If Cristina Moon’s personal and professional path could be distilled into a single word, that word might be “change.”
Born in the Philippines, she also lived in Seoul, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and New York growing up: “A real ‘third-culture’ kid — not completely Asian, not completely American,” she says.
From an early age, she was inspired by changemakers who “seemed fearless and found their power in the people,” including Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the students of Tiananmen Square.
Later, her career choices reflected an interest in creating more justice and equity in the world. Moon worked as a political organizer, campaign strategist, and communications consultant; “a series of pivots,” that she says eventually led her to Stanford GSB to plan and train for her next move. “I had been seriously exploring Buddhism and meditation since 2006, which was nine or ten years before I went to the MSx program,” she recalls. “I thought I might pivot into philanthropy or pursue a path that would allow spirituality and meditation to be more central in my life. In my first study group that summer, my fellow MSx students really encouraged me to follow my heart.“
Then a 2018 visit to the Chozen-ji temple in Oahu’s Kalihi Valley inspired a spiritual journey that immersed her in meditation and Kendo, the Way of the Sword or Japanese fencing. In December 2019, she was ordained as a Zen priest. She has continued to live at Chozen-ji since then, training in intensive, monastery-style discipline and various martial and fine arts.
Chozen-ji, which means “the temple of Zen transcending Zen”, was founded in 1972 by two Zen masters, who were also martial arts masters: Omori Sogen and Tanouye Tenshin, who yoked Zen principles and fierce physical training. “They established this place with a certain vitality and warrior fighting spirit that I hadn’t seen anywhere else,” Moon says. “There’s a certain intensity of approaching your Zen training in a way that’s really going all the way.”
What led you from business school to a Zen dojo?
After I graduated, I spent a short time at the mindfulness-training program that came out of Google, and I eventually realized the mindfulness world was not really for me. I wanted to be in an environment that prioritized depth over breadth.
I got an invitation from an old friend who had become the resident priest at Chozen-ji. Less than a minute before, I had agreed to meet a friend in Hawaii. So when I got that message, it was obvious that I was going to visit this temple. The more I learned about it, I realized it was everything I’d been looking for.
What is your mission as a priest?
The main vow is to take away fear, and that, most of all, comes through in the quality of your presence and who you are. That fear could be anxiety. It could be actual, intense fear in a threatening situation. It could be fear of one’s own inner demons and your habits getting the best of you. There’s a lot of day-to-day learning about how to care for other people before oneself.
We have this metaphor of not getting stuck on the fan blades: If you are sitting in front of a fan but look through the blades, you can see what is on the other side. It’s not that the blades disappear, but you aren’t stuck on them. When you have attachments, you get stuck on emotions and thoughts, creating delusions and suffering. The training helps you maintain your groundedness because you see everything, not just the blades of the fan.
Are there similarities between business school education and your education as a priest?
They have a lot in common. They’re feedback-rich environments that challenge you physically, intellectually, and emotionally. One of my favorite GSB courses was Interpersonal Dynamics, [understanding] my personality and habits and how I dealt with people. It’s been through Zen training that I’ve been able to tackle my own concerns about acceptance and how I’m seen.
Many of the most impressive business leaders that I met or that I learned about at the GSB have a lot of the characteristics and values that we cultivate in Zen. The difference is only that they don’t have a method to teach people how to do it.
How do you use what you learned in the MSx program?
I do a lot of writing and consulting, working primarily with non-profits doing strategy, communications, facilitation, and coaching. I’m also working on a memoir about my three years of monastic training here.
The GSB opened so many doors for me. It opened my perspective on what was possible and who I could be.
What is a typical day for you?
I’m up before 5 a.m. to open the dojo and then lead 45 minutes of meditation followed by physical training, which could be martial arts such as kendo [Japanese sword fighting]. I’ll do eight or nine hours of conventional office things for the Dojo and my own work. We have meals together at 5 p.m. and then back-to-back 45-minute meditation sittings and a class from 7:30 onwards.
What do you like to do away from work?
It’s been really meaningful and rewarding to help support Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, a village of 300 mostly Native Hawaiian houseless people on the leeward side of Oahu. The residents are creating a completely different way of approaching houselessness that puts community first and is reviving indigenous approaches to life and economics that aren’t so individualistic or about individual ownership. We’ve hosted summits at Chozen-ji of houseless leaders from encampments around the island, and overlapped in other ways.
I’ve learned a lot from the leaders of Puʻuhonua O Wai‘anae about the true meaning of Aloha and what it means to stake your whole life on something, which is really different from seeing it as “work.” When you approach life this way, you don’t need a lot of time for leisure or yourself in the conventional way. Zen training has taught me that there can be a cleaner approach in which everything that has my attention is meaningful and/or fun.
How did you weather the pandemic?
When I talked to a lot of people in the business and non-profit worlds, they were grappling with how to adapt the workplace and their lives to COVID, but it came very intuitively to us because we had the structures in place to do that.
We had 10 people from the mainland asking to come live here and train. They committed to being here for three months, so they quarantined for two weeks, and then we essentially operated as a household. We built a very strong community and were physically, intellectually and emotionally engaged and connected with one another. Many of the people moved here.
Now that the pandemic is subsiding, we’ve pivoted back to focusing on cultivating a base of local members.
Do your family and friends think your Zen training has changed you?
The feedback is that I seem brighter. I seem more myself. It just feels utterly natural to them that this is where I would be. I wouldn’t say I am the best version of myself. I’m still working on that.
Photos by Pawel Nuckowski (Oahu Films)