Discussion Guide for Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple
1. Kaoru entered training at Eiheiji seemingly without a realistic idea of what he was getting into. He says, “Nothing here, including meditation, bore the least resemblance to the fanciful pictures my mind had painted before coming." [p. 64] Prior to reading Eat Sleep Sit, did you have any thoughts about or impressions of Zen Buddhism? If so, were Kaoru’s experiences different from what you would have expected?
2. As Kaoru approached Eiheiji for the first time, he writes, “Roads come into being as people begin to travel with new purpose in places previously unmarked, each minuscule step helping to wear a path in the ground.” [p. 12] Do you think he’s talking about something more than just the physical road to the temple? What do you think he means?
3. Kaoru explains that his decision to enter Eiheiji was based on the feeling that he had grown weary of his life and “had come to feel the entanglements of society so burdensome and disagreeable” that he had to flee them. “Yet, now that society’s hold on me was slipping, I felt increasingly sad and sentimental.” [p. 13] He continues, “On the one hand, the prospect of starting my life over filled me with hope. On the other hand, I felt somehow like weeping out loud, as if it were indeed a tragedy.” [p. 14] Why do you think he feels this way? Is it just because he’ll miss his family and friends, or is it about something deeper and more fundamental?
4. One of the first painful lessons Kaoru and his fellow trainees learned was that absolute submission is a must. He says, “All of us had received a modern education, had been taught to believe in the principle of equality as a human right. We had also learned that the basis of proper communication lies in looking straight at the other person and couching one’s opinion carefully in appropriate language. These beliefs were stripped from us that first night. Each man’s conception of his own existence, built up over the course of his lifetime, was casually and completely ignored.” [p. 24] Why do you think this is necessary to the training process? Would you be able to put aside a lifetime of lessons learned and accept a completely opposite way of looking at yourself and the world?
5. Many of Kaoru’s fellow trainees were sons of priests and were expected to become priests themselves and continue their family’s tradition. Others, like Kaoru, made a personal decision to come to Eiheiji. Do you think one group found it easier than the other to withstand the rigors of training? Why would that be?
6. At Eiheiji, each trainee was given a new name when he entered. Kaoru writes, “Names are funny things. They’re just a handy convention for distinguishing oneself from other people, yet once I was assigned a new name, I felt as if I were no longer the same person.” [p. 37] Why do you think something as simple as being called a different name had such a big impact on Kaoru’s sense of himself?
7. Most people, like Kaoru before he came to Eiheiji, spend their lives “exerting mental and physical strength in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness of passing time.”[p. 46]
One of the most basic activities at Eiheiji was just sitting and not thinking. At the beginning, Kaoru finds “just sitting” to be far from simple. The more he tries not to think, the more his mind wanders. Have you ever meditated? What was the experience like? Were you able to clear your mind and accept the act of sitting for itself?
8. On the day before he leaves for Eiheiji, Kaoru shaved his head for the first time. He did it very unceremoniously, but was quite affected by the sight of himself in the mirror. “I still remember the sensation of that moment. A chill came over me. It felt as if every drop of my blood were being sucked out of my veins, as if second by second my body was turning to ice. . . . Shaving the head is the outward sign of a fierce determination to distance oneself from longings of the heart and eradicate delusion.” [p. 163] Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever made a change to your physical appear-ance as a way of acknowledging an emotional, behavioral, or spiritual change in your life?
9. On the subject of manual labor, which Kaoru describes a integral to the Zen way, he writes, “Life in a Christian monastery is also based on prayer and work, as in a Zen monastery, but the two religions have a fundamentally different approach to work. In the Christian monastic tradition, work is a means of supporting the life of prayer. Continued prayer is the goal, work the means. But for Zen practitioners, work has inherent spiritual value and is integral to the life of discipline.” [p. 195] What do you think of this distinction? Do you agree with the author?
10. One day, toward the end of Kaoru’s time at Eiheiji, he makes the following observation: “The asphalt road in front of the monastery seemed like a mountain watershed, separating the current of time into two completely different streams. I felt a sudden urge to jump up and dart across to the other side. Ten strides would do it. If I ran straight over, the moment I passed through the invisible membrane separating here from there I would return instantly to reality, awakening from a long dream. This world where I was now could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered reality. Now was the time to wake myself up. And yet I did not run off. Yes, it would be good to wake all at once from the dream of life at Eiheiji, I thought, and yet I was also inclined to stay and dream a little longer. . . In that moment, the boundary between the sacred and the profane disappeared.” [p. 200] What does this passage say to you about Kaoru’s commitment to his training? Do you think the fact that he was still tempted to run away is significant? Or is his choice not to, a true turning point?
11. After a trainee has been at Eiheiji for a while, he is allowed more freedom. Kaoru writes, “Who knows – perhaps real Zen discipline begins only when all restrictions have been taken away. Then the trainee faces a clear choice, whether to stretch out comfortably in his newfound freedom and idle around, or brace his spirits and stay committed to his initiual purpose.” [p. 298] Do you agree that the real test of commitment is staying true to it without externally-imposed discipline to keep you on course?
12. Did Kaoru ultimately find what he was looking for at Eiheiji?