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.

Valley Ford, CA June 1979


The more I (my selfish desires) die, the happier I get.

Ever since the Bodhisattva spontaneously saw the Buddha, he has not had a single thought of desire...


Something inconceivably wonderful happened yesterday. As I bowed in the morning, I was transferring the merit as usual and making offerings in my mind to all Buddhas everywhere.

The day before, I'd had this realization: I am certainly going to die. Not once, but many millions of times between now and Buddhahood. I have made vows to cultivate the Bodhisattva Way throughout all lifetimes of the future, and these vows include that many deaths, as well.

Why should I worry about gaining petty advantages, seeking fame and self-benefit for this flimsy, doomed bag of skin? Why not just be happy and work like a real Bodhisattva? Why not invest every bit of lifetime in the service of the truth--the permanently dwelling Triple Jewel of Buddhism?

I am going to concentrate on cultivation with a single mind. I will hold my thoughts still by using the Vajra Wisdom Sword and turning the Dharma-wheel. There's simply nothing else worth doing. Desires are the source of my pain. Why should I chase after them any longer?

If one can make offerings to the Buddha in accord with Dharma, then one will think of the Buddha and his mind will not move. If one can think of the Buddha with an unmoving mind, then one will always gaze upon measureless numbers of Buddhas.


Yesterday my false thoughts arose as always, only this time I spoke Dharma for them in this way:

      "We are bowing to the Buddhas. We are bowing for the Dharma, not for the self. From now on, every false thought, every selfish thought, every good thought is going to make one more Buddha in the world. I'm going to do it for real. All false thoughts are going to be reborn by transformation from the Dharma. No more selfish desire. Only more Buddhas; There's nothing in the Three Realms that I want—I'm dead to the world."

If you can give it all up when you die, why not even more so while still alive? If you consider being alive the same as being dead, what difference is there between them? None. That way there is no birth and there is no death. See the wonder in that single instant of thought. It's just like turning over your palm.

And each thought from then on was slashed to bits by the adamantine wisdom sword. Each drop of light that wanted to leak out my senses was recycled by a wish for another Buddha. The Buddhas began to take form before me. Slowly they appeared; then the Buddhas came alive with color and adornments and auras of brilliant light.

            (The Bodhisattva) constantly takes pleasure in the practice of the good roots of the Universal Gate. He sees all of the Buddhas' assemblies. As all Tathagatas in the past have transferred their good roots, he makes transference as well.


Each Buddha was speaking Dharma to an uncountably large assembly of Bodhisattvas. As I continued making offerings to the Buddhas and transference to all beings, the Buddhas multiplied in number. Then they merged into one big Buddha, then transformed again into measureless myriads of Buddhas, all identical, unobstructed and interpenetrating.

I felt great awe and shame before the wisdom and majesty of the Buddha. He/they were infinite and complete, perfect and totally relaxed, absolutely good and strong, fearless and kind. They radiated a light that was happy and pure.

I felt all my desires return to me. My heart grew very calm. Ordinarily I project my thoughts of past and future around me on all sides like a cloud. But, seeing the Buddha's perfect completeness as he sat still and serene in the fullness of his true self made me want to seek no more.

The Buddha spoke to me wordlessly in a voice that was made from his light. He said, "Everything's okay. Don't worry."

The vision lasted through meditation, through lunch, and on into the afternoon's bowing. As I bowed in respect to all the Buddhas, I contemplated the debt of kindness that I owe to my teacher for showing me the path to this happiness. Just then a gray Chevrolet pulled up alongside and the Venerable Abbot stepped out.

"Hello. How are you?"

Inconceivably, the Master's form and the image of the Buddhas in my vision merged and became one. I was speechless. There was nothing to say.

"Have you experienced any special states?"

I couldn't begin to voice what I saw, and it was okay to be silent.

"Don't seek outside for anything. Everything you need is already within you. What you have inside is enough. Don't look outside. Cultivation is right here. Do you understand?" said the Master.

"See you again. Try your best."

States are states and my desires are deeply rooted. I don't understand yet. My vision of the Buddhas slowly faded as my mind turned on through the afternoon. It came without seeking it, and it left without attaching to it. More hard work and patience needed to make it real.

If you are on the verge of enlightenment and can put down every one of your desires, you can suddenly become enlightened in the space of an instant. If you truly, truly understand, you can open enlightenment instantly.

-Sixth patriarch Sutra, Master Hua

I've got some more dying to do yet.

Part II

The story's not done. My vision of the Buddha was followed by several days of misery and afflictions. "Demons" hassled us with insults, curses, and missiles. They ran their trucks and cars off the road, missing us by inches. My mind was off-center and not at all calm, peaceful, or happy. Why not?

I went ahead and attached to my happy vi­sion. I considered it an achievement and something to hold on to. When the state faded, I tried to get it back. This is nothing but the same old greed, hatred, and stupidity. Because of seeking a state, I started to force my mind into thoughts, and anger arose when my mind didn't behave. This is when the demon attacks began.

      The demons were my own angry thoughts fighting in my mind and manifesting before my face. Seeking anything, even the Buddha, is not the Buddha's Way. It might as well be seeking riches or fame; it's all the same greed.

Holding to the Middle Way is like trying to hold a slippery fish. Its truth is fundamental; our minds are illusive. Every time I stop working because I think I've "got something," I lose.

But that's the wonder of it. Each new lesson feels closer to a center of unmoving peace and contentment.

When you are content, you are always happy;

When you can be patient, you are naturally at peace.

Master Hua

He neither seeks nor grasps any wholesome dharmas. In all that his mind does, there is nothing at all obtained. In all places he gives rise to thoughts of leaving them behind.

Regarding the Bodhisattva's practices, he gives rise to thoughts of pure cultivation. Regarding all-wisdom, he has no thoughts of seeking it or attaching to it.

He adorns himself with all the samadhis and his wisdom follows in accord with all of the Dharma realm.


Disciple Kuo Chen 
        (Heng Sure)
      bows in respect


Duncans Landing, CA 
      June 21, 1979

Dear Shih Fu,

      At the end of the day, a man in a van stopped. He said, "I've been watching you. I figure you're trying to make atonement for the sins of man. Why don't you join the Peace Corps or help the poor? Oh're doing your thing, I guess."

On the surface it might look like cultivation is just "doing your thing," but it's really everybody's "thing." Why is there war and suffering in the world? Because I am selfish and can't put down my "always more" desire mind. Why is there poverty and injustice? It's also because of my false thoughts of greed, anger, and ignorance. All the hassles and problems we share begin in the mind. If I don't clean up my own mind and end the war inside my own heart, how can I possibly help the world? Reducing desire is getting rid of wars. Stopping false thinking is really helping the world.

Small worlds, just these are large worlds; large worlds are nothing but small worlds.

An inexpressible number of worlds enters into a single world; a single world enters into an inexpressible number of worlds.


My small world of greed enters into the big greed in the world. My small anger and ignorance feeds the larger worlds of hatred and stupidity. How is the large world going to change if I don't change my small world? It's all woven together. If I hold precepts purely, then there's a small world of good that can "enter into an inexpressible number of worlds." My small concentration adds to the big peace. If I can cultivate wisdom, then there's that much more light in the world. Small worlds and big worlds fuse and interpenetrate by themselves. If I go towards the good, then the good in the world increases naturally. If I don't recognize and change my faults, this bad energy pollutes the world in the same way and touches everyone and everything without my knowing it.

Cultivation is for everyone and all the worlds to the limits of empty space. I didn't always see it this way.  Last week a young family near Tomales put me back in touch with some parts of my life that I hadn't seen clearly before.

The family lives on a small farm in a little valley. The vibes are good and basic. With their four children they raise most of their own food. They have gone "back to the earth," living naturally with traditional values and morality. Everything about their lives and home says, "With few desires, know contentment." They made an offering of food and water as we bowed by and said, "Thank you." Everyone was healthy, happy, and simple.

Their blessings were obvious and abundant. Blessing retribution like this comes from good roots planted in the past. People whose lives are happy and free of disasters and distress held the moral precepts in the past. Healthy, loyal children, the absence of enemies, and a peaceful mind come from having cultivated the Paramitas of giving, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. Like causes, like results. Everything that happens to you is the fruit of seeds planted in the past. Tomorrow is being set up today.

All retribution is born of karma.


This happy, "rich" family led me to reflect on my own roots and blessings. I came from a good family and had many blessings. I might have ended up much like this family, but I got turned by greedy desire. I took a wrong road and nearly exhausted my blessings. If your good roots are deep and blessings many, you can leave the home-life and cultivate the Way. This is the highest field of blessings. It surpasses the best of worldly wealth and happiness. I passed by both. I turned away from chances to cultivate because I couldn't put down my mind for "more, always more." I straddled the fence until I nearly came apart at the seams. Clinging to greedy desire on one hand and trying to reach for the cultivation of wisdom on the other gave birth to a strange creature. This creature tried to end suffering with more suffering. He broke precepts, turned his back on his parents and teachers, drew near bad companions, and took it all lightly, like it was a game. He couldn't leave home and couldn't stay. So, indulging in hedonism, he mocked and mooched from the world. He sat in between the true and false, the pure and defiled, and took the worst from both—like tea steeped in luke­warm water.

I couldn't see at the time that I was trying to get free by rebellion, license, and leisure. I put down and cut off morality, concentration, and wisdom and cultivated greed, hatred, and stupidity day and night, without fatigue.

So, as we bowed down the road past this little farm, I thought of how I nearly wiped out my natural inheritance. I saw how wrong and selfish I had been. There was no one to blame but myself. And yet, here I was, happy and lucky, a Buddhist monk bowing with a good companion to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. How could this be? I think it's because no matter how bad one is, no matter how far from the true and proper you drift, a single act of goodness--a single thought of repentance and reform-­can turn it all around and put you back in the Buddha's field of blessings. The Buddha's field of blessings levels all differences, voids and eradicates all affliction. It can cause all to be delighted and peaceful. With a single thought you can turn around and go back home. The Buddha's field of blessings doesn't come or go, I just neglect it. It doesn't reject anyone.

Just as the earth is all one, yet it puts forth sprouts each according to the seed, and it does not prefer or reject any of them, so it is with the Buddha's field of blessings.


If I don't understand things clearly, it's not because they are confusing, it's because my thinking is turbid, like murky water. If I cultivate for real, then the waters of my mind will naturally turn pure. I shouldn't worry or pretend or grab for things. Seeking more and running out for the biggest and the best just gets me lost and in trouble. I've always recited this "sutra": "more, more, always more," and got no satisfaction. Now I'm learn­ing to recite "Everything's okay, no problem. Whatever comes is enough." Things are getting better.

Peace in the Way,

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

P.S. I've been trying to curb my tongue and catch my wild mind. Not talking and trying to be hu fa (Dharma protector) has its funnier moments. Last week George Miller from the Bay Ranch invited us to stop by when we got to his place. We don't accept invitations to visit with people, so we didn't plan on stopping. But, when we bowed past the ranch, a little boy came out and said,

"Hi. I'm Peter Miller. Can you come to our house?"

I figured he was old enough to read, so I wrote a note: "No. We don't visit." Peter looked at the note carefully and said,

"Good! Are you coming right away?"

I wrote another note: "We can't visit because we made a promise not to." He looked at this note and nodded like he understood and said,

"Oh, good! What time do you think you'll be coming then?"

Peter can't read, so I indicated, "Okay, we'll stop by at 7:00," pointing to the 7:00 on my watch. Peter nodded and was very pleased. Peter can't tell time, either.

At 5:00 he returned and watched us meditate and sew. He kept looking at a picture of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva hanging in the car window and said, "Are you coming now? We have lots of water. You can bring all your jugs and fill 'em up." We went.

The offering of water made it okay—it wasn't a visit and we didn't go up to the farmhouse and socialize. Peter was very happy He showed us his goats and made an offering of matches and carrots. Somehow without words or clocks or any hurt feelings, everything worked out okay. Another lesson in getting along.