Rev. Heng Sure likes to talk. Wander into the Berkeley Buddhist
monastery where he resides as pastor, and if you're lucky enough
to find him there, he might ask you to sit down for a cup of
tea and conversation about anything from ancient Chinese Buddhist
texts to the pros and cons of the latest Macintosh operating
system. Before you know it, you've been chatting for two hours.
Actually, you've been listening while he does most of the talking.
why it's hard to believe that Sure, who grew up in a Methodist
Scots-Irish family in Ohio before converting to Buddhism while
attending graduate school at UC Berkeley in the '60s, went six
years without saying a word. He took a vow of silence in 1977
after being ordained as a Mahayana monk.
that time, Sure also began an arduous, two and a half -year
walking pilgrimage from downtown Los Angeles to the City of
Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Talamage, near Ukiah, with a fellow
monk. Along the way, he completed a full prostration, or bow
to the ground, every three steps.
talk with Sure about how he became a Buddhist and his experiences
during his long journey and about how Buddhism fits into his
in the Chinese Buddhist tradition are given a new name after
they're ordained. Often, it's designed to help them progress
along their spiritual path. What does your name mean?
Sure means "constantly real." I was in theater before I became
a monk. As an actor, the quality of your role is determined
by how well you portray the illusion. My bad habit was to
continue the illusion offstage. So the name is a reminder
to always get back to the truth, get back to what's genuine
kind of acting did you do?
was in summer stock -- Broadway musicals, mostly. I was Guy
Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," J. Pierpont Finch in "How to
Succeed in Business" and Mr. Applegate in "Damn Yankees."
quite a transition -- from musical theater to a Buddhist monastery.
How do you relate to your former life as an actor?
know, theater is theater. It was great fun. I still remember
all the songs and a lot of the librettos. But I've been a
monk now longer than I was a layman. So I think there's a
place for entertainment, but I also know there's also a time
for looking deeper.
did you discover Buddhism? I'm guessing there weren't many
Buddhists in Toledo, Ohio, where you grew up in the 1950s
and '60s, right?
key to my spiritual path, the turning point, was the Chinese
language. My mother's older sister worked in Washington, D.C.,
at the U.S. Information Agency. And her beat was Asia. She
sent me a catalog -- I was 13 years old at the time -- of
a Chinese painter's exhibit. I saw the Chinese characters
in the catalog, and something about them really caught my
eye. It was -- I don't know -- like I had seen them before.
you started learning Chinese?
I was lucky enough to study Chinese language in high school.
It was one of three programs in America at that time, I think.
And my parents, bless their hearts, said, "Go ahead -- it
will be broadening." So that was the path I followed all the
way through university. I got my master's at Berkeley in Oriental
languages. And, at that point, I met my Buddhist teacher,
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.
did you meet him?
former college roommate had come out to California and met
him at Gold Mountain Monastery, which was located in, of all
places, a converted mattress factory in the Mission District.
One day he called me up and said, "Hey, remember we used to
talk about how someday we wanted to go find a patriarch of
Buddhism?" We used to talk about meeting such a person in
the Himalayas -- maybe Rishikesh [in India,] or Indonesia.
But my friend said, "No. he's right here in San Francisco.
Come on over and meet the abbot." So I drove my Volvo across
the Bay Bridge and walked into this old building on 15th and
Valencia. And I had a very unusual experience.
the time, I had come gone through two years in my graduate
program, and the Vietnam War was raging. I was thinking, "Do
I want to be an academic? Nah, too sterile. Do I want to be
a folk singer? Nah, too risky, too dirty. Do I want to go
to Canada? Nah, that's not the right thing." All of this was
running through my head. But when I walked in the door of
the monastery and smelled the smells, felt the chill in the
air, heard the bells and saw the stillness in there, all of
that stuff racing around in my mind fell away. The doubts
and fears just drained out through my toes. And I distinctly
heard a quiet voice say, "You're back. Go to work. You're
you began studying with Master Hsuan Hua at the monastery.
What did he teach you?
was from Manchuria -- a Chinese Buddhist monk who was the
real deal, practicing dharma. It was not, you know, "We're
doing Zen because it adds to our lifestyle." He taught it
from an ethical foundation: How you were as a person was as
important as what you practiced; it was the source of what
you practiced. He taught us as much about Confucius as he
did about the Buddha. The other thing he drilled into me was
the importance of education. I'd been in school continuously
for 18 years, but I wasn't really interested in the life of
the mind. When I met Master Hsuan Hua, I could just see that
he had this love of learning. There was joy for him in watching
young people's minds encounter knowledge and growth. Pure
talk about the pilgrimage you made after becoming a bikshu,
or Buddhist monk, in 1977. Over a period of two-and-a-half
years, you and a fellow monk walked from Los Angeles up the
coast of California, doing a complete prostration every three
steps along the way. That must have been incredibly difficult.
The bowing was hard enough, but the toughest thing was being
silent. I took a vow of silence for six years [beginning with
was the most challenging part about being silent for so long?
hardest thing was being patient, watching my mind want to
talk. We're really hardwired to communicate. One of the joys
of being human is this gift of speech -- it's magic. So, when
I just bit that off and stopped talking, it didn't subside
for a long time. There was a moment when I noticed that I
hadn't been forming words for about a week. At that point,
the sutra (religious text) that I carried on my back -- it's
the sutra that I was bowing to -- came alive. It was funny
-- the words on the page became like a commentary to the world
I was seeing around me once my mind was really quiet. What
I discovered was that, strangely enough, we are wired to connect
to the outside world in really subtle and powerful ways, but
once we come inside to live under a roof, all that goes to
you couldn't speak, how did you communicate while you were
on the road?
didn't have to say much -- the other monk did all the talking.
My job was to concentrate my mind.
why did you go on the pilgrimage in the first place?
decided that if I could transform my own greed, my anger,
my delusions through walking, staying silent and doing the
prostrations, then maybe I could do something to make the
world more peaceful. I would work on the part of the unpeaceful
world that I could control, my own thoughts and words. So
the pilgrimage was for world peace, but starting with my own
mean that by controlling your own behavior, you were symbolically
promoting world peace?
was more than symbolic. You have to understand that I was
very involved with politics as a college student. I saw my
friends getting their heads broken during the Chicago police
riots at the Democratic National Convention. I was in school
when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Robert
Kennedy died. So here I was as a grad student, trying to figure
out what in the world made sense to do, how I should respond
to these events. And my thought was, "Well, the traditional
Buddhist answer is that you work from the inside. You start
from your own mind." Everything is made with the mind alone
in Buddhism -- that's one of the idioms. I thought if I could
actually understand my own confusion, then that's real. That's
not theater. It's not trying to shake my fist at the military-industrial
complex. It's not dropping out and getting stoned. It's actually
getting to the root of the problem, my own thoughts of greed
was it like out there on the road? What kinds of people did
met every kind of person you can imagine. Many showed acts
of kindness and generosity. Some were not so nice. We had
guns held to our heads three times.
held guns to your head? Were they hoping to rob you?
We were robbed half a dozen times, but not at gunpoint. Some
people just decided to cock a gun at us -- I don't know why.
Marty [the other monk] would say to them, "Hi, we're Buddhist
monks on a pilgrimage for world peace. Can we offer you some
literature?" And somehow they never pulled the trigger. But
what happened much more often was that people would spontaneously
offer to help us.
an example of that?
were going through Santa Cruz. It was early in the morning,
and as I came up from a bow, I noticed this 10-year-old girl
riding her bike toward us. She was carrying a package, and
she said, "Mister, this is my sandwich. I think you're going
to need if it you're going to go all the way down there. Here
you go." So she handed it to me. Those kinds of encounters
way outnumbered the hostility we experienced.
you ever in serious danger?
was a time around San Luis Obispo when these kids made it
their job every day after school to buzz us with their trucks.
They'd go by in a cloud of dust, and the gravel would just
cover us. It was real scary, because who knows who these kids
were? And I took it, you know, because I'm supposed to be
the bowing monk, I'm supposed to be in charge of my mind.
But after a while, like weeks, I would be thinking, "Oh, my
God, it's four o'clock. Got another hour to bow, and here
they come. One afternoon I noticed these kids pulled their
cars up, their pickup trucks, in the parking lot. So I started
reciting a mantra about compassion. But really I was thinking,
"Come on, Bodhisattva, smash them. Protect me." And suddenly
I opened my eyes, and there was the abbot, my master, Hsuan
Hua, standing in the parking lot in sandals.
was he doing there?
think he had driven down from San Francisco that day. Anyway,
he smiled at me and walked over to the pickup trucks with
the kids. He started chatting with them. They were thrilled
to have this guy who looked like a kung fu master come over
and talk to them. He gave them beads or something, and they
gave him a Coke. Afterward, I realized I had been using this
great compassion mantra like a weapon. I had seen myself as
a victim. I was not paying attention to my work as a monk.
One thing about the abbot was that his teachings always came
right on time. And he said to me that afternoon, "That's not
compassion." The next day, as I was bowing, the same kids
came by, but they were just parked there, watching. Later,
I heard one of them say, "Good luck, monk. You're still weird,
but good luck."
did you sleep while you were traveling? Did you stay in people's
we took a vow not to go indoors during those three years.
We had a '57 Plymouth station wagon that we'd sleep in at
night because it would hold our Buddha image, our sutras and
our cooking pots.
did you eat?
mostly ate wild plants, wild greens on the roadside. We got
a copy of Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" from
a high school biology teacher in Santa Barbara who was worried
we might not know the difference between, say, Queen Anne's
lace and hemlock.
were some of the main lessons from your time on the road?
learned a lot about my own mental habits. I kind of caught
on to my mind's tricks. We learn these stories about ourselves,
these perceptions that we get from our folks, from our TVs,
from our friends. And I saw the dimensions of that. I saw
the limits of my understanding of right and wrong, of self
and others. These are all things that our mind makes. They
aren't the whole of the mind. The sutras compare this to bubbles
on top of the ocean. The mind is the ocean, you know. By bowing
and being quiet, slowly, slowly, I went deeper into the ocean.
It's deep, deep water.
you ever go back into that deep water? I mean, will you ever
hit the road again?
kind of like spelunking. When you meditate, you go down into
your mind, and you put a mark wherever you stop. Then you
come back up to the surface. Eventually, you go down, and
you mark it again. I don't know if I'll ever hit the road
again, but I still meditate; I still bow. So you could say
I'm still on the pilgrimage. But it may take lifetimes --
who knows how long? -- to get to the bottom.
people criticize monastic life as a form of escape. They see
living in a monastery as a way to shut out the cares of the
world. What do you think about that?
certainly a stereotype, but I think it's false. Anybody who
has ever lived in a monastery will tell you, it's no place
to escape from the world.
the monastery, there's really nowhere to hide. There's no
TV, no magazines, no toys. There isn't a pill cabinet. You're
basically there with your mind -- that's it. Compare that
to the normal living room. The average TV is on six and a
half hours a day. Now, that's an escape. Think about the percentage
of folks who depend on psychotropic medication to get through
the day and night. How many kids now are hooked on Ritalin?
How much time do you spend shopping? People who point the
finger [at the monastic life] probably haven't spent time
with their own minds. If they did, they'd discover that you
can't escape. All that stuff in your mind is waiting for you
to pay attention to it. Once you sit down [to meditate] and
become quiet, this closet of memories, afflictions, anxieties,
hopes starts to open up. So the monastery is the last place
to go to get away from all that. There's nothing to divert
you. You've only got what you've been ignoring all this time:
the contents of your own head.
if you stay inside the monastery, and you don't go out in
the world to interact with people, then you are kind of escaping,
might say that. However, we have something called engaged
Buddhism. I'm an engaged Buddhist, and I'm out of the monastery
every day. The idea is that you find ways to apply the insights
of meditation and dharma teachings to social, economic and
mentioned something to me before about going to a soup kitchen
to feed the homeless. Is that what you mean?
But there's an interesting twist to this. Let's say you stand
in line at St. Anthony's [soup kitchen in San Francisco] and
directly hand food to 200 people. That's terrific; you've
done a good job. Then you go away and you wait until the next
time to engage some more. If, on the other hand, you sit on
a cushion in a room silently, and you make your mind free
of anger, you're also doing something good in the world. Minds
touch all the time -- your mind is in contact with your family,
your kids, your neighbors. If your mind is quiet, you're in
touch with the whole world.
do minds touch?
give you an example. Somebody who is nervous gets on the BART
train. They're really in a rage. Well, everyone around them
picks up on that immediately -- they all feel it. And when
somebody who is mellow and happy gets on that train, they
pick up on that, too. We're broadcasting and receiving states
of mind all the time. So, when you're sitting there in the
monastery, and your mind is genuinely peaceful and calm, you're
sending out that signal. You're doing the most valuable work
in the world. You're transforming consciousness. I think that's
what being an engaged Buddhist -- or Jew or Christian or Muslim
-- is all about.
everyone can devote themselves to spiritual pursuits like
a monk does. People need to earn a living, raise their families
and all the rest of it. So, what are you suggesting they do?
would say that if you can sit in your bedroom, if you can
sit in traffic, if you can sit at your cubicle, then you're
really doing something. How many workplaces do you know where
people are in despair? They're just sitting there feeling
undervalued, so frustrated that their idea got shot down or
whittled away, or they had the project of their life transformed
by some know-nothing junior executive. If we had workplaces
where people spent eight hours a day really taking care of
their minds and refusing to let themselves get anxious or
fall into despair, then that would be something. That would
be the IPO to invest in.
certainly isn't what you hear people talking about in business
magazines or on CNBC. Instead, we hear a lot about productivity,
We invest in these ventures, but we don't pay attention to
what's happening beneath the surface, to ourselves and the
world around us. The world is going bankrupt in terms of natural
resources. We're running out of oil. And we're still asking
ourselves, "What's the problem? Why are we in this mess?"
We're counting the leaves on the ends of branches and not
focusing on the root. The root is the mind. That's where the
what is the answer? Meditation?
answer is prayer. The answer is ancient technologies. We're
out there investigating new technologies, but our own fundamental
ancient technologies, we haven't investigated.
technologies are you referring to?
is a technology. So is generosity, compassion. So are tithing,
fasting and silence. Every single religious tradition has
tools that we can use. Look at the Ten Commandments. It says,
"Thou shalt not bear false witness." That's so powerful, and
yet, every day, we're out there lying to one another, you
know, to survive. We call it being smart. We call it making
a profit. But it's hurting us.
the rewards of using these "technologies," as you call them,
are not immediate. It's easy to find gratification by eating
a candy bar or turning on a sitcom, right? When you talk about
practicing compassion or generosity, that takes more time.
that's definitely true. People tend to go for the quick fix.
If we had some national leaders who addressed and valued wisdom
-- people who said, "We're not looking for the short term;
we're looking seven generations ahead" -- then it might be
easier for the rest of us to do.
anybody really talk like that?
American wisdom does; Jewish wisdom does. You know, all the
saints, the fathers, every tradition talks that way. So do
many scientists. They're telling us that we need to be concerned
about the fate of the world. Unfortunately, not enough people
are listening to them.
of the things you told me last week about your two-and-a-half-year
walking pilgrimage was that it taught you that people
can change. You encountered all sorts of folks who were initially
skeptical, even hostile, about what you were doing. But eventually
they came to appreciate you. Do you still believe that people
sure -- definitely I do. I know that people can change. I
can sense their deep thirst for goodness, for kindness. When
I'm out in the world, I really practice my principle of using
my mind as a transmitter. I want my mind to be a place of
kindness, and I can come back to that, thought after thought.
I think anybody I'm connected to feels it, and it has an impact.
It's more than wishful thinking. I see changes happening.
as you just pointed out, people aren't really listening to
the wise voices. They're not hearing what they need to hear.
What makes you think that's going to change?
I think we're at a cusp period. The global communications
network that has emerged in my lifetime has given us the ability
to be in touch with one another, to really know and care about
what people are doing in [remote] places like Afghanistan
and China. But what we've discovered about this ubiquitous
connectivity is that we don't know what to say to each other.
There's a race going on right now. There are two different
clocks running: One is the deterioration of the planet. The
other, I think, is this need to speak meaningful words. If
we can keep the planet going, there is a new generation coming
along who is ready take up that conversation.
are you talking about?
new generation that comes in the door at the monastery; these
are mostly American kids. Some are Chinese American, African
American, but they're definitely kids that were raised here.
They are kids -- we're calling them post-despair kids -- who
had alcoholic habits at age 14, drug habits when they were
age 16. They were burned out on the mall when they were, you
know, pubescent. Now they're college students who come in
the door and say, "Tell me something true." We say, "Sit down,
meditate. Let's look into Buddha dharma. Let's talk about
true principle. Let's look into what the ancients said. Let's
pick some old books up and talk about ancient technology."
And when we do that, these kids go, "I felt that. What was
that?" It goes right through the despair, right through the
that makes you hopeful?
it does. Those kids grew up with the ubiquitous connectivity
that I mentioned before. They grew up with this sense that
the world is a network. And they're going to have something
does that relate to the problems we're facing on the planet?
world is this vague, huge presence. What is the world? It's
whatever the media tells me it is. It's my globe, or it's
a telephone call, you know. I can't really deal with the world.
I can deal with my mind. I can deal with my next thought,
but the mind is a portal to the rest of the world. I'll tell
you a story. I spoke at the Vedanta Society for the Hindus,
in Olema. I was talking about filial respect, which is something
I like to talk about.
respect for one's parents?
I was talking about how we touch all of humanity with our
minds when we show respect for our parents. It's kind of like
how a tree goes down to the taproot, and that taproot touches
the groundwater, and that groundwater nourishes all plants.
And if you try to go out through the branches, there's an
infinite number of them. But if you go back to the taproot,
you find yourself, through repaying that kindness to your
parents, at once in touch with all of humanity. And so I finished
the talk, and this guy comes up -- a really neat, geeky-looking
guy -- and he says, "Can I tell you what I heard?" I say,
says, "I do computer science." I said, "Oh, good. So do I."
And he says, "You talk about your heart being the universal
door to all great compassion through your parents? Well, here's
what I think. In my world, you would call that a single-server
portal with infinite bandwidth." And I said, "Yes."
does that mean, exactly?
that portal, you touch everyone. And if your mind refuses
to be in despair, then you just hang on and, bit by bit, people
feel it. You can do that over and over again. Over time, you've
done what you need to do, and the world will be better by
that much -- thought by thought. That's why Buddhism is not
pie-in-the-sky. Buddhism is real. It's about asking yourself,
what was your last thought? Did you let it go? Or did you
bring it back? If you can do that, you've done the work of
making peace in the world, thought by thought by thought.
*** During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer
David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter,
personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing
editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include
Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
*** *** ***
Heng Sure's sutra lectures are now available through iTunes
lecture on the Avatamsaka Sutra's "Ten Practices
Chapter" every Saturday night from the Berkeley Buddhist
Monastery on Saturday nights. Our lecture staff, John and
Lucy Hall, Philip Lai, Loc Huynh and Hong Ha, have received
requests to make the audio available for download so folks
can listen to the talks later on. This is especially useful
if you happen to be in a time zone different from California's. The
audio has been available in MP3 format at Dharmaradio.org.
for online listening (streaming) or for download.
with the advent of Apple's iTunes. 6.0 , there is a new,
more convenient way to download and listen to Buddha Dharma:
the podcast. Now you can use the free Apple program iTunes
to subscribe to the lectures on your PC or Mac.
Here's how this works.
you subscribe (it's free!) using iTunes, the lectures are
automatically downloaded to your PC or Mac as the audio
files become available week after week. Then you can listen
to the lectures on the computer or play them for a group
or sync them to your iPod or copy them to a CD.
How to subscribe using iTunes:
Install iTunes 6.0 (the latest version at the moment) on
your PC or Mac.
Click Music Store, Podcasts, Religion & Spirituality,
See "Berkeley Buddhist Monastery",
Please note that these files tend to be large, about 25
MegaBytes. They will download in a reasonable amount of time
with a fast Internet connection (about 25 minutes), but will
take a long time to download using a 56k modem connection.
But it is possible.
As the weekly lectures become available, they automatically
download to your computer without any further action on your
part. The audio files will usually be available several days
after the Saturday lecture.
Listening, The Folks at Berkeley Buddhist Monastery.
___ ___ ___
Pilgrimage - Three Steps, One Bow for Peace
eBook - 352 Pages - Text and Photos - (1.6 MB) -
From True Cultivators Heng Sure & Heng
letters of Heng Sure and Heng Ch'au...
Three steps and a bow. That's how they walked it. Two monks
on a pilgrimage of peace that took them through a series
of wide-ranging encounters and extraordinary experiences
-- within and without. These letters and photos are a record
of their amazing journey.
Buddhist monks on a journey of a lifetime, from downtown
Los Angeles to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talamage,
journey of more than 800 miles that took two years and
nine months to complete. They bowed in peace, and for
peace. Touching their foreheads to the ground, opening
their hearts with one wish for the world. Peace. For
everyone, everyday, everywhere.