THREE STEPS, ONE BOW: LETTERS
Bhiksu Heng Sure and Sramanera Heng Ch’au write to the Venerable Master Hua, telling of their experiences on their pilgrimage from Gold Wheel Temple in Los Angeles to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Mendocino County, California. They are bowing once every three steps to pray for the eradication of disasters and accidents in the world.
Dear Shih Fu,
We continue to bow about one and a half miles a day, averaging five hours of bowing and one and a half-hours of 20-minute rest periods in between each hour. We rise at 4:00 for morning recitation and finish by 6:00 PM to wash up and recite evening recitation as always. The day also includes a tai chi ch'uan lesson from Kuo T'ing (Heng Ch'au) in the morning and a short reading and translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra at night before we recite the first lines of the Surangama Mantra 49 times and then pass out. We are living in one of the upasaka's old Falcon van, sleeping out on the streets of L.A. and washing in the park. Our lunch comes from several Dharma protecting upasikas. The upasakas and upasikas are watching over us with some care. They are really working to make our trip go smoothly—getting letters from the police, giving us coins for parking meters, etc. The other morning when it rained we bowed in one of their garages and ate lunch there. It seemed like a cave in the heavens and then when we descended down into Lincoln Heights, a tough Chicano ghetto, it seemed like we were walking through the hells. Bhiksus must be the freest men on earth or in any world to be able to know both heaven and hell and not be bound to either realm.
That day we reached the front of Lincoln High School just as classes finished. We were immediately surrounded by forty or fifty jeering, shouting, swearing Chicano rowdies. When they saw their words couldn't move us, they started to laugh and before long they began to bow along behind us, until we had fourteen boys in line bowing to the Avatamsaka Sutra... They all grew more respectful after about six bows—the toughest ones couldn't keep it up—and they went away, silent and sober. No more trouble that day. That neighborhood is like a foreign land. Many people speak no English but they are for the most part kind, family-loving, decent people.
The next day at 10:00 I had the sudden awareness that somewhere the demon armies were working up another test for us, a challenge that would, appear-before long. Friday morning as we neared the end of Lincoln Heights at 10:15 I sensed something up ahead one block but as I have taken my glasses off and have glued my eyes to my nose for the rest of the journey, I don't see many details of the road ahead. Heng Ch'au told me later that what he saw at the same time that I smelled trouble was a gang of five older men at a taco stand on the corner. One of them was a real demon—ugly, with a misshapen body like a pear. He was jumping around and pointing at us and in his hand he carried a five-foot sharpened twisted metal whip. He moved a trash can in front of our path to block the walk and he began to beat it with his whip making a great noise and denting the sides of the can, all the time pointing at us and trying to provoke his buddies into a similar rage. Heng Ch'au says he was a genuine, big-league baddie, beyond the reach of reason or words. As I bowed along I didn't see any of this, but suddenly I had the strong feeling that ten feet in front of me was a magnificent white elephant. I don't know for certain who was riding it, but it had a wonderfully good, powerful presence. To my right I sensed a host of fearsome Dharma-protecting generals much like Chieh Lan Bodhisattva and I saw the faces of Shakyamuni Buddha and Kuan Yin Bodhisattva very clearly. I did not actually see the elephant or the generals. I sensed their presence. I was aware of the six tusks and the kind eyes of the elephant and the long mustaches and tall spears of the protectors to my right. I had a great feeling of calmness and light.
Heng Ch'au says that as I bowed right into the middle of the group at the taco stand, the demon leader suddenly went out like a light. He suddenly lost his energy and he grew very obedient, like a small child. The others sat motionless at their tables as I bowed around the garbage can, right below their feet and walked on across the street to bow on the other side. A young, clean man stepped out of his doorway and asked politely, "Can you tell me about your religion, please? I'm very impressed by what you are doing..." and Heng Ch'au told him briefly what the trip was for. He explained quite well.
I don't say for certain that Samantabhadra Bodhisattva was there leading the Avatamsaka Sutra through the streets of Los Angeles but it certainly felt like there were some special responses that morning.
Disciple Heng Sure
Some false thoughts and recollections: Whole group of disciples brought picnic lunches and change for the parking meters. I can't begin to fathom Chinese social rituals and protocol. In Chinatown an old couple (Mandarin) exclaimed, "Why, they're foreigners!" No, I thought, we are just bringing over the quality stuff you forgot (Buddhism). In fact, until we are all enlightened, we are all foreigners.
Heng Sure's pants are back, fixed and patched with a bright Hawaiian floral print. The long robe helps. The kids in Lincoln Heights would have eaten us up for such an inconsistency. People are skeptical, they scrutinize everything we do—from our shoelaces to where our eyes wander. No room for mistakes, indulgence.
Steering the Middle Way with offerings is hard. When we get junk, we fix it up. When we get gold, we tarnish and cover it. Think we'll dye the circus hobo pants.
Lay disciple: "Well, you'll be out of L.A. in a month."
Lay disciple: "Yea. I figure the hardest part is over (Lincoln Heights). Chinatown is a little better, and Beverly Hills, no problem."
Monk: "The hardest part is inside. It's never easy."
Lay disciples "Oh." (smile of recognition.)
Bowing: Sometimes after' countless up and down, up and down, coming and going on the cement, there is simply nothing. Sounds, conversations, hecklers, restaurant smells, cigarette butts—no problem. At times even the "me" gets lost, unimportant, blended into it all yet untouched and separate. Patience and humility coming easier bumping noses with ants in between lumps of welded chewing gum and broken bottles. It's just fine. The place to be now. Cleaning house inside out.
1) Least Buddhist of all. Not even a 33 cents offering. Animals being slaughtered openly ("fresh").
2) On main corner: We are bowing. A parade funeral replete with marching band playing "Will We Not See You Again," motorcycle cops, crowds, small local circus on the right, a big strawberry cake right in front of us on a chair, a Chinese T.V. newsman taking pictures. We bow through and under. Only a handful notice.
3) Bowing two feet from swimming fish in market window tank. Waiting to die. Both of us. Blub, blubbing with their mouths, us quietly reciting. Both watching each other in their tanks.
4) Crazy lady who has been following us cackling sneaks up behind and kicks me right in the acupuncture point in groin. Keep bowing, wondering where we met before and where we will again. Feeling sick.
5) Drive around corner and pass through an intersection to park. A few seconds later crash bang! A terrible accident. We missed it by seconds. A Chinese street gang swaggers by. What a fine way to cultivate! Much peace in the Dharma from two "foreigners."
Disciple Heng Ch'au
May 18, 8:00 AM
Dear Shih Fu Shang Ren,
We appreciate the wonderful weather that the dragons are sending Los Angeles. It's not too hot and not too cold.
We are very tired in body, but very happy in mind. Every joint, muscle, and limb is speaking its own pain dharma but this will gradually disappear as the work progresses and our bodies adjust. We fall asleep every night after the mantra, totally exhausted but the next morning wakes up at 4:00 feeling energized and ready to work again. We have increased the bowing time gradually each day: yesterday was six and three quarters hours. The problem in the city is trying to find a parking place for our Bodhimanda/Van and then walking back to the bowing site. It really eats up the rest periods.
Although we are tired, it helps keep us mindful. It is a small problem and it feels good to be working.
Yesterday we received lunch offerings from the L.A. lay disciples and each time it is a humbling experience. We have no merit and virtue of our own. We are simply borrowing the Venerable Abbot's merit to receive the treatment we get. Truly if it were not for the faith these lay people have in the Venerable Abbot, this trip would be impossible. We would have starved already, or. Been robbed and beaten each night we stop to rest.
By returning the light this way it makes clear the responsibility for us to be left-home people at all times to learn how to behave correctly with lay people, with other left-home people, with Americans, with all people. It is time for us to learn how to stand up for Buddhism on our own, to take responsibi1ity for the teaching we have received and to do it correctly.
Proper conduct is hard work, just as hard as bowing and we are happy for the chance to learn it.
Dear Shih Fu, Shang Ron,
One of the laymen is going to Gold Mountain today so this will be a quick note.
We are making slow progress-about ten city blocks per day. We are now in the center of downtown L.A. and although the buildings are large and the sidewalks are broad, we find it a tougher neighborhood than the Chicano ghetto or Chinatown. The rich white people do not want us on their sidewalks and they radiate a kind of depersonalized hatred at seeing two monks being repentant beneath their feet. A well-dressed woman in her forties stamps by, inches from our heads and fingers and shouts through clenched teeth, "Where do you think you are, Mecca? That is disgusting in the United States!" Heng Ch'au isn't talking to people who don't ask questions politely but his answer to this woman could have been, "Yes, you're right. And that's just the problem. Until it's no longer disgusting, this country is in trouble."
Sleeping at night in this city is a very tense business. We try to find spots to park our van near to the bowing site but last night we got another thief who stuck his hand in the open window. He went away quietly when we shut the window. We were awake at the time and ready to do morning recitation, but it is still an unsettling experience. Heng Ch'au tells me I woke up last night an began talking in my sleep about "waiting for the hu. (Dharma-protectors) on the corner of the block by the bank," and then he says I talked in Chinese for three minutes before going back to sleep. He thought I was awake until I switched into Chinese but I was rattling away while sound asleep. Every time he asked questions I would answer him in Chinese.
Our appetites have decreased. We are eating less and bowing more. Our pace is slow—the same speed as when we request the Sutra-lecture Dharma at Gold Mountain. This is a wonderful method of cultivation.
Disciples Heng Sure and Heng Ch'au bow in respect.