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.

June 23, 1979 
Shell Beach 
Sonoma County

Dear Shih Fu,

At the place of no seeking

There are no worries.

Yesterday I had a good laugh. My life fell apart before my eyes. My personality melted like an ice cube under the sun. I felt very foolish and very happy. I couldn't do anything but keep on bowing and keep on asking, "Who am I?" I don't know who I am but I can see my ghost arid he's a phony. Kuo Chen, "the Fruit of Truth" is an actor. Everything I do is a put-on. It's all done for show. Somewhere way back aeons ago I got the idea that I am special, an exceptional person, a unique star. Really big and important. #1!

So everything I say and do and think I do to fit this false image. I tell lies to keep the show going. I wear masks and pose and act in order to be #1, the Fastest Gun in Town. What a huge amount of energy goes into this comic opera that I play out. I run on through the days out here in the midst of seagulls and empty highway, seeking and sweating, fighting and frowning, worrying over this petty advantage and that little bargain. It's insane and I've done it all my life. No one forces me to be false. No one else writes my script. I'm the author, the actor, the audience, and the critic all at once.

Why not make it a good show with lots of laughter and giving and happiness? The world is full of pain and there's no reason to add to the quantity of suffering.

Where does my confusion come from? From greed, hatred, and stupidity and a huge view of self. My worst fault besides being false is seeking benefit for myself. Because I feel I'm #1, a special character, I make a lot of bad karma by acting out greedy desires. I seek fame in all that I do. I don't return the light. Instead I let my energy flow out seeking little bargains. I make waves on the still waters of my originally pure mind. Now that I recognize my mistakes, I'm still paying the price. Originally there is no purity or defilement, but the water of afflictions will splash me until the waves I've made calm down.

In the past all I've known was how to take. I am stingy and see the world as a place built to satisfy my greed, a place to compete and vent my anger, a stage where I parade my stupidity. I've felt that because my job is to be #1, the Fastest Gun, I am free to take as much as I can get and not let any of it go. The more the better. This was success, this was being smart. It's called seeking fame.

From women I've taken food, shelter, and affection. From men I've taken knowledge and "light." The ones who were better I fought with and cheated, lied to and slandered. The men not as good, I've stepped on or ignored. I feel great shame for the harm I've done by my selfish seeking to be the best. Most of all, I'm sorry for all the giving I've failed to do. This has been my life—no wonder I've felt lonely and frightened for so long—it's exactly the karma that I've created.

Truly recognize your own faults

Don't discuss the faults of others.

Others' faults are just my own.

Being of one substance with everyone is called Great Compassion.

-Master Hua

Only that's not how I've learned the verse. I've always recited it this way:

Quickly cover up your own faults

And point out all the faults of others.

Others' shortcomings are to my advantage.

Feeling superior to everyone is called Great Selfishness.

-Kuo Chen

As I learned the game of life growing up in America, I was supposed to be big and strong, brawny and virile. So I've always eaten too much, and I still do on this bowing pilgrimage. I was supposed to be clever and smart, widely learned, in touch, aware, an expert. So I have to know everything. So I still read the license plates on the passing cars.

I was supposed to be inside the circle, part of the incrowd, the best group. So I still try to relate and make connections with people. Since I don't talk, this has lead to some comical scenes.

I was supposed to be pleasant, attractive, charming, and handsome. So I still wear an automatic phony smile. I was supposed to be an authority. So I force myself on the world and never yield.

I was supposed to be responsible and ser­ious. So I never take life lightly. I was supposed to be competent, capable, cool and mellow, tough and slick, a good athlete, a winner, the World's Fastest Gun. No matter what, I may not be a loser. I must win!

The Bodhisattva vows that all beings forever pluck out the host of sufferings and that they are mutually king and loving and have no thoughts of harming.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

Since I've learned that I must be famous I still compete with Heng Ch'au at every turn c the road. What's the name of the game? Eating less? Okay, however much he eats, I'll eat less. Bowing more? I'll hold my thirst until I'm dry as a bone but I won't reach for the water until after he does. Sitting longer? I won't move my legs until he goes to sleep. Hah! What an evil, stupid notion is this seeking to be First. No wonder I can't realize Great Compassion! I don' practice it! I practice Great Contention. Why we got a beer bottle thrown through the window last Friday I woke up to this state of mind. The bottle hit right behind our picture of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. It was my own angry thoughts manifesting before me. By turning my back on Great Corn passion, I turn away from Kuan Shih Yin Bodhisattva.

This is exactly where wars begin. I put b energy, black vibrations, into the atmosphere with my desire to be #1. It turns me into a phony a liar. And it never ends. I've known men who have reached the top of the heap in terms of material success, power, and prestige. Most of them still have to shoot it out with the young guns who come to challenge for the top spot. The big guns were still hungry, still looking for more, always more.

I've tried hard to be a star. I've worked hard at the show. I've worn the right masks, displayed the right feathers in the right season told the right lies I needed to score points and be a big winner. And I'm sick of it. Kuo Chen the liar has left the stage. I'm dropping out the fight. I don't want to be #1. The game ha brought me unhappiness and bad karma. With my selfishness I've caused trouble for everyone I' known. Why do we fight? I fight because I'm afraid to stand alone. I know in my heart that I'm going to die and it scares me. So I grab at the world looking for proof that I won't have to suffer pain and die. I've always felt that I could make my life different and exciting, big and spicy, that it would hurt less and I could forget about death. It doesn't work. Everything in the world is false and unreal. Even the "be parts that we all desire. Wealth gets stolen. Sex is a snake's nest of trouble and grief. Fame is empty, like a wind that stirs the ocean waves. Food fuels the body like gasoline does a car. And sleep wastes precious time. What is there that is lasting or true in any of it? It's all impermanent, like a dream.

The Buddha was a crown prince. He had all of the best the world could offer in wealth, power, luxury, and fame. But he woke up to the fact that despite his good life, he was bound to die. He saw it all as empty in the face of death. Gold heaped high as a mountain cannot buy off the Ghost of Impermanence when it's time for us to die. The Buddha recognized it and set out to resolve the matter of birth and death. He succeeded. He became the real #1 in the world. He left instructions and encouragement that we might also cultivate our way off of the turning wheel of suffering. What stands in the Way? The Five Desire and attachments to Self. The false view of self is rooted in desire. Desire is the cause of birth and death,

As soon as you have desire, then you have selfishness. Once you have selfishness then greed arises. Once you have greed then all the troubles begin.

-Master Hua, 1979

For example, I never knew that I have a big desire for food and flavors until just this week. Heng Ch'au told me that every day for the entire two years of the bowing pilgrimage he has watched me about mid-meal slip into a glassy-eyed trance. My cheeks flush, my back slumps, my face takes on a contented smile like a baby after a meal, like a drunk in his cups. It happens after I swallow enough well seasoned nourishing food. I was surprised to hear it. I had no idea I entered this trance. All I knew was that my mindfulness and concentration always came to an end at lunchtime and resumed hours later when the food was digested.

I watched my hungry ghosts rise up all week. Sure enough, as soon as I added the sesame salt, soy sauce, and oil to my vegetables my cheeks got hot and my eyes turned up. Then I discovered that it wasn't any specific food that sent me into my blissful space-out, it was my mind. One day I really wanted some green vegetables. Cabbage was on the menu and I dived into it. Same result: flush, trance, slump. The next day I went for a dofu dish and entered tougue-samadhi. Eureka! I've been eating for flavor all along!

The five desires are dharmas that obstruct the Way. They can even keep one from reaching Supreme Bodhi. Therefore, I will not produce even one thought of desire. My mind will be as pure as the Buddha’s...

-Avatamsaka Sutra

This gold-plated American kid feels that because he's a special character that everything he eats must be flavored, spiced, and good. It's the same old #1, the big ego seeking self-benefit. No wonder my cultivation ends in my food bowl each day. Because I've always been groomed to be uncommon and superior, I've expected to get more, and always the best of everything. Like many Americans I really go for bargains, for good deals, discounts, extras, for the personal touch, for novelty, for the free lunch. If something is on sale, if I can save, if it's easy or new, I fall for it every time. What is this but greed for self-benefit? It's ego-food, it's the self on top, looking out for old #1. And it's never, never satisfied.

Dessert was always the best part of any meal. The cherry on the sundae, the filling in the cream puff, the gravy on the potatoes--these always turned me. In everything I do I look for the bonus, for the pay-off, the good part, the reward. And I never seem to find it. What do I avoid? Hard work, taking a loss, taking the blame. I like the headlines, I like action, I like sensational, exciting, fast-moving thrills. I've never done anything that was slow or hard, dull or quiet, ordinary in any way. And I've never known peace.

This is purely desire for fame and desire for flavor. I seek it in everything I eat and everything I say. I am a liar because I feel that I can't have any faults. I cover over my ugly parts with fancy words and false poses. No one else is fooled. I'm the only one who believes my act.

To finish the story, I ate a very bland meal yesterday, no seasonings, no fancy mixtures. I ate without thoughts of getting a reward from the food. Nothing special. Nothing extra. Nothing in excess. I ate simple, straight, and true. I ate the way Kuo Chen, the Fruit of Truth, and Heng Sure, Always Real, should eat. What happened? My tongue went wild. My mind jumped like a rabbit looking for the goodies. Desire flared up and made me shake. "What are you so nervous about?" asked Heng Ch'au. Ha! I found a gold mine of desire. What a loss for the gold-plated star! I understood why I have had such a hard time being silent on this trip and why my words and letters are so false. I seek flavor. I must be special! I must win! I've got to be bigger than life. Why do I carry on like this? Because I've met the Buddha-dharma. I've seen the Buddha and I'm not him. I'm not pure, not true, not real. I've lost the Way, fallen from the Middle. But through cultivation of the Way I'm slowly step-by-step work­ing my way back to a place of balance and health.

When lunch was over I realized I hadn't gone into a trance, my eyes were clear, no flush, no slump. As I bowed that afternoon, I saw my Self as never before. Always seeking, never satisfied. Always taking, never happy. Always faking, never true.

I recalled the summer I ate carte blanche in a gourmet restaurant. After a week of fancy delicacies and superb flavoring, my tongue went dead. I couldn't taste a thing! Truly as the Tao Te Ching says:

The five flavors dull the palate.

All I wanted was plain rice and clear tea. I forgot that lesson until yesterday. Plain food tastes fine. Slow, ordinary hard work is where it's at, because it satisfies.

When you are content, you are always happy.

Able to be patient, you are naturally at peace.

All along it's been desires pulling me off center, endlessly greed, never knowing enough, that have brought me pain. Taking three steps and bowing to the Buddha looks simple and dull. It is enough. It is infinitely rich and truly rewarding. It's brought me happiness and satisfaction. Seeking to be #1 makes me miserable. Bowing my self away and giving the benefit to all beings makes me at peace and content. The couplet around the door at Western Bliss Gardens in Hong Kong reads:

With whom does the Greatly Compassionate Bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin of the Southern Ocean compete to be #1?

The Greatly Kind Buddha Amitabha of the Western Paradise and I were originally never two.

Disciple of the Buddha

Kuo Chen (Heng Sure) bows in respect