Blood, sweat and tears of Zen

Here is an unusually fine translation of a most unusual best-seller: the 1996 “Ku Neru Suwaru: Eiheiji Shugyoki,” Kaoru Nonomura’s account of the rigors and rewards of hard Zen training.

EAT SLEEP SIT: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple, by Kaoru Nonomura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Kodansha International, 2008, 324 pp., ¥2,600 (cloth)

We sometimes have the odd idea that Zen means simply sitting around until satori happens. This we especially owe to the “Dharma Bums” mavens and their general innocence, but also to the more general ignorance that believes Buddhism is mere piety.

It is much more, as novice Nonomura discovered when he joined the beginners at Eiheiji, one of the most rigorous temples in Japan and head temple of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism.

Here he is told: “Eiheiji is the basic training ground of Zen. Anyone who can’t get rid of the wishful thinking he brought with him will get thrown right out.”

The wishful thinking may have included achieving enlightenment, doing charitable work, living in accord with nature and other nice things, but all of this counts for little in the necessary bureaucracy of Eiheiji — a boot camp of a place that would make even brave marines quail.

“Eiheiji,” observes our novice, “is a completely hierarchical society . . . fixed and unmovable.” The Eiheiji administrative bureaucracy is a pyramid. On the bottom are novice trainees and the senior trainees who instruct them. At the apex of the pyramid is the director who has jurisdiction over everyone. Poised above the pyramid is the symbolic figure of the abbot.

This powerful pyramid is composed of implacable rules. The interested reader will peruse those for going to the toilet, an almost unbelievably strict listing, and will learn about the poor adept who could not sit properly because he had earlier broken his leg.

The priest in charge says: “You what? Can’t cross your legs? Where do you think you are? This is Eiheiji. You’ve got to be able to sit properly. All right, starting tomorrow, you will tie your legs in place. Is that clear.” Even “Full Metal Jacket” (the 1987 Stanley Kubrick movie about marine discipline) had nothing this extensive.

Wondering why all the blood, sweat and tears, the struggling Nonomura rationalizes that, after all, “Zen, it has been said, aims to compress human physical needs to the barest minimum and to direct the human spirit to a higher sphere of activity.” That must be the reason, he thinks. That must be why “those bound up in the self are broken down unrelentingly through name-calling and thrashing . . . every time I was pummeled, kicked, or otherwise done over . . . the discovery of my own insignificance brought instant, indescribable relief.”

Well, it would, wouldn’t it? It was so intended. At the same time, Nonomura glimpses a further intention. Human beings face an eternal dilemma. We have both a mind and a body. “Ascetic discipline at Eiheiji suppressed our raw desires to the point that the divide between body and [mind] stood out inescapably, forcing us to face this dilemma head on.”

Those who couldn’t, cracked up and/or ran away. “The locals understand this, and so when someone takes off they quickly notify the temple.” Nonomura stood the strain. He stayed a year. And at the end he could say: “I found a great freedom in this way. Freedom in Zen means liberation from self-interest, from the insistent voice that says ‘I, me, my.’ Liberation not from any external circumstances but from a host of internal mental or psychological states, including desire: herein lies genuine, untrammeled freedom.”

This painful route, then, is the true Zen path — and I wonder how Jack Kerouac or Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg or their many Japanese imitators would have stayed the course. Almost as painful must have been the translation of this book with its extraordinary width of styles — from the arcane Zen tracts of Dogen and others, to the diary-like grumbles of the clueless young Nonomura.

Here, translator Juliette Carpenter not only stays the course, she defines it. One of the finest of the current generation of translators from the Japanese, she has beautifully rendered authors as separate as Kobo Abe, Ryotaro Shiba and Teruyo Nogami, author of the delightful memoir of working with Akira Kurosawa, “Waiting for the Weather.” As the quotes in this review may have indicated, here is a particularly felicitous translation, especially in the handling of the colloquial within the religious context.

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