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.

July 1, 1979 
Sonoma Coast

Dear Shih Fu,

The powerful magic of the Avatamsaka Sutra turns our days and nights into an endless adventure of discovery. Cultivating the Way is constant learning. Our teachers are everyone, our classroom is the world, our training rules are kindness, compassion, joy, and giving. Our courses include faith, vigor, single mindedness, concentration, and wisdom. Patience is our proctor. Great Compassion is our constant aspiration, the Buddhas' Bodhi is our future graduation.

Every day I see more of my bad habits unfold before me. The light of cultivation shines into the dark corners of my mind. The harder I work, the happier and better I feel. Like opening the doors and windows in a musty attic, the fresh air of the Dharma makes useful space out of the parts of my life I've neglected for too long. I want to be a Buddha. I've got a lot of changing to do first.

I learned how to fight for what was called "success and happiness." It divided into the struggle for power, pleasure, wealth, profit, and fame. When it got confused with politics, it was called the "struggle for freedom." In the end it is just a lot of fighting.

I was trained to fight for success. I was groomed to win. I was sold on the notion that more success brought more happiness, no matter what I had to do, no matter who I had to step on, cheat, or I was hurt in the process. The point of the game was to get more of everything. There was only one rule: win No matter what: win big. We glorify our rule break outlaws, and clever crooks. It's upside down.

I tried hard to win at this crazy game of success. The better I got at it, the more unhappy I felt. "Oh, it's lonely at the top," says the popular song. And the part of the game no one told me about was that in the end there are no free lunches. When you break the rules to win, you lose. You may not get the results back right away like in a horse race, but cause and effect is really true not off by an eyelash.

The bowing pilgrimage has opened my mind to my past training. Only this month, after two years of bowing, have I seen how deeply I am programmed to fight. Leaving home and making vows set my feet on the right path. It takes a lot of pick and shovel work to uncover the roots of my bad habits. Because of the power of repentance and reform, I've gotten lots of help in returning to health.

For example, my name is Kuo Chen, fruit of truth, because I am by nature a phony, an actor. I tell lies, slander, scold, and mislead people. I never really knew it or took it seriously until I got some vivid feedback and a straight talk explanation from our good advisors. My teacher told me both directly and expediently that I have heavy bad karma regarding my tongue. But I am slow to learn. I had to really taste the bitter fruit I've grown before I appreciated the ultimate truth of cause and effect.

As we bowed through the sleepy suburb of Daly City we picked up a lot of hostile vibrations from young men. We heard shouts of "They're kissing the ground! What perverts!" "Get up from there. You kiss the sidewalk again and I'm going to shoot you!" "You can't do that here. Go somewhere else and kiss the ground!"

I thought, "Good grief! We've come nearly six hundred miles and not since the very beginning have people thought we were kissing the ground. What gives?"

The offense of telling lies can cause beings to fall into the Three Evil Destinies. If reborn as a human, one will have two kinds of retributions: the first is that one will be greatly slandered. The second is that one mill be deceived by others.

-Avatamsaka Sutra 
       Ten Grounds Chapter.

That day we received a copy of the San Francisco weekly newspaper. The reporter had interviewed Heng Ch'au in Pacifica. The story about us was on the front page the week we passed through Daly City. Somehow the reporter got the idea we kissed the ground as we bowed. He said it twice in the text of his article. It offended a lot of people. We felt the negative response. And it wasn't true. It was a lie, it was slander. It hurt our work because it turned people off to our real purpose. It obscured their vision of our religious devotion and made it look perverse, tainted. And there was nothing we could do to change it once it was in print and on the air. As far as everyone was concerned, we were kissing the ground because someone told them so.

Wow! Did I understand the principle of slander it hurts. Because we represent Buddhism to many people who've never seen it before, they now believe that Buddhists kiss the ground. So I've done harm to what I believe in. And in effect I've slandered the Dharma again, indirectly, and without meaning to but certainly. Once the wheel is set in motion, it' hard to stop.

Because he does not create bad karma, bad karma does not obstruct him. Because he does not give rise to afflictions, afflictions do not obstruct him. Because he does not slight dharmas, dharmas do not obstruct him. Because he does not slander the Proper Dharma, he is not obstructed by retribution.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

Later that same day two young men made it their job to instruct me further about my bad mouth karma. They threw eggs, milk cartons, copies of the rolled up newspaper, and rocks. All of these missed their target, but I got the message all the same. The boys were vigorous in their efforts, however, and bold. I went down for a bow and heard footsteps approach. Something soft and gooey splattered my head from directly above. An entire cup of rancid butter slid down my cap and covered my left ear. How did it feel? I knew immediately that it felt like slander: sticky, hard to clean off, a real mess. Injury from empty space. How could I have used my tongue to hurt people in this way for so long?

This was the fruit of my search for success at any cost. How does a Bodhisattva talk?

Bodhisattvas by nature do not tell lies. They always speak real speech, true speech, timely speech. Even in their dreams they do not allow speech which is covered. They do not consider speaking falsely, how much the less do they do it deliberately.



The Bodhisattva uses the Dharma to transform all beings with a kind mind that never injures or harms.


That's the way it goes in our school. We have experiences as we bow and the magic mirror of the Dharma Realm, the Avatamsaka Sutra, gives us the straight road out of our confusion. The timing is uncanny. We will hear a passage and think, "No wonder I got so afflicted. I broke the rules." "What a relief to hear the truth!" "I'm going to cultivate it!"

      On the one hand you might say the tuition to Flower Garland Highway Academy is free. On the other hand, it costs us everything we've got. That is to say to really study the curriculum we have to give up our thoughts, our afflictions, and our habits. We've got to recognize our faults, forsake our attachments, and cut off desires. Casting out selfish laziness is the first requirement. Greed, hatred, and stupidity flunk us every time and broken precepts bring suspension, probation, even expulsion. But who wants to hold on to all this poison anyway?

I enrolled in this school because the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are perfect people, the highest, happiest beings who ever lived. The Buddhadharma is true principle, pure and good, ultimate and supreme.

Cultivating the Bodhisattva way brings happiness and benefits the goodness of the world. Why look further for something good to do in life? What I have come to see is how much turning around I have to do, how much my ego and my habits get in the way of my heart's wish to be a true Buddhist disciple. I understand now that fighting to be number 1, famous and successful, is greedy seeking. It's desire and part of the causes and conditions of killing. It's the source of all the suffering in the world. It's purely selfish. Individual success in the world doesn't bring freedom or peace of mind, or happiness when it's done at others' expense. Ambition moves us off center. Winning is losing when you break the rules. Breaking the rules brings retribution. Power, wealth, fame, profit, and pleasure are empty and have one flavor: suffering. Nothing survives past the grave but the real things: cultivation of Way virtue and creation of karmic offenses.

The way of people is harmony

With merit and virtue interspersed,

In virtuous deeds you rise,

Offenses make you fall.

It has nothing to do with anyone else at all.

Ten Dharma Realms Poem

-By Master Hua

Bodhisattvas don't fight. They don't compete. They don't discriminate among any beings. As I grew up I learned to discriminate social class at a glance, all based on competition to be first. "Keeping up with the Joneses" was the name of the game. The distinctions were based on surface externals, like the chrome trim that makes one's car look different from another. I wear gray, ragged robes and have dirty hands most of the time. I see people react to my appearance and I recognize how I used to size people up based on false coverings and costumes. I was never satisfied. The people with more style than I had made me feel jealous and inferior. Those with no style made me feel superior, like a winner. What a trap I made for myself with false discriminations. What a burden.

The joke is this. Only this week did I recognize that I still thought this way. After being a Buddhist for six years and a monk for five I still carry my habits of discriminating with me. My seeking and desire to win are my deepest programming. Really hard to shake!

How did I find out about it? We read these words of truth in the Sutra last week.

The offense of greed causes beings to fall into the three evil destinies. If born among humans they will obtain two kinds of retribution. The first is one' s mind/heart is never satisfied. The second is one will have much desire without ever getting satisfied.

Avatamsaka Sutra Ten Grounds Chapter

The next day at lunch I saw a car pull up, a Cadillac. A sun tanned, well dressed man got out and I pegged him right away as a success. Probably a professional man. Then something changed in my eyes. I thought, "Hey, wait a minute. You don't know what's in his heart. Why do you do this act of competing with others? You do it so that your own ego can survive. Don't do it! Great Corn passion does not fight. Say no to your self. Leave him alone. Cultivate your own path. Return the light. Don't fight. That man is your father. He's your teacher. He's you! Vow to take him across no matter who he is. He will certainly become a Buddha sooner or later, so will you. Don't obstruct both of you with the causes and conditions of fighting and killing. This is not a joke. Cultivate the Dharma, as much as you know."

That night the Sutra spoke principle for me again.

   The Bodhisattva further reflects, "All beings distinguish self and
   others and mutually harm each other. Fighting, conflict, anger and hatred
   blaze without cease. I should cause them all to dwell in unsurpassed
   great kindness."


My heart melted on the spot. I felt some more rotting timbers fall away from my old habits. New good wood replaced them. Slowly bit by bit we are cleaning out the dirt inside.

That's the way it goes in our school. The Dharma realm is our classroom. Everything speaks the Dharma everyone is our teacher. In the school of all beings, the school of people, the school of the heart. We're really lucky to study Buddhism.

Disciple Kuo Chen (Heng Sure) bows in respect

Jenner, California Wednesday June 27, 1979

Dear Shih Fu,                        PART I

Everybody likes to hear about themselves. Who doesn't want to know who they are and where they came from, where they are going and the deeper reasons behind what they do? Even the most skeptical could sit for hours and listen enthralled to their own horoscope, palm or tarot card reading. The I Ching and geomancy, psychic readings and the ouija board, and all the other occult forms of divination prosper because everyone knows there's more to life than the visible and tangible; there's more to each person than molecules, food, clothes, and sleep.

Last night we came to the section on the Ten Good Deeds in the "Ten Grounds Chapter" of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Ah, how wonderful! As Heng Sure translated I sat absorbed. I could have listened all night. It details the retribution one undergoes for committing each of the Ten Evil Deeds. This is the real thing! Unlike fortune telling, which is laced with half wisdom and a lot of flattery, the Avatamsaka transcends the small and narrow and rises like the sun above all the worldly dust. Not only divination but even the psychological sciences aren't very explicit on how to change your fate or personality. It's all touch and go, trial and error. The Buddhadharma is clear and complete. It covers all the paths of rebirth and how to get out.

The sutra simply says that everything that happens to you comes from what you do. Good deeds bring good retribution, evil deeds bring suffering and obstacles. It's not off by a hair, and has nothing to do with anyone else but yourself. Heng Sure and I got hit right between the eyes as we read the Avatamsaka Sutra. It's over three thousand years old and yet it spoke right to our hearts sitting in an old car on the California coast in the Space Age!

      I read this passage and understood the core of my personality. What was unclear now was clear. What I couldn't see about myself, these words exposed like ripping off an old Band-Aid.

The offense of greed also causes one to fall into the realms of the hells, animals, and hungry ghosts. If born as a human, one obtains two kinds of retribution: the first is one's heart is never satisfied; the second is, having much desire without ever netting enough.

-Avatamsaka Sutra
       Ten Grounds

"Hey! That's me!" I thought. I've had all the fortune telling and readings and thought I understood myself. But last night the Avatamsaka Sutra opened my eyes and heart like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was clear and straightforward. Without frill or mystery the message was the "sound of a hammer hitting steel." I knew beyond a doubt that what the Flower Adornment Sutra said was truth within truth. It deserves to be called "the ultimate understanding of the mind and all its states." It's the highest teaching and deepest wisdom of all living beings.

It wasn't a bummer or an ego trip to hear who I really was. The Buddhadharma isn't like that. The truth is revealed without emotion and no punches held. The Sutras were spoken only to help all living beings end suffering and attain bliss. It was just like having a candid and kind doctor tell you right out exactly what sickness you have and what you need to do to get well.

I have never known sufficiency. "My" mind is never satisfied. Contentment was always around the corner in the next job, the next town the next year, but never right now in my own heart. No matter what it was women, education, food, even exploring our own body and mind I had to have more, always more. How many times have I passed over and stepped on exactly what I sought and reached out for more and better. Always seeking further and higher. I "gave up the near and went seeking for the far." I never knew when to stop or how to say, "enough." Too much is the same as too little.

                         PART II

A few weeks ago the Venerable Abbot and a group of disciples stopped to share a meal offering. As we sat together under some trees outside of Valley Ford, I was feeling quite content and natural just being quiet. I had nothing to say no questions to ask. Happy, seeking nothing. My good wise advisor within said, "Ok, Novice, you've had enough to eat. Remember, originally you have all you need inside. You don't need to seek outside after anything. All troubles, afflictions, and disasters come from seeking and desiring more. When you stop seeking, all worries vanish." Sufficiency.

But then my bad knowing advisor counseled, "Hey, all this good food. A couple of more bites won't hurt. You can burn it up bowing. Take a little more of this and a little more of that, quick! Before the meal's over!" So I did. Then suddenly the emperor inside said, "Look at this. All these people and juicy conditions. You have not said a word. Now everyone's leaving. Let's climb on it. Baby." And once again I couldn't resist. I opened my mouth and asked the Master a stupid question just to make my mark. I made my mark and immediately lost my light 'pstt' just like a flat tire.

...Ignorant and unaware the Dharma vessel topples.

The Master's reply was swift and direct, "Eat more, cultivate more, stoke the fires more. Go on like this forever. More, always more. Everything should be more." The Master voiced the "sutra" I have been reciting in my mind all my life. Because I was never content with what I had in the past I now am undergoing the retribution of "having much desire without ever getting enough." Buddhism is not a head-trip. The things the sutras talk about contain the secrets to our own minds and the universe.

In a way, the whole pilgrimage is an effort to reduce our "greed for the flavors of desire." All disasters come from desire. Each inch of greed we are able to cut back brings that much understanding inside and an equal amount of peace in the world. All the troubles we have encountered come from seeking. All the problems in the world wars, famine, disasters, and calamities, families falling apart and individuals feeling lost and alienated none don't begin with a single thought of greed and seeking more.

When you reach the place of seeking nothing

You have no worries.

From the gross to the subtle, from the coarse to the fine, we have traced back all our troubles to one thought of greed. All our hang ups can be tracked down to a single thought of seeking. Small disasters enter into big disasters. Big suffering is grown from little suffering. Big and small are just words. The world doesn't know these differences. The Dharma realm and the self nature are non-dual. Why are there disasters and calamities? It is because I am greedy and full of desire.

Heng Sure and I used to feel happiness was more and better food, fame, wealth, sex, and sleep. But now we know that "Of all the happiness in the world, there is none which is not suffering." Avatamsaka Sutra. And of all the suffering in cultivation, there is none, which is not happiness. This passage from the Flower Adornment Sutra has become the primary theme of the bowing.

I do not seek the unsurpassed path for myself, nor do I cultivate Bodhi practices to seek the states of the five desires or the many kinds of bliss in the three realms of existence. Why? Of all the happiness in the world, there is none which is not suffering, or which is not the realm of many demons; which is not what ignorant people are greedy for and which the Buddhas have not warned us about. All disasters that arise are caused by these (the five desires).

The hells, animals, and hungry ghosts King Yama's region of animosity, hatred, conflict, slander, insult all of these evils are caused by greed and attachment to the five desires. The Bodhisattva contemplates the world in this way and reduces his greed for the flavors of desire.

-Avatamsaka Sutra 
 Ten Transferences Chapter

We have just crossed a small bridge entering Sonoma County. Ahead is 125 miles of bowing and a chance to "reduce our greed for the flavors of desire." Who is this who's so greedy? Even though we don't watch television or listen to the news or read the newspapers, we still can feel what's happening in the world. The whole world is contained with in our self nature. We are going to try and do a good job. We know that now is the time to turn around and really do it right put it all down and bow to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas with a single heart. Peace in the Way,

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