Three Steps One Bow

Letters to the Venerable Master Hua
from Bhikshus Heng Sure and Heng Chau
on their bowing pilgrimage to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.


Dear Shih Fu,

      "The Bodhisattva vows that all beings will be able to perfect the speaking of the Buddhas' road to Bodhi and constantly be happy to cultivate the giving of the unsurpassed Dharma."

Avatamsaka Sutra

      On San Bu Yi Bai, Heng Ch'au and I have learned respect for the rules. Following  the rules makes us happy. When we subdue our thoughts about how things should be and quietly, sincerely return to true principle, everything works out just right. No thoughts needed, no effort wasted. It's magic, and it's true every time.

      So what are these rules? Why are they true for us the same way they were true for the ancients? Why will they be true in the future?

      You can sum it up in a few words. The rules are called the Buddhadharma, the Middle Way. When it's too little, add to it. When it's too big, reduce it.

      Or you can speak of them infinitely and never finish e.g. the Five Precepts, the Ten Evil Deeds, the Five Constants, filiality, the Ten Vows of Universal Worthy, the Three Poisons of Greed, Hatred, and Stupidity, the Six Paramitas, repentance, giving, faith, the Ten Thousand Practices and so on. All of them are true principles. All of them lead us back to the unchanging, perfectly balanced Middle.

      Everything speaks the Dharma for us all the time if only we are receptive to it. For example, last night it was late and I hadn't studied my Avatamsaka memory-project as I try to do each night. A little bit each day helps me keep balanced, on the ground, and in touch with the rules. When I miss it, I feel as if my mind hasn't eaten that day. My wisdom goes hungry. For some reason I picked up the new Vajra Bodhi Sea instead. Last night I thought, "I'll relax a little first, read some good stories or news of Wan Fo Cheng, maybe practice my Mandarin a little, too." I knew I didn't have time to read both the magazine and the Sutra but my false-thoughts argued like a defense attorney and defeated my good advisor inside. There's nothing wrong with VBS. It's the finest magazine between covers in any world but I have made vows to stay single-minded and to protect the Avatamsaka, This little indulgence was laxness, not true. For me it was off-center. It broke my own rules.

      As soon as I opened the VBS a little ant crawled out and scurried across the page. Oh! Can't kill him. Had to bother Heng Ch'au who carefully blew him out of the car to safety. I settled back in and began to read about Kuan Shin Yin Bodhisattva. Suddenly a big Daddy-longlegs spider plopped down three inches from my nose. It came out of empty space and landed right on the line I was reading. I must have jumped a foot in the air. The spider vanished into the dark-corner of the Plymouth and I closed the magazine in a hurry, picked up my Sutra notebook and opened to these lines:

      "Disciples of the Buddha! What is the Bodhisattva, Mahasattva's Practice of leaving
      confusion? This Bodhisattva accomplishes proper mindfulness.

Avatamsaka Sutra
"Ten Practices Chapter

      We Buddhists have such a big gift to our Western family! This is why cultivation according to the true principles of the Buddha-dharma brings us such happiness. When we offer up our conduct and follow instructions, we regain the Natural Middle. It feels right on. For instance, we often speak of filiality and repaying the kindness of our parents, teachers, and elders. Each time we do, people's faces light up and their hearts soften. It never fails to get a response. We all recognize that putting our seniors into rest-homes and breaking up families is unnatural. It weakens the country. It wastes a priceless natural resource: the wisdom of age and maturity. When people understand that Buddhism takes filiality as its basis and repaying kindness as its first duty, they all want to hear more right away. It's like adding water to thirsty dried plants. Filiality is a rule. It's time we learned to obey it.

      The first of the Five Constants is Humaneness. To be humane means be kind and
compassionate to all life. It's a fundamental truth. When we don't kill, the world finds the natural Middle. Of all the vehicles that pass us on the highway, there is one kind that we can identify with eyes, ears, and nose all closed. The death-trucks are unmistakable. This is ranch land and the trucks that carry the cattle, sheep, and horses to the slaughterhouses drive by in a dark cloud of evil energy. Add to it the smell of the fearful animals jammed inside, the sound of their bleating, and it's a heavy moment each time. They know they are off to meet the butcher and their fear is a tangible, horrible presence on the country highways. Animals that die in fear produce toxic chemicals in their bodies. Doctors now recognize this "poisoned meat" as the source of many currently incurable diseases. The cure? Be humane. Don't take life, don't eat the flesh of living creatures.

      The Second of the Five Constants is Righteousness. Whatever is righteous feels right on. It's natural, balanced and in harmony.

      Another way to say it is don't steal. Theft is out of harmony. It makes waves and causes trouble. We've learned that our thoughts are like radio-beams. What goes on in the mind is broadcast to the world, there are no boundaries. When we have thoughts of greedy desire and seeking, we steal from the Dharma Realm, just as if we reached out a hand to swipe an apple from a fruit-stand. This lesson has been thoroughly taught to us.

      One day by the Half-Moon Bay airport, we bowed in a big wind-storm. I have trouble concentrating in the wind and my mind was full of thoughts of "Oh, pity me!" I was cold and hungry and had false thoughts of food and the shelter of the car. We returned at the end of the bowing day. Stacked by the car were over ten bags of groceries, all stolen by my greedy thoughts from kind-hearted people of the area who picked up my broadcast. The food- blizzard continued for 2 days.

      Stealing is not righteous. We barely had room to sit in the car. Over a hundred bananas! This ain't the Tao! No false-thinking is the rule. It keeps the natural Middle in perfect harmony.

      This letter is long enough.

Disciple Kuo Chen
(Heng Sure)
Bows in Respect

September 3, 1979
in the mountains on the
road to Booneville, California

Dear Shih Fu,

      At the end of the bowing day we did transference and drove into Pt. Arena to dump garbage. As we pulled into a closed gas station suddenly we are surrounded by about 10 men. They are tough looking and full of whiskey. They start knocking on the car windows.

      "Hey what's happening man? You guys is the ones that's bowing on the highway, right? What gives?" asks one in a mocking voice. "Yeah, hey, there they are!" shouts some others
spotting us. "Let's go check them out, c'mon!"  And some more men run over from a motel across the street.

      "Oh you don't talk eh? How about him?" he says pointing to Heng Sure sitting in the back seat. "He talk? Neither of you talk!? How we supposed to talk back to you, huh? Maybe write all over your car with paint, huh?" Everybody laughs.

      Another man steps up. He's got a big scar across his neck and is clutching an open whiskey bottle in one hand. He grabs the handout away from the other man and starts to read it saying,

      "What's their gig?" He looks at me and says roughly, "Your vocal chords shot or something?"

      "No, it's their penance" shouts someone. More laughs.

      "Hey, don't hassle 'em. They're doing their thing," he says and finishes reading the handout about the pilgrimage. He shoves the whiskey bottle in my face,

      "Here. Have a drink with me, or can't you. Your religion forbid it?" I nod.

      "How about him?" he asks pointing the bottle to Heng Sure, "he can drink?"

      "Lookie, he's prayin!" someone yells and they all break out in a mocking laugh at the meditating monk.

      "Ya see, his wife just had a baby. That's why he's so rude and obnoxious," says a tall man with scraggly beard and one eye missing.

      "Yeah, usually I just go around and beat the hell out of people, but today I'm  celebrating so you're lucky, maybe." comes back the man standing by the open car window to me.

      "Man! They've been at this since L.A.! Over two years!" exclaims the man reading the paper.

      "That's a lot of miles. Many people hassle you?" asks one. I nod 'no.'

      "Really! How about your car? Holding up okay? I know where you can get it wrecked real fast and cheap," he says. More laughs.

      Another truck pulls up behind us and more men jump out. The whole scene is touch and go. It could turn into violence or dissolve into "no affair' in a second. Heng Sure and I can feel the spotlight on us. Each move has to be true and proper or the scene will explode. We don't dare try to roll up the car window and pull out of the lot. There's too many of them and they have us boxed in. Besides, it would only postpone a showdown for a day or two when we bow through the town. They've been watching and waiting for us for weeks, they told us. We move at one mile a day. There's no place to run or hide. We've had to learn to get along with people. Pilgrims are on their own. Kindness, compassion, joy and giving are all we need to survive. These four unlimited minds cover all situations and leave everyone feeling good. We try to treat everyone the same. No matter what happens we have vowed not to show anger.

      "The Bodhisattvas have entered into the level and equal nature of all dharmas.
      They have no thought of any living being as not being family or friends.
      If there is a living being who has a thought of hostility towards  the Bodhisattva,
      The Bodhisattva views him with kind eyes as wel1.
      To the very end they have not the s1ightest anger."

                                                                        Avatamsaka Sutra
                                                                        "Ten Transferences
                                                                        Chapter" (First
                                                                        transference at
                                                                        start of chapter)

      There is something special about bowing outdoors, slowly going from town to town. It's hard to describe, but, after a while, everything seems the same and everyone feels like family and friends - "level and equal." All the men look like brothers or our fathers. All the women look like sisters and our mothers. From L.A., through Asia and back up the coast to where we are today, Pt. Arena, California, all the different cities and villages blend into one big neighborhood. We aren't very aware of leaving one place and entering another. The bowing naturally levels all the skin-deep differences somehow, and "being one with everyone" kind of sneaks into your heart before you know it.

      As tough and threatening as these drunken men were, Heng Sure and I didn't feel uptight or angry. There was no hostility or rejection in the air. We all felt this and slowly things cooled off by themselves. The men relaxed.

      "Well, ya' gotta get haircuts sometime. Or do you do that yourselves too?" jokes one man. Some are huddled together reading the handout. Others are peeking in the car windows at the alter and pictures of Gwan Yin and the Master while passing around an open whiskey bottle and taking swigs.

      We slowly back the car out smiling and waving goodbye.

      "Hey!" shouts a short man with a mustache, "you know karate?"

      "Yeah," chime in a couple more as they head for the car with renewed interest. "You know... kung fu, martial arts?" They pose in T.V. kung fu stances. With beer bottles in their hand and dressed in dirty bib overalls and construction hats, it's kind of comic looking.

      I nod 'no' and fold my hands and bow, indicating "That's our kung fu." They like that and everything softens again. Smiles come to some tough faces as if to say, "Yeah. The whole world could use a little more of that kind of kung fu. Who wants to fight anyhow?"

      As we drive away, the man who's wife just had a baby shouts, "Well, all I got to say is you better be careful you two cosmies. Don't float away and disappear into the cosmos. Don't let the cosmos eat you up." More laughs and everyone waves goodbye. It was a lesson in kindness and according.

      "When one's mind is level and equal towards a11 beings, one can accomplish perfect, full, great compassion. When one uses the heart of great compassion to accord with all beings, then one can accomplish making offerings to the Thus Come One. This is how Bodhisattvas accord with all living beings."

                                                                        Avatamsaka Sutra
                                                                        Universal Worthy's
                                                                        Vow and Practices

      The next day we bowed past a large wooded front yard and house on the edge of town. The kids were "playing guns." "Bang, ya. Did not!...Did so!... Blast 'im Tony, kapow, kapow!" They see us bowing, and everything stops in silence. Then a rock comes flying at us from behind some bushes. It hits on the pavement next to us. We keep bowing. The kids keep watching.

      In a few minutes the braver ones inch closer. "What ya' doin man?" They ask. I write a note and give it to them:

      "We are praying to help the world get better and to be good to our parents. We don't talk."

I'll give it to my brother John, he can read" says a little boy. John reads it for everyone. They smile. We keep bowing into town. The children stop playing guns and quietly sit in the shade and watch us bow. A car squeals by and someone yells at us. The kids stand up and defend us, "Hey, you better leave them alone, they're good," says the older boy. Two children run up with fresh picked red flowers and offer them. The older ones ride ahead on their bikes scouting out the route ahead. "Better watch out for that dog up there, he might bite. The other one's okay," says Tony.

      We are all changing together--the drunks, the monks, the children. Changing from guns to flowers, from anger to compassion, from confusion to understanding. We are all bowing together with one heart to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

                                                      Peace in the Way
                                                      Disciple Kuo Ting (Heng Ch'au);
                                                      bows in respect