Eat Sleep Sit by Kaoru Nonomura

Title: Eat Sleep Sit
Author: Kaoru Nonomura
Published in 2008 by Kodansha
Number of pages: 322

“Before coming to Eiheiji, I envisioned a life so hushed that you could hear ash falling from a stick of burning incense, with endless days of suspended motion and silent introspection. The reality was vastly different. Soon after arriving, I realized that the life of an Eiheiji trainee was a never-ending succession of loud, angry tongue-lashings and beatings-a world away from my fond imaginings. No where was the difference between imagination and reality more striking than in the kitchen.” ( p. 151)

Being a Christian, and a Western one at that, I had no idea what living a life in a Zen temple would be like. Neither, it seems, did Kaoru Nonomura, before he found himself inside one.

Eat Sleep Sit tells of his year at Japan’s most revered training monastery, Eihiji. Even the most basic parts of life become imbued with discipline, and therefore, meaning. But, they don’t come easily.

 “When you passed a senior in the corridor, failure to join the palms in respect was punished on the spot with a blow. There were exhaustive rules for eating, walking, sitting, speaking, and every other human activity, and the slightest deviation from them met with intense physical reprisal.” (p. 80)

Every aspect of life in the monastery must be lived in a precise way. Eating, sleeping, and sitting have rules which must be taught, and followed perfectly. It is the job of senior monks to teach the trainees, and in many ways, their methods reminded me of the harshness used in our American military. There is no room for error, or for pride; one must simply learn the correct procedure and do it.

There are at least three pages on the correct way to eat. Some of the rules are these:

“Do not eat from the center of the bowl. Do not seek extra vegetables or rice unless you are ill. Do not cover up the vegetables with rice in order to obtain more. Do not look into your neighbor’s bowls or compare portion sizes.

Pour all your physical and mental strength in the act of eating. Do not roll the rice into a big ball. Do not fill your mouth with a large amount of rice at once. Do not eat spilled grains of rice. Do not chew noisily. Do not slurp. Do not lick anything.” (p. 99)

If so much attention is given to eating, there is even more so on the proper ways to eliminate. Which I won’t go into here.

This book is a fascinating look at what it means to live the disciplined life of a Zen monk. Much of the meaning, it appears to me, is brought on through the routine and self denial that is taught.

But, I was deeply moved at the end of the book where Kaoru Nonomura reflects on all that he has learned during his year long stay at Eiheji:

“By contemplating life as it is, stripped of all extraneous added value, I found I could let go of a myriad of things that had been gnawing at my mind. Through the prosaic repetition of Eiheji’s exacting daily routines for washing the face, eating, defecating, and sleeping, this is the answer that I felt in my bones: accept unconditionally the fact of your life and treasure each moment of each day.” (p.203)

Acceptance is a discipline I’m still practicing daily. There are few things more important than that, when for so long, I thought it was fighting to change what we can’t really control in the first place.

Rating: 4 out of 5

17 thoughts on “Eat Sleep Sit by Kaoru Nonomura

  1. I have all the admiration in the world for anyone that exerts this much self-control. It is hard for me to even imagine, which is probably a good reason to read this book. Great review by the way!


  2. Sandy, it really is a book looking at discipline and self control. Even though I'm of another faith, I really enjoyed reading this, and I find so much wisdom in the concepts of self denial and acceptance. Especially the later. By the way, Savvy is being mailed to you this very afternoon!


  3. Dear "Bellezza,"I enjoy your book reviews, and based on what you seem to like, think you might want to have a look at my forthcoming novel, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx. if you have a minute, please check it out on my website: previous novel was Little Pink Slips.Thanks for the consideration,Sally Koslow


  4. It's true, Kailana, and I was so excited to receive this from Kodansha publishers. It has been a bestseller in Japan, and I hope it sells well in America, too. It has a lot to teach us, because as a general rule, I don't feel too many Americans take time to be still, or methodical in their daily lives. We're so wrapped up in "fast", and "big", and "now", in my opinion.


  5. Wow. This sounds like a very meaningful read. There is much in the eastern traditions that we western Christians could learn from isn't there? I think I would like this book, as I believe we are forever seeking to find ways to calm our minds so we can hear our hearts, like the ash of insense falling… I am off to a retreat in a weeks time and I am looking forward to being in a place where discipline is facilitated respectfully. You write beautiful reviews.


  6. Tamara, thank you for your kind words. Have you ever read Kathleen Norris' "The Cloistered Walk"? That also is a beautiful book about the time she spent with nuns. I really like quiet, and the idea of living such a contemplative life appeals to me greatly. I'd like to take a retreat such as you are; my life has been too rushed lately. Have a very peaceful, soothing time, and I'd be interested in knowing how it goes for you.


  7. Wow, I'd never have imagined life in a Zen temple being like that – particularly not the physical punishment. Yikes! This sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review!


  8. This looks like a great book! Right now I am reading Finding Happiness by Abbot Christopher Jamison and he describes how Christian monks live. It is fascinating. They also have rules on how to eat, when to eat, how much to eat. They can't say they don't want it and then change their minds. Very interesting.


  9. Darla, I was surprised, too. I was picturing bamboo shoots, leaves rustling, quiet meditation which of course was embodied in the sitting part. But, I was unprepared for the shouting/smacking part. It's a fascinating book in so many ways.Rebecca, I haven't heard of Finding Happiness, but I'm interested in looking it up. It would be especially interesting to compare to the experiences described in Eat Sleep Sit.


  10. That is interesting, so much anxiety is created by always rushing and living for later, I imagine if can discipline your mind to what you're doing at the moment, than your body and soul is better for it. Yet guiltily I have to admit, I have not reached that disciplined, although I am better than before. shouting/smacking though??? if they're so elevated they should find a better way…All in all it sounds like one of those books that are worth sitting down for….Thanks a lot, and sorry I haven't been around, Imiss out on a lot…;)


  11. I am really glad you reviewed this book. I have had my eye on this for a little bit if time. I love reading your reviews and find that what you like seems to be similar to what I like…


  12. Michelle, it makes me so happy that you find my reviews meaningful and similar to your thoughts. This book just opened my mind to eastern religion which is new to me, and I love learning about new things even I don't assume their veracity.


  13. 😦 I'm giving up on all notions that I'll be able to catch up on old blogs–but I did want you to know I'm putting this on my list of books to look at for the Japanese Challenge. It would count, right?


  14. Yes, of course! I think it may even appear as a prize for someone because it's so interesting. I'm so glad you''re thinking about joining in again; it wouldn't be the same without you, Trish.


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