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.

Sea Ranch, California
July 30, 1979

Dear Shih Fu,

      Today: Hot sun. Long hours of bowing in solitude down Highway I lined with tall pine trees. Your whole life passes in front of you while you keep a steady rhythm of 3 steps, one bow. You see where you went wrong and where you did right. Cultivating the Way stands above everything you've ever done like the midday sun. It's the center of brightness and all that's good and true in your life.

      My parents, teachers and elders I want to repay and be filial to (the fruit blossoms because of the roots; and, the fruit in turn goes back to the roots). My friends I want to see free and happy. I feel like I am old friends with all living beings. We meet again and again looking for a way over to the other shore. People, animals, and all the beings we can't see stop, watch and ask, "Have you done it yet? Are you for real and true doing it? Is the Buddha's Way really possible? Can we all become Buddhas?" Without words we ask each other and look for a place to take refuge and something to believe in.

      We are all one body, we are all one heart... A young person stops with an offering
of fresh picked berries. "I want to offer them. I picked them myself this morning at Pt. Reyes." This person is another old friend from somewhere long ago maybe, now travelling alone in an old V.W. bus with a bike strapped to the front. We have met hundreds of people of all ages and lifestyles that know they are just passing through a dream in this world. Each in his own way is making a spiritual quest and in their hearts they feel a closeness with us. They hear "Buddhism" and "monks" and "enlightenment" and deep inside, a small door clicks open, a long forgotten seed sprouts a shoot. They stop, think, not for us, but to look in a mirror. It is the Summer of 1979, but the Odyssey is timeless. We are all pilgrims.

      After two years of bowing the roads, it's so clear to us that the only worthwhile
and real thing in the whole world is cultivating the Way. The highest gift is the giving of Dharma. As this young person sat cross legged on the ground with berries in lap watching us bow, I saw as never before the truth of what we read last night from the Avatamsaka.

         Good man, of all the offerings, the gift of Dharma is the highest kind. That is to
         say: offering of cultivation according to the teachings, the offering of
         benefitting all beings, the offering of gathering in all beings, the offering of
         standing in for living beings and receiving suffering in their place,
the offering
         of diligently cultivating good roots, the offering of not forsaking the deeds of
                  Bodhisattvas, and the offering of not abandoning the Bodhimind."

 Chapter 40

      To really put down all the greed, anger and stupidity; to get rid of all the false coverings and phony masks; to cast out all thoughts of jealousy, arrogance, and doubt; to light up your mind and see your true nature and let shine your original face -- this is a real gift. This gift is "the highest kind" and most difficult to obtain.

     Everyone is looking for a "true one." We look around outside but the "true one" we really want to find is our own true self. Being a true one is giving the gift of Dharma. Pure, peaceful and happy and no false thinking. A clear, cool pool. An unlimited heart of kindness, compassion, joy and giving that is as pure and selfless as new fallen snow, and a mind like empty space. It's said,

        "In all the world you may look, but a true one is hard to find."

      Below in a fenced-in private home development, people are playing tennis and swimming. The whole scene is identical to one we bowed past two years ago in a country club in L.A. The things of the world are empty and impermanent, and yet they never seem to change. Some people die and new ones appear; just like the changing of players on the tennis court. The game of suffering and searching goes on like tennis match after tennis match.

      What a clean and fine feeling, right to the bones marrow, to have met up with the Buddhadharma! Bit by bit I am slowly remembering how to be a real person. We know we are finally walking the right road. The giving of Dharma will come naturally, like the rain, as our steps become naturally true and without tracks.

      At the end of a solid day of bowing, our lives feel so simple and genuine - so easy and natural, and yet nothing in the world can touch it. Three young men out to see the world with packs on their backs stop and ask us for some water. The have one small canteen between them. "Hey who's that in the picture?" asks one looking at the Ven. Abbot's photo. "Hey your hair's growing back" chides another in good humor. And then he asks honestly "was it hard becoming a monk?" His friend is reading our sign in the window and looking at the Buddhas picture next to it. He looks up. "No, I bet it was hard not being a monk," he says with conviction. He took the words right out of my heart. As they walk away they say "Hey ya know that's a really neat thing - doing it for everyone. I mean, so all beings will get peace and happiness. That's a neat way to be." I hear them and once again see that the principles of Buddhism are in everyones heart - the Bodhisattva path is our natural mind. In their attitude without knowing it maybe, they are speaking the Dharma,

        "People's minds are the Buddha;
        The Buddha is just people's minds."

      May we all accomplish the Buddhaway together, real soon. Peace in the Way to all beings everywhere.

                                   Disciple Kuo T'ing,
                                   (Heng Chau)
                                                                            bows in respect

                                     Sea Ranch, California
                                                                          August 1, 1979

      Dear Shih Fu,

            If you make great vows you can't do any false-thinking. If you make a
            big vow and than you have a few false thoughts, these can obscure the
            big vow. So don't have any false thoughts about
killing, don't have false
            thoughts about stealing, don't think about saying false things...

-Master Hua 1973

      Shih Fu, this disciple is still trying to dig his way into hell with his tongue.
Today I really succeeded and I only used my pen, not even my tongue.

      This morning Heng Ch'au and I were
feeling realty on top of the world, and we got careless. We were writing letters after morning recitation. The topic was the Vinaya. Heng Ch'au said "It would be really great to be a perfect Vinaya Master. One would be so good at keeping the rules that it would be perfectly natural-looking, effortless, and you'd never make a mistake."

      I took this chance to break the rules and came out with a corking big error in cause and effect. I wrote this note:
"Vinaya Master Hung Yi had one pair of shoes that he wore for years and years. The story
goes that he walked like on eggshells, s-1-o-w-l-y, so as to avoid stepping on bugs."

      I gave it to Heng Ch'au and watched his response. When he didn't say anything I did an imitation of a man shuffling along in terror of killing bugs and then made a
slighting gesture with my hand to say "Baloney." I wrote, "You'd never notice the real one," meaning that one who walked this way could not be genuine. He would be attached to marks and the appearance of keeping the rules. I meant that true Vinaya Masters shouldn't be so forced and artificial. We finished writing with a discussion of the precept sash and agreed that keeping the rules purely is the single most important part of being a true Buddhist disciple.

      As soon as I went out to bow I realized that with my note and my gesture and my attitude behind it, I had just sent myself to Hell for slandering the Triple Jewel, slandering the Proper Dharma, committing the of offense of false speech, breaking the Bodhisattva precepts against a) praising oneself and slighting others b) disrespectfu1 and rude behavior towards teachers and elders c) baseless slander d) treating Dharma teachers with contempt.

      I repented on the spot, my mind dumb-struck that I could be so careless. After lunch I wrote this note to Heng Ch'ao: My quick story on Ven. Master Hung Yi this a.m. is the causes and conditions of slander, false speech, duplicity, harsh speech, frivolous speech and gossip. It is the source of boundless offenses and obstacles. I must not do it any more! I don't have the stature to talk about great monks in this way. How stupid to defame our own virtuous elders! It's like cutting off my hands just for laughs. First of all I don't even know if the story is factual- it's just heresay, id1e gossip. I do know that Ven. Master Hung Yi's purity in the Vinaya is totally admirable and deserving of great praise. This is shameful conduct on my part. It's my own funeral, a fast train ride to the Hells. With so few Sanghins in this age and fewer still of accomplishment in Vinaya practice, and I make it my business to casually slight one of the highest of them. Insane! If I don't cultivate control of my tongue, what Way am I cultivating?

      This afternoon as I bowed I repented again, feeling greatly fortunate at being able to repent. The Shami Lu tells the story of a monk who slandered an Arhat by saying he sounded like a dog when he recited. The Arhat forgave the monk immediately and kindly advised him to repent. Because of the Arhat's compassion, the monk was saved from falling into the uninterrupted hells which was his due. He was reborn as a dog instead.

      Just last week we read in the Third Ground chapter of the Avatamsaka about the cultivator who has the Heavenly Eye spiritual penetration. It says,

        "...he can see how beings get reborn in good or evil destinies depending on the karma they create. If a being accomplishes evil deeds with the body, or evil deeds with the mouth, or evil deeds with the mind, if he slanders worthy sages, if he is endowed with deviant views as well as the karma of deviant views and their causes and conditions, then when his body decays and his life ends, he will certainly fall into the evil destinies and be reborn in the Hells."


      How could I be so stupid as to try it out for myself? It felt really hot. I was miserable. I couldn't breathe, my inner beings were arguing, fighting, full of fear and doubts. My head was a little corner of Hell. I went to relieve myself and in the process, stuck my hands with long sharp thorns.

      I repented to the Triple Jewel and to my teacher. I apologized to Ven. Master Hung Yi. I said, "whatever I've got coming I want to take on. I'm not afraid of suffering, knowing full well that I've planted an evil seed and will surely meet my retribution. I fear only that my vows will be obscured and that I won't be able to accomplish my way-karma and be of benefit to all beings." I humbly requested that I be gathered in by the Triple Jewel, if I could be of any use in the future in propagating the Dharma, that I'd be forgiven and returned to purity.

      Just as I made this request, a car came speeding out of nowhere. It made a deliberate pass at us, zooming over onto the road shoulder where we were bowing. The car door flew open as it passed, missing us by an inch as it passed by. This was nearly the end of the pilgrimage. I believe it was a compassionate rescue by the Triple Jewel from an "instant karma" payoff of my debt. I recite the Great Compassion Mantra and carry the Surangama Mantra on my person at all times. These mantras have inconceivable power to overcome the karmic trespasses of sincere but ignorant living beings. I believe that I can still write this letter only due to the compassionate regard of the Triple Jewel and the power of repentance. I'm really lucky not to be roasting in the hells. Instead I have another chance to cultivate the Way.

      Why did I make the stupid statement in the first place? Three years ago the Ven. Abbot said to the assembly from the high seat, "Those of you who keep gossiping will fall into the Hells. I don't want you to, but cause and effect is really true. I'm powerless to prevent it. Be careful!" How come I haven't learned my lesson? Why does my mouth obstruct me, despite my best efforts to control it? It's because of the bad seeds I've planted in the past, it's the karma of anger.

      Universal Worthy Bodhisattva explains it this way, "A Bodhisattva who has thoughts of anger or hatred towards other Bodhisattvas, will be obstructed by the following 'million gates of obstruction..." (among these is) He will always give rise to the four kinds of mistakes in speech and thereby create the obstacles of bad speech karma."

      It's the story of my life and if I hadn't begun to cultivate the Dharma, I'd never would have recognized it or had the chance to hear it and change it. I would have carried my mountain of offenses through this life and the next one and the next, never reducing it, always adding to it, unaware of the source of my suffering. I never considered myself as having much anger. I came back to the car this afternoon and took a good look. The rear end was dented, the tail pipe broken off and the bumpers twisted. The same car that buzzed us, first had paid the Plymouth a call, Heng Ch'au informed me. When they couldn't break in, they rammed it from the rear trying to push it into the ditch. Is this not an angry act? How can I deny that it's my retribution returning to me?

      I recalled the beer bottle that broke the window behind the picture of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. The bottle spoke Dharma for me then as the car spoke it today. It said, "Good Man, where in empty space is there a need for your fighting? Who told you you have to be #1. Who makes you struggle to be special and different from everyone? You're not, you know. You're just like a11 beings and that's good enough. Have compassion, brother. Everyone makes mistakes. Be more yielding. Let that anger go. See what it brings you when you do so much false-thinking?"

      I thought of the Buddha as I saw my own sad reflection in the Plymouth's dusty window. The Buddha is a perfect person. He has eighteen qualities that are special to him. Among them are these: his body, mouth, and mind never make mistakes. He never sees anything or anyone in the world as different. His mind is never unconcentrated and he never fails to renounce himself to benefit others. He arrived at these powers and this great compassion by cultivating for a long time. He certainly endured a lot of suffering but he took it without fear and without anger. When he woke up to cause and effect he stopped swallowing the poisons of greed, anger, and stupidity, and quite naturally he got better. One day he reached perfect health: Buddhahood.

      The whole experience today strengthened my resolve to work hard in cultivation and not do so much false-thinking. It deepened my faith in the power and purity of the dharma of repentance. I felt like a father looking at his stubborn child who won't listen to reason. The child's face is all scratched and bruised, he's run his bike into the curb again and fallen off. The father picks him up and straightens the bike's handlebars. He points him back on to the street and reminds his son that as long as he rides on the level path, and in the middle, his way will be unimpeded. "It's true for you, son, and it's true for everyone else too. Be careful and ride well."

      The Buddhadharma is like this, it keeps us from smashing our lives on the curbs of karma while we head for the Buddha's City. We're all on this road, we all make it safely.

      The repentance lifted a huge cloud of darkness from my shoulders. I recalled how three weeks ago a tiny bug caught my eye. It appeared on a rock below my nose as I bowed. As I watched, the bug, no bigger than a pin-head, defecated on the rock; a minute squirt of pee. It rubbed its little hands together, wiped its face and hopped away. I thought, "There I am. That's me. No different than a bug every time I forget to cultivate. Life is more than eating and defecating. Don't be so selfish, Kuo Chen. Go plant pure causes. Work hard! Don't be just another bug! Don't worry about yourself. Don't think! Cultivate the Way!"

      I don't mean to slander insects. Bugs can be the best of good advisors. I am truly of one and the same substance with insects. Their bodies transform and decay in an instant, mine takes just a little longer. But I don't want to be a lazy bug. Lazy bugs get dragged all over the universe by their karma. Vigorous cultivator bugs, one day when their work has been done well, find themselves "in control of the thousand changes and ten thousand transformations, totally free to do anything you want to do" as the Master put it in December of 1977 at Gold Wheel Temple.

  Disciple Kuo Chen
(Heng Sure)
bows in respect