An interview with June Tanoue

Profession: Zen priest and hula instructor
Age: 61
Location: Chicago

Tell me about growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii. I grew up in a small plantation town. The plantations were pretty big when I was born, in 1950. One of my grandfathers worked on them. He came over from Japan and started to work in what I would say were slave conditions. They had supervisors, what they called lunas, who would be riding on horses and even had whips. The other grandfather, on my mother’s side, started out as a postman in the volcano area, and then he opened a general store, in the town of Paauilo. He also opened a Japanese school there and was the head of the school. Because of this school, he was thought to be a leader of the Japanese community and that’s why he was arrested during World War II. He was interned in Honolulu on Sand Island, where they had a little internment camp. He had high blood pressure and died there nine months later. So I never did get to meet that grandfather. But he left nine children with my grandmother, who had to run the general store and raise all the children. And my grandmother also had a coffee field. I think there were about five or seven acres of coffee growing there that she had to manage, along with help from her children.

How did your grandfather’s death in internment affect your family?
Well, it’s interesting; my mother’s side of the family, they never really talk about it. But they do say that when the FBI came they gave him just a couple of hours to get packed up and say goodbye. Can you imagine that? So they really don’t talk about that period, but it must have been a big hardship. My mother was 16 at the time. Pearl Harbor was bombed on her 16th birthday. It was really tragic, not only for our family but for many families.

Now you’re a kumu hula, a master hula teacher.
I am a master hula teacher after studying for 12 years, when my husband and I returned to the Big Island of Hawaii.

So it wasn’t something you learned growing up? You learned later in life? I asked my mother at age six to take me to hula classes. (Laughs.) I didn’t remember this, my mother told me. And I took hula for two years with a wonderful hula master, Louise Beamer. And then after that I took it off and on, and then studied seriously when I returned to the Big Island in 1988.

Is the hula a religious dance? Yes, it started in religious ceremonies and the temples in Hawaii. It was done for the gods, to entice the gods to come and be with the people. That’s what it was originally strictly used for. And then it came out of the ceremonies and temples into the world with the musicians and dancers. You had court dancers for the royalty, and then you had traveling bands of performers and entertainers, but it’s still very much the ancient dances in honor of the gods and the goddesses of nature. And they all have a deeper message, what we call kaona. It’s like a hidden message that, if you knew the original composer, you would know for sure what the composer meant, and if not, then it’s kind of like Zen koans. You just work on them until the meaning makes itself known to you.

Interesting. Kaona even sounds like koan! It really does, yeah, and in Hawaiian you’re dancing it too, so it’s working on you on many levels, not so much intellectually, but the body wisdom.

You do Reiki healing as well, and you’ve said that hula and healing are like two sides of the same coin. Yes. One of the patron goddesses of the hula is Hi’iaka. She is the baby sister of the goddess Pele, the volcano goddess who is quite well known because she’s still erupting on the Big Island and flowing into the ocean, making lots of new land for the Big Island of Hawaii. Hi’iaka is the goddess of healing (as well as the patron goddess of the hula) because after Pele makes new land and destroys and burns stuff, Hi’iaka makes all of the green things grow there. So she’s known as a healer, and she has been known to heal different illnesses and even bring people back from the dead. You can look at that as a metaphor, because when you make up your mind to do something for yourself like dancing, it really has a transformative effect on you, number one being because you really enjoy doing something. And then the other thing is that it’s really good for you physically. Hula is great for core strengthening, extremities, your arms and your feet and legs, it’s really good for strengthening those areas. So all that has a beneficial effect on you and could very well bring you back from the dead. (Laughs.)

Now you’re in Chicago and in between growing up in Hawaii and ending up in Chicago, you’ve lived in a whole bunch of different places, and you worked a lot with food banks. If you learned one thing from working with food banks all those years, what would it be? Well, feeding people, you just can’t go wrong feeding people. We all have to eat, and there’s a tremendous amount of abundance in this country. I learned that people are very willing to help out when it comes to feeding people. I met lots of great people through that. And now with Zen meditation we’re feeding ourselves from sitting.

Tell me about Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago. My husband, Robert Althouse, and I cofounded the center here. He is a Zen priest whose root teacher was Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and he also studied with Nicolee Jikyo McMahon Roshi, and we also worked with Bernie Glassman with the Peacemaker Community from 2000 to 2002. We started very traditionally as the Zen Community of Oak Park, which then became the Zen Community of Chicago, and then after about seven years, we decided to go with this new approach. What we’re offering is a core curriculum of classes on how to live a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy, and clarity. And I would add sufficiency to that. My husband hasn’t gone with that one yet! It’s been a couple of years now as the Zen Life and Meditation Center, and we’ve secularized the Zen teachings in an effort to make the practice sustainable. And we’ve been doing really well, I’m happy to say. But there’s a big market for living a Zen life in Chicago, because there’s a lot of stressed-out people here.

So you’re a growth industry in the time of recession?
Yes, my husband thinks that we are recession-proof because the hard times are causing a lot of people to search for ways to calm themselves down. That’s what we can offer.

—Philip Ryan

To learn more about June Tanoue’s work, visit zlmc.org and halauikapono.org. A video of June performing in both traditonal and modern styles is here.

Photograph by Paul Goyette

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