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June's Interview with Susan Moon

I met Susan Moon at a delightful Women's Retreat that used her book The Hidden Lamp at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center a couple of years ago.  Sue is a writer, editor and lay teacher in the Soto Zen tradition.   I caught up with her again and learned this about this busy and talented woman.

June Tanoue:  You've been involved in some huge and wonderful projects like the book Hidden Lamp: Stories from 25 Centuries of awakened Women and most recently What is Zen?  Plain Talk for a Beginner''s Mind with Norman Fischer.  What's on the horizon for you?

Susan Moon:  I've been working on some essays about death. There's a big subject! People have been doing a lot of good writing about being with dying people in supportive ways, about how to prepare for one's own death, spiritually and logistically, about how to keep death from being medicalized. 

I appreciate this work. My interest focuses on what is death to the living? How does the fact of our mortality change our life and our practice? How does our contemplation of death help us to be fully alive? Is death different from birth? What IS it, anyway?  Perhaps there will be a sequel to This Is Getting Old called This Is Getting Dead.

June: You're a lay Zen teacher. What does that mean?  How long did you train?  Why didn't you become a zen priest too?

Susan:  I grew up in a secular, anti-clerical, humanitarian family. It took me a long time to even feel comfortable identifying myself as a Buddhist. Now I feel very comfortable with it. 

Buddhism is a religion to me, and I value that, I value the mystery and the vastness of it, and I value the rituals. I'm grateful to the priests who hold the ritual space and keep the priestly traditions alive. 

But I'm committed to identifying myself with people "in the world," living the lives of householders. I don't want to separate myself by wearing a certain costume, or taking on a certain label or title, or receiving certain projections. I respect priests, but I want to blend in with ordinary people.

(I grant that these are all concepts. I know that priests are ordinary people, too. And priests live in the world. Where else could they live? And in all honesty I admit I don't really want to blend in totally. I don't want to be invisible.) 

June:  We're co-leading the women's retreat here at the end of April. What would you like women to know about it?

Susan:  I'm looking forward to the community of trust and, if you'll pardon the old-fashioned word, sisterhood, that we'll create together for the time of our retreat. 

As we explore together our experience of aging, we'll remember our old women ancestors, our grandmothers, or others who showed us the way. We may find fear, and loss, but also unexpected joys. 

We're entering new territory each day. We're still alive. And we are not alone! We'll talk, and we'll be held in a  bowl of silence together, too. 

At the retreats I've led, I'm always moved by how empowered and connected we feel when we share our stories with each other. I'm looking forward tremendously to working with you, June, learning from you and your experience with Zen and movement, and joining our perspectives together into something new and unexpected. 

June:  Anything else about you that you'd like for our readers to know about?

I was born in Chicago. I didn't grow up there, but I visited my grandparents there all through my childhood and youth. I love Chicago. In an old Zen koan, the master asks, "What was your face before your parents were born?" I don't know, but I think it's somewhere in Chicago. 

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302