Available June 18, 2024, author Cristina Moon shares an excerpt of "Kotonk" from "Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" with Yo! Magazine, reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

On the official training schedule, Kendo class at Chozen-ji ended at 9:00 p.m., but that was really only the end of formal training. The spirit of Kendo continued, sometimes until ten thirty or eleven o’clock at night. After making a last bow to the sensei and removing my bogu, still dripping with sweat and red in the face, I rushed into the kitchen to start cleaning. 

One night during my second week, I found myself vacuuming like a madwoman—for all intents and purposes, my body felt as though it was still in the middle of Kendo keiko. There had been moments in class when my body balked against whatever safety and assuredness my mind told it there was. Though I knew none of these people were out to hurt me, it still felt in my body like I was on the edge of fighting for my life. Even after class ended, my breathing remained fast and shallow, my heart pounding, and my sight tunnel-visioned. As I vacuumed, my brow was knitted, and my hair was wild.

“Cristina!” my senpai called out from the other side of the kitchen island. I looked up quickly, braced for the scolding that was surely coming.

“Even now,” he said in a disarmingly friendly voice, “still see the whole room.” And then as our eyes locked, he gave me an encouraging wink. A smile broadened across his face, and in its brief appearance, I recognized something resembling the smile of a proud parent or older sibling. It said, We can all see you’re training hard. Don’t be discouraged. You’re doing good, keep going.

I smiled back, surprised and touched. Minutes earlier, this same person had been clobbering me in Kendo, yelling at me to cut straight and stand tall. One moment, when I had thrown my full weight against him and our swords had locked up, he had even pushed me back until I had crashed into the dojo closet. I had been on the brink of tears for much of the time. And now, here he was, compassionate with my disarray and how I was still caught in fight or flight. It began to dawn on me that Zen training, even when pursued through the body and through the martial Ways, was more than just learning to be a warrior always charging into battle. It was to be able to perceive what was called for in any moment. This meant discerning in a diversity of situations how to best keep the training alive. In Kendo, that meant pushing me into the wall. In my weekly Chado class, it was quite the opposite. When cleaning the kitchen, it meant a reminder to remain aware of my surroundings, seeing 180 degrees in every direction, so I might notice a reassuring smile.

Photo Courtesy of Cristina Moon

Very soon, the tables were back where they had been, and everything in the kitchen was in order. We went our separate ways, and I showered, changed into fresh clothes, and went as quickly as I could back to the tea house for the post-Kendo talk story. When I arrived, the sensei, head priest, and the temple's abbot, were already settling in around a table made from a long plank of monkeypod.

“Cristina,” I was greeted warmly. “Here, do you want some snacks?” Bags of potato chips and Japanese rice crackers made their ways down the table. Sitting next to me, our Kendo teacher, Teshima Sensei, handed me a plastic tray of dried cuttlefish, its cellophane wrapper ripped haphazardly and the strong smell of the sea emanating from within. I looked up at him with surprise. I had never seen anyone outside of my own family eat dried cuttlefish before. It was a Korean snack that I devoured as a kid in front of the TV or while sitting and talking at the kitchen table. I noticed that the others at the table—Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, and haole, or White—had already taken some and were gnawing on it as if it was something that they, too, ate all the time. Teshima Sensei nodded encouragingly and, interpreting my pause as hesitation, explained what it was.

“It’s dried squid. It’s pretty chewy, but I bet your teeth are strong enough.” He laughed.

I happily piled up the napkin in front of me with several strips of cuttlefish and a handful of potato chips and then accepted a tall glass of water with both hands. 

Photo of Cristina Moon by Michelle Mishina

From my first days at the Dojo, I had heard that one of the desired outcomes of training was to intuitively and automatically help others before helping myself. It was drilled into me at every opportunity, and I had found the most mundane examples of it, rather than the religious and romantic ones, to be the most powerful, like eating only after everyone else had been served. I found that ordinariness refreshing. Rather than taking esoteric vows, serious students were simply pushed to pay attention to others and jump in wherever help was needed. Progress was not in being able to give an eloquent lecture about the Buddhist principle of saving all beings from suffering. Instead, the training was to learn to anticipate when someone’s glass needed refilling and to be able to lay a snack on the table just as someone realized they were hungry. 

I learned that this was what was called “sensitivity.” Sensitivity encompasses the ability, on the simpler end of things, to just notice things, from peoples’ conditions to how the cushions are stacked—a basic sharpening of the senses. On the more subtle end of the spectrum of sensitivity is being able to sense the vibe in a room or to diagnose someone’s physical condition just through their kiai, or presence and vital energy. At the most developed of stages, sensitivity is to perceive Kozen no Ki, the universal rhythm governing all phenomena. Sensitivity is also the ability to willingly match the object of one’s perception, like being in accord with that universal energy, which I more commonly heard referred to at Chozen-ji as, simply, the Tao.

Though I had learned about Buddhist ideas of no-self or selflessness before, putting it into practice in the small, practical ways I saw demonstrated by my sensei and senpai was deeply challenging. Perhaps my greatest obstacle to cultivating my own sensitivity, I learned, came from the fact that I had grown up, for the most part, on the mainland. Not long after my arrival, Chozen-ji’s archbishop, who was also Korean, sat me down to learn about my background and what I thought of Zen training. We talked about many things, including how he had come to train at the Dojo decades before and what it was like in the old days. In the intervening years, he had become one of Hawai‘i’s most successful businessmen, and I wanted to know how his training had contributed to his achievements. At one point, the conversation touched on the differences between how we had grown up—me as a Korean American on the mainland and him as a Korean American in Hawai‘i.

“Do you know the word kotonk?” he asked enthusiastically. A mischievous smile spread across his face. I replied that no, I did not.

“Kotonk is what we call you—Asian Americans from the mainland. You guys have a chip on your shoulder.” He might have seen the now familiar look of shellshock that came over me whenever I was being scolded, because he quickly qualified, “It’s not your fault. It’s because you grew up as a minority. It’s kind of traumatic.”

I had never met an Asian American person who had not grown up with the indelible traumas of being a minority—if not an overtly oppressed and discriminated against minority, then at least feeling at some point like they had been hoodwinked into assimilating, giving up their culture and sense of wholeness only to realize that they’d been sold a bill of goods. I had never imagined that a person of Asian descent could grow up in America without a chip on her shoulder. The clarity and insight of the archbishop’s perspective, as someone so similar and yet so different from me, felt particularly piercing because it seemed purely due to the fact that he had been lucky enough to be born in Hawai‘i.

“It makes you numb. Kind of, you know . . . stupid. The word ‘kotonk’ comes from the sound that it makes when you knock on your head,” he said, rapping his knuckles on his own skull, “’cause it’s empty.”

While sitting around the monkeypod table after Kendo, I realized how right the archbishop had been. I was, indeed, a numb kotonk. I did eventually absorb the priceless lessons in sensitivity,  local culture, and Zen on offer after Kendo class. But I did so slowly that they often had to be repeated. I was awkward in conversation, finding myself compulsively driving it to topics about which I could seem charming and smart. It proved hard not to chase what would otherwise be thought of as normal impulses, wanting to fall back into what was familiar and comfortable without the discipline and constant attention that Zen training demanded.

Slowly, I learned to regard the time after Kendo as a continuation of class, a kind of social Kendo, and thus, to take things less personally. The sensei were kind. They teased me and made light of my bumbling, as if nothing was of any consequence and everything was just a game. And yet, I knew that learning not to be numb and developing sensitivity were serious pursuits at Chozen-ji. It was a deeply rooted principle that much of our training hinged on.

Not a moment passed in my time at Chozen-ji when I was not offered some gem of insight—insights that seemed bigger than just Zen and that dug into the depth of who I was and how I might live in the world. As a recovering kotonk, I just needed to learn how to get out of my own way to receive them.

Photo Courtesy of Shambhala Publications

From Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness © 2024 by Cristina Moon, available June 18, 2024. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com 

[[pg. 131–142]]

KOTONK | Excerpt From "Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" by Cristina Moon

Available June 18, 2024, author Cristina Moon shares an excerpt of "Kotonk" from "Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" with Yo! Magazine, reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.


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