Rev. Cristina Moon (she/her) is a Zen priest living and training at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Honolulu. Her new book, "Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness," details her early days as a human rights activist and her journey to Chozen-ji. She spoke with Yo! about her story and the book, which is available for pre-order now and will be in bookstores beginning June 18.
Photo of Cristina Moon by Michelle Mishina

Yo! Magazine: Hi Cristina, thank you so much for chatting with us. How did you first become introduced to Buddhism? 

Cristina Moon: I was [first] exposed to Buddhism through my Korean heritage. My grandmother was Buddhist, and whenever we would go to visit Korea and my family, there were certain things that we would do that I didn't recognize as Buddhist at the time, I thought it was just Korean. But later on, I realized that Buddhism had been there in my life all along.

Chozen-ji abbot, Sayama Daian Roshi speaking to participants in Chozen-ji's 2023 Zen & Politics program.

Yo!: Can you share a bit about your background? In your book you mention that you became involved with the Free Burma movement, how did that come about and how did that introduce you to Buddhist meditation? 

CM: When I was a teenager, I got really interested in international affairs and in particular in global human rights. When I got to college, I met a Burmese exile who was a leader in the Free Burma movement. He met me and said straight up, “We need people like you, will you help us?” I was 18, what was I going to say? I was so moved by their struggle to free Burma from military dictatorship and these terrible human rights abuses that were happening. After college, I was supposed to go inside Burma to spend a week interviewing leaders of the pro-democracy movement. I think at first when they heard this American girl was coming, they thought I'd be blonde-haired and blue-eyed. They lived with the possibility of being arrested and interrogated any day, and they told me that, because I can pass for Burmese, I could get arrested, interrogated, and tortured too. 

So, I had to figure out what I would do if I were actually arrested. Some of the toughest people I knew had done this really intensive Buddhist meditation retreat. They described experiencing incredible physical pain, but also clarity and concentration so that the pain didn't really matter as much anymore. I just said to myself, [that] kind of sounds like what I need. 

That first retreat felt like it rewired my brain in this amazing way. I was able to see myself and reality more clearly, and I became really committed to continuing down that path. I did not at the time think that I was going to live in a monastery or at a temple. I just figured that meditation would be something that I would do on my own. I continued my human rights work, worked on other movements and then on the tech side of social change, and then eventually went to business school. 

Over those 12 years, my Buddhist meditation was just for me, but when I was a business school student at Stanford, [my classmates] said, “Cristina it’s really clear that your real passion is in meditation, Buddhism and spirituality, why don't you pursue something along those lines?” I gave it a try and ended up running marketing for the mindfulness training institute that had started at Google. But while I was there, I realized that what I was really attracted to was deep, intensive spiritual training, not just corporate mindfulness. 

Exterior of Chozen-ji.

Yo!: How did you learn about Chozen-ji specifically?

CM: Around that same time I learned about Chozen-ji from an old friend. He had already been training here for 15 years. He knew that I was really into Buddhist meditation and told me to come and visit if I was ever in Hawaii. 

I learned about the history of the place and was struck with this feeling of “This is everything that I've ever been looking for except I didn't know that I was looking for it.” I was really drawn by the combination of an approach to Buddhism that was so rigorous and intense, with the martial arts. I also appreciated the connection Chozen-ji had to the Native Hawaiian community. 

On top of all of that, I was attracted to the fact that the temple was established as a place to develop people to be leaders. It wasn't like, go be a monk and then be a hermit for the rest of your life. It was more like, come do this really intensive training and then use it to go out and make the world better. All of this really fit with me as an activist, as someone who had a lot of energy, who had always been doing some sort of physical activity—it totally felt like where I was supposed to be.

Kyudo (Way of the Bow) demonstration at Chozen-ji.

Yo!: Through gaining all of these skills and going to business school, do you feel like trying all of these different avenues helped you today? Some of our readers may feel like they are stuck on a certain path. Do you feel like the experience that you had set you up for excelling or finding purpose in what you're doing right now, or did you also have to go through finding what you didn't like?

CM: I think I'm a bit strange because I've always followed my passions and I've been privileged to have been able to do that because of the support of my family. Sometimes that sense of larger global purpose and righteousness did overshadow my ability to value the day-to-day, and what and who is right in front of me. So even a path that feels full of purpose can have its drawbacks. The greatest clarity I've gotten through all the different things I've done was in realizing that I had been holding certain myths and beliefs about myself, and that I had to just get to the other side of them. When I did, I realized that what was holding me back most of all was myself. My own limitations were self-imposed, and I just had to figure out how to let them go and just go for it, plow ahead.

Leading a Chado seminar with my teacher, Yumiko Sayama, in Wisconsin.

Yo!: It is very unifying to hear about all these things we practice in our lives because they are so ingrained in Japanese and Japanese American culture. It reminds people that our cultures, while they are very different and unique, ultimately have these strings of similarities that are coming from the same teachings. 

CM: This didn’t make it into the book, but when I was doing work in Burma, I had white colleagues who would tease in particular the Burmese women that we would work with. We would be picking a restaurant for lunch and these white folks would tease the Burmese women and say, "No, forget this anade stuff." Anade is the Burmese word for the Buddhist ideal of “no self,” or selflessness. These women were embodying this in a practical way through humility, by saying, for example, “I'm not attached to where we go for lunch. I want you to be happy with where we go. I want us all to have a good time and what we eat doesn't really matter to me.” It was such a beautiful expression of how to embody an otherwise esoteric concept really practically. I see a lot of that in Japanese culture, like okagesama de; these ideals are rooted in the same sense of interconnectedness and these cultural values are ways to live them out in the real world.

Photo of Cristina Moon by Michelle Mishina

Yo!: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit more about your new book, Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness?

CM: Three Years on the Great Mountain is the story of my first three years living at Chozen-ji and how I got here. The first three weeks that I was here was when I learned all these different forms, like zazen (seated meditation) Kendo, Chado, and how to sit seiza, so that takes up a big chunk of the book. I also just learned a lot about Japanese and local Hawaii culture throughout my time here, like how to read between the lines in a conversation, so I share a lot of the moments in my training where I had "A ha!" moments and realizations along these lines, and how I changed and grew throughout my time here.

Photo Courtesy of Shambhala Publications

Yo!: How did you decide to include the word “fearlessness” in the title of your book?

CM: “Fearlessness” in this context comes from this phrase “Mu-I” which literally means No or Void Fear. One of the objectives of the training that we do at Chozen-ji is to embody this no fear, and to give fearlessness and take away fear. 

When I went to Japan last year, I visited the Asakusa shrine in Tokyo dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva or Buddha of compassion. There's a giant calligraphy there that says, "Se Mu-I". There's a story that when a young swordsman came to the samurai and Zen priest Yamaoka Tesshu, who was instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, asking for the true meaning of Kendo, Tesshu told him he could find the secret at the Asakusa shrine. The young man saw the calligraphy and returned to Tesshu, and Tesshu confirmed that that was the true meaning of Kendo. The founder of our temple, Omori Sogen, said that the same is true for Zen.

I really take to heart that idea of giving fearlessness. That's one of my objectives in sharing my training and my story, and in talking about Chozen-ji. My journey has been one of How do I embody [fearlessness]? How do I become that?”,  so I wanted to include it in the subtitle. 

I also wanted to include it because people would not put the two together and it might be a bit shocking to see fearlessness and Zen side by side. When people open the book and read about people getting pushed around in kendo, and getting hit over the head with a bamboo sword, yelling at the top of your lungs, my hope is that they'll come to understand how it connects to Zen, to ultimately becoming the things we usually associate with Zen more than yelling and martial arts, which is peacefulness and calm. You actually have to go through hard training, forge your spirit. That's the path to becoming "zen" in the way it's talked about in pop culture. 

Photo of Cristina Moon by Michelle Mishina

Yo!: Is there a type of reader that you hope will pick up your book?

CM: I would really love to reach younger Asian Americans first. The way that Buddhism has become popularized in the West outside of Asian American communities, it's been totally stripped of its Asian origins and culture. Just look at the magazines in the checkout line at Whole Foods!

It's so different when I go to a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist Temple Honganji, our temple, or a Zen mission. There's an integrity and a coherence because the ideas and beliefs are ingrained in how people just live life. Sometimes, it's so ingrained, it's hard to even recognize as Buddhist. It just feels like a part of being Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc. And, of course, you can see it more formally through cultural practices like the arts. 

Kendo actually means "Way of the Sword," and Chado means "Way of Tea." This -do comes from the Chinese word, the Tao, which is translated into English as Way. It means that swordsmanship and tea are paths or Ways to discover your True Self through the form of swordsmanship and tea. Living and embodying these spiritual and philosophical ideals through your culture is so different than just picking up a book once in a while and reading about a concept or an idea, which keeps it more divorced from your actual life. You don't experience it physically.

Photo of Cristina Moon by Michelle Mishina

I want young Asian Americans to feel a sense of pride and ownership of this. As someone who grew up AJA, you might have a better sense of Buddhism and have developed yourself more in a Buddhist sense just from growing up in the culture compared to someone who didn't but who's read all sorts of sutras and texts.

But this book is also for anyone who's interested in reading the story of someone who went and did something kind of crazy and hard, and the ways in which it challenged me and helped me grow. Even if someone reads my book and never takes up Zen or Buddhism, I think the experience of challenging and strengthening the human spirit is universal. People may find it refreshing to find that this kind of lifestyle—not sleeping a lot, being exhausted, getting scolded, doing martial arts, pushing myself so hard physically and mentally—is possible. Personally, I didn't even know it existed except outside of old Kung Fu movies. But once I did find it, it was like coming home and I think there will be other people who read my book and feel that way, too.

______

Thank you Cristina for speaking with us! You can find Cristina below:

Pre-order Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness — Available June 18

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