And Get Knocked Down the Stairs

Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple by Kaoru Nonomura.  Kodansha. 328 pp.  $16.95.

“He’s making the fallacious distinction between the ends and the means.”

That sentence was uttered at a Friends Meeting that I attended some fifty years ago, by the man I considered the leading authority in that meeting on Quakerism.  I no longer remember what he was talking about, and don’t think I understood most of what he said.  But that single sentence seemed to express the essence of Quakerism in a few words.  If the thing you’re doing is itself immoral, it can’t lead to some moral end.  You can’t fight a war—as the administration claimed in those days—to achieve peace.

Or, as a common piece of bathroom graffiti said, Fighting for Peace is like Fucking for Chastity.


That’s why I’ve never understood a whole host of Zen stories that appear in the books of Koans.  Some poor sap says, What is the Way? and his teacher knocks him over the head with a brick, or kicks him off a porch.  I could either read the book of koans or watch some old Three Stooges movies, the effect was roughly the same, but gradually I understood the point of such narratives (though I’m still not sure why we need so many of them).  Don’t conceptualize your life.  Experience it.

The Japanese seem to have taken the stories literally.  In Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura gives an account of the year he spent at one of the most famous monasteries in Zen, Eiheiji, founded by our revered teacher Eihei Dogen.  The novice monks at this institution make a mistake, and the veteran monks—who might be just a year or two older—slap them, punch them, kick them, and knock them down the stairs.  A young monk’s face might be swollen by slaps.  Other novices faced the penance of kneeling all day in a cement hallway.  They moaned all night (but look on the bright side; the nights were short, just three or four hours to sleep) because their knees were swollen and infected.  And they didn’t get enough to eat, and the meals didn’t have balanced nutrition, so the young men were starving half the time.

All this in pursuit of a spiritual goal.  Not that Zen has a goal.

The point of this battering and abuse is not just to get men into their actual experience, though that may be part of it.  Many of the people arriving at this training monastery are simply pursuing the family business; their father runs a Zen temple, they’re the first son, and they’re carrying on the tradition.  Others have been to Buddhist universities, have even obtained graduate degrees, and may think they know something, or are something.  The purpose of this training is to show initiates that they’re nothing, that they’re not even—as Teresa of Avila called herself—a lowly worm.  It’s only once they’re stripped of everything that they find the truth.

But aren’t they making the fallacious distinction between the ends and the means?

Nonomura himself went to the monastery out of a vague sense of unease, that his life was going nowhere and had no purpose.  After spending a year undergoing this rigorous training—he managed to finish it out; he actually did well—he went back to the life he’d been living before, working at an office every day, swimming some laps in the evening, heading home at night.  That vague sense of unease didn’t seem so bad after all.  The only difference was that, for a while, on the train to and from work, he spent time writing this book, in the short sections in which he organized it.  Apparently it was a bestseller in Japan.

I was struck by how much of our practice at the Chapel Hill Zen Center is based on what he describes.  The rituals he does, the chants he intones—though the translations are slightly different—are exactly like what we do.  Even the work tasks are similar.  We dispense with the slapping and kicking and tripping.  The only thing that gets hurt at the Zen Center is people’s feelings.  It’s amazing what they take offense at.  They should read this book.

What puzzled me was how little Nonomura wrote about sitting meditation, which is the heart of the practice.  They did a great deal of intense sitting, but he wrote only one short section about it, and says nothing, even in an afterword years later, about whether he’s continued to sit, though one of his mentors said to him, as they were parting, “Solely pursue the truth by practicing Zen.  Don’t forget that the commitment is for a lifetime.”

There seems to be something in the Japanese character or culture that is drawn to macho behavior and extreme hazing.  It’s even worse in the military, as Ruth Ozeki lets us know in her superb novel, A Tale for the Time Being (if there’s a Great Zen Novel, that’s it).  But I can’t help thinking that, if you want to lead a spiritual life, it’s better not to spend your formative years knocking people around, or being knocked around.  I don’t oppose hard training.  It can be difficult without being brutal.  And though I understand that monastic training is important, I especially admire teachers who teach an uncompromising form of zazen but teach it to everyone, monks and lay people alike.  Kodo Sawaki was such a man.  Kosho UchiyamaGudo Nishijima.  Dogen’s original idea—before he got so involved in monastic practice himself—was Recommending Zazen to All People.  I think he got it right the first time.  Getting knocked down the stairs repeatedly may teach you that you’re nothing.  But sitting and staring at a wall teaches the same thing, eventually.  And it doesn’t leave bruises.