Why Was He Bald at Four?

by Bhiksu Heng Ching

The stoney and barren soil of New England has long given a disproportionate number of her sons to the intellectual and religious foundations of the United States. This tradition, although it has not been cut off, has changed considerably with the times and continues in the person of Dharma Master Heng Kuan, a founder of American Buddhism. Born during the middle of the second war, at a time when the very existence of western civilization was in question, and growing up in an age which has seen the greatest cultural and scientific revolutions, Dharma Master Heng Kuan began to grapple with fundamental questions of man's personal responsibilities, social conscience, and the nature of his existence at an early age. At the age of four he set a startling precedent by shaving his head totally bare against his parents' protests. When asked why he replied, "I had to."

This independent streak which became apparent in the great headshaving did not disappear as this young man grew up. A brief illustration will suffice; when he received a rifle from his father at the age of thirteen, he quickly went out and lay in wait in a thicket and shot a pheasant. Deep remorse soon led him to understand the importance of not harming any living beings, and he resolved to not kill again.

When he graduated from high school, he had already proved himself on the playing fields as captain of several sports, and had been the president of the student government and the local chapter of the nations honor society. He went on to study at Harvard and graduated with honors in English literature. During this time he wrote for a drama review, joined a group dedicated to classical choral music, and participated in other similar activities. It was not by accident, however, that his thesis was titled; "Illusory Life-Death Cycles in Eugene O'Neill's Plays".

Shortly after graduation he accepted a commission in the Navy and, about half a year later he married and set out to find "the good life". In 1966 he was of a subsistence support center which provided food for Americans on Taiwan. In this capacity he supervised about 200 Chinese and Americans, and was made responsible for the entire operation.

In spite of apparent worldly success and the more pleasant states of being offered by the Far East, he never forgot the thoughts of his youth and the kind of regret caused by activities such as his only hunting experience. His presence in the Navy greatly disturbed him, and he finally realized that life was a rare opportunity, that there could be greater and greater expansion of knowledge, and that he was going to die. Consequently, Dharma Master Heng Kuan began to investigate Buddhism while in Taiwan, visiting and living in temples and spending as much free time as possible traveling in the countryside and meditating in the mountains.

In 1967 he met R.B. Epstein, Upasaka I Kuo Jung, a fellow Harvard graduate and currently the president of the Vajra Bodhi Sea publication society. I Kuo Jung, who was on a spiritual oddessy of his own (Vajra Bodhi Sea #l) told Heng Kuan about the Elder Dharma Master Hsuan Hua in such enthusiastic terms that Heng Kuan immediately vowed to study with him. There still remained many changes to be undergone, not the least of which was the beginning of the ascetic practices for which he would later become known.

      In February 1968, he attended the New Year meditation session at a remote mountain temple, and soon realized that the solutions to the vexing questions about human life lay in that direction rather than in the more shallow and often dangerous and illegal activities being pursued by many of his contemporaries. He also realized that all the sufferings and contradictions of human existence, and human existence itself, are self-inflicted, all present effects from past causes. After this week he stopped taking any strong stimulants and began eating only twice a day, using his noon hour to meditate. He meditated several hours every day, and was soon promoted to full Lieutenant.

He continued these practices, and in the fall of 1968 began to have very strong thoughts about becoming a disciple of the Master Hsuan Hua, even though he had never met the Master. About this time he began to abstain from all flesh food and became a vegetarian.

Returning to the United Stated in February 1969 for the first time in three years, he went immediately to the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco, and became disciple of the Master Hsuan Hua within four days of his arrival. He took ten days leave to study with the Master, and then returned to New England to visit with his parents.

Soon Heng Kuan took up new duties at the submarine base in New London, Connecticut. He set up an altar in his room in the Officers Quarters and meditated daily; during this time he continued his practice of eating only two meals a day, both vegetarian. He obtained a fortuitous release from active duty with the Navy in July 1969, and took the opportunity to attend the Sixth Patriarch Sutra Study and Meditation Session at the Buddhist Lecture Hall. Among other things, this resulted in his making a permanent move to San Francisco in order to sit beneath the platform and study with the Master. Because of his good roots, throughout this time Dharma Master Heng Kuan was able to keep free of the destructive element of the war machine.

Heng Kuan was soon very involved in the work of cultivation, and made the Bodhisattva's vows, not to cease his cultivation until all beings attain enlightenment. It was at this time that he first began to consider entering on the Bhiksu's path in order to complete this vow. A careful inventory of past Causes and their resultant effects, considering all aspects of his life, always led him to the conclusion that this was the most certain way to understanding and freedom from suffering, for both himself and others.  Shortly thereafter he arranged a divorce with his wife, who is also a faithful disciple of the Elder Master, and they parted friends.

In September 1970 the future Dharma Master received a Mirrielees Fellowship in poetry to write at Stanford for two years. This work will lead to a Masters degree. In spite of a heavy schedule, he has been largely responsible for the success of the Sino-American Buddhist Association's journal of Buddhist studies, Vajra Bodhi Sea, of which he is editor-in-chief. In this capacity he not only does much of the work himself, but also finds time to serve as an active member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society and the finance committee of the Sino-American Buddhist Association. In addition to this work Dharma Master Heng Kuan Kuan is a vigorous cultivator of ascetic practices who eats only once a day and never lies down.

Dharma Master Heng Kuan is one who knows many of the pitfalls on the path of cultivation, for he has fallen into them, delaying the fulfillment and endangering the substance of his vows. The success of his future travels remains to be seen. His study and practice are the result of basic understandings about the nature of human life, and have culminated in his decision to leave home and cultivate the Buddhadharma, thereby satisfying his concern for the questions of life which have stayed with him since his youth. In September 1971 the Elder Dharma Master Hsuan Hua gave him permission to leave home and shaved his head. In November of the same year Dharma Master Heng Kuan accompanied Dharma Masters Heng Shoou, Heng Pai, and Heng Ch’ao to Tse Shan Temple in Taichung, Republic of China to receive the complete precepts of the Bhiksu.

Dharma Master Heng Kuan, after returning from Taiwan where he received the complete precepts at Tse Shan Temple, continues his cultivation at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, where he is currently serving as Guest Perfect and attending the Great Avatamsaka Sutra Assembly.

Open your Eyes!

      Sakyamuni Buddha’s Birthday will be celebrated on May 20th, 1972, at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, 1731 15th Street in San Francisco. This day will also commemorate the formal opening of Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, the largest Buddhist Monastery to open in the West. The Sino-American Buddhist Association cordially invites the public to join the celebrations to honor the Buddha and to open this Mahayana Bodhimandala, as well as to join us in a vegetarian feast in honor of the occasion.

      Opening ceremonies will begin at 10:00 on the 20th of May. After a Great Meal Offering at 10:30 there will be a vegetarian feast at 11:00. At noon, the Buddha Bathing ceremony will begin, with an opportunity for everyone present to bathe the Buddha and cleanse his self-nature.

      In the evening, at 6:30 PM the Buddha’s Birthday celebration will begin with Bathing the Buddha, followed by talks from major Buddhist figures in the Bay Area.

      We hope that you will be able to attend; you are welcome to all of these events.