So, in reading this book I was actively placing myself along side Nonomura, imagining how I would feel were I in his position. He's thirty, with a pretty ordinary Japanese lifestyle, a girlfriend, a career as a designer, he comes from a good family background. But something he knows is not right, everything he does appears to lack meaning. He perpetually feels discontent with what he's doing, or not doing with his life. Then one day comes a turning point, he suddenly decides to enter a Zen Monastery. Not just any old monastery, but one with the reputation for being the most fearsome and rigorous in Japan. From the very start of his stay he lives in a state of constant fear, of simply getting things wrong. Monastic rituals at Eihei-ji are extremely formalised, and must be learnt by rote.
To us this could seem unduly harsh, soulless and robbed of integrity. There is no room for spontaneity at all here. Spontaneity is seen as part of individual self-determination, a declaration of our presence and identity, it is the Self at play. This is not to be encouraged. All actions and practices have correct formal procedures attached to them. These prove horrifically difficult to remember, let alone get right first time. Making mistakes becomes a regular humbling experience for Nonomura, even the punishments meted out for minor infringements have a precisely delineated ritual to be followed to the letter. The novice's trainers are unforgiving and frequently brutal in their responses, after all, they acquiesced and submitted themselves to this regime themselves too.
To Western eyes this could all seem like an unwarranted abuse of individual human rights. This would be, however, to miss the point entirely. But still one has to ask why they are doing this? Some clues come from a sign Nonomura reads soon after arriving:-
'the gate has no door or chain, but is always open;
any person of true faith can walk through it at any time'
Everyone comes willingly and one would assume could leave whenever they like. But this isn't actually the case. Most of the new recruits are first born, and come from families whose fathers are abbots of Zen temples. These novices are rarely here out of a burning sense of vocation, its more a predestined part of their family inheritance. Learning about the rigours of monastic life is an essential element in the ancestral privilege about to be handed on to them. Nonomura was unusual in choosing this life out of free will. There is precious little 'true faith' in evidence from some of these novices. Their year in Eihei-ji is often irksome, they don't have much choice in the matter. They can choose to leave after they've been at Eihei-Ji for a year, but not before. Anyone who runs away before then is pursued and brought back, if they can be found that is. So the gate does have a door, but it has a chain on it. People with little or no faith walk through it all the time. At least at the start, this appears to be the case. By the time they leave most of them have noticeable matured and have found something deeper in themselves.
The purpose of the excessive discipline, a bit like army drill, is to break down your individuality, to constrict the room for selfishness. It makes you conform, sometimes literally beats it into you. to act as one, abandon your likes and dislikes, your worldly viewpoints, and to compel you to submit to its often punishing spiritual routines. The mere act of ringing a bell is to be timed and coordinated with almost theatrical precision, washing your face, going to the toilet, and how to use a toothpick are likewise acted out. Dogen's instructions systematically take you through them stage by stage, showing exactly how things should be done. This does develop its own simple beauty, an elegantly sparse aesthetic, as every minute daily act becomes embroidered with intricate ritual and significance. The purpose of this everyday ritualisation is to take you beyond your selfish concerns, to practise fully in the moment, and for the benefit of all beings.
To us this might all seem far too austere, obsessive even, and could make Dogen seem like some 12th Century version of a control freak. Yet submitting oneself to a monastic rule does inevitable mean you've chosen to remove your freedom to choose. Though Nonomura found it hard initially, he finds he adapts to this new regime, it becomes second nature. Even though he does in the end decide to leave after the year is up, he does so with a deeply heartfelt appreciation for what he has gained, and what he is taking forward his life post- Eihei-ji. Throughout his year at Eihei-ji, Nonomura frankly acknowledges his doubts, his faith, and often contradictory responses to his being there at all. By the time he leaves he knows that what he most learnt was simply how to enjoy being alive.
The final paragraphs are most moving, describing his breaking into convulsive tears as he feels something is emotionally torn from him, of his sense of loss, as the taxi pulls away from the Main Gate. The female taxi driver, having seen this so many times before, takes him up to the top of the mountains, to see the valley as spring begins to fully burgeon.
'At that moment I understood the meaning of spring for the very first time. I had been alive for thirty years, and all that time I'd been caught up in an urgent search for meaning. Now, here, finally, I knew the meaning of spring. That was enough. I didn't need anything else.