“If you have no obstacles in your own mind, then outer obstacles will not hinder you or cause you to worry”
– Master Hsuan Hua
Two Buddhist Monks, Jin Wei Shi
, and Jin Chaun Shi anchored weekly bowing sessions
to dedicate merits to all beings during the global Covid crisis. In the final session, last week, we had a special guest Rev Heng Sure
who along with Marty, former Heng Ch'au, bowed in peace, and for peace, touching their foreheads to the ground across 800 miles across. Below is an excerpt from the call.
I really recommend that people bow outdoors. Sometimes, if you live on the twelfth floor of a high rise or live in a concrete jungle, it is hard to find grass. But if you can find even a patch of grass to bow on, what it does is it puts you much closer to all the other living beings with whom we share this planet. No doubt, no doubt.
Bowing puts us closer to the ground, and it puts head and heart on the same level so that the blood circulates. It washes away all of those artificial boundaries of thought that keep us separated from each other and the planet and from all living beings.
One of our great discoveries that I and Marty had was that probably the creatures that will inherit the earth once humans are done are the beetles, the shelled creatures because there are so many varieties of them, and are indestructible. They also do a very good job of cleaning up everything that needs cleaning up.
When you bow down, you take one square meter, one square inch centimeter of the land, of the soil. And you see the thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of creatures that inhabit every square centimeter. You realize that there are no boundaries between them and us and, indeed, once we leave this body, we become them.
So now that we have had this experience of bowing together, led by the Bhikshu's at Berkeley Buddhist monastery, we have a sense of that serenity and connection and refreshing and renewing that happens as we bow that we do not want to stop now. So how do we keep that feeling of connection and renewal going once these bowing sessions are done?
I want to suggest that the place where we pay our attention is the mind. The Buddha described it as, in Chinese, we say hsin-ti
, the mind ground, the ground of the mind. Think of the ground like a garden, and gardening requires skill. You have to get out there to cultivate a piece of land and turn what was fallow land into something fertile so it can grow. The work is in the mind, the mind is like the garden. When it is weeded, planted, watered, and intended, you get sprouts of awakening, sprouts of compassion, you head for an enlightenment harvest right.
If you let the mind go, let it go in its own way, that is fine. There is no judgment. But what happens is before long, it is choked with weeds and then dust, and then you have trashy berry vines to grow up full of thorns and do not yield any fruit. Hawks rule it from the sky, and rats rule it from the ground. And what was a tranquil fertile garden becomes a battle zone for affliction and trouble.
So how do we do it, and what do we do?
The Buddha gave us the precepts but the Buddha does not own them. They are the basic, fundamental rules of being a human, and you cannot win the struggle to subdue the mind with force
. You transform selfishness into selflessness
. You transform self-benefit into sharing and benefiting others
. You win through patience and virtue, not through force
when you are turning fallow land into a garden.
So five precepts are the foundation of being a human, cherishing life instead of killing, cherishing material and ownership, instead of stealing, cherishing vows and promises, instead of adultery or promiscuity. Cherishing integrity, instead of dishonesty and then cherishing wisdom instead of intoxication
. And as monks, we have this list of precepts that we follow. We are extensive gardeners of that mind ground and there is one set called the Bodhisattva precepts that laypeople can take but monks and nuns take ten major and forty-eight subsidiaries Bodhisattva precepts.
Interestingly, it is a lot about diet, and there is one that people talk about - why do you not eat onions and garlic. They say, what is the deal with onions and garlic, don't you like Italian people and French people. Why are you so uptight about it? Then, of course, anybody who eats sattvic
food from an Indian perspective knows about onions and garlic and the pungent plants; they are tamsik
, they go down instead of sattva
, which goes up. So Tibetan, Nepali, and Indian friends know about the value of the sattvic
But what is not known so much is that if you hold those Bodhisattva precepts, there are benefits and invisible benefits, if you garden the mind-ground at that level. They say, if you take those precepts, there are precepts protecting spirits that want to keep you going. There are protectors, Dharma protectors, and whether or not you believe in such things. You do not have to decide now, you can suspend belief, but I will just share my experience.
Story: While Marty and I were bowing, we went through a place in central California called Vandenberg village, right outside the Vandenberg air force base, the ICBM base to protect Los Angeles. This place had many return vets and families of the pilots living here. So we were sitting, it was raining that day, and we were in our car having lunch. Because we were in central California, there were no offerings from LA or San Francisco. So lunch consisted of peanut butter, raisins, crackers, and some boiled road greens that we gathered from the side of the road.
We ate once a day, following our precepts. So this car pulls up and, this lady hops right out, and she says, 'hey, what can I get you, monks, to eat? How about a pizza. Wouldn't that be good as today it is cold and wet?'.
And before we left home, of course, pizza was everybody's favourite. But after we took the precepts, pretty much that's it for pizza because they don't come without onions and garlic, right? So we thought now there's lots of other clean food on the planet, sattvic food, so we rather go hungry than say goodbye to our precepts and our protectors. But I have to say that was the thought like we were cold and wet and had to bow for another half of the day, and we wanted some more hot fuel.
So Marty, who was speaking, said, "That's really generous of you thanks, we don't eat garlic or onions; most pizzas are loaded with them. And the lady says, 'oh no problem, no problem, I will tell him to take that stuff out, I will be right back.'
And Marty says yeah, but the tomato sauce usually has garlic in it, and if it does, we can't eat it. Okay okay, I understand, be right back, says the lady and jumps in her station wagon and zooms off into Vandenberg village. So we sat down, cold lunch; why bother cooking? You don't cook peanut butter. We thought no way she's going to find a garlic-less pizza. Well, you never know, you never know.
So minutes later, she returns and says, here you go, good luck, oh and, by the way, the man said there's only a little bit of garlic in the sauce, no worries, enjoy. And we are like, ah huh. So we got the box, a big one like a large pizza box, you know hot fragrant, and we lift the lid, and this wave of garlic comes rolling out, oh man. I looked at him; he looks at me, gives a sigh, closes the lid, puts it on top of the car, and try to give it away to somebody if we can. We go back to the boiled road greens and peanut butter and raisins.
So time to wash up after lunch, say our gratitude verse; they who practice making offerings will certainly obtain their reward. Those who take delight in giving will later surely find peace and happiness.
I start my bowing, put my pack on, and because the highway is really busy there, we had to bow by the car and count our bows. And I noticed right then that there was this sudden negative energy blowing up. Marty was over with washing the pot, and there was this cloud that goes rolling up, and this man comes walking right towards us. He looks like he might have been 40 years old, a veteran. He had on a military windbreaker with a patch from his unit.
The sad part was his eyes were white, and he was mumbling to himself; he was crazy, and his eyes were unfocused. He talked to himself in a slow voice, saying, the marines don't leave anybody behind, we know we'll see how it hurts, someone will get right.
And I am like oh, all my meters were going ding ding ding ding, this person is unbalanced, and he's coming faster and faster towards us. I know that the Dharma protector Marty, his defences are moving into high gear. Both of us started to recite the great compassion mantra, Guan Yin Bodhisattva mantra, and we thought, well, here's our chance to test out whether those Dharma protectors are real, reciting Guan Yin Bodhisattva's name.
This guy is now heading for us, and he's speeding up. He's got us on his radar, and he bangs into something ten feet from the car, and he can't move. He is rocking back and forth, he reaches in his pockets, and he is still rocking, his eyes are just big and unfocused, and he can't reach, and he bounces off and goes off to the right, passes us, mumbling to himself like he hit some sort of invisible shield.
The air cleared away, the wind blew the tension, and the sun came out, and Marty I look at him, and he looks at me, and we go back and continue bowing, he cleans up, and we're down the road.
Now, what was that all about? I don't know, but I definitely had the feeling that we were protected by something invisible. And my hunch was that if we had dived into that pizza, maybe we would have lost that protection. Keep the rules, and it works out, break the rules, and you're on your own.
Marty and I, from that time on, refer to that story as the precept pizza.
So that's how it is. If you want to grow that garden, what happens is even though we might not be bowing once a week with the monks, we have moved from the physical into the spiritual because we are holding the precepts. In that case, we are gardening with those precepts with another level of personal cultivation. And my goodness! the fruit of the mind-ground, well-cultivated with those another level of requirements of oneself is deeper compassion, deeper insight, and a deeper connection with everyone.
I have one more story that I wanted to share thinking about you all bowing every week, and if you can continue the bowing, I think that's super. Understand that this is a lifetime practice, and it matures as you bow. There's very much a sense that bowing is something most people don't want to do, humble yourself, go down at shoe level, at the insect level. What are you doing that for? Well, I just call it returning. I am returning, and I am also completing a circle somehow; something spiritual is happening when you subdue the self.
Journey Entry 1978 Marty: I want to read Marty's actual journal entry from the year 1978 while Marty and I were in the place called Big Sur - "He stood with his back and shoulders pinched against the cold gusts blowing in from the sea, hands stuffed in pants pockets, face wide open like a child's. His shining sleek new car was pulled up alongside our dull Sun-blanched wagon. The dirt and dust whipped by and swirling clouds on our highway pull off in Big Sur. I was doing lunch clean-up while Heng Sure bowed.
Shivering in a thin floral print shirt, slapping in the wind, the man stood between us, looking back and forth, hesitant, but inexorably drawn and held by something. Slowly he walked over as if he were tiptoeing late into a church. Excuse me, I don't mean to disturb your practice but would it be possible, just to ask who you are and what you are doing, he asked. He said his name was Riley.
I began explaining the pilgrimage, and when I said that we were Buddhist, he interrupted me, full of excitement as if a dam had broken inside. Buddhists! Buddhists! Buddha! oh wow! he exclaimed.
Unable to control his emotions clearly. Listen, I was in prison for five years, and I read a book called Zen flesh Zen bones. It was full of parables, and they really talked to me deep inside. It got me through those five years. It was the best friend I ever had. I read it over and over, day after day said, Riley.
He says, but you are Americans, you are Caucasians. I said that Buddhism doesn't have one country or people. Or one colour or one language, or one race, Riley added. He was African American. It's in the heart; it's in mind, right? That's right, and the Dharma belongs to everyone, I said. Riley threw up his hands, and his voice went into, oh! oh! he said then, you know that book he asked, his voice quivering with enthusiasm, tears coming to his eyes. I said sure, I read it in college.
Riley broke into tears, and he wanted to hug me right there on the Big Sur tunnel. So I was speeding on my way down to LA and this Cadillac, and I saw you bowing and listen I have seen Christians, I have seen Krishna, I have seen Muslims, I have seen Jews, I have seen some that no one's ever heard of, but I have never seen anything like this, he said. What I read in that book it's true, and here you are. I can't tell you what this means to me; you have no idea. The tears rolling down his cheeks again, it belongs to everyone, and it's everywhere, he kept saying with a face full of joy and light.
Through the suffering of five years in prison and disappointment, years of searching afterwards, Riley never abandoned his faith. He heard the Dharma like it was, and he knew that wisdom was not apart from his own heart. He knew that real wisdom wasn't just for Asians or Indians or the religion of people who live in central. He knew that real wisdom could be opened up within his own mind. Real Dharma isn't confined to books or temples or even to this world. He knew that he himself could become wise and compassionate, but he never dared express this faith of stream. He carried hidden in his heart like this little book, the parables that he kept in a cell in jail. So when he saw two Buddhist monks bowing right before his eyes on California state highway one in the 20th century, something he couldn't find words for. His eyes were big and bright as crystal platters; 'you have no idea what this means to me, no idea, he said while holding my hand, smiling and crying', he said.
So that's the story of Riley, and I might suggest to all of you that if you all continue bowing, you might step right into the role of the monks that we serve for Riley, which is to say, pointing away back to something that is ageless but totally current. Not that you want to do that, you don't think about it. I hope somebody sees me bowing and gets but sometimes just that connection is right on time. And, as we bow, we start tending the mind ground and growing those sprouts and flowers and fruits of the awakening of Boddhi, then our time has been really well spent.