Wake Up!

“No striving” is a common refrain in spiritual circles, but that’s not what inspires Cristina Moon. Her path is vigor—radical, total awakening.

Cristina Moon
1 June 2024
Cristina Moon lives at Chozen-ji, a Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, known for its rigorous method of mind, body, and spiritual training. Photo by Michelle Mishina / @michelle.mishina

For years, much of my experience with Buddhism was colored by the persistent belief that Americans are too hard on ourselves and that our most salient quality is that we ignore or violate healthy boundaries in pursuit of our own egoistic goals. I heard many Buddhist teachers say that we have to recognize and interrupt this same impulse in how we approach meditation rather than blindly pushing for some enlightening realization. They often summed up this individual and collective trait in one word: striving.

Striving was roundly discouraged wherever I went. The consistent response it prompted was to be told to stop, surrender, and let go of chasing goals, even spiritual ones. This was never easy for me. Much of what had made me successful in life was that I threw myself into whatever I did. By nature, I was hard charging, an enthusiastic and focused person. I liked to see my labors culminate in achievement and found enjoyment in tackling tough problems. I possessed the intensity and drive shared by many Koreans, as we are the descendants of tough-as-nails (if also impetuous and emotional) survivors—of colonization, poverty, and war. We always persist and often out of sheer, ferocious will. So I was by default a striver, through and through.

“It was this spirit of radical, total awakening that had initially drawn me to Buddhism.”

For years, I tried my best to follow what was presented to me as the teachings of Buddhism, recognizing and squelching my tendency for striving and my overall intensity. It had some positive effects; it was a good way to put my ego in check. I recognized that, out of callousness and solipsism, I sometimes leaped before looking, and I often pushed my own agenda too hard. Countering striving became a mantra I heard in my own head and in Buddhist conversations all around me. I came to accept this overall discouragement of striving as a given. It must, I figured, be a part of what made Buddhism what it was. One time, however, I met a Buddhist teacher who took a different tack.

It was 2008 when, facing a hall full of silent retreatants, Buddhist teacher Rodney Smith extolled some forty of us on retreat to “wake up!” He had just finished explaining how the word “buddha” in ancient Pali meant “one who is awakened.” That, he said, was the simple, elegant, and yet hard-to-attain goal of all of Buddhism: to wake up. It was also our call to action as Buddhist meditators: Wake up!

It was this spirit of radical, total awakening that had initially drawn me to Buddhism. The forcefulness of this call to wake up also matched my first experience on retreat when I had charged into meditative practice with the seriousness required by my circumstances—heading into Burma to meet with political dissidents and possibly arrest and torture. But I had never heard a Western teacher sharing this kind of bold call to action: to go for it and to go all the way.

To be fair, the story of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment reads like fantasy—that he sat with immoveable determination for six days under the Bodhi Tree, having resolved not to move until he was enlightened; that he dove into the earth as if it were water to avoid prowling tigers; that a giant king cobra spread its hooded neck over him as he sat in meditation so he’d be sheltered from the rain. As a rule, the Western teachers I had come across treated this story the same way many modern Christians treat the stories in the Bible—most useful as metaphor. They certainly did not prescribe sitting for days on end to their students. As laypeople, they said, Buddhist practice had to be woven into our daily lives with yielding, gentleness, and patience and with the acceptance of the fact that sometimes we will feel like we are making progress by leaps and bounds and at other times like we aren’t going anywhere at all. This prevailing sentiment could be recognized in a unique lexicon that many different meditation teachers seemed to adopt in unison in the 2010s, liberally using words like “heartbreak,” “tenderness,” “refuge,” “rest,” and “surrender.”

Rodney, who at the time of this retreat was in his early sixties, recounted what it was like to be a young monk in Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. He had gone to Burma, then India, and finally Thailand to live as a monk with some of the great Buddhist teachers of the day: Mahasi Sayadaw, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Ajahn Buddhadasa. Rodney described how he and his fellow monks walked their morning alms rounds at dawn, each with their head shaved, wearing monk’s robes, barefooted and carrying a wooden bowl to beg for food. The living conditions were very poor.

“Some days,” he said, “you’d get some rice or curry in your bowl. You go back and share that. Some days, you might only get a scoop of buffalo fat and some rice. If that was all you received, that was what you would eat. That was it.”

Rodney also described himself as stubborn and how his stubbornness ultimately proved to be a great gift. Despite the hardships of monastic life, Rodney never gave up. He persisted to the point that something eventually opened up in him, leading him to have a realization, which later led to him becoming a well-known and beloved Buddhist teacher.

Rodney’s stories sounded amazing. As I listened, the world of my imagination in which Rodney lived as a monk expanded rapidly, populated by details from the times I myself had lived, studied, and worked in Asia. The hot, dusty air of the dry season. Stepping briskly on umber earth, clouds of dust kicked up by well-worn sandals. The sounds of distant tuk-tuks and calls to mosque projected over loudspeakers in the Muslim quarters of town. The smells of freshly boiled rice, incense, mosquito coils, and sweat. I couldn’t imagine the monks’ exhaustion, sleeping only four hours a night, or the monotony of monastery life. But I imagined all the other aspects of Rodney’s stories so vividly that I almost felt as if I were there in line with the other monks, making the morning alms rounds.

Pointing out the ample food, electricity, heat, and private rooms at our retreat center, Rodney continued his talk by suggesting that we had everything we needed to break through our attachments and have our own realization. If he had done it in such bare conditions, certainly we could figure something out here. We had all journeyed so far and set aside time in our lives to practice deeply. With everything taken care of and in the company of a sangha—a community of people committed to meditating and being mindful—perhaps we had even better conditions for a breakthrough than he had had in the monastery.

“Stay and sit as late as you want,” he said, gesturing to the meditation hall. “Go all night, even. The hall will stay open. This time is precious. Why not go for it? Right now. Why wait? Why not go all the way? Why not wake up?” Hearing this, my heart swelled. It sang! I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to wake up! I felt that Rodney had given me permission and shown me the path. Having been told it was here before me, I was ready not just to walk it but to run.

Rodney ended his talk with that exhortation, and I did run—but first to the dining hall to down a cup of coffee. I would need fuel, I thought, to sit through the night. I looked forward to the prospect of sitting in meditation until the sun rose. The idea excited me, and I thought that I did, indeed, have in front of me the ideal conditions for a realization, surrounded by more than forty other people who had all signed up for this retreat and who, I deduced, must be really serious Buddhists.

On May 4, 2021 in Los Angeles, Cristina Moon spoke at May We Gather, a national Buddhist memorial ceremony for Asian American ancestors, in particular Asian Americans lost to anti-Asian violence. Photo by Rauran Woo.

Rodney rang a bell at 9:00 p.m. to start the last formal sitting of the night. I settled into my cushion and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, closing my eyes. At first, I just felt the air pass in and out below my nostrils. I counted my breaths, one to ten, over and over again. When I was able to sustain my concentration for a while, I stopped counting and felt myself just breathing, heard the sounds in the meditation hall, and cultivated the sense of allowing mindful awareness as Rodney had instructed us in earlier. When a thought arose, I regarded it like a cloud passing through a clear blue sky. Then, I labeled the thought, noting “thinking,” and returned my attention to the full, wide expanse of my perception. Other metaphorical clouds were labeled: “hearing,” “ruminating,” “tension,” and so on. When my mind became agitated or unfocused, I returned to counting my breaths to restore my concentration.

After forty-five minutes, Rodney rang the meditation bell three times to end the sitting. After the third bell, everyone opened their eyes, put their palms together, and bowed. As Rodney exited, I roused myself.

More sitting! I thought. As I left the hall for a quick bathroom break, I saw other people continuing to sit.

I’ll be back soon! my heart called out to them.

Just a few minutes later, I returned to the meditation hall and saw that, to my surprise, most of the meditation cushions in the hall were empty. Only ten or so of us were left. What had happened? I thought maybe some people had also gone to the bathroom or to the dining hall and would be back soon. No doubt everyone had heard Rodney’s call to action and was planning to sit through the night. I cast aside my doubts, and still optimistic about the prospect of having a realization, I sat back down and again began to meditate.

As I sat through my usual bedtime, I found myself drifting away from mindful awareness. Soon, I was nodding off. In my more lucid moments, I willed myself to think rousing thoughts. Still, I found myself losing track of my breaths and my counting. I opened my eyes once in a while to try to urge myself awake, but soon, my eyelids drooped and closed. At one point, I couldn’t tell if I was just thinking or dreaming. As the minutes went by, I floated along, trying to wake up over and over again. Eventually, I opened my eyes, put my palms together, and bowed. I looked at the clock on the wall. It read 11:00 p.m.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I was tired. My brain felt like molasses. Going back to my room and going to sleep suddenly sounded very attractive! Wanting to keep going, instead, I closed my eyes and resumed meditating. But again, I drifted in and out, unable to stay awake. At around midnight, I got up and did some pushups and then swung my arms back and forth in a corner of the hall to get my blood flowing. By that time, I was the only person left.

For another thirty or forty minutes, I didn’t really meditate; I only drifted in and out of sleep. Opening my eyes, I looked around the empty meditation hall. Alone in the cavernous space in the middle of the night, I felt lonely and small. Most of all, I felt disappointed. I tasted a sourness in my mouth, the bite of defeat and loneliness.

Resignedly, I took the blanket from around my shoulders and folded it, placing it on top of my meditation cushion. I picked up my notebook and pen and put them on top of my folded blanket. Slowly, I walked back out of the hall and toward my room. When I saw one of the retreat participants closer to my age walking in on my way out, I thought for a moment about turning around and trying again, buoyed by his presence. But it was already too late. Even if I could stay awake just a little longer, my spirit had failed me. I had given up.

The next morning, I learned that I hadn’t just been fighting my own lack of resolve to sit through the night but also a quiet consensus among some of the retreatants that this was not the time or the place to go all the way. When Rodney got up on the dais in the morning, he shared that he had heard from several people that his invocation had prompted them to feel that this wasn’t where they belonged.

“You belong here,” Rodney reassured them, apologizing profusely. “I’m sorry. You absolutely belong here.” He had not meant to imply that anyone was out of place here, he went on, only that the conditions were right to go as far as any of us had wanted. Then, he encouraged all of us to forget what he had said about going all the way. We all had to train in the way each of us felt appropriate and to figure out what was right for ourselves. From where I sat, I could see the grandfatherly smile on Rodney’s face, but I wondered if I didn’t see some sadness behind it, too. For my own part, I felt discouraged and confused, and that sourness lingered on my tongue.

For perhaps a decade after that retreat with Rodney, I took what seemed to be the prevailing message from the sangha to heart: that I should be more measured in my spiritual pursuits and that the foremost enemy of spiritual progress was this delusive thinking called striving. Who was I to think I could have a realization, anyway? Trying to be what I thought was a good Buddhist, I tempered my enthusiasm and tamped down the energy with which I approached life. I gave up capoeira, the martial art I had trained in all through college, because it felt too aggressive and at odds with the placid demeanor I was trying to cultivate through meditation and Buddhist study. I took up yoga, instead. I tried to be more aware of times when I came across as too brash, loud, or bossy for those around me, and I took jobs doing work that seemed more respectable and less radical. As a headstrong young woman, I tried hard to be quieter, softer, more calm and measured, and to take up less space.

Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I had not flagged in my motivation to be an activist and, later, to help free Burma. I had felt that it was my life’s purpose to advocate for democracy and human rights there and to be a voice for the voiceless. But after I began to meditate and study Buddhism seriously, I beat a slow retreat from the movement. I was driven in part by a budding awareness of the physical and psychological toll that the work was taking on me through vicarious and direct trauma. But I also withdrew because I had come to think that my intensity and the strength of my convictions—about Burma, yes, but also about everything else—were more destructive than helpful. These traits did not line up with my new ideals of quiet Buddhist restraint and softness. To me, this meant that they were, obviously and inherently, bad. And by extension, so was I.

I was too big, too loud, too sharp. Throwing away my ego, I decided, meant chipping away at myself until I was so small that I disappeared. One teacher I later sat retreats with talked about a “thinning of the me” and likened it to dissolving into something bigger and more universal. Another teacher I encountered likened it to being porous. I leaned into this approach so much that, at one point, a strong wind could’ve blown right through me. Over time, it became second nature to stop, breathe, and identify my thoughts as just thoughts and not “me” until my sense of self faded down to a whisper. For a decade or so, I focused on diminishing myself in this way and on practices like loving-kindness meditation, which involved flooding myself with feelings of love and softness to negate the sharp and forceful person that I was. Never again during that time did I try to sit up all night in meditation; nor did I want to anymore. That was so obviously striving.

In the weeks and months leading up to my arrival at Chozen-ji, it did not occur to me that I was about to encounter such a different approach to developing the spirit. I felt exhilarated by everything I heard about the history of Rinzai Zen and the role of the martial arts in Chozen-ji training. This combined with the kismet of the timing—Michael [a friend of mine who lived at Chozen-ji] happening to reach out just as I was already planning a trip to Hawai‘i—made it so that I never even gave it a second thought. And once I was here, I embraced everything that this samurai Zen had to offer, easily shedding the albatross of struggling not to strive. I guess it had really been an unnatural fit; I had been forcing things all along by trying not to be so forceful. Within moments of arriving at Chozen-ji, it was as if the ever-present critique of striving had disappeared from my mind. However, the habits I’d accumulated over years of making myself quiet and small—hesitation, freezing, and flinching—remained and needed to be addressed.

Not long after my arrival, Michael told me he’d scheduled something that happened not infrequently at Chozen-ji: an all-night training. Capping off my three-week live-in, the all-night training would include zazen, martial arts, and fine arts. He challenged me to work on the sword cuts I was learning so that I could do several hundred, maybe even one thousand, that night. And to figure out how to sit zazen through the night without falling asleep. The all-night training would be a time to challenge myself to do things I couldn’t ordinarily or otherwise do.

I didn’t remember at first that I had tried—and failed—at training through the night once before. When I did remember, it was with a chuckle. How different this was, I thought, from any sort of Buddhism I had ever done before. And yet, it felt so good, so natural. This sort of intensity and vigor was the perfect fit for my personality. It challenged me, of course—it was designed to. But within the challenge and every moment of training was the feeling of coming home, as if this kind of “balls to the wall” approach to life was the way I had always been meant to live; I just hadn’t known it.

Every day, I was feeling stronger, my senses more astute, and lighter. Whether it was for the psychological burdens I was letting go or just my improving musculature and posture, I felt amazing. I embraced the upcoming all-night training as another sign that I was finally where I belonged and that I had finally found my kin—the kind of people whose idea of fun was to do crazy things like staying up all night sitting zazen and swinging swords. Every day from that day forward until the end of my first three weeks at Chozen-ji, I thought about the upcoming all-night training, looking forward to it and counting down the days.

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

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon is a Buddhist priest, writer, and strategist who helps others develop the sensitivity and strength needed to stay calm amid chaos. Previously, she had a global career in human rights and social change, and graduated from business school at Stanford. For more information, please visit www.cristinamoon.com.