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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

If there are many paths up the mountain that is spiritual self-discovery, writer, strategist and Zen priest Cristina Moon is on one with an especially steep incline. “I think the majority of paths have a lot of switchbacks, but some people want straight up the mountain,” she said. “That works for them, it worked for me.”

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Shelf Help is a new wellness column where we interview researchers, thinkers and writers about their latest books — all with the aim of learning how to live a more complete life.

In her new memoir “Three Years on the Great Mountain: A memoir of Zen and Fearlessness,” (Penguin Random House) Moon details a spiritual journey that led her from working as a human rights activist in Burma (now Myanmar), to running marketing for a corporate mindfulness training group in the Bay Area, to ultimately living at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Hawaii known for its monastic intensity.

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She eventually became a Zen priest herself, and continues to live at the temple today, where she trains in a particularly rigorous form of Japanese swordsmanship called kendo. She also instructs students in martial arts, ceramics and other Japanese art forms to aid them in the discovery of what Japanese Zen Buddhists call the “true self” — a version of oneself that is happy, free and beyond fear and any self-imposed limitation.

Moon knows the arduous path she chose is not for everyone, but her hope is that by writing honestly and vulnerably about the challenges and growth she experienced in her first three years at Chozen-ji she will inspire others to seek teachers and communities that will best help them meet life’s obstacles with fearlessness.

“In training hard, it is possible to find your way home,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Moon spoke to The Times about her transformative experience at Chozen-ji, what it means to face challenges with “your belly button facing forward” and how all of us can work towards living life with less fear.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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One of the goals of the Zen Buddhism you practice is to cultivate fearlessness, which feels very relevant right now, given that, between war, climate change and political turmoil, there’s a lot to be afraid of in our world. What does fearlessness mean to you and how can we work to achieve it?

Photo of Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon (Michelle Mishina Kunz)

In a very practical sense fearlessness is simply: Can I figure out how to live my life without hesitation? If I see an opening, if I see an opportunity, can I just go for it 100% without being held back by fear? And, can I inspire or transmit that to other people as well?

Overcoming my fear at the beginning of my time at Chozen-ji was really straightforward stuff, like not ducking and getting small when someone was about to hit me over the head in [the Japanese martial art] kendo, or not being afraid of being uncomfortable and being in pain while sitting for long periods of meditation.

But for anyone doing any kind of physical training or exercise, it’s the same thing. When you push yourself through the moment of doubt, when you’re running up a hill, and you think, I’d love to give up now and walk up this hill, but I know I’m almost there. There’s something about doing it physically that allows you to do it in other parts of your life emotionally, mentally and interpersonally.

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In your time at Chozen-ji you studied kendo — the way of the sword and chado — the way of tea. Can you describe these disciplines and what they had to teach you?

“Do” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “tao,” which is sort of a universal energy, a universal truth. When you append that word to a discipline or an art, it basically says that you can take this martial or fine art and use it as a way of training that will shape who you are.

“Ken” means sword, and “do” means way, so kendo is the way of the sword. It’s a traditional Japanese martial art form that is pretty intense and aggressive. Back when samurai actually existed it was done with metal swords, but now we use bamboo or wooden swords. In our approach to kendo we don’t learn any defensive maneuvers. We train in how to go forward and cut straight.

The goal is that you are cutting more down the center, faster and with less hesitation then your opponent, so even in the face of attack, you’re the one landing the hit first. That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.

“That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.”

— Cristina Moon, on the Japanese martial art of kendo

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Chado, or the way of tea, is very different. Chado is remarkable because it incorporates philosophy and all the art forms — cooking, calligraphy, aesthetics, the tea itself and the sweets, ceramics — it really is a whole integrated space when you are in the tearoom. What I didn’t realize before I started training is that male samurai were the original people who trained in tea ceremony. It was something that was done as a counterpoint to their lifestyle and livelihood — a brief moment of peace.

What they both have in common is the cultivation of what’s called “kiai,” or the vital energy. The ideal is that the separation between kendo opponents, between the person and the sword, between the tea host, the utensils and the guest — all those boundaries disappear. It is an opportunity to experience the interconnectedness and the oneness of everything.

Your book details how difficult training at Chozen-ji can be. In addition to the physical exertion of long meditation sittings and martial arts, your teachers were constantly correcting you. Did you have to build a tolerance to being told you’re doing something wrong?

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Book jacket for "Three Years on The Great Mountain A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" by Cristina Moon

(Courtesy of Shambhala Publications)

In Hawaii we call it scolding. You get scoldings for all sorts of things, and it’s one of the first things anyone who comes to train at Chozen-ji has to figure out how to deal with. Sometimes the feedback is very warm, but it’s jarring for people when it’s sharp. We’re always reminded that if the scoldings and feedback stop, that’s actually when you should get concerned because it means people have given up on you.

We don’t do anything because it’s precious or holy. So, how you hold your hands, how you walk, how you tie your hakama [traditional Japanese martial arts training clothes] — all of those things are meant to help you learn how to pay attention and also, heighten your senses.

I love this phrase in your book: “approaching life with your belly button facing forward.” What does that mean to you?

It means tackling the challenges and opportunities in life head-on rather than trying to find a sneaky or clever way away around things. It means honesty and integrity, and in particular when things are hard, to be willing to face it.

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You titled one chapter in your book: “2-1=3.” Can you explain that?

That’s a formulation I have to credit to one of the teachers here, Kangen Roshi. It’s this idea that when you let go of something you can free up all this energy and space to have an understanding that is so much more transcendent than the everyday understanding we have about the world being zero sum and how things are supposed to work.

He also gave me a copy of “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins. In the end of that book a couple of characters die and they are at this way station to figure out if they are going to go to heaven. The test is that you weigh your heart on a scale against a feather and only the hearts that are lighter than the feather go to heaven. The idea is that you have to have let go of all of your baggage. You have to let go of everything.

The book details the first time you did sesshin, an intense week of training where you only get four hours of sleep a night. One of your teachers said, “Stop feeling bad for yourself, and wasting all that energy.” Why was that a breakthrough moment for you?

Sesshin is an extreme situation where you have to figure out how to let go of your baggage and the things that are holding you back. The conditions make it so that you don’t have a choice.

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On that first sesshin I was preoccupied with how tired I was. I had this monologue in my head that was like: “I’m so tired. I can’t do this. I don’t think I can make it.” For me, the most effective scolding was to be told: You are young, you are healthy, you’ve been doing this every day for six months. And look around you at all these people who are not in as good shape as you, who don’t know what they’re doing, who don’t have as much experience as you, and what impact are you having on these people by being so down.

TAKEAWAYS

From “Three Years on the Great Mountain”

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After that, every time that voice started up that said, “I’m so tired,” I would just sort of say, “No!” and put more energy into whatever I was doing. Very quickly I realized that I had more energy.

The really painful and difficult realization coming out of that was that for my entire life I had been leaving something on the table.

Most people are probably not going to leave their jobs and homes to live and train at a dojo in Hawaii for three years. What are some things they can do in their everyday lives to challenge themselves, like you did?

My experience at Chozen-ji is really abnormal. Ninety-nine percent of the people who train here don’t live at Chozen-ji; they have jobs, they have families, they live on Oahu and they come here one or a couple days a week. But my advice to other folks is to find the dojos that exist in your communities. A great place to start is the martial arts dojo or the boxing gym. It’s something that is accessible for people who are ready to rethink how they want to approach their life.

I know that after an eight-hour workday and an hour commute it’s tempting to just drink a beer, eat dinner, watch four hours of Netflix and go to bed. But how is that preparing you for the things that are inevitable that you are going to face in your life — the best and the worst, the hardest moments?

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A lot of people are experiencing fear and anxiety about the future. What have you learned that might help someone overcome those particular fears?

The real answers are not the rational ones we are seeking. Even beyond something like climate change, we can be certain that everyone we love is going to die and so are we, and there’s something that comes from embracing that in a certain way that can lead one to actually be free and happy and to cherish the life that we do have. The worst thing we can do is become depressed or nihilistic or give up, knowing that’s the outcome for all of us.

It’s actually a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to live, knowing that that’s coming. Maybe every moment matters. Maybe what I’m doing right now matters. How can I make it matter?

I’ve read a lot of Buddhist memoirs and self-help books over the years and I’m struck that yours is the first one I’ve read written by an Asian American woman. Have I missed others or have there not been others?

There are a few. Sharon Suh wrote “Occupy This Body: A Buddhist Memoir,” but I think that was a very small press. Chenxing Han published the memoir “One Long Listening” about her experience in Buddhist chaplaincy and also about losing her best friend to leukemia. Those are the two I know of that are very recent.

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As much as my book is very much a Buddhist book, I did try hard to make it relatable and read more like a mainstream memoir. And that was for exactly this reason: Our stories aren’t out there. I think there is a greater movement toward representing the Asian American people in the Buddhist space generally, but we still have a long ways to go.

A tray with a Japanese tea set and a cherry tree branch with blossoms

(Maggie Chiang / For The Times)

Shelf Help is a new wellness column where we interview researchers, thinkers and writers about their latest books — all with the aim of learning how to live a more complete life. Want to pitch us? Email alyssa.bereznak@latimes.com.

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

An NBA logo is seen on an official game ball before a game, Feb. 1, 2014, in New York. The NBA said Wednesday that it is not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league and therefore has entered into a deal with Amazon Prime Video.

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The NBA signed its 11-year media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday after saying it was not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league.

The media rights deals were approved by the league’s Board of Governors last week and will bring the league about $76 billion over those 11 years.

WBD had five days to match a part of those deals and said it was exercising its right to do so, but its offer was not considered a true match by the NBA. That means the 2024-25 season will be the last for TNT after a nearly four-decade run.

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“Warner Bros. Discovery’s most recent proposal did not match the terms of Amazon Prime Video’s offer and, therefore, we have entered into a long-term arrangement with Amazon,” the league said Wednesday. “Throughout these negotiations, our primary objective has been to maximize the reach and accessibility of our games for our fans. Our new arrangement with Amazon supports this goal by complementing the broadcast, cable and streaming packages that are already part of our new Disney and NBCUniversal arrangements. All three partners have also committed substantial resources to promote the league and enhance the fan experience.”

What Amazon Prime Video gets

Amazon Prime Video will carry games on Friday nights, select Saturday afternoons and Thursday night doubleheaders which will begin after the conclusion of Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football” schedule. Prime Video will also take over the NBA League Pass package from WBD.

“The digital opportunities with Amazon align perfectly with the global interest in the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “And Prime Video’s massive subscriber base will dramatically expand our ability to reach our fans in new and innovative ways.”

The package also includes at least one game on Black Friday and the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game of the NBA Cup.

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“Over the past few years, we have worked hard to bring the very best of sports to Prime Video and to continue to innovate on the viewing experience,” said Jay Marine, global head of sports for Prime Video. “We’re thrilled to now add the NBA to our growing sports lineup, including the NFL, UEFA Champions League, NASCAR, NHL, WNBA, NWSL, Wimbledon, and more. We are grateful to partner with the NBA, and can’t wait to tip-off in 2025.”

ESPN and ABC keep the NBA Finals

ESPN and ABC will keep the league’s top package, which includes the NBA Finals. ABC has carried the finals since 2003.

ESPN/ABC will combine for nearly 100 games during the regular season. More than 20 games will air on ABC, mainly on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, while ESPN will have up to 60 games, mostly on Wednesday nights with some Friday games. ABC and ESPN will also combine for five games on Christmas Day and have exclusive national coverage of the final day of the regular season.

During the playoffs, ESPN and ABC will have approximately 18 games in the first two rounds each year and one of the two conference finals series in all but one year of the agreement.

NBC becomes a second network partner

The return of NBC, which carried NBA games from 1990 through 2002, gives the NBA two broadcast network partners for the first time.

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NBC will have up to 100 regular-season games, including on Sunday night once the NFL season has ended. It will air games on Tuesdays throughout the regular season, while a Monday night doubleheader would be exclusively streamed on Peacock.

NBC will also have the All-Star Game and All-Star Saturday Night. During the playoffs, NBC and/or Peacock will have up to 28 games the first two rounds, with at least half on NBC.

NBC and Amazon will also carry one of the two conference finals series in six of the 11 years on a rotating basis. NBC will have a conference final in 2026-27 followed by Amazon the next season.

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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