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Why a 762-year-old Japanese temple was the perfect setting for a hackathon

Zen Hack
Craig Mod
4am: Everyone at work, post-meditation.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

TOKYO—It was 3:30 in the morning and the only sounds in the temple were of the summer rains pouring off the tiled roof and the keisaku slaps upon the shoulders of those of us sitting in meditation.

Craig Mod
Kenchoji Temple, pre-sunrise.

A keisaku is a flat board made of oak or chestnut that looks something like a miniature cricket bat. When it’s brought down upon your shoulder, the amount of pain it causes is entirely up to the buddhist monk by whom it is wielded. I’ve sat in zen meditation at temples where the keisaku slaps have been firm but gentle, and others where the slaps border on abuse, welting the shoulder, flooding the system with adrenaline, giving you such a high that your eyes roll back into your head and your arms pop with goosebumps.

The pre-dawn keisaku slaps at the Zen Hack event the weekend before last landed on the shoulders of some 60 designers, engineers, students, and product marketers, and the pain caused fell somewhere on the loving side of the scale.

Zen Hack is held at the 762-year-old Kenchoji Temple—a member of the Rinzai school of Zen—near Kamakura, an historic Japanese city nestled between the mountains and the ocean an hour south of Tokyo. In attendance at this most recent Zen Hack were 60 participants (or hackers), 20 volunteers, eight judges, and one monk. The event was inaugurated in 2014 with Spring and Fall Zen Hack sessions, and continued this month with Zen Hack Summer.

“Zen and IT may feel like distant entities, but they share common ground,” says Takai-Socho, the head monk of Kenchoji Temple. “They both require you to zero yourself out, to see the world from a fresh and new perspective.”

Zen Hack is technically a hackathon—a two-day sprint where ad hoc teams of designers and engineers assemble to build minimum viable versions of applications and platforms riffing off a chosen theme.

The first theme for Zen Hack was “zen.” The second, “garbage.” And this most recent one, “food.” The famous Silicon Valley mantras of “Done is better than perfect” (Facebook) and “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late” (Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn) help establish a core ethos of working fast and loose to make something useful in such a short time frame. At the end of the two days, the teams make eight-minute presentations to a panel of judges and awards are doled out.

Zen Hack (link in Japanese) was created by Beck Kuchkorov, an Uzbekistan-born but nearly 20-year resident of Japan. He’s a member of a growing group called Kamakon Valley—a portmanteau of Kamakura and Silicon Valley coined by the financial newspaper Nikkei Shimbun but warmheartedly embraced by the IT folks of Kamakura.

Craig Mod
Kenchoji is nestled in the mountains between Kamakura and Kita-Kamakura Stations.

Kamakon Valley has turned into a kind of local social movement and has produced a number of community related projects. For example, they made a website (link in Japanese) and held a drill for helping residents find safe zones to flee to in the case of a tsunami. And they have their own local crowdfunding website (link in Japanese) that lets anyone propose and fund Kamakura community projects. Kamakon Valley was invited by Takai-Socho to a retreat at Kenchoji back in 2013, and it was there that Beck had the idea to try and formally merge Zen and IT. In one night a plan was hatched, URL registered, and Zen Hack was born.

“Zen Hack is Zen Hack,” Beck says, reticent to fall back on calling it a hackathon. The typical hackathon is characterized by long hours, little sleep, no rest, and a kind of neurotic bravado, where the badge of honor is how miserable you look and bad you smell when it’s all done.

And so while the overarching structure of Zen Hack may be similar to a common western hackathon, the philosophy under which Zen Hack operates conforms to its own set of (often strict, sometimes quirky) rules.

First, Zen Hack takes place in a temple.

This alone is bizarre, even for the Japanese. But temples are uniquely suited for hackathons. Most temples have large tatami-floored rooms that can easily accommodate a hundred or more people. Add some low chabudai tables and some zabuton cushions and you have yourself a viable workspace that converts effortlessly into a futon-filled sleep room at night.

Craig Mod
3:00am wake up call; everyone putting away their futons.

At the most recent Zen Hack there were 60 participants, each with their own laptop. All of them were Japanese (Beck and I were the only fully non-Japanese in the room). Most were engineers in their 20s and 30s and worked at web design agencies or startups or larger IT companies in Tokyo. A few were college students. One was older and just curious. Of the participants, half of them had never before been inside a temple and less than 15% had ever meditated.

Second, sleep is mandatory.

As is a pre-bed soak in the communal temple bath. While it’s true that “done is better than perfect,” Zen Hack does not believe in hysterical Red Bull fueled all-night coding and designing sessions. Instead, Zen Hack believes the best work comes from a rested mind. A scalding bath and night of sleep are critical to switching out of development mode and achieving this. Lights off is at 9pm sharp, and although a few futon-tucked stragglers continue to suck data on the thin cell signal permeating the surrounding mountains, the majority of participants do sleep.

Craig Mod
Bedtime at Zen Hack.

Third, the food must be healthy.

There is no junk food at a Zen Hack. No potato chips. No fries. There isn’t even coffee (some desperate coders sneak out and smuggle in their own brew). There is, however, tea. Japan’s largest tea distributor, Ito En, was one of the many sponsors of this year’s Zen Hack (along with Rakuten, Next, Gurunavi, Recruit, and a host of other non-Japanese IT companies including Google and IBM), supplying a nearly unlimited stream of hot and cold green tea. Snacks were provided by the soy-based, gluten-free energy bar company Soyjoy.

The lauded “Hachi no Ki” restaurant (whose sister restaurant “En” was awarded a Michelin star) served dinner, and a local chef, Mami Otaki prepared lunch with local ingredients in typical buddhist temple shojin ryouri style, utilizing no animal products and avoiding certain spices and herbs. Meals were narrated by the creators, who detailed the origin of the ingredients and explained why they were good for both the earth and for those eating them.

Craig Mod
Breakfast—rice porridge, pickled vegetables and deep fried tofu.

Beck hammered home the healthful component of the event. “One of the objectives of Zen Hack is to completely isolate participants from their busy schedule and give them time in nature with high quality food—especially important this time, because the theme is food.”

Fourth, and perhaps most critical in light of the event’s name, participants must be aware.

Present. Grateful. Not in an ephemeral, spiritual way, but in a grounded here-and-now way. Meals take place in a dining hall. No computers allowed. Each meal begins with a loud “itadakimasu,” or “I humbly accept this meal,” and finishes with a booming “gochisosamadeshita,” or “Thank you for the delicious meal.” These are phrases Japanese people reflexively utter thousands of times in their lives, but here at Zen Hack they are deconstructed, their nuances teased out.

Craig Mod
Zen Hack dining.

As we ate dinner, Hachi no Ki’s owner and 62-year resident of Kamakura, George Fujikawa, extolled voluminously the importance of water in Japanese food preparation and implored we recognize how lucky we are for Japan to be so abundant in the resource (particularly in light of the situation in California).

And as we ate our breakfast of delicate rice porridge, local vegetables, seasoned deep-fried tofu, and pickles, monk and general manager of Kenchoji, Seitetsu Murata, explained for 20 minutes the philosophies of communal temple eating—how no food was to be wasted, and how to use our pickles and tea to mop up whatever little morsels of rice may be left in our bowls. Take nothing for granted. Leave nothing for want.

Fifth, you must participate in zazen meditation.

As Takai-Socho explained, “Zen meditation is programming for the mind.” The reason for lights out at 9pm is that the lights come back on at 3am. Participants enter the meditation hall by 3:20am, and after a brief explanation of how to sit, where to set your gaze, and how to request a keisaku slap (place your hands gently together in gassho and bow forward), the meditation begins at 3:30am sharp.

Craig Mod
Receiving meditation instructions from Seitetsu Murata.

And so we came to find ourselves sitting—well fed, well bathed, and well rested—in the main temple hall as the summer rains fell and those love-tinged keisaku slaps jolted us firmly into the now. The meditation was only for 30 minutes, but as anyone who has attempted meditation can attest, 30 minutes is a long time to be alone with your thoughts. The participants around me shifted uncomfortably, and when the bell rung to signal the end, everyone gasped in relief as they uncrossed their legs and stood up. By 4:10am everyone was programming once again, focused and mindful, the sleep zone converted back into a workspace.

There were eight judges at Zen Hack. They included Takashi Matsuo, the mayor of Kamakura, Japanese Academy Award nominated actress Mayu Tsuruta, and Matthew Romaine, the half-Japanese CEO of the Tokyo based translation startup Gengo. Twelve groups of five participants each had eight minutes apiece to appeal to the panel and present their work from the past 36 hours.

Craig Mod
Zen Hack judge George Fujisawa from Hachi No Ki gives feedback to one of the presenting teams.

The output was thoroughly impressive and zen-infused. One group managed to build an entire—and very complex—taste-matching algorithm and iPad app to help cooks reuse leftovers in their refrigerator and season them in unusual and surprising ways. The crowd favorite was a website that had you type in what you were eating and showed you what percentage of an animal—by grotesquely chopping one up on screen—of which that meal consisted. (It was an attempt to either convert everyone to vegetarianism or raise awareness of consumption and waste.)

The grand prize winner was an elegant application that allowed consumers to issue a “thanks” for whatever it was they had eaten. That thanks would travel back through the food chain, ending up on the farms from which all the ingredients of the meal had arrived. It was more theoretical than practical in its implementation, but the judges were impressed by its audacity in daring to illuminate the complex ecosystem by which our food arrives on our plates, but doing so through such a simple action.

While the applications were impressive, the real takeaway from the event was less the software that was made but more a heightened sense of mindfulness. As I drank tea with Beck out on the balcony watching the sun rise he explained what true success for Zen Hack looks like.

“We want participants to take with them these principles, these methods of doing work, this relationship with time and presence.” Software can be made in many different ways, but so rarely is it made deliberately within the rubric of thousand-year-old philosophies. Of all the hacks at Zen Hack, that might be the greatest.

Craig Mod is a writer and designer splitting his time between Tokyo and New York. Follow him on Twitter at @craigmod.

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