…

Nonomura, like many of us, started his odyssey confused. He had lost his way in society and was running away. On one hand, the prospect of starting over filled him with hope. On the other hand, he felt somehow like crying out loud, as if his life was a tragedy.

As he describes it:

I understood that I had no choice. The flow of my life, at times crashing against boulders, and at times taking sluggish detours, had brought me this far. What could be more natural than to let the tide bear me on…

The tears came without stop. It was as if a dam had burst, as if, along with the tears I was shedding, all the disappointment and headache, the regret and bitter longings I dragged with me.

My heart ached, having stood in this exact spot. Of all places, a Zen monastery was surely the answer; providing the peace, stillness, and direction to return to one’s self. At least vicariously, that was my hope.

Nonomura describes his year at Japan’s most revered Zen monetary, Eiheiji, in great detail. Everything, every aspect of life at the monastery, he learns, has a defined process for completion. The indoctrination, memorizing all of the processes and prayers, was brutal.

About this training he notes:

Zen aims to compress human physical needs to the barest minimum and to direct the human spirit to a higher sphere or activity. Each occupant had cut off every tie with society and abandoned whatever riches and positions were his, wordlessly turning his back on the stream of events in the world in order to sit, eat, defecate, wash his face, brush his teeth, sweep, polish, and pray.

Day after day his training pushed him to the breaking point. It was all he could do to grope his way forward, completing all that was required. Life at Eiheiji was a string of days with an unvarying routine. Over and over, Nonomura repeated the same routines, without end and without question. Days were relentless in their sameness.

It was nowhere near what I imagined life at a Zen monastery to be like. Nonomura goes on to describe it:

The contradiction is part of the eternal agony and dilemma faced by human beings, who have both a mind and a body. Ascetic discipline at Eiheiji suppressed out raw desires to the point that the divide between body and spirit stood out inescapably, forcing us to face this dilemma head on.

With the passage of time, things that had once lain hidden in darkness become clear, little by little.

Life’s very unpredictability is what makes it interesting. I wanted only to go on believing in the reality of my own existence, day by day.

His conclusion? That life mostly does consist of one dull, insignificant day after another. That human beings are attracted to drama and variety. We have distain for the humdrum. Yet hidden in the ordinary, unremarkable routines of life is a great truth that requires our attention. If human life has meaning, it lies, above all, in the essential fact of our physical existence in the world.

By contemplating life as it is, stripped of all extraneously added value, Nonomura found he could let go of a myriad of things that had been gnawing at his mind. He found he could unconditionally accept the facts of his life and treasure each moment of each day.

I found myself wondering if I could endure such physical rigor and the monotony of a highly detailed and choregraphed approach to life, using discipline as a means of suppressing my thoughts and ideas until all that was left was my body. I’m not sure.

But maybe I could start by creating a more focused and disciplined approach to some of my daily tasks as a means to acknowledge and appreciate the humdrum moments oh my life, to bring me back to the now, and in doing so, get beyond the drama and the pull of the next new thing in my life.

Suddenly, I see the Zen koan:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,

After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

in a whole new light.


If there is a book you would like me to read and review, I am grateful for any suggestions that you have. Email me at:

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