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.

                     August 12, 1979
                     Near Anchor Ray,

Dear Shih Fu,

      We're taking our midday meal in the back of the Plymouth. Outside it's blowing cold and swirls of dust clouds. An old, feeble woman slowly staggers to her seat in the car parked behind us. She grips the car for support. Her gait is stiff and unsteady. Eyes and ears are failing. Her world, who could know it? She looks up slowly and fixes her gaze out to sea. A bowl of food sits in her lap. It doesn't interest her. As she shifts around in the car, the windshield glare makes it seem like she disappeared. Alt that can be seen is the reflection of overhead passing white clouds where once the old woman was.

      Her daughter, and her daughter's daughter are with her. In their faces you can see how beauty and health fade and wither by themselves in a few short seasons. The three of them are like different steps in the life of the same person. Everything speaks the Dharma. I look at my own body and the food I'm eating. Then
I look back at the reflection of shifting white clouds in the car window. "Thus it is." I think everything is impermanent and temporary. What seems solid and secure today, tomorrow drifts away and disappears like the clouds. Everything speaks the Dharma, "Hurry up and cultivate. The temporary flies. There is so little time. Be swift and head for the true." Every night we end our day with,

          "This day has already passed,
             And life is thereby decreased,
          Like fish in evaporating water,
             What joy is there in this!?
          Be diligent and vigorous as
             if rescuing your head.
          Be mindful of impermanence.
             Be careful not to be lax."

      Tonight as we sing this verse I'll remember the old woman. I'll remember the pine cone
that fell from a tree and the blackberries drying up on the vines alongside the road. I'll
remember seeing that my own body is just like the reflection of passing clouds in a car window. I'll remember too, everyone bowing together after the meal--even the old woman who stood tall and reverent in the cold wind with folded hands because her legs could no longer bend to bow.

             -Peace in the Way
             Disciple Kuo T'ing
             (Heng Chau) 
               bows in respect


Anchor Bay
              August 13, 1979

Dear Shih Fu,

      This letter has a title:

      Skunk or monk? Bathroom or Buddhahall?
      Our thoughts and deeds decide it a1l
               THE JANITOR REPORTS:

      "Moreover there are animals/In odious
      and repugnant shapes. Which all come
      from their bad karma/ and they suffer
      an eternity of affliction."

-Avatamsaka Sutra
Flower Store World
Chapter 5 part 3
verse spoken by
Universal Worthy

      San Bu Yi Bai has given us a great gift of faith in the Buddhadharma. It's hard to pinpoint what part we believe in most. It's like asking which drop of ocean water is wetter than the others, or which ray of sunshine is more bright and more pure than the next. The Buddhadharma is all true. Our faith increases the more we cultivate. And the more we cultivate the more we find to believe in. It's like an ever increasing bank account. For one who cultivates becomes fabulously wealthy in faith.

      Probably the fundamental lesson I have learned on this trip is the truth of cause and effect: as you plant, so do you harvest. Why did the page-boy Wart pull the sword out of the stone when none of the noble knights could budge it? Because he had the causes and conditions from the past that allowed him to grow up and become King Arthur. Why did the poor wood gatherer passing through the market place hear one sentence of the Diamond Sutra and become greatly enlightened on the spot? Because of past causes coming ripe he became the 6th Patriarch.

      Why do the seals gather on the rocks outside Anchor Bay to bark and speak the Dharma of seals? Because in past lives they behaved like seals and now they live in seal bodies. Abe Lincoln became a President and was shot in the head by a stranger because in the past he killed the killer and it was time for his retribution.

      All things in creation have their reasons for being. It's said,

          "If you see things and understand them,
          You transcend the world.
          If you see things and are confused by them,
                    You fall onto the turning wheel of rebirth."

      One morning last week I rounded a curve in the fog just in time to find a dead skunk on the black top. He had been hit only minutes before. He was still warm, a five-pound adult male with sharp, curving, meat-eating fangs. I removed him from the traffic lane, gingerly holding his sad corpse by the tip of his white-striped tail. The skunk spoke Dharma for me. He said, "In the past I was greedy and killed out of anger and stupidity. Now I've got my due. It's not enough that my body stinks so no one likes to get near me. Today I lost even this flesh bag. A11 because when I was a person I didn't do a good job of keeping the rules. I killed myself by swallowing the poisons of greed, hatred and stupidity. It's all my fault. There's no one else to blame."

      I said the Pure Land mantra over the dead skunk and thanked him for the lesson. I thought, "how glad I am to have the chance to cultivate the Way. Being a skunk is a lot of suffering. You can't sit in full lotus, you can't bow to the Buddhas, you can't make offerings. Good thing I'm a person."

      Then at lunch I behaved just like a skunk. I found myself watching Heng Chau's food bowl, criticizing his every move and thinking harsh
thoughts of greed and anger towards him. In my mind I competed with him as I have done in the past. This time I remembered the Master's instructions: 

          "Purge the false and keep the true.
          The straight mind is the Way-place,
          The everyday mind is the Way.
          Don't blame anyone and don't criticize others.
          Be a good person.
          Don't seek benefit.
          Don't be selfish.
          A great person starts in the small, subtle, places.
          Real Buddhadharma is right before your eyes!"

-Master Hua
Malaysia, 8/10/78

      Here I was planting the seeds of skunkhood and going along with it! When I recognized what I was doing, suddenly the cause and effect became as clear as night and day. I couldn't turn around fast enough. Who wants to swallow poison? Monks think pure, lofty, monk thoughts. From this small place they eventually become Buddhas. Skunks think smelly thoughts and eventually wind up like the dead polecat I mantra'd last week.

      All along I've been running through the Dharmarealm looking outside for dharmas to blame, to criticize and find fault with. All this time dharmas are not at fault. My own body, mouth and mind are the source of all my suffering and all my joy. No one can make me do anything. I choose to be a monk or a skunk in every new thought.

      The Buddhadharma gives us the rules. What we practice in our minds creates Buddhalands or bathrooms out of our every waking minute. As the Master said to Heng Chau in his visit last week at Sea Ranch,

      "If you don't want to be emperor,
      first you have to flush the toilet.
      Once the toilet is flushed you can
      go and be a Buddha. First you must
      do your own work and clean out the
      bathroom. Don't be greedy for Buddhahood, 
      don't think about it. Just
      go cultivate."

      What a gift of compassion the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have given us! I have another chance to try my best today to be a good janitor, to use every second to flush my own clogged toilet in my mind. I can turn my bathroom into a Buddhahall. Why do it? Because it makes possible the highest giving of all. Using the magic of the Great King of Vows of Universal Worthy Bodhisattva while I bow and make transference, I clean out a corner of the universe as well. I truly believe that cultivation of these vows is the ultimate work, the best thing anyone can do in a life-time. No matter how stinky a skunk I've been in the past, when I can keep the precepts and fully complete Universal Worthy's practices and vows, I can become a Buddha. They are the Supreme rules of the Dharma realm. I bow to them in deep faith and respect in every thought and to the Sutra that contains them. How inconceivable is the Avatamsaka! That we have the causes and conditions to meet with it here and now is great good fortune. As National Master Ch'ing Liang says:

      "Moreover, when one meets a Sagely
         Ruler/obtaining it on Magic
      Mountain,/Exhaustively reflecting
         on its esoteric meaning/how can
            one but jump for joy?"

                          -Avatamsaka Su
                          Chao Preface

      We bowed before the Anchor Bay Campground entrance. Inside, packed like sardines were campers and mobilehomes with names like Wilderness, Open Road, Southwind, Explorer. The smoke of the cooking fires and the hubbub of the jammed-in vacationers felt just like the most crowded marketplace in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Why would people come to the middle of the deserted coast in expensive get-away cars to stand elbow to tailbone just like in any big city? Because of past affinities with each other. Someone died right there this afternoon. The rescue vehicles roared by. Don't know who it was or why. It was a Bodhisattva, speaking Dharma for us all saying, "Try your best. Keep the rules. Go towards the good! And flush the toilet." The ambulance rolled away, we bowed up the hill, the smoke of grilled hamburgers filled the air, and out on the harbor rocks the seals bathed and barked.

                                         -Disciple Kuo Chen
                                         (Heng Sure)

                                                                                  -bows in respect