Three Steps One Bow

Letters to the venerable Master Hua
from Bhikshus Heng Sure and Heng Ch’au
on their bowing pilgrimage to the City
of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
Sunday, July 1, 1979
Above Russian Creek
North of Jenner, Ca.

Dear Shih Fu,

            As your way progresses,
                        the tests increase. As the
                        saying goes,
                              'The Way grows an inch,
                                  the demons grow a foot.
                                The May grows a foot,
                                  the demons are already on top.'"

-Venerable Abbot
 May, 1979
 Olema, Ca.

New territory and new tests. We have entered steep, winding mountain roads that rise up from the cliffs on the coast. It's a little like Big Sur. Yesterday a car full of very strange men and women in long white robes stopped. "What group are you with?" one demanded. I gave them a hand-out. "Have you met Christ's family?" asked another in a hostile and aggressive voice.

Today another car pulled up while we bowed, "You ought to try Taoism... yes, or try drugs," said a man. Then he got really angry and screamed; "You guys are losers! "He tossed a rock. It missed.

At the end of the day we were bowing on the top of a road that winds down a steep canyon, crosses the Russian creek, and then turns into a series of switchbacks up a mountain on the other side of the canyon. It's very spacious and quiet no towns or houses. I suddenly notice two men watching us from behind some bushes on the slope of the hill to our right. Way below on a deserted beach someone yells up to us. Heavy winds drown out the words. We bow and do transference and start back for camp.

From behind a young man comes running up the road, "Hey, followers!" he shouts at us. He catches up and asks what we are doing. "Living off the land?" he asks. I indicate we don't talk and give him a handout. He doesn't read it. Something comes over him and he suddenly gets very angry and threatening.

"Lips sealed, huh?" he challenges. "You should be Christian. This isn't the way. You're wrong...all wrong." There's nothing to do. He's working himself into a frenzy of hate. So we keep walking.

"You're stupid, really stupid" he screams. His whole face and body are out of control, like he's possessed. He starts throwing rocks. "You guys are on the wrong road. You're headed toward death." By now the rocks are coming fast and heavy about the size of softballs. They're smashing all around us on the asphalt. Even thou he's real close, the rocks keep missing us. He's not the least bit shy or holding back. He's throwing the biggest rocks he can find as hard as he can. What to do?

When we get to the car the two men who appeared earlier in the bushes on the hill walk up. "Hey, our car broke down. Could you give us a ride to the nearest phone?" they ask. The young man who is heaving rocks has come back with his friends. They're loaded up with rocks and heading our way.

"Which way?" I ask the two men.

"That way," they say pointing in the opposite direction of the charging young men.

"Ok. Hop in."

The car starts, then it kills. "Namo Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa." I try it again. It starts. We turn around and head toward Jenner. The rocks are crashing a11 around. Out of the rear mirror we see them throwing on the run, chasing the car as we pull away. The road is covered with broken rocks. No hits.

"Hey, they were throwing rocks at you, huh?" laughs one of the men in the back seat. I nod. "They're only kids," he says in a kind and understanding voice.

The Old Fool wears second-hand clothes

And fills his belly with tasteless food.

Mends holes to make a cover against the cold

And thus the myriad affairs of life,

According to what comes, are done.

Scolded, the Old Fool merely says, "Fine."

Struck, the Old Fool falls down to sleep.

"Spit in my face, I just let it dry;

I save my strength and energy and give

you no affliction." Paramita is his style;

He gains the Jewel within the Wonderful.

Know this news and then

What worry is there of not perfecting the Way?

Sing this song and you can't go wrong. But the Old Fool's song isn't what I've been singing. The way of the Old Fool is new to me. I was brought up in the culture of the "fighting Irish" and Manifest Destiny. I am so used to fighting and winning it's really hard to sit back and take insult, suffering, slander, and loss. It's hard not to be pleased by praise, smiles, benefit, and success. One I want, the other I can't bear. Wanting the sweet and not being able to take the bitter are both kinds of suffering. Being free is: seeking nothing, fearing nothing. It takes practice.

Out here we get lots of chances to practice. We drove a couple miles south of the rock assault to camp that night. But in the morning we would have to bow right through the gulch where the young men were camped. At a mile a day we would be sitting ducks for them. There was no other road. I started to get uptight, feeling nervous and vulnerable. Why? Because I had just made a vow not to fight and contend anymore. No more fighting for self-benefit with body, mouth, and mind with fists, debate, or thoughts. So tomorrow was a midterm exam.

My energy was up, squeezing my neck and shoulders into a dizzy knot. I turned and jumped with every car that passed slowly. My heart doesn't want to fight anymore, but I've got the habit. I've put down my weapons but haven't learned how to put down my fears and "smash an army of demons" with kindness and good karma.

He vows that all beings put down

and leave behind all knives, swords,

military weapons, and tools of evil

and suffering and that they cultivate

the many kinds of good karma...

that they leave a11 their fears, and
            beneath the Bodhi tree subdue and

smash the army of demons.

Avatamsaka Sutra

I start looking for outs thinking about food, alternate routes, of trying to reason with them--but it's no use, I can't relax and not try to control things. I feel like I'm going to battle blindfolded. I think, "This is like war. Where do wars come from?" Wars come from my thoughts of greed, always trying to win and be number one. In my mind there's an "open 24-hours" nonstop record playing the number one hit song. Inside I'm singing the Super Bowl, the Top Ten, Hall of Fame, highest G.P.A., biggest G.N.P., the Miss America Contest the Best Seller list and the Indy 500. My mind makes leagues, divisions, playoffs, semifinals and finals, out of everything from a to z. It keeps a running score on where I stand, my chances to come in first place like the Wall Street Dow Jones ticker tape. I compete with myself, my family, friends strangers, the next country and empty space. "First the earth, then the moon."

People all want to be number one.

They all want to be leaders, to

be the best in something. They

fight for first place. All of the

world's troubles begin right here.

Do you believe it? It's true. All

of our troubles come from greed

and seeking. Originally there

are no problems, but we people

give ourselves all the hassles

in the world.

-Master Hua
                                       Gold Wheel Temple, L.A.
                 January 1979

Note: As a child in school I never gave a second thought to the number one song we all sang. We studied and compared birth rates, death rates crime rates, suicide and fertility; the strongest man, most beautiful woman, the smartest scientist and the bravest soldier everything from Olympic Gold Medals to fewer cavities was to compete and be the winner: number one. I did it with grades, sports, try outs for this and that, so it seemed natural that countries did it too. When the Russians launched Sputnik I into orbit everybody flipped out. The science programs in all the schools were accelerated. "The Russians are ahead of us!" They're winning the "Space Race," everyone said.

I turn everything into a contest and a game everyone into an opponent and rival. Driving the freeway, getting the best deal, always racing and beating the clock, making a hit and a score bigger, better, higher performance... The winner! It's said that breaking rules wins wars. But breaking rules causes wars, too. Always trying to win, "by hook or by crook" is waging war in my mind. Soon it spills out and fills up the universe with conflict and destruction. Fighting inside brings wars outside.

The little wars with the rock-throwers is just a scaled down version of the bigger war going on in the world. It all starts right in my own upside down heart. "Gotta make it big! Get to the top. Be a somebody. Be looked up to and admired." So I get back what I put out. I should take it and not complain and whimper. How stupid to fight back! When I stop competing scrambling for name and fame, the people will stop fighting with me. If I play the game I should take the bumps. How will the world get better if I myself don't change?

If I am unable to cultivate

proper conduct myself, to get

others to cultivate it would be impossible.

 -Avatamsaka Sutra

What should I cultivate? Not killing. Isn't fighting and putting down the other guy a kind of killing? When I strive to win, who loses? Do I care? There's lots of ways of killing and dying. Sometimes they are hard to see. When I was a boy I went to a Super Bowl football game. During half-time they brought out a "football squadron" of fighter pilots. They were soldiers who dropped the most bombs, flew the most missions (had the most "kills") in Southeast Asia. There they were lined up in T-formation on the field as a "Super Team." It pained my heart and opened my eyes to sec that.

Kids always ask us, "What would you do if someone hit you or tried to pick a fight and beat you up?" We tell them straight that if you treat people with kindness, compassion, joy, and giving, then no one will even bother you. You'll have many good friends and never be afraid. Once you think to fight, then a fight will find you. And once you start fighting, it's hard to stop—there are grudges and "getting even" and a "score to settle." If you push people around, even in your thoughts, people will push you around. Fear comes from doing the wrong things in the past.

So I figure now if I'm afraid of tomorrow's "battle of Russian Gulch" it's because in the past I've done a lot of killing and fighting. My karma from trying to be number one and a winner is deep and heavy. Now I'm getting a taste of my own medicine. Heng Sure isn't the least bit afraid or nervous. Why? Because everyone's karma is different. There are measureless different worlds and realities mutually interlocking and yet none are confused or jumbled. So two people can be standing side by side in the same situation and one receives suffering, the other receives bliss.

As for the individual karma of

each living being, there are worlds

in measureless varieties, within

them we grasp and cling to existence,

and we each receive a different mea

sure of suffering or bliss.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

Part II

Last week near Carmel, two boys kept buzzing us, throwing water balloons, rocks, and curses. I saw clearly for the first time that this hassle was my karmic retribution from aeons of seeking and fighting to be the winner. When I stopped seeking then troubles would stop seeking me. My only "weapons" are the vows of a Bodhisattva. My only protection is bowing with a single mind in repentance and reform. This is the first base for getting straight and protecting others.

Using the adornments of repentance and reform, he diligently cultivates

the path of benefiting self while benefiting others...He uses the

shield and armor of the Bodhisattva's great vows to adorn himself. He saves

and protects living beings and never retreats.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

In L.A. an outraged woman yelled, "Stop bowing! That's disgusting. This is America." And near Malibu a young boy asked, "Hey Mister, aren't you 'un'embarass yourself."

Bowing came hard to me. Of all the doors of cultivation, bowing was last choice. It really makes you feel unimportant and humble. Bowing is the exact opposite of fighting for self and striving to be number one. Winners don't kowtow. That's for losers. Everybody wants to win. No one wants to lose. But winning is messing up the world. So we bow.

The more we bow, .the more it hurts, the more it hurts, the better it gets. My life started getting good when I began bowing. It's not that kind of good and happiness you want to keep for yourself. There is no self-so how could anything be kept? We give it away to end disasters and calamities in the world and so we may all become Buddhas together. When I'm bowing, I don't make so much trouble for everyone. That's how it helps the world. It's very patriotic! If I'm embarrassed, I should bow until there's nothing left to 'un'embarass.

The young boys in Carmel were preparing for another water balloon pass at the monks. An older man walked over from his house. "Could I ask about your ritual and why you're bowing?" When he learned why we were doing prostrations, he got a big, soft smile and his eyes started to water. He proudly reaches out to shake hands and pats me on the shoulder with the other. The boys leave. All is quiet now. "This is good...yes sir. I bet it would take all of two years," he says.

I think to myself, "If I could treat all men like they were my father, then there wouldn't be any angry young men and no wars. If I could stop competing to be number one and treat all women as sisters, as my mother, then what a neat world this could be!"

A simple thought, but out here that's what it comes down to: putting down your own greed, anger, and stupidity with straight kindness and compassion. A lot of people don't know much about Buddhism, but they understand this: selfishness is ruining the world, dividing up countries; it splits up families and leaves you feeling lonely and empty. Those folks that take the time to check out what the bowing and Buddhism stand for understand right away. It speaks for itself.

"You're doing good work, keep it up," says a man in a V.W. A woman with two teenage boys says, "Good luck. Good journey. More people should do it. We'd have a better world. Thank you."

A man near Duncan's Landing: "I want to give you some bread. I think it's beautiful, what you're doing. You don't have to say anything."

Buddhism is pure and simple. No more fighting to be number one. No more seeking name and fame. "Being one with everyone is called Great Compassion."

-Master Hua

The Bodhisattva always thinks

of all living beings with kindness;

with thoughts of benefiting,

pity, happiness, harmony,

and gathering in. He has forever

left behind anger, hatred,

animosity, and harm. He always

thinks of acting in harmony with

others, of being kind and humane,

and of protecting and helping


-Avatamsaka Sutra

Right on!

Peace in the Way,
Disciple Kuo T'ing
(Heng Ch'au) bows
in respect
P.S. We bowed through Russian Gulch the next day without incident. No rocks, no angry young men. It's all made from the mind!