Three Steps One Bow

Letters to the Venerable Master Hua from Bhiksus Heng Sure and Heng Ch’au on their bowing pilgrimage to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

Marconi Cove 
16 May 1979

Dear Shifu,

Who am I? My body is borrowed and all too soon returns to the elements. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep it from falling apart. That's just how it is. Am I my thoughts? Maybe it's as the philosopher Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum)."  But, my thoughts are even less real than my body. They are like the morning fog that's gone by noon. My mind is a puff of wind.

      This a.m. I woke up and stepped outside. It was dark and still. No cars or people--just the mist and fog from Tomales Bay and a few birds. I started to laugh. All the time and energy I've spent doting after the self and what belongs to the self: What a waste: In the vast, big picture there is no me. How stupid: I chased after my false thoughts and clung to my attachments until I was stuck up to my neck in a muddy sea of suffering and affliction. I never knew.

Everything I did was upside-down, "Conjoined with inversion," as the Avatamsaka says. I couldn't even learn from my mistakes, because I didn't even know they were errors. Sometimes it feels like cultivation isn't bringing results. All I do is make mistakes. But, culti­vation itself is a response. Recognizing your mistakes is getting results.

Cultivating purely for a while and then taking a fall makes clear what is true and false. The contrast is loud. Cultivation brings everything into sharp focus. The phony coverings and fat gets trimmed away, exposing the bare bones. Instant karma. Right before my eyes I turn my back on enlightenment and unite with the dust. In a single act of ignorance, the "sprouts of suffering" are produced, and in a few hours I'm entangled in the causal links of conditional existence. It's all very real, not abstract philosophy. "Ignorance produces action, action produces consciousness...all the way to suffering a death. You don't have to have psychic powers to understand how you pass through beginningless rounds of birth and death "covered by a film of ignorance."

In just a few seconds, as fast as a single thought, you can slip from "all Buddha's proper Dharmas: and fall into deviant views. Right in front of your face is the whole story. In every single thought I know why I am not a Buddha and how I could be. So it says,

Everything's a test, to see what you will do;

Mistaking what's before your eyes,

You'll have to start anew.

Last night, after a hard day of bowing, I was making some tea on the tailgate of the car. It was dark with no one around for miles. I relaxed a little and let my mind and eyes wander while waiting for the water to boil. I stopped reciting the Great Compassion Mantra.

Suddenly a car pulled up right next to me. Out jumped two young women. "Hi there, do you need some food for tomorrow?" they asked. I "recognized" one of the women, although I'm sure I've never seen her before. It was a different kind of recognition. My mind moved. Faster than it takes to turn your hand over, I felt the whole can of worms tumble and spill out on the ground.

...mistaking what's before your eyes, you'll have to start anew.

I dropped my guard just for a second and fell a thousand feet. Going up is hard, sliding down is easy.

Was it a bummer? No. We just cultivate everyday and don't worry about things. If it's good, we don't jump for joy. If it's bad, we don't cry and say, "What a bummer:" Everything speaks the Dharma. Nothing is real. So we try our best to listen and change towards the good and just take it as it comes. Nothing's a bum­mer unless you call it a bummer.

If I take a loss or fall, it's a lesson. If I make a gain and progress, it's a test. In cultivation, everything naturally works out for the best. You don't have to worry or make plans or calculate for this and that all day. Just "be pure, peaceful, and happy" was the Buddha's message, "return the light and illumine within."

So if we cultivate for awhile and then flunk a test, we don't fall down as far as when we didn't cultivate. Cultivation is forever. Besides, compared to the ancients, I don't even know the meaning of the word cultivation. I'm just a kid who's trying to leave home. Minutes after I write the words, they sound like "fart, fart" to my ears.

Now I know there is really a difference between cultivating the Way and being "ordinary." I laughed this a.m. because I saw how small and lopsided my view of "me and mine" has been. I laughed because I've been hanging upside down and fanning the flames of more suffering, while all the time thinking I was really smart and doing okay.

My heart is light. Slowly, bit by bit I know I can get out. And, if I can make good, then for sure I'll be able to help others make their escape and "set them in a place of ultimate peace and joy." Cultivation is really hard and really happy. Changing toward the good is hard. Benefiting others is happy. Kindness lights up the world.

I've been studying this section from the Avatamsaka for weeks. I couldn't penetrate it. And, yet I kept coming back to it like a piece of metal filing to a magnet. It felt true to something I knew naturally inside. It's dynamite!

Disciples of the Buddha, this Bodhisattva further makes the following reflections: "All Buddha's proper Dharmas are so profound, so quiet, so still and extinct, so empty, so markless, so wishless, so undefiled, so limitless, so vast and great, while ordinary beings in their minds fall into deviant views. They are covered by the film of ignorance. They erect the banner of pride and arrogance. They enter into the net of thirsty love, and course in the dense forest of flattery and deceit, unable to extricate themselves. Their minds are conjoined with stinginess and jealousy, which they never abandon. They constantly create the causal conditions for undergoing birth in the evil destinies. With greed, hatred, and stupidity, they accumulate all karma, which day and night increases and grows. With the wind of resentment they fan the fire of mind-consciousness, whose blaze never ceases. All the karma they create is conjoined with inversion. In the flow of desire, the flow of existence, the flow of ignorance, and the flow of views, the seeds of mind-consciousness continually arise. Within the field of the three realms the sprouts of suffering are repeatedly produced.

      That is, name and form arise together and do not separate. Because name and form increase, the assemblage of the six places arises. Amidst their junctures, contact arises. Grasping increases. Therefore existence arises. Because existence arises, birth, old age, anxiety, sorrow, suffering, and vexation come to exist. Such living beings as those produce and increase the mass of suffering. Within it, all is empty, devoid of knowing and awareness, with no doer and no receiver, like grass and wood, like rocks and walls, and also like reflections. Still, living beings are unaware and do not know." The Bodhisattva sees all living beings within this mass of suffering, unable to get out. Therefore, he immediately brings forth wisdom of great compassion and makes the following reflection, "All these living beings I should rescue and save, and set in a place of ultimate peace and joy." Therefore, he immediately brings forth-bright wisdom of great kindness.

-Avatamsaka (Ten Grounds Chapt.)

I opened the Avatamsaka this a.m. after laughing at myself and read this passage again. Suddenly it started to make sense to me. It confirmed what I'm coming to see from my own errors and bowing on the road with Heng Sure. "What it's all about" is right before my eyes. Once I read this passage and it seemed confusing. Today I read the same text and it was illuminating.  I was confused, not the Sutra.

Peace in the Way,

Disciple Kuo T'ing (Heng Ch'au) Bows in Respect


May 18: Marconi Cove: Today was quiet and solitary. The sound of a ship's bell blowing in the wind from one of the small fishing boats anchored in the bay. A dead snake in the road. A four-day fog lifted. A resolve to work harder: bow more single-mindedly and really stop the false flow. To be one with a truly pure heart. How fine! Bowing with one heart is home. Leaving home is home.

I give rise to happiness because I have left all grounds of ordinary people far behind. I give rise to happiness because I draw near the Grounds of Wisdom.


Inside a peaceful feeling from being right here where I'm supposed to be.

A bag of fruit and fresh flowers hanging on the car door at the end of the day. Inside is a note:

"I'm a foolish old woman who has spent most of my life in darkness.

"Three years ago I was given a peek at enlightenment, and at this point I'm trying to incorporate truth into my daily life. It's not easy. I ask for your prayers."

Signed, and "Baraka Bashad"

Peace in the Way,

Disciple Kuo T'ing 
      (Heng Ch'au) 
      Bows in Respect

Flower Garland Features presents

The Longest Running Film in the Dharma Realm--

THE BODHI-DRAMA Starring, The Self-Nature


May 13, 1979

Dear Sh'ih Fu:

Everything you meet is a manifestation of your own mind.

-Master Hua Feb. 1979

I don't know my state, but it's a place that does not allow for a thought of affliction. One negative thought brings demons, like a bleeding fish draws sharks. One angry thought explodes like a bomb, showering my mind with painful fragments in all directions. One critical thought feels like I've stepped into a pit of spiders—all my thoughts turn in on me and trap me in a web. It's a horrible sensation. One thought of worry or doubt puts me all alone at the ends of the world without the sun. These states are as real as the weather outside. If I let them dwell, inside they manifest as flesh and blood demons before my eyes.

Just like a vision of the guiding Master in his many forms and distinctions, according to what beings practice in their minds, their visions of Buddhalands follow suit.


But, all it takes is to return the light and swing the vajra-jeweled sword and all states return to spring. A positive thought of kindness, compassion, joy, and giving brings the Buddha's sunlight back to my heart just that quickly. The relief I feel is measureless and boundless.

What are the demons? They are me. My self-nature contains all dharmas. Originally it is pure and still. All dharmas are level and equal but I go and discriminate in my thoughts due to ignorance. It's always out of desire. Desire thoughts set up a self—someone exists who wants to move out of the center and get something. Desire creates selfishness and greed follows right behind. Greed is a poison, it has the power to ruin the entire world. But, it still comes from nowhere by my own thoughts.

All retribution is born from karma. It's like a dream, unreal, untrue. Thought after thought is over and gone. As was the former, the latter is the same.


All my troubles and afflictions and ultimately my own birth and death follow this same highway out of my own unmoving, perfect self-nature. I can see it happen in thought after thought.

It's like a movie that I watch all the time in my mind. When I take it as real and let it go out my senses, I project it on the world. Then I've just bought a ticket on the merry-go-round of suffering. No matter whether the movie is a comedy or a tragedy, it still falsely sets up a self that feels suffering or bliss and discriminates among dharmas.

The fruits of retribution come from the karma that you create.  But, the creator does not exist. This is what all Buddhas tell us.


When I follow instructions, I use the Buddhadharma to return my thoughts to the screen before they run out the sense-gates. Then everything's okay. Cultivation is all about practicing a method to turn back these thoughts as they arise. Concentration is the ticket. The thoughts are the whole movie. Pull them back and the film breaks. The Dharma realm dissolves because there's no self to perceive it. Desire is the glue that sticks the film together, scene after scene. End the desire and you step right out of the film, free to come and go. Not that thoughts stop, but they don't push you around any more. You direct the film, instead of being directed by it. Originally there is nothing that needs to be done. It all rolls on by very naturally, without a word, without a self, without a problem.

What kind of film is it that you contemplate? It depends on the seeds you plant. Buddhahood is nothing but a thought of perfect humanhood. The hells are made from thoughts alone. Habits tell the whole story.

Last night as I sat in the Plymouth during evening recitation, my mind fell into a snakes' den of doubts. The pressure and mental discomfort grew unbearable instantly. I checked, and sure enough I had dropped my vajra sword and stopped my concentration on the practice of returning the light. I was letting my thoughts drift. Like a ship without a rudder, I was heading for the reef. I thought, "I've been through this movie before, it's a horror story about greed, fear, and selfish desire. STOP IT! Up went the sword. Snick! The energy behind the negative doubts came back to center and I laughed out loud. It was all my own ignorance after all, pushing me around again, making me dance like a puppet on strings.

He vows that all beings skillfully enter the level of equality with all dharmas and understand that the Dharma-realm and the Self-nature are not two.


How unexpected! The self-nature is originally complete in itself...

How unexpected! The self-nature can produce the ten thousand dharmas...

-The Sixth Patriarch Sutra

What a funny film! Sometimes it's loony-tunes, sometimes it's a melodrama, sometimes its a travelogue through the Three Paths of Suffering, sometimes it's a holy epic. One day it may be a vision of the Buddha. Right now it's a farce. It's all my film, but I can't find my­self in it anywhere. When I've got the gung fu together, I can sit back and contemplate it reeling by, filling up empty space, and pervading the Dharma realm. It's all a magic show, the Buddha's gift to us, level and equal.

More often than not, however, I forget it's a movie, stop cultivating, pick out a scene I want, or run from one I dislike and wham; the express train of karma flattens another ignorant living being. Be still, Kuo Chen. Just be happy, cultivate, and watch the show!

You have to learn to see all things as "no affair." Observe the rise and fall of conditioned dharmas with complete detachment. Everything's okay.

-Master Hua 
       Nov. 1977

Disciple Kuo Chen 
      (Heng Sure) 
      bows in respect


Blakes Landing, CA 
May 24, 1979

Dear Sh'ih Fu:

We meet a lot of different kinds of people on the road. But, it's clear that the happiest and healthiest ones are active and exercise. People stop to jog, bicycle, do T'ai Chi or Yoga or just walk. Some people work outside all day. They all have a spark of youth. It's just like moving water that's pure and clear, while stagnant water goes bad. Acupuncture has the same principle: energy that freely circulates is the key to health and long life.

This is the value of sleeping sitting up-­it keeps the blood and energy freely moving even while you sleep. Unless you lean against things. Last night while sleeping in meditation posture, I slouched back on some stuff sacks. This a.m. wherever my body touched the bags was stiff and sore. When I can sit upright and not lean or prop myself up with artificial supports I wake up feeling like I've just taken a cool shower or done a set of T'ai Chi. False thinking cuts off circulation in the same way. Attachments leave you stiff and sore.

Heng Sure has a sweater I had my eye on. I didn't need a sweater, it was just another false thought surfacing. The sweater was a surrogate girlfriend. (All desire is one desire.) We had been bowing in a cold, stiff wind, and the pressure of cultivation was at a peak. No people, no talking, no towns—the mind was facing emptiness and squirming. On impulse I picked up the sweater. Heng Sure, seeing my interest, gave it to me. I "stole" the sweater. I went for it under pressure. Immediately I felt a change. The air became heavy and close. I felt like I was suffocating in a small cave. My eyes grew dusty, and the sweater felt uncomfortable and confining. During meditation it got unbearable. So, I took off the sweater and returned it. Right away the world got big, cool, and smooth again. The dust left my eyes, the heavy, hard-to-breath state lifted. Ah, at home again! It was a good lesson: greed and too many possessions cuts off the circulation.

He makes no mistakes,

His mind is vast, big, and pure;

He is happy, blissful, apart from all vexation and worry;

His heart and will are soft and flexible;

All his organs are clean and cool.


Each false thought and attachment, all greed, anger, and stupidity cut off the circulation. Afflictions drain our energy. Worry, jealousy, arrogance, and fear all cut off the light and make us old fast. Whatever you can't see through and put down blocks your natural wisdom. It's just like laughter makes you young and crying makes you old. The principle is the same. Holding precepts purely and concentrating with a single mind is really happy and light. When we can do this we are like little children without a wrinkle or care--just full of moving chi. But, as soon as I get uptight or start false thinking, then I make trouble where there was none to begin with.

      Truly, the mind is boss. When we bow sincerely, if it's cold we get warm; if it's too hot, it cools off. Strong winds and heavy rain are no problem. No matter what happens, it always feels "just right." But, as soon as we strike up false thinking or get uptight, then if it's too hot it gets hotter. It it's cold, it gets even colder. The wind and rain make us angry and we want to fight with them. If our thoughts are scattered, the bugs and insects give us trouble. The hotter we get, the more trouble they make. It's all made from the mind. The ultimate source of all health and happiness is "an unattached, unbound, liberated mind." When my thoughts are right, everything is right.

Exercising the body is good. But, no matter how good you treat your skin bag, it goes bad and falls apart. My T'ai Chi teacher once remarked, "Someday you will know that Ch'an is the highest." Back in Pacifica as we did T'ai Chi outside a Laundromat in the early morning, I had a small insight, "If I didn't false think and form attachments, I wouldn't need to do T'ai Chi. Originally there are no obstacles or deficiencies. Naturally we are healthy and free. False thinking and attachments make all our problems--they make the world go bad too. It's all the same." So it's said,

The best acupuncture point is right in the square inch (the mind).

This is the big lesson of this pilgrimage: "Everything is made from the mind alone." The way of the world is to ruin your insides trying to look good on the outside. The way of cultivation is to return to the source and purify the mind and forget about the superficial. I am seeing how my false thinking to be #1 cuts off my circulation. My running out after forms (desire) wastes my energy. My bad habits and deviant views cut off others' circulation and block the energy in the world. The entire Dharma-realm is one body--perfectly fused and interpenetrating. Nothing exists in isolation. No one stands alone.

The realm of living beings and the Dharma-realm are not two,

The Dharma-realm and the self-nature are non-dual.


We cultivate and everyone benefits. If we don't cultivate, everyone loses. Everything created from body, mouth, and mind touches all living beings. If what I do is good, the world improves a bit. If what I do is selfish, then everyone suffers. It is becoming so clear to us that what counts is what you've got on your mind. It's easy to hide behind the covers and put on a good show, but sooner or later the truth comes out. Why not put it all down and go for broke?! What else besides cultivating a pure mind matters? All beings accomplishing Buddhahood together, what else is worth anything? There is something about bowing out here in stillness that cuts through all the bullshit and leaves cultivating the Way standing tall and strong. Each day the truth of cultivation grows brighter and our happiness grows with it. Like the song says, "I'm really lucky to study Buddhism." When you work on the mind ground, you work for everyone. The sounds of the world are the sounds of our own heart.

Peace in the Way,

Disciple Kuo T'ing 
(Heng Ch'au) Bows in respect