Finding My Religion
Rev. Heng Sure – American Buddhist Monk
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.
That’s 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.
At 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.
I talk with Sure about how he became a Buddhist and his experiences during his long journey and about how Buddhism fits into his larger worldview.
Monks 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
Heng 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 and real.
What kind of acting did you do?
I 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.”
That’s quite a transition – from musical theater to a Buddhist monastery. How do you relate to your former life as an actor?
You 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.
How 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?
The 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.
So you started learning Chinese?
Yes. 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.
How did you meet him?
My 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.
At 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 home.”
So you began studying with Master Hsuan Hua at the monastery. What did he teach you?
He 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 joy.
Let’s 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.
Yeah. The bowing was hard enough, but the toughest thing was being silent. I took a vow of silence for six years [beginning with the pilgrimage].
What was the most challenging part about being silent for so long?
The 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 sleep.
If you couldn’t speak, how did you communicate while you were on the road?
I didn’t have to say much – the other monk did all the talking. My job was to concentrate my mind.
So, why did you go on the pilgrimage in the first place?
I 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 mind.
You mean that by controlling your own behavior, you were symbolically promoting world peace?
It 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 and delusion.
What was it like out there on the road? What kinds of people did you encounter?
We 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.
People held guns to your head? Were they hoping to rob you?
No. 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.
What’s an example of that?
We 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.
Were you ever in serious danger?
There 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.
What was he doing there?
I 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.”
Where did you sleep while you were traveling? Did you stay in people’s houses?
Actually, 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.
What did you eat?
We 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.
What were some of the main lessons from your time on the road?
I 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.
Do you ever go back into that deep water? I mean, will you ever hit the road again?
It’s 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.
Sometimes 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?
That’s 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.
In 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.
But 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, aren’t you?
You 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 political injustices.
You mentioned something to me before about going to a soup kitchen to feed the homeless. Is that what you mean?
Exactly. 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.
How do minds touch?
I’ll 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.
Not 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?
I 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.
That certainly isn’t what you hear people talking about in business magazines or on CNBC. Instead, we hear a lot about productivity, performance, profits.
Exactly. 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 problem lies.
So what is the answer? Meditation?
The 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.
Which technologies are you referring to?
Prayer 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.
But 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.
Well, 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.
Does anybody really talk like that?
Native 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.
One 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 can change?
Oh, 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.
But 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?
Well, 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.
Who are you talking about?
The 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 cynicism.
And that makes you hopeful?
Yes, 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 to say.
How does that relate to the problems we’re facing on the planet?
The 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.
Meaning, respect for one’s parents?
Yes. 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, “Yeah, sure.”
He 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.”
What does that mean, exactly?
Through 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 and editor 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.