Zen or Zen Not, There is no Try: Mastering Japanese Zen in 3 Days

The episode where Zoria gets overzealous to be Zen, from zero to a zillion

Try a meditation app, they said. It’Ll bE fUn, ThEy SaId… All those apps promising peace of mind, and the first one I download had the audacity to tell me to accept that all the great civilizations are dead and downfall awaits us all eventually. I am not exaggerating, the app told me to look at the starry skies and think about how many of those stars are dead. Thanks, I hate it. Why am I even bothering with this hogwash? If I want to be Zen, I live in the best place – Japan. 

meditation hall at the soto zen headquarters

Now, Zen and I have met before. I have stayed in a Japanese Zen temple overnight as a guest, tried zazen meditation several times across Japan, and was taught how to whisk matcha by a Zen monk. However, each and every slice of Zen I’ve tried was either amidst the excitement of travel, or in a rushed busy day of a press trip for travel writers. Zen was but a fleeting second, divorced from its purpose. So, this time, I was going to dedicate myself to being Zen and developing Zen habits for a whole day: eating Zen, drinking Zen, breathing Zen, writing Zen, being Zen. Challenged by Tokyo Survival Channel, I was to achieve a state of Zen meditation at least twice – once without guidance, and once with help and advice from the masters.

preparing to be zen

Visiting Mantokuji Temple in Obama city, the gate through which Buddhism initially entered Japan from China and Korea. 

Proving or measuring one’s state of Zen is not a simple or exact thing. Zen philosophy is a practice, a method, not a dogma, and everyone’s path and destination are different. So, how will I know if I’ve achieved actual Zen? My litmus test will be poetry.

In Zen Buddhist tradition, haiku is used to capture a moment that can also be a window to Everything. I am not comparing myself to Matsuo Basho, but in Jack Kerouac’s words I am at least one of those “…Zen lunatics who go about writing poems”. And here is what I wrote while contemplating my state of being in the hot, boring, listless August, a few days before attempting Zen:

The heat blossoming,

cicadas fallen silent 

and I motionless. 

Will we all need to wait for years until we emerge from this mud? 

I think I was more melancholic than Zen, and I even talked about cicadas, despite being completely grossed out by the loud creatures. Looking back, accepting the world around me as it is, was pretty Zen of me, and sitting motionless was almost like zazen meditation. But I was miserable about the heat. Incidentally, my first Zen Day was also the first day in August where the heat died down a bit. Lucky me!

Zen day 1: Diving Right In 

No teachers, no guides, no gurus. Day 1 of the Zen challenge was just me following my instincts and the bits and pieces of knowledge I had accumulated. I know Zen monks meditate, make and drink matcha or sencha tea, and traditionally eat Shojin ryori food. 

beginners matcha making kit

There are variations of a Zen story about a Zen teacher explaining enlightenment to a student, saying something like: “When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.” In some versions he adds “It is not easy to be so natural.”  Indeed it is not. We often eat only when we have a lunch break, and sleep and wake governed by alarms and work schedules. So, I cleared my schedule and slept in to start my Zen Day. 

Eating Zen

Shojin ryori is the food of Buddhist monks and it is traditionally free of animal products. It was vegan before vegan was a word. A lot of religions have fasts and diets excluding animal products in an attempt to eat simply, cleanly, and with respect to all living things. 

Outside of Monk's Foods restaurant in Kichijoji, Tokyo

Finding proper shojin ryori food is a difficult feat, so I decided that just eating a plant-based meal would be enough. I headed to the perfectly named “Monk’s Foods” restaurant, a quaint Kichijoji establishment that serves local organic vegan and vegetarian food. Turns out this jazzy joint had a different Monk in mind, the musician Thelonius Monk. The Zen Me accepted and appreciated my own foolish assumption, and enjoyed the amazing food and jazz music. The Zen Me also seemed to taste every vegetable with more intensity and joy than usual. Or maybe it was because of the excellent cooking, the top-notch produce, the solitude and calm of the restaurant without any customers but me. I ate when I felt like it, which was well past what is considered lunchtime. Just like that Zen teacher had said. 

Eating excellent food at Monk's Food in Kichijoji

Drinking Zen

In the best mood I have been this summer, I left Monk’s Foods and headed to a hidden kissaten (Japanese café) nearby. I’ve passed there literally thousands of times without seeing the red umbrella. Sipping a cup of frothy matcha, I felt my Zen intensify. Not that I really knew what Zen is, but at that time I would have described it as ‘calm and content,’and I wasn’t far from the truth. At that moment I really didn’t want anything else that day.

Tokyo kissaten with matcha and sweets

But there was more to be done, and this is when I felt my Zen melting away. I needed to take good photos of the matcha, and then I needed to do zazen, and write haiku…. suddenly I wasn’t relishing the moment. 

Breathing Zen

Zen teachers say when you feel your thoughts slipping, just acknowledge it and get back in the moment. Don’t be hard on yourself. So, I went to Inokashira park to chase after my Zen again. I joined the live Facebook zazen meditation session with Rev. Hojun Szpunar from the International Department of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan. Accepting the reality of 2020, their online zazen is a new experience for everyone involved. 

International Department of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan online zazen session

At first I was self-conscious about doing zazen in public with so many distractions around me, but I have never had a more successful meditation in my life. Something about the background noise was actually helping me be present in the moment and not drift away. In zazen you keep your eyes open, as you are supposed to be present and still, and just let things flow. And I really let things flow. 

Writing Zen 

I was so successfully Zen by the end of the day that I could really summarize it in one haiku. Here it is:

In the matcha pond

I am but a bubble – pop!

And I am no more.

becoming zen through matcha

Zen Day 2: Guided by the Masters

I gave myself over a week to bask in my newfound Zen before I did it again. In that space I talked to two Zen practitioners to help me understand Zen better. 

Hojun-san was kindly honest with me. “If you’re TRYING to be Zen, you have already failed.”


But I had already felt this on my self-guided Zen Day. Worrying about taking the photos (that you’ve just scrolled past in this article) and thinking “Am I Zen yet?” were crushing my Zen like one wrong move topples a house of cards. It’s the Zen paradox. Yet, I persisted looking for meaning. 

“People crave meaning where there isn’t any,” Hojun-san says. “What’s the meaning of a big stone just plopped in the middle of a landscape? No meaning. It’s the most natural thing for a stone to just be there.” So, when I was to make tea and food there was no meaning behind it but doing the natural thing, taking what I need and just enough to support my Zen practice. Of course with time, Buddhist Zen culture and Japanese culture intertwined, so there is deep meaning to the tea ceremony and the Shojin ryori cooking, but ultimately that is all stripped away if Zen is the thing you are after. 

Drinking Zen

matcha making kit from ippodo tea in Kyoto zen day 2

In Zen, you’re making the matcha and the matcha makes you. “Making tea is simply making tea,” Hojun-san tells me. You are appreciating the moment, and all the moments in the history of Everything that lead to it. There was the Big Bang, and a lot of things in between, and now you’re making matcha and drinking it. Cherish the moment. “Everything is this moment. This moment is everything”. 

Having learned this from Hojun-san a day before my Zen Day 2, I opened the matcha making kit from Ippodo Tea from Kyoto and started preparing tea without thinking much about Zen. Just doing one thing at a time and appreciating everything – how fine the matcha powder is, how beautiful the cup, how light the whisk. 

fine matcha powder, beautiful cup, light whisk

And then – the house of cards fell apart. 

I worried about the photos too much. I worried about the temperature of the water too. I worried about what comes next.

Only drinking the matcha was a respite at the end, when I briefly caught a ray of Zen. 

drinking the matcha was a respite at the end, when I briefly caught a ray of Zen

Eating Zen

Also a day before Zen Day 2, I talked to Sonen Ashikawa-san, a Buddhist monk and temple cook from Shizuoka. I’ve had his Shojin Ryori food before, so I wanted to learn to cook from him. 

Sonen-san had the perfect recipe for me – a Buddhist soup that has become a beloved dish in Japanese cuisine. Kenchin-jiru is a completely plant-based hearty soup with root vegetables and tofu. Like all Buddhist cuisine, it draws flavour from dry shiitake mushrooms, kelp stock, and sesame oil. The root vegetables are humble – carrot and daikon. The tofu is not perfectly cubed, as this cuisine tries to use everything without waste, so it often uses imperfect tofu that has fallen apart. This soup does not strive for perfection, it just puts everything to good use.

kenchin-jiru Shojin Ryori

The soup was easy to make. Predictably though, I was stressed that I would get it wrong, and obsessed over the perfect photo. Then I remembered what Hojun-san told me about cooking – it is a Zen practice but it takes time to master, and you need to be moving almost without thinking. Like walking or breathing. Not checking the recipe a 100 times. How Zen was I right now? Zen-zen (ぜんぜん), meaning “not at all” in Japanese.

Breathing Zen

Having had my fill of kenchin-jiru, I headed to the Headquarters of the International Department of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan for a proper zazen meditation with Hojun-san. After their foray into live streaming, we were stepping into the ‘new normal’ for the first time at their first zazen with safety measures related to the pandemic. 

Hojun-san from Headquarters of the International Department of Soto Zen Buddhism

Zen Sensei 2020

Previously, I had no problem meditating in the park, but now predictably I was more self-conscious. Am I doing it right? My leg hurts. I want to move it, but I don’t want to be the only one fidgeting. What will the title for my Zen Challenge article be? Oh, I hear the crows outside! The crows helped me relax and connect with the natural flow. I remembered that I just had to be in this moment and let these thoughts come and go. 

I was literally this bird:


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I was Zen, finally. And I knew it would soon be gone. But that was OK. 

I wasn’t as Zen as Day when there was less to think about, but that’s OK, too. It was expected. In a way, I was Zen enough to accept that I am not fully Zen. 

sumi-e paintings that help bring on the zen

At the end of the day, taking in everything I’ve learned, I wrote this haiku:

Just enough. 

Water, salt, depth of my breath,

how much the moon shines. 

Don’t overthink, don’t over-season, don’t overdo. 

Zen Day 3: Zen Was There All Along?!

Surprise, TSC, there’s a Day 3 and I challenged myself to it. Like a cheesy feel-good movie, it turns out Zen was closer than I thought. When talking to Hojun-san, I learned how ultimately tea is to keep you awake, and food to keep you full. The physicality of making it and drinking it, the ease of having done it countless times, the appreciation of every sip and bite, is what matters. Hojun-san agreed that we can find the Zen in anything, especially in familiarity. 

So when most of us started obsessively baking bread and making coffee when it felt like the world was ending – we were on to something. I even named my bread-making photo folder ‘baking therapy.’ The more bread I made, the better I felt. The ritual of coffee-making was also anchoring me in the present. 

For Zen Day 3 I decided to just be myself and be Zen. I made the things I knew well – bread and coffee. I slept when I wanted, I ate when I wanted. And to stay in the Zen Zone I didn’t take any photos. I didn’t go anywhere. I was just present in the moment. I loved how bread felt to the touch. I loved how coffee smelled. And then, I wrote a haiku free of any expectations or rules – experimental, visual, playful. It is the last thing I want to leave you with, before you go and search for your own Zen. 

AUTHOR: Zoria Petkoska

Zoria Petkoska

Facebook: @zborigami.zoria
Instagram : @zoria_in_tokyo
Portfolio: here

Zoria is a neo-Tokyoite and loves all the obvious things: neon lights, coffee, cats, travelling. And concrete. Concrete wasn't too obvious, was it? She's a travel writer and photographer, as well as a published poet and her work has appeared in many languages.

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