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 10, 1979
Fort Ross

Dear Shih Fu,

      This letter is a rambling berry-patch of the thoughts I've had all week. The themes are: be happy, don't worry, Dharma-cultivation is good work. The harder the work, the happier we feel. Cultivation makes us happy for real.

The ancient immortal Sages. had no other way, 

They were vastly happy by night and day.


A monk lights a stick of incense and bows respectfully to a statue of the Buddha. He sits down before the altar and crosses his legs. He picks up a dulcimer and strums a quiet, rhyth­mic tune. He begins to chant in English,

At that time the Bodhisattva Forest of Merit and Virtue received the Bud­dha's spiritual might and entered the samadhi of the Bodhisattva's Good Thoughts. After entering this sam­adhi there were Buddhas in number like motes of dust in ten thousand Buddhalands who came from beyond worlds as many as motes of dust in ten thousand Buddhalands in each of the ten directions...

And on he goes, singing/reciting the Ten Practices Chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra. He does this every day as his Dharma-door of devotion; it's an offering to the Sutra and to his own wisdom-nature. When he's through he transfers the benefits to a11 beings everywhere with a wish that we a11 will work for the good and avoid all evil. He is always happy with his work.

Sometimes he sings his sutra in public. The simple tune and the spellbinding stories of the Bodhisattva's conduct go right to the hearts of the listeners. He accompanies himself on banjo or autoharp, sometimes he just recites and lets the sutra's words make their own rhythm in empty space:

My mind will dwell in peace in unsurpassed, unspoken, non-relying, unmoving, measureless, boundless, inexhaustible, formless, most profound wisdom.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

This is how it may happen as the practices of the Proper Dharma take root in Western soil. What good fortune is ours!

When Bodhidharma set sail from India, fulfilling Shakyamuni Buddha's prediction that the Mahayana teaching would be transmitted to China during the time of the Twenty-eighth Patriarch, the Buddhadharma already existed in China, yet it was as if it were not there at all. Although there were men who studied, there were few who lectured or recited the sutras and repentance ceremonies were seldom practiced.

-Master Hua.

-Commentary on Sixth Patriarch Sutra

Sign posted on billboards and phone poles all over: Buddhadharma Fair! Come One Come All! Come to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas! Continuous Dharma-lectures! Free admission! Special Day-Long Medicine Master Repentance Ceremony (reservations accepted at the City or by calling this number.) Vegetarian Food! No intoxicants or cigarettes, please. Art exhibit.

Booths: vegetarian cooking, natural health care, organic gardening, Dharma Realm Buddhist University Demonstrations: tai chi ch'uan, acupuncture,

Music: Buddhist choir, chanting, young people's concert.

Plays: Instilling Virtue Players' original shows

Buddhist Schools Graduation ceremonies and awards for academic excellence. Meditation instruction. And fun for all.

This is how it could be as we expediently introduce the Buddhadharma to our family in the West. Good medicine!

Our generation has the inconceivable strength of good roots to have met our teacher in person. We are able to study and practice below his Dharma-seat day and night. The treasury of true principles that we receive is rich beyond count­ing. Decades from now our Dharma-heirs will still be busy translating and gathering the wealth of Dharma that issues from our teaching-source like a never-ending spring.

Heng Ch'au and I are investigating the second of the Ten Grounds in the Avatamsaka Sutra. It is called "Leaving the Dirt." It's all about the basic rules for being a person. It is like a medicine kit for the afflictions and suffering we all experience. In clear words it describes the bad habits that we practice in every move we make all day. It's the real thing. It's true Dharma.

I go out to bow feeling on top of my faults and in charge. A test will arise, I miss my cue, attach to a state and find myself really unhappy. That night as I review the second ground, I see my mistake on the Sutra page. It always comes with a remedy attached, spoken in a kind, wise voice. It's a shocker every time to see my demons and ghosts revealed to my eye. The Avatamsaka is a holy scripture; ageless and as yet unknown to the West. It turns into a mirror, it turns into a good friend, it speaks to our deepest hearts the way no other printed words have done.

This is why we say how lucky we are and how happy we feel time after time. Who wouldn't want to share this magic with everyone? Who wouldn't feel a huge debt of gratitude to the Buddhas and Bodhisattva and Wise Advisors? They have brought the wisdom and the goodness of the Great Vehicle to us and laid it in our hands. Our job is to recognize this priceless gift and to make it available to all people. Most important is our responsibility to practice the teachings with pure faith and boundless energy.

What's spoken is Dharma; What's practiced is the Way.

Speak of it well, Speak of it wonderfully.

But if you don't cultivate, It's still not the Way.

It shouldn't sound burdensome it's a light, joyful responsibility. But it is important! It feels in the heart like we're all standing in a pit of fire. The Buddha taps us on the shoulder and says calmly, "There's a sturdy ladder over here. You can climb out of the flames if you wish to. Oh, and let the others know about it on your way out, won't you?" You bet we will.

It's clear to me that our calling in this lifetime is to lay the foundations of the Proper Dharma here in the West. As the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is the body of the new healthy baby Buddha establishing the rules, so the repentance ceremonies, investigating the Sutras and translating them, participating in morning and evening devotions, holding the precepts and daily practices will be the beating heart of the Dharma-body.

There is so much good work ahead of us it's like being told, "Friends, you're going to be working on this mountain of jewels for the rest of your lives, you should bring forth a great heart of vigor and boundless joy."

We have the world's best job: givers of the unsurpassed Dharma. Whether we translate it, recite it, meditate it, type it, lecture it, bow it on the highway, radiate it from happy thoughts, be mindful of it as we mow grass, answer the phone, and fertilize the crops, we are all practicing the giving of peace and happiness, good energy, and Buddha-light. What could be finer? When we cultivate the Bodhisattva Path by practicing a Dharma-method with the mind and holding the precepts with the body, then we are healing ourselves naturally. We are getting well! We all become Buddhas, perfect beings, when our practice is done well with energy and concentration, and that's the best news I've ever heard.

Cultivation is hard and it's real. That’s why it's good. It requires giving of energy and that's why it's happy. Ultimately it requires great and total renunciation of selfish desire and that's why it helps the world.

Monk: Master, some people try to convert us by saying, "The Buddha can't save you. He was only a man. You shouldn't try so hard. You can't be saved by works, either."

Ven. Abbot: So you tell them "I have food to eat, clothes to wear, I can bow to the Buddhas, who needs to be saved? I save myself."

Monk: They say, "You're in bondage!" 

Ven. Abbot: You tell them, "Good, I like it. I'm happy."

The Bodhisattva always shows great happiness to all beings.

-Avatamsaka Sutra



A year ago in L.A. the Master said, "Why do demons come? They come to test you, to see if your bowing pilgrimage is true or if you're just faking it. Why else would you do it? To give others a good impression of you so they will say that you're an "Old Cultivator".

At that time I thought, "Impossible. Who could be such a hypocrite. Of course I'm not faking it." But I hadn't begun to see the surface of my habit of acting and covering. Kuo Chen (Heng Sure) the Fruit of Truth is a phony to his bones. This isn't going to be another yinny letter of confession and public flogging that's just the "seeking to give a good impression" habit at its worst. Too often the letters I write are full of this bad energy. It's selfishness masked as humility. What's the good word from the bowing pilgrimage? Lies, faults, fighting, anger, suffering, greed, and affliction. I write my notebooks full of selfish drivel designed to impress people with the hardships of the work, just as predicted a year ago. This is a contradiction and I can't do it anymore.

Universal Worthy Bodhisattva instructs us to "praise the Thus Come Ones and to cultivate the giving of offerings." Writing small, about the endless tricks of the ego is not praising anyone but the self; glorifying it in print. There's no light in it, none of the yang power of the Buddhadharma. What is there in a letter of self-criticism that I can offer to the Triple Jewel? Egads, it's just more of the same old garbage of stinginess that I most want to get rid of. The heavenly demons and the externalists are delighted every time I write about my faults or troubles. The demons go down for the count every time I write about the inconceivable wonder and magic that we find in cultivation of the Dharma.

It's true when you return the light and look within sometimes it feels like a deep dive into a cesspool. There's just a whole lot of filth and nastiness inside us. Before we begin to cultivate we don't recognize it. You have to get right in there and purge the poisons, slog through the mud of self and greed, hatred, and stupidity. You have to shovel it out bucketful after bucketful. But the Buddhadharma is the great purifier. It is the cure for the poisons that afflict us.

Like the agenda, herb

Which can purge all poisons,

The Buddhadharma is the same:

It eradicates the disaster of afflictions.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

Universal Worthy Bodhisattva instructs us to "repent and reform of all karmic faults," and that's what repentance ceremonies are all about. Every time we sincerely call ourselves on our faults, recognize them and vow to change, it gets a little brighter inside. Those are my afflicted living beings inside. I've vowed to save them alt. No matter how much trouble I give myself due to my past greed, hatred, and stupidity, I'm going to keep on with this good work of cultivation until the mirror of my mind has no specks of dust remaining. Will it be tomorrow? Will it be nine aeons from now? Can't tell. Even if it takes forever, I believe that we will all become Buddhas and I make it my job to take my inner living beings across first.

At the same time, I don't have to wear my afflictions like a merit badge. This is seeking approval. I caused all my own troubles, I should bear the results in silence, not be such a weak crybaby and certainly not afflict others with the details of my daily ups and downs.

How does a Bodhisattva do it?

He is universally a good and wise advisor for all beings. He speaks the Proper Dharma and causes them to cultivate. It's just like the great ocean: no amount of poison can change it or spoil it. And the Bodhisattva is the same. All those he meets be they without wisdom...all types of oppressive afflictions from these...beings cannot move or confuse him."

-Avatamsaka Sutra

To me, this applies not only to the beings outside but the beings inside as well. I have really been guilty of not showing great happiness to all beings, especially when people come to visit. Often I am uptight and over-sensitive. My habits of seeking and trying to force the Way are deep. Kind people drive by and find me frowning with a face like a ghost because I've gone and attached to some state and left the Middle. This isn't the Bodhisattva's Way. This is called "falling back in position." Bodhisattva are irreversible in mindfulness, practice, and position. When I attach to my own little states and say "Go away and let me cultivate in peace," I fall into the Two Vehicles, imitating a "self-ending Arhat." What is this cultivating? Great selfishness! It's not the Avatamsaka Dharma. When lay-people came last month I pulled my "ghost face" every time. Phooey! I won't do it again. I want now to apologize to the Sangha members and lay-people who may have been misled or troubled by my selfishness and greedy seeking. If I can't actively encourage others to cultivate by praising its virtues and power, the least I can do is not turn people off to the Way.

So no more letters about Kuo Chen's afflictions, no more dark and sober essays that disguise my search for approval. And most of all, no more frowns!

A man being liberated from the prison of desire and the pain of ignorance should be delighted and show it! No matter what state arises, we who cultivate the Way are on the road to rebirth by transformation in the family of the Thus Come Ones. Faith in Goodness is the most powerful, positive, pure force on earth.

Faith's power is solid, nothing can destroy it. Faith extinguishes the root of afflictions forever...With faith one is not attached to any state. Far apart from difficulties one becomes untroubled.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

And first and foremost, the Buddhadharma is all about Goodness. Who wouldn't be delighted with a chance to cultivate the Way?

Namo Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, Mahasattva. One of Great Practice!

With faith in the Way,

Disciple Kuo Chen (Heng Sure) bows in respect.

July 16, 1979
Ocean Cove, Calif.

Dear Shin Fu,

"Country Roads Cross Section"

It's Sunday afternoon. We are bowing through the Ocean Cove, a small hamlet on Highway 1. There's a gas pump, a country store, a weathered barn and a few houses. In front of the store are the local young people sitting on tree stumps, old chairs, car fenders, and motorcycles. They're drinking beer, smoking, and rapping. Everyone's looking for something, waiting expectantly, but no one could say what it is. Even though there is a crowd, an empty loneliness hangs in the air like the dull fog that hasn't lifted today. They all have homes, but no one wants to go home. Their hearts have no place to rely. We know where they are at, they are our family.

The Bodhisattva sees that all beings are lonely and without a place to rely on, and he feels sympathy.

Avatamsaka Sutra

As we round the corner and come into sight, a couple of the young men start testing us with taunts. The toughest looking biker, wearing a black leather jacket and a beard, has pinned a handout explaining the bowing pilgrimage to the store's screen door for everyone to read. His name is Bobby. He says to the young men,

"You watch your mouth there, boys. Don't bother the fellows. They're doing hard work for a good cause, they're all right."

"Yeah, but they're weird, really serious. They won't even drink a beer...Real party-poopers," replied one of the men.

"You'd be a little different if you'd been bowing on the road for two years. A man's got to have gone through a lot of changing doing that," answers the biker.

"Two years? Like that?" says one of the young men.

"Yeah. They've got something going for them. It's for everybody. I figure I'm not going to let any young punks hassle them."

"Yeah, sure, OK, Bobby. Whatever you say," says the young man. They all sit down again and quietly watch. Then a charter bus pulls up. Bobby hops off his bike and starts directing traffic so the bus can safely park. It's a narrow road and lots of traffic. The group of young people starts to hoot and holler at the bus—making things a little unpleasant. Bobby shouts, "You all be nice to these nice now." They quiet down again. Dharma Master Heng Kung hops out of the bus. He and a large group of people have driven down from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to see the bowing monks and make offerings.

      So here we all are, measureless living beings from measureless different worlds, yet all converge and come in touch today in a cross-section slice on a country road. On the bus are happy, bright-eyed Buddhist disciples from all over the world. There are the two bowing monks. Outside Mick Jaggar and the Rolling Stones' music blares in the air and the lonely kids are saying, "Don't go home yet. Stay a little longer. I'll buy everyone another beer." We people are all the same at heart. The suffering and bliss, the ordinary and the sagely, the pure and the defiled, the free and the hung-up are all mixed together in this little junction-stop town among all these people, just as it is all mixed together inside each of us. Differences are illusions. The whole show is non-dual and perfectly fused. We have one nature, the Buddha-nature.

The Dharma-nature pervades all places,

      All beings and all countries,

It exists in all three periods of time with no remainder,

Without a shape or mark that can be obtained.

-Avatamsaka Sutra

Bowing with one heart, it is all one, Buddhism taking root in America is just another chapter of the story of all of us returning to the root-­going back to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas of our own pure mind. How strange the world seems sometimes! With houses and fences, with curtains and cars, we try to make a "you" and "me," and a "me and mine," but no matter how we try, we cannot divide our true nature. We are all deeply related. Ultimately all differences are invisible. No one can stop the interrelatedness of all beings and all things anymore than a barbwire fence can obstruct the air, or a bridge can separate a river.

This is the wonder of the Buddhadharma. Buddhism breaks down all the fences and walls we make with our false thoughts and attachments. Who are you? Who am I? Where is the past, the present, the future? Birth and death are just five-letter words. This is easy to say, but takes work to realize. Even though it's hard to realize, it's even more difficult to try and ignore.

Today I got a little glimpse of the level-equality of all beings. In this little town I saw that all our faces were just masks we wear. Behind all our masks there is only one face. It has no color or shape, no size or place. It is without a mark or dimension. I thought, "Bowing once every three steps isn't two monks bowing, it is all living beings.  This is the one heart. We never leave it; it never leaves us." The one face we all have is the Buddha's face. The Buddha's face is everyplace.

No body or mind inside,

No world outside...

No self or others contemplating freedom

Not form or empty, seeing the Thus Come One

Bobby looked mean and tough. But inside he was soft. Behind the front was kindness. The monks maybe look weird and single-minded but inside there are false thoughts, and they really aren't that weird if you look into it. Inside and outside, what are they anyway? In the early dark hours of the morning I woke up outside under a tree and look around. For a minute or two I can't find me. Inside and outside, up or down, here or there don't exist. The jealousy and arrogance, desire and fear I carry around with me day after day, for a few seconds seem like a dream and bring a smile to my face. "How can you possibly take yourself so seriously? Look! See? Basically there's not one thing." Yet with nothing still there is everything. It's the "me" that is nothing.

Slowly, bit by bit, starting to come into focus. In little glimpses of clarity and stillness I see I should just let go of all my false thinking and attachments. With deep faith and courageous vigor I should be "one of the May with no mind." Everything that's supposed to happen happens by itself when I stop messing around "my nose into everything." The Way naturally and effortlessly us all back home. Kindness, compassion, joy, and giving appear like the buds in the spring when the heart is unobstructed. When the false mind stops and greed is put to rest, then by itself, the nobility and blessings of our original face appear. One who can be like this benefits the whole world.

"What are they doing?" asks a bystander.

"Nothing. They aren't doing anything," answers his friend.

"Why don't they do something?" the bystander persists.

"They are doing something. They're doing nothing," answers his friend.

"I don't get it," says the bystander perplexed. But his friend understands. In doing nothing, everything is done. That is, by not giving rise to the karma created from greed, anger, and stupidity with body, mouth, and mind, the natural truth and goodness manifests. Not doing is being single-minded to the point of no mind, no thoughts, nowhere to attach. Its called action that is actionless. This is what precepts, samadhi, and wisdom are all about. They make everything "neat." And when it's "neat," the Buddha told us in so many words, you slide right though. Bowing is "neat," he said. We haven't reached the point of doing nothing. Our simple instructions are still: "No false thinking. Have no attachments. Try your best!" This verse keeps lighting our path:

When the nature is in samadhi the demons are subdued and every day is happy.

False thoughts not arising, everywhere is peaceful.

When the mind stops and thoughts are cut off, this is true nobility.

With selfish greed ended forever, this is the true field of blessings.

-Master Hua

Peace in the Way,
Disciple Kuo T'ing (Heng Ch'au)
bows in respect