WITH ONE HEART BOWING TO THE CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS LETTERS TO THE VENERABLE MASTER
From Bhiksu Heng Sure and Sramanera Heng Ch’au
Labor Day Weekend
Dear Shih Fu, Venerable One, we remember the verse:
"Don't be pleased if gods, dragons, & Bodhisattvas come,
Don't be angry if demons and externalists come."
Some days it's hard not to feel overjoyed. I feel full of happiness today--I can barely contain it. It's a feeling like the Buddha's birthday, the Master's birthday, and Ullambana all rolled into one surprise gift--a visit out of empty space by the Venerable Abbot and fourteen Gold Mountain cultivators and friends.
What was the occasion? Just another exercise of the Bodhisattva practice of forgetting oneself for the sake of others. Where else in the world are there people like these who got up at four a.m. and drove 350 miles south from San Francisco to Santa Barbara just to bring lunch and support and encouragement to two members of the family on an extended work leave? Inconceivable! How did they ever find us--half-hidden in the shade off a lonely highway outside Santa Barbara? How did Heng Ch'au and I both know that something special was coming that day? This morning he said, "Let's stay out and visible today." Why did I clear a sitting area under a certain eucalyptus tree hours before they arrived--the same tree we all sat beneath? How did three cars speeding along, dodging tickets and asking the way from passers-by, manage to arrive at the same time--just before lunch hour? Only through the power of the Master could the small miracle we saw today come about. We all witnessed a feat of spiritual engineering, the kind of thing that happens all the time at Gold Mountain.
Seated in the van as usual at lunchtime, we had recited the offering praise and had dished out a bowl of rice. Before I could eat the first spoonful I saw Heng Ch'au's eyes pop open and heard his voice squeak, "Shih Fu!" I thought to myself, "Impossible, no, but wait, you've learned to appreciate the impossible!" "Shih Fu!" he said again and I turned to see the Venerable Abbot dressed in blazing golden robes walking through the pools of sunlight to our car.
There they all came walking—three cars full of people aglow with Inner Light, monks, nuns, novices, and lay-people. I wanted to give a gift to everyone—they looked closer than blood relatives, hard-working, well-comported heroes and heroines of the Way: such a rare and wonderful assembly of people!
We all sat for lunch and listened to stories and instructions. We laughed and shared food and offerings with our Dharma friends, then up and away the assembly went on the long ride back to the city. They just came down to give us light. Wonder of wonders. I felt made of wood--stunned. I wanted to give thanks, to acknowledge the work and the kindness of everyone—I had to let my heart and my eyes speak for me.
Sitting next to the Venerable Abbot is like sitting in a cool, clear pool of liquid light. No thought bothers your head (whose head?) The Great Compassion Mantra seems to recite itself--just as regularly and as normally as your heartbeats. Perceptions are clear, sharp, and relaxed. No worries exist, no pressures. Even if I'm being taught or scolded it feels like sweet dew on my head. I'm sure that sitting in the Buddha's Dharma Assembly is much like this.
Then, inconceivably, the Master rubs my head, then Heng Ch'au's head and I feel energy moving through my center and to my toes and back again, "Is it ripe yet? Is it ripe? Is this melon ripe yet?" he asks, laughing, as he thunks our foreheads with his fingertip.
Bowing on later that afternoon, as if on air, we looked up to find a mammoth white cloud, the only cloud in a bright blue sky, as big as the Sierra Madres below, moving Northwest and shaped exactly, perfectly like a dragon in full flight. Every detail was there: tail, ears, claws, and as the afternoon turned to evening, the dragon moved further north. We felt that he was hovering over the caravan of cultivators on the road back to Gold Mountain. Glad you're on the job, brother dragon.
So there are days when it is difficult not to feel overjoyed, and Labor Day 1977 will live in our memories as long as the tall eucalyptus stands, the "White Flower Tree" that shaded our lunch along the Flower Garland Highway. To be part of a Bodhisattva clan whose lives are dedicated to making others happy with no thought of sparing themselves, this is truly a life worth living.
Disciple Kuo Chen (Heng Sure) bows in respect.
Sunday while bowing I saw everyone at Gold Mountain having a chance to do their own bowing once every three steps. Lay people and left-home people, we all got to pursue to the "limits of empty space" our own particular Dharma. Each person's face and presence was glowing and serene. So happy the faces! No face showed any concerns or doubts, just smooth, genuine lit-up joy. It was really neat! Each person was different but all were reflecting the same purity and trueness. There was a closeness felt; a big family of Dharma friends shining on each other. And then Monday who drives up? I wanted to hug everybody and give something. A few tears dropped into my noodles as I looked around at all the faces and goodness sharing and shining under some Eucalyptus trees that minutes before were just another stopping place for us. Bhiksuni Heng Yin stretched up on tiptoes to carve and commemorate the occasion on a huge Eucalyptus tree with a Swiss army knife as a visitor named Malcolm sitting with an untouched plate of food in his lap stared incredulously. He had brought out a melon to share with two monks in a quiet lunch and then everyone drove up. The Master gestured for him to join in with irresistible and inclusive kindness. I felt a bit like Malcolm.
As fast as you came, you left. "No big deal" said the Master. The dragon cloud hung in the sky for hours and the joy and light you brought to our hearts and work will see us through, many bowing miles.
But something more incredible happened. The Master knew the exact section of the Sixth Patriarch Sutra we had read that very morning. His comments and allusions to it were right on the nose! Not only that but the Master also knew my deepest thoughts and troubles of the last few days. I hadn't told anyone, not even Heng Sure. "So how did I know?" the Master asked. And the same for Heng Sure. After everyone left, he was like ten years old again, smiling and ready to tackle the Labor Day highway. "Together we will go..." Much peace in the Way.
Disciple Kuo Ting (Heng Ch’au) bows in respect.
under the eucalyptus tree from left to right: The Venerable Master Hua, Bhikshu
Heng Sure, and Shramanera Heng Ch'au, flanked on either side by members of the
Four Assemblies from Gold Mountain Temple in San Francisco, all down to Santa
Barbara to spend Labor Day lunch with the two pilgrims bowing once each third
step from Gold Wheel Temple in Los Angeles to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
near Ukiah, California.
Sometimes the practice of the Bodhisattva path is very clear and "conceivable." We're perched on a sandy field of scrub oak and dry, dry grass. The Lompoc Federal prison is over the hills to the West and Vandenberg Air Force Base lies to the North. A more cheerless, bleak November landscape is hard to imagine. The bowing is over for the day and the wind, which has been whipping the hilltops since noon now has some real teeth in it. I've lit the oil lamp to write these lines that occurred to me as the sun fell, red and windswept, just moments ago.
"The Bodhisattvas' work is never done; there is no 9 to 5 day. in the job of cultivation. There is no Monday to Friday week, no retirement with bonus at age 65. The Avatamsaka Sutra tells us that living beings have no end, they are infinite and boundless, yet the Bodhisattva has vowed to save them all. Therefore his work does not end. Is the Bodhisattva a masochist? No. He saves himself, too, and by cultivating the Proper Dharma path to salvation, he gains wisdom and compassion and expedient power. This wisdom allows him to get involved in the gritty, muddy middle of everyday life in the mundane world and work to save others right where they live and suffer most. However, the wisdom has broken all the Bodhisattva's attachments to his self. He no longer has desires and views so his work for others gives him more happiness and satisfaction than a lifetime of leisure vacations and selfish, pleasure pursuits. The Bodhisattva rests in his work and: works while he rests. Life is: work and work is bliss—-a truly wonderful state of mind."
Just as I wrote the last line out of the darkness came a knock on the car window and a tight voice said, "Uh, hey, we're stuck in the sand, can you give us a tow?" Heng Ch'au did not hesitate, but stepped outside, looked at the two unhappy bearded men and said, "Sure, be right there." We repacked our gear that was secured for the evening and drove through the ruts and flying sand to help extract a pickup truck and put it back on the road. Holding the Great Compassion Mantra is automatic whenever we aren't bowing or reciting ceremonies. Its strength lifted the truck out with ease, our two-tone Plymouth dragon providing solid muscle as well, and the relief on the faces of the two men was profound as we walked through the headlights back to the car.
"Thanks, you guys, a real lifesaver."
"No problem," relied Heng Ch'au.
A small matter and easily accomplished, but it added real cheer and light to this desolate fringe of central California coast.
At other times the events that occur in the practice of the Way are truly inconceivable. We see so little of what is really going on in the world behind the facade of senses and forms and matter. We just piece together bits and echoes and work hard on the Dharmas of the Path. Bowing along on a Friday afternoon I suddenly sensed the Venerable Abbot's presence right in my heart. He sat in full lotus, reciting a mantra, apparently, and this image calmed my mind profoundly. Suddenly fifty yards ahead I heard the sounds of screeching tires and a huge cloud of dust billowed up, and then no further noise. Heng Ch'au later described the scene: apparently a driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran off the road. His car climbed six feet up a sharp embankment then turned, still speeding along, and zoomed straight down towards two cars and a truck that filled the lanes below. Somehow, unbelievably, the car slipped in between a van and a truck, missing both by a hair and continued on down the road, leaving several ashen-faced drivers badly shaken and happy to be alive. Had the cars collided we would have been right in the middle of the scene--King Yama would have had a busy day receiving new souls from Highway 1. As it turned out, the Master's image faded from my mind moments later. What is really going on here? and what is the scope of the power involved? Saving all these lives from four hundred miles away, invisibly, without expecting a thank you or any recognition at all for his effort? I have no doubts that it was the Venerable Abbot's presence manifesting in the nick of time that prevented the collision on the road. Prove it? There's no other way to explain how the falling car shoehorned its way back on the road. How many times have things like this happened in the lives of disciples: narrow escapes from certain death, when Kuan Shih Yin Bodhisattva appeared before them at the critical moment and the disappeared again after all was safe?
I am just happy that I was permitted to host the Master in my heart for that brief time. I am working to make my heart a pure place, fit for the presence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and sages and in this practice I've found myself returning to the basics. For instance the first thing a new Buddhist learns is how to put his palms together in respect. The joined palms is a mudra which signifies singleness of thought. As the work is all on the mind-ground, singleness of thought is most important. I noticed that my joined palms mudra was rather sloppy with gaps in my fingers and thumbs. Standing next to the Master last week at Gold Wheel Temple before he spoke Dharma, I watched him bow to the Buddhas and was deeply moved. When the Master joins his palms there is a totality about it--a perfection and a peace that can only come from a peaceful, singleness of mind. I tried my new improved palms together in my bowing and the mindfulness to the external form did quiet my mind inside. The false thoughts were easier to subdue when my palms were fully joined without gaps or leaks. Back to basics.
Witnessing the Master's bowing is a humbling experience, a good medicine for arrogant bowing monks and a model for people and gods. His bowing is a completely magical transformation: when the Master bows he disappears. His total lack of ego is revealed as he seems to become one with the Buddhas he bows to. I don't know what the Master's state is when he bows or at any other time for that matter, but something very pure and special happens when he bows before the Buddhas. There is just bowing. To witness it feels as if there is no bower and no one bowed to, it is simple and profound reverence; it is wonderful to watch. So back on the road I am trying hard to learn to bow all over again, from the beginning. Lower the ego to the ground as far as you can, with heart fixed on the Eternally Dwelling Triple Jewel, and then rise up and put your palms together with a single mind on the way to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas..
Disciple Kuo Chen (Heng Sure)
I am in Lompoc at a gas station waiting for the car. Open, empty country is ahead with no towns and few gas stations for "bowing miles." So I am in town getting supplies and needed repairs for the weeks ahead. Heng Sure is bowing in an isolated field-plateau in the hills overlooking the Federal Prison on the fringe of Vandenberg Air Force Base. This is where we camped last night. The mechanics have advice and humor on the roads ahead and wish us luck.
Shihfu, it's funny, but lately on this pilgrimage I am finding it more and more natural and honest to be quiet. It isn't that there are no thoughts or feeling. I am happy and full, but not of conversation words. So it is difficult to write because this is a new and unfamiliar place. The words of the Sutras, especially the Avatamsaka, are what I like best to hear and repeat. They echo in our hearts all day and are part of this quietness. Other noises and sounds come and go but the sounds of the Sutras stay, speaking directly to our experience and circumstances. The sounds of the Sutras are natural and blend with the stillness of the wind and trees.
There is a subtle, peaceful merging of these principles and our minds. As we read to each other from the Sutras our faces and eyes light saying, "Hey! Yeah! That's it. That's the way it is!" heads nodding, faces smiling in agreement. It often feels as if we have another person with us--a wise and infallible friend who understands our deepest thoughts and feelings—the Avatamsaka Sutra. What we experience, the Sutra explains; what the Sutra explains, we experience. When we get to a place in cultivation neither of us has been before, invariably in the evening the Sutra glows, explaining and expounding on that state. Inconceivable! And there is so much to enter and explore!
As we bowed through the small town of Vandenberg Village around sunset Tuesday, a crowd of some 30 people gathered around--watching, discussing, wondering. A little old man stepped out of his house, respectfully walked up and made an offering. With a kind smile and a gesture with his arm to the north he said without words, "Hope this helps you on your way. Keep going. Good luck." Suddenly the crowd that had quietly watched this dispersed and in a matter of minutes came streaming back laden with money and food offerings. Old people and young, little kids and grandparents, all smiling, giving and wishing us well.
Driving back from the gas station I found Heng Sure smiling and full of light and peace, bowing in a windblown empty field of Highway 520. As we quietly sat inside the old Plymouth eating a lunch of bread, fruit, nuts, and vegetables, I realized we had bowed ourselves into another world--a crystal, pure, and happy place--and we were only beginning. My mind went to Gold Mountain and shortly the Master and entire community, face after face, manifested, squeezed together in the car, all happy, all leaving the Saha dust together. This was home: the eternally dwelling Triple Jewel without a place or limit.
Someday every face we have seen while bowing once every three steps—the police, the kids, mechanics, deer, ants, the old people and prostitutes, reporters, wind, rocks, and clouds--will be one face. All will return and rely on the eternally dwelling Triple Jewel within our true self-nature. All living beings have the Buddha-nature. All will become Buddhas." A very happy day, today.
A woman runs across four lanes of high-speed freeway traffic, slips and slides down a steep embankment to offer homemade cookies and $5--full of smiles all the way. much peace in the Way,
Disciple Kuo T'ing (Heng Ch'au) bows in respect.
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