Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that
is not the way of Zen.
My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat,
and when I feel thirsty I drink.
Partake of food at regular intervals.
Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.
-- Soyen Shaku
First of all, a heads-up: I'm using the term Zen diet
here only as as shorthand
for "the diet of monk
s at Japanese Zen monasteries
This is not an officially sanctioned
The One and Only True Zen Diet(TM)
it is emphatically not
the same as Zen macrobiotics
, an extreme macrobiotic
diet loosely based on these practices and responsible for a number of deaths.
Also, while in the West this is associated with Zen Buddhism
, almost all
(traditional) Buddhist monasteries will follow some variation of this.
Over the centuries, Buddhist
monasteries in Japan
have developed a food
suited to their way of life. This diet is:
- vegetarian (or to be more precise vegan), because Japanese interpretations of Buddhism forbid killing animals
- most monasteries use the strict definition, forbidding all meat, fish and
dairy products; some go further and ban eg. onions as well
- healthy, so that monks stay fit, and
- simple, so that everything required can be produced on the temple grounds.
From the modern Western point of view, it is also:
- low-fat, being strictly vegetarian and avoiding the use of oil in cooking
- low-calorie, largely due to the small portions
- cheap, since the main ingredients rice and miso are, and
- boring, due to the simplicity and lack of variation in the diet.
The Zen diet repeats the same cycle every day. A day's meals always consist of the
Breakfast (shoujiki, 小食)
Pickles (Jp. tsukemono)
- Rice gruel
- known in Japanese as okayu if made from scratch and
zosui if made from cooked rice
- see congee for recipes and serving suggestions
- Miso soup
- Two side dishes
In the bad old days, there were only two meals a day and the yakuseki
was an actual hot stone placed on the stomach to quell hunger. This turned
into a small bite of food and is nowadays a full-fledged meal, usually the biggest
of the day at that. However, in some monasteries yakuseki
is only a rice gruel containing
the leftovers from lunch, and fresh rice is served in the morning.
The side dishes can be prepared in any way and from any (vegetarian) ingredients,
but deep-frying is usually frowned upon. Quantities are also kept small,
the bulk of calories comes from the rice. Emphasis is also placed on
being frugal, so that as much as possible of the ingredients is used:
for example, vegetable peelings are often recycled as pickles.
The usual accompanying drink is green tea, downed in copious quantities.
In monasteries, the meal is accompanied by a heavy amount of ritual
including chanting the gokan-no-ge
before eating and
maintaining complete silence through the (communal) meal. The traditional
way of washing your bowl is to leave one pickle uneaten, pour in hot water,
wipe the bowl with the pickle (held with your chopsticks) and
finally eat the pickle. Presto -- no waste! More useful in
lay practice may be keeping the habit of eating slowly, one mouthful at a time,
which both allows you to concentrate on the taste and stops you from
If followed strictly, this diet will result in weight loss for
almost all adults,
stabilizing at some point within a year or so when extra reserves have been
burned off. Physical exercise is an obligatory accompaniment to
prevent loss of muscle tissue.
Other than being vegetarian, this is in fact very close to the traditional
Japanese diet outside the monasteries as well, and in my impoverished student days
I lived on this for about a year (excluding the occasional weekend splurge).
After getting over the initial hunger pangs during the first month or so,
I was quite happy and lost over 10 kg without really even noticing it, this off
a frame that was never terribly horizontally enhanced in the first place.
Ever since -- including at time of writing -- I've
returned to the Zen diet whenever I've felt myself slipping out of
There is no need to take the regimen above as gospel, it's just the way the
Japanese do it. Instead of three meals of rice a day, try porridge
for lunch, potatoes
for dinner, bread
It's all good
. Also, some monasteries still maintain
the habit of mixing barley
into the rice, but should you try this you'll soon find out why the rest of Japan abandoned this poverty-induced habit as soon as they could.
Miso soup, on the other hand, is a very good idea because it supplies the
bulk of your protein. Tofu should also be used liberally for the same reason.
Your biggest problem will be calcium, since vegan diets without dairy
products and fish tends to fall well short of the recommended amounts.
See Vegan Calcium for some suggested workarounds, or if you have no
moral objections to squeezing cow tits, add dairy products back to your diet.
(I, for one, cannot envision a life without yogurt!) Also keep a
bit of an eye on vitamin C and B12.
And because the Buddha does recommend the Middle Way instead of the
extremes of ascetism and hedonism, I see nothing wrong with adding a
little dessert to your medicine stone. In Japan this was especially easy
as all convenience stores sell various types of Japanese confectionery in
little Y100 packs, which are perfect for this and also avoid the temptation
of "Just one more cookie/slice/...". Or, perhaps even better yet, eat fruit
(hideously expensive in Japan and thus avoided, but less so elsewhere).
The Non-Simple, Non-Boring, High-Expense Version
An elaborated, ceremonial version of temple fare called
(精進料理) also exists, and many temples double as
restaurants. Should you stay overnight at a
temple, the food you will be offered is almost always shojin ryori
Essentially vegetarian kaiseki
you will rarely get away with less than Y2000 for a shojin ryori
meal and prices go up into the stratosphere. The shojin ryori
banquet I treated myself and a friend to on my 21st birthday remain
the best meal I have ever eaten -- even if it did cost me half a
month's salary. (But that's a story for another node.)