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.

October 14. 1979

Dear Shih Fu,

      After evening recitation, I realized what a priceless gift you gave us today.

      "Heng Sure," said Heng Ch'au. I turned and there on the sidewalk stood our teacher in a blaze of yellow-gold robes. Just like that, on State Street in Ukiah, on Saturday afternoon outside a motel.

      "When you reach Wan Fo Cheng, you may bow up and down the streets. It's not the case that you must bow straight into the Ten Thousand Buddha's hall and your trip is over and that's that. Bow around the Buddhahall if you like," he said.

      "This accords exactly with our own wishes," was my response.

      What is the gift? A chance to do the inner work of San Bu Yi Bai, the concentration and single-minded bowing to Ten Thousand Buddhas without all the broken beer bottles!

      No logging trucks, no bullies, no narrow roads, no poison oak, whizzing motorcycles, bars and drunks, mountain slopes, cold-water shaving, weather-delays, rubber-legs and leather-palms, etc.

      We have been given a chance to bow in Heaven.

      On August 1 in Sea Ranch, the Master said, "There is a road in heaven but first you must accomplish the road here on earth. When you have walked that road to completion, then you may walk the heavenly road."

      I thought he was speaking figuratively in the sense of "when one is a human being to perfection the Buddha's Way accomplishes itself."

      I didn't guess that he actually had a road in heaven in store for us to bow on!

      Many people feel that cultivation itself is bitterness and suffering. Heng Ch'au and I have come to appreciate the opposite. Cultivation brings us more happiness than we have known, while as the Sutra says,

      "Of a11 the happiness in the mundane world, there is none which is not suffering."

Avatamsaka Sutra 
Ten Transferences Chapter
Part One, Opening Pages

      On San Bu Yi Bai we have learned to take for granted all the daily coping we do trying to live the life of contemplatives by the side of California's highways. Yesterday the Master gave us the chance to practice the Dharma in a pure place, an adorned Bodhimanda City! A chance to concentrate with all the "dust-fatigue" removed, a chance to bow in heaven with a single mind.

      As Heng Ch'au said, "In Pt. Mugu Air Force Base they wouldn't let us bow around their missile display, (by the gate to that base near L.A. there is a roadside memorial park with a small forest of full-sized, tactical missile on display. We bowed around it one morning until the MP's chased us away), but now we wi11 be able to bow around the Buddhas as much as we please." How wonderful!

Disciple Kuo Chen
(Heng Sure)
bows in respect

"At the place of seeking nothing, there are no worries."

P.S. As I reread my letter I really feel ashamed. My selfishness has not changed much since this trip began. My response to the Master's gift is greedy, not compassionate. What did I expect, going out to bow on the public thoroughfare--red carpets? At the first chance to escape the world I grab for it. Without a second thought for the suffering of all the beings who will never get to hear of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas I jump for joy at the prospect of abandoning the world. This is not the Bodhisattva Way.

      What was I doing at lunch yesterday? I was seeking and attaching to states. I was so nervous I couldn't even eat. I was defensive and fearful, ready to fight. I abandoned even my own inner beings, ready to deny them the food they wanted. Why? I feared losing my "high."

      I am greedy for Buddhahood. Just like anyone who seeks selfish benefit in the world I felt like I had something to protect from others. My heart was closed to giving, to kindness and compassion, all coming from my own selfish greed. I was unhappy. Heng Ch'au tried his best to relax my mind. He reminded me of Kuan Shin Yin Bodhisattva's 42 Hands and Eyes - unsurpassed expedient means for giving happiness and relieving suffering.

      He said, "shoot lotus flowers, don't shoot bullets."

      I saw then how I practice the forms of great compassion but the heart of selfless giving has not truly come to life inside. I'm really ashamed. I belong out on the road with beer bottles. If I can't concentrate out here, how will the streets of Wan Fo Cheng be different? If I haven't learned to give myself away in the heart of the suffering Saha world, a vacation in heaven will certainly only add to my selfishness. That is what my 1etter reflects.

      The Master's gatha on the cover of VBS last month instructed me in advance but my selfishness is heavy - I still have thoughts of abandoning the world.

      The big lesson yesterday: Bodhisattva's practice compassion everywhere.

      "Manifesting according to kind,
      transforming all the Gods, with
      similar work and benefits, gathering
      those with affinities./Forgetting
      self for others, truly no self.
      Vowing all beings become Worthy Sages."

      Although I've come to the foot of Wonderful Enlightenment Mtn., I still have a long way to go before I reach the genuine City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

Heng Sure
October 14, 1979
Ukiah, California

Dear Shih Fu,

      I've been really uncompassionate. The sounds of the world are the cries of suffering. Our faults are just our afflictions and pain. But I have looked at others mistakes and weaknesses as proof of my superiority. I have looked down my emperor's nose at others suffering and called it "faults and flaws."

      There is an atmosphere of kindness and compassion that surround the Ven. Abbot. After each roadside visit a little of it rubs off on us. Following each visit I am deeply aware of having witnessed true empathy, and I always feel shame at my own harshness and striving. Yesterday the Master visited and although few words were spoken I learned a great deal.

      I watched the Master rub Heng Sure's head and soothe his worried mind outside a little motel on the edge of town. I saw compassion. As I stood and watched I began to realize how hard and insensitive I have been to the person I vowed to protect and take care of on this trip.

      Everybody wants to be a Buddha. Everybody suffers. The Bodhisattva Who Regards The Sounds of the World helps everyone end suffering and become a Buddha. How? Compassion, Great Compassion. Gwan Shih Yin Bodhisattva's compassionate heart is so full and rich, a 1000 hands and eyes blossom from it to help and support living beings everywhere.

      We have heard a lot of the world's sounds over the last 2 1/2 years. And because of our greed, anger, and stupidity, even the sounds that seem like happy sounds conceal the sounds of suffering. We are unfilial and hurt each other often without knowing and so the sounds of suffering are everywhere. We hear them in angry yells, in empty whiskey and beer bottles, in hunters rifles, in rush hour horns, squealing tires of a pick-up truck, a crying child, a laughing cocktail party, passing sirens, in the smell of hamburgers at a Drive-in, a lost sheep, a nursing home, a football game, in the roar of a motorcycle and on and on. We are forever apart from those we love and can never get away from those we don't like. No one ever gets what they desire. And so all suffer. Birth, sickness, old age and death and the "blazing skandhas." It's all suffering. Until this trip I never saw this clearly before; that,

      " Of all the happiness in the world,
      there is none which is not suffering."

Avatamsaka Sutra
Ten Transferences

      So there's no happiness then? Yes, cultivating the Way is happiness. But it doesn't look like happiness. Some say it looks bitter and boring. Things are not what they seem: cultivation looks like suffering but it's sweet; worldly happiness looks sweet but is bitter and boring.

      The sound of my own suffering is my arrogance. My faults and false coverings hurt line - they are like being sick. Sick people need pity and care, not rejection and criticism. Faults are the same. They are the sounds of suffering and cries for help. Bodhisattva of Great Compassion listens to all the sounds of the world and only hears "help me! I want to be a Buddha, but I can't find my way. I hurt. Please, help me, please..."  And in every face, friendly or unfriendly, beautiful or ugly, the Bodhisattva sees the face of a future Buddha.

      This was why I came to Gold Mt. and became a Buddhist: I was deeply inspired by seeing an image of Gwan Yin Bodhisattva on a poster and reading the words,

      "A thousand eyes see all
      A thousand ears hear a11
      A thousand hands keep
      and support living beings everywhere."

But it's so easy to get lost in selfishness and forget the vision. It is so easy to get caught up in the small of "every man for himself." Today was a real lesson and reminder of what truly matters in all this noise we call the world. Seeing the Master's kindness and compassion, I realized how I had once again let the measure of my own mind shrink. It was time to unroll my heart and let it fill the Dharmarealm with kindness, compassion, joy and giving and stop fighting and picking on people in my thoughts. Non-dual means being one with everyone."

      "Disciples of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva's heart of kindness is vast and big,
      measureless and non-dual. It is without blaming, without opposing (adversaries),
      without obstacles, without troubling. It pervasively reaches all places exhausting
      the Dharmarealm and the realm of empty space throughout a11 worlds. And in this
      same way he dwells in compassion, joy and giving."

Avatamsaka Sutra
3rd Ground "Emitting Light" 
(just before verses)

October 15, 1979

      As soon as I made this resolve to be more compassionate, obstacles arose. That night I found myself dreaming of being trapped in a windy cave and suffocating in attachments and sticky relationships. I couldn't get free. Everywhere I turned my desire and selfishness sucked me deeper and deeper down through dark tunnels. I said, "I should be bowing with Heng Sure now, not running off anywhere. I don't belong in this cave." That old stifling trapped feeling and heaviness I knew so well as a layman came over me again I was smothering in my own attachments and ignorance. I started to cringe, "How could I go back to this again when I was free and happy!? No, no, I don't want to go back anymore...!" I yelled in this dream.

      Just then I was awakened from the dream by a crazy old man outside the car. We are on a deserted road near a lumber yard and vineyard behind the airport. It's 2:00 A.M. The man is looking in at me through the car window muttering nonsense and crazy talk. I shout to him half awake "What!?" He is wearing a long robe or overcoat and carrying a big wooden walking stick that reaches above his shoulders. He wanders off when I shout to him.

      Later I find myself succumbing to the same nightmare and I shout in my dream, "No, no, help me..." I hear a tapping on the window and wake up to find the old man peeking in and rapping his big cane on the window. He's saying something like, "gotta get out of here, gotta get out of here. But I don't know how to get out..."

      "Shhh..." I whisper to him. It's 3 A.M. now.

      "Yeah, okay, I'll be quiet...but how do I get out of here?" he mumbles and tapping his stick on the ground slowly walks back into the fog. I don't know who he was, but he saved me twice. Was he crazy or just compassionate?

      Bowing is the best and the hardest thing I've ever done. Best, in that it chips away at my mountain of pride, putting me close to the level ground where I belong. Worst in that my emperor (ego) hates it more than anything. When Shin Fu told us we could go on bowing inside the City of 10,000 Buddhas after we arrive, the emperor went into shock. "More bowing!? This bowing wi11 be the death of me!"

      After returning from Asia, as Heng Sure and I prepared to resume bowing near Santa Cruz I said to Shin Fu, "We are realty lucky. We get to continue our bowing journey for another year." The Master replied, "Lucky, huh? Does this really make you happy?"

      I thought I was happy, but was I? Cultivators who don't real1y know their own minds face paradoxes. You know the teachings are right and cultivating the Way the only thing worth doing, and yet, you resist doing it, oppose instructions, and wriggle out every crack. The front door is wide open but you won't run out of the burning house. I hang onto my arrogance and greed even though I can see how wrong and uncompassionate it is. Bad habits from beginningless time stick like a shadow and haunt me like a ghost. Each time I give in to the ghost I regret it. No matter where I run off to or how long, I always find myself returning to the Buddhadharma like gravity pulls all things back to earth. Becoming enlightened and accomplishing Buddhahood is our instinct. If I think about cultivation I can get immobilized with the second thoughts of my prattling mind. If I follow the path with heart and just do it, then it's wonderful beyond words. So it's said,

      "What is spoken is false.
      What is practiced is true."

      When the pilgrimage ends at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we're going to keep on bowing. Isn't that stupid!? Everybody asks us, "What are you going to do when you get there?" They all assume we can't wait to stop this crazy bowing thing and get back to "normal." If we told people we were going to bow up and down and all around the streets of Wan Fwo Chung, they would quietly freak out 1ike the emperor did.

      Not a few people have said to us on this trip, "You're nuts! Totally stupid weirdos. What's the point!?" A young man stopped his car after trying to run us off the road and just screamed, "Arrgh, yeoowooo Freaks! I can't stand it! Later he came back mellowed out to say, "At first I figured you were weird, but there's something to this, ya' know? I mean I myself would never do it, mind you, but I admire your dedication. It takes guts or something."

      The whole point of the bowing is to get rid of selfishness. All the disasters and calamities and suffering in the world come from selfishness. To truly help the world we have to die a little first. Bowing is a wonderful chance to die. If we are sincere, maybe we can bow to the vanishing point. "Hooray" says the monk. "Phooey!" spits the emperor. "Tricked again." Sometimes I think a good knowing advisor is one who can trick you into getting free.

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