Where a Millennial Monk Found Her Calling

Cristina Moon
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

It’s possible that you’ve heard of Chozen-ji, the Zen temple in the back of Kalihi Valley where I live. Many local people remember hearing stories of the late Tanouye Roshi — born Stanley Tanouye — from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He was the local boy who mastered more martial arts than seems humanly possible and taught band at Farrington High School. In his later years, he also became a Zen master and founded Chozen-ji as a Rinzai Zen monastery to bring samurai-style spiritual self-discipline to the West. People traveled from around the world into the farthest reaches of Kalihi Valley to train with him, get his advice or just because they wanted to see a real life martial arts and Zen master with their own eyes.

You might also have heard of Chozen-ji because of the many business, political and cultural leaders who have spent time or trained here. Or perhaps you’ve walked the temple grounds on a rare day when it is open to the public, like during our annual art show, and seen the masterpieces of Zen art made here and for which Chozen-ji is sometimes known.

Before I arrived at Chozen-ji, I didn’t know about any of this. I was a spiritual seeker of the Millennial generation who had done a lot of yoga and Buddhist meditation while also managing a career in tech and social change. I even did silent meditation retreats up to one month long, taught meditation and yoga, and managed marketing for a mindfulness training organization that was started at Google. Through my 12 years of meditation and spiritual training, I learned a lot about myself and how the human mind works. I even fancied myself a bit of an expert on meditation, self-development and leadership. But deep inside I knew I had not yet found what I was looking for.

A series of synchronistic events led me to Chozen-ji and, once I was here, I immediately knew that it was where I belonged. Only a few days into what was supposed to be just a three-week stay, the abbot asked me how I liked Chozen-ji.

“I like it a lot,” I said. “And I’d like to stay.”

The abbot laughed and then changed the subject. A few days later, when he asked me again, I said, “I already told you!” and we started a serious conversation about my living-in at Chozen-ji long term, beginning with a one-year commitment.

A number of things made me want to commit to living and training at Chozen-ji. From day one, I was folded into the daily rhythms of the larger Chozen-ji community. As one of the people living here, it’s part of my training to be a gracious host to all of our dojo members, whether they are 8 years old or 85. Every day is filled with activity — from my own training to training others, caring for the dojo grounds, fielding visitors and leading programs. But even after long days of training doing manual labor, hours of zazen (seated meditation) and a combination of fine arts and martial arts, it does not feel like a chore to dump the dregs of the day’s coffee and close up the temple kitchen. Knowing that the whole routine will start again in less than eight hours, but that I will have the chance to train alongside people who are so sincere and committed to Chozen-ji Zen, makes me feel useful, full of purpose and at home.

It wasn’t just the sense of purpose and community that made me commit to Chozen-ji, but also a profound sense of homecoming that was grounded in the intensity of the training itself. I perceived this immediately upon arrival and then learned it is a hallmark of Chozen-ji’s approach to Zen training. It is characterized by an omnipresent “sword at your throat” feeling on and off the meditation cushion that allows students to go very deep into their spiritual development, very fast. This makes training here feel like you’re getting a Ph.D. in self-control and self-mastery, or like you’ve found yourself in some sort of “Jedi” academy. In this, it may be singular and completely unique in today’s world.

I had just exited the truck in the Chozen-ji parking lot when the senior student who picked me up from the airport gave me my first scolding. I had not paid attention when he told me the truck had manually locking doors and so I had failed to lock the passenger side door on my way out. As we walked down the gravel driveway towards the large, Japanese-style budo (martial arts) dojo, my friendly driver turned into a stern teacher.

“Eighty percent of Zen training at Chozen-ji is learning to pay attention,” he said. In that, I had already failed — though I would get more chances to try again soon.

We walked up to the budo dojo and I removed my slippers at the top of the steps, where there’s a low sign reading “Remove Footwear at This Point” — but left them facing the wrong way. The resident priest quickly turned them around and told me in a friendly voice that the short dress I was wearing was not appropriate for the temple. This was underscored a few minutes later when I slipped on the Dojo stairs, dewy from mauka showers, on the way to a tour of the grounds. I landed squarely and without injury on my okole, the lower half of my dress flying up to my waist.

As the meat of the Zen training began in the days to follow, I learned that all of the spiritual seeking I had done up to that point was only to prepare me for Chozen-ji. However, it did not turn out to be an ideal preparation. I had certainly never been yelled at to keep still or to stay awake during meditation before! And never had I encountered a place where scoldings and hard manual labor were considered a part of spiritual training. Even yoga teacher training had emphasized not pushing myself beyond my limits. In contrast, the point of all of the training at Chozen-ji is to push you to and past your self-imposed limits — even if they feel irrefutable and impassable.

As one of the roshi, or Zen masters, at Chozen-ji says about this aspect of the training, “you have to exhaust the enemy. And who’s the enemy?” At this point in his periodic retelling, he points a finger at his own chest and says, “Yourself.”

The strictness of the zazen and the physical exhaustion were not the hardest new challenges to overcome. The biggest adjustment was learning to quickly and unceremoniously cut through anxiety, delusion, negative habits and difficult emotions. In Buddhism, there is a metaphor of letting go of your suffering like it’s a hot coal. Let the coal drop, just like that. I had heard this teaching many times, but at Chozen-ji, it’s not just a metaphor or conceptual exercise. For one, training in martial arts (particularly kendo – the way of the sword) is used as a way to physically practice “dropping the coal,” building muscle memory to not ruminate or get stuck, but let go so you can fully engage the next encounter.

In kendo, you learn to cut through your obstacles, head up and belly button facing forward, with the same kind of speed and straightforwardness with which you want to drop anxiety and delusional thoughts. You get a lot of practice because, rather than the endless drills you find at most kendo dojos, kendo class at Chozen-ji is all keiko, or sparring. You bow, put on the armor and are immediately face to face with someone who is ready to strike you if you allow an opening. You learn quickly to not get stuck on what just happened, whether you got hit or scored a point, because the next hit is about to come.

In contrast, there was a lot of emphasis on “staying with” anxiety and negative emotions in my previous Buddhist training. The goal of doing this was to counteract our usual habits of just pushing away the things we don’t like. But putting this kind of “staying with” approach to use in everyday life requires changing one’s environment so that it has a certain slow and bucolic pace. I think that’s why my former employer (the Google-born mindfulness initiative) prescribes so many workplace interventions — like running “mindful meetings” punctuated by collective deep breathing and silence, changing communication habits to prioritize emotional vulnerability and starting meetings with meditation.

The goal of Chozen-ji training, on the other hand, is not to need such collective changes to maintain awareness and poise — it’s to change you. You change yourself to be ready for whatever comes your way, able to move in any direction and the master of any circumstance. This is called fudoshin, or the “immovable mind,” and is described at length through a series of letters between Zen master Takuan and master swordsman Yagyu Tajima Munemori called Fudochi Shinmyo Roku.

This book of Zen advice about living and dying by the sword is one of Chozen-ji’s foundational texts. This surprises people who expect that all Buddhists eschew violence and that to train in Zen is to be quiet, weak limbed and placid all the time. Given the rapid pace of life and the high stakes challenges we collectively face today, though, it feels appropriate to focus on spiritual guidance rooted in real life or death experiences.

Once in a while, it can feel like the training is too much to handle. Only a few of my friends who have joined me in training at Chozen-ji understand why.

“You’d think that living at a Zen temple is really calm and relaxed,” a friend from San Francisco once told me. “But actually, you guys have more intense lives than anyone else I know.” Even though he has been here to do our rigorous week-long training called sesshin and lived-in for a few months, he cannot imagine living here long term. It’s by design.

“If you don’t feel like quitting or aren’t seriously asking yourself why you’re doing this kind of training,” the teachers say, “then we’re not pushing you hard enough.”

Someone just visiting Chozen-ji might not be able to see this. The beauty and serenity of the grounds belie the intensity of the training done here, though they are inextricably connected. Almost every building at Chozen-ji was designed and built by dojo members, not professional builders. They were not necessarily masters of carpentry and construction, though a small number were. What was key was that they knew how to pay attention in all situations. They had learned, by training with Tanouye Roshi, what it meant to push past one’s limits to make something, even a building. Decades of conscientious use have given the buildings a rustic patina, real wabi sabi (beauty found in imperfection). And in the twilight hours of a particularly intense training day, people say they can see the buildings shimmer.

Training at Chozen-ji is not for everyone. Most of the people who are looking for Zen and spirituality are disappointed when they get here. They didn’t come to do the dishes, they say, but to eliminate suffering. Quickly, they realize their sense of entitlement won’t be indulged for even a moment and there are no breaks from training here. We’re going for the elimination of suffering, too, at Chozen-ji — but we start with the dishes.

Despite how difficult and unappealing this rigorous kind of training can seem, more and more people — from teenagers to octogenarians, from artists to public servants to business people — are finding something at Chozen-ji they didn’t know they yearned for. They come from all over O‘ahu and from around the globe, drawn to Tanouye Roshi’s legacy. They walk through the gates and at some point can’t shake the feeling that, as dizzyingly unfamiliar as the training is and how much change it demands of them, they somehow found their way home.

Cristina Moon lives at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple at the back of Kalihi Valley. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. When she’s not helping to run Chozen-ji, Cristina currently works as a strategy and tech consultant in the nonprofit and political sectors. More of her writing can be found at www.cristinamoon.com.


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