The Bowers That Be

ae literatureNew book recounts a buddhist pilgrimage that encountered craziness of all types—especially in Santa Cruz

For a Buddhist monk who once took of a vow of silence for six years, Rev. Heng Sure is a pretty chatty guy.

He describes his two-and-a-half-year-long “three-steps, one bow” pilgrimage up the California coast—from Los Angeles to Ukiah, passing through Santa Cruz on the way—like a born storyteller.

“We were going through Lincoln Heights, L.A.,” Sure remembers. “The locals said, ‘No matter what, do not be in front of the high school by the end of the school day. Of course, we end up right in front of the high school at 3 p.m. Instantly, we’re surrounded by a crowd.”

Only two days into their 1977 journey to establish a Buddhist temple in Ukiah—which Sure and companion Heng Chau walked in a pattern of three steps, followed by one bow—they had already made a scene. “Some were saying ‘Kick ’em in the ass, see if they move,’” he says. “Some kids picked up chunks of brick and started lobbing it across the street at us, and this big black girl, about 6 feet tall, she put her body between us and them and said ‘You quit doing that stuff, they’re not doing any harm! Let them be.”

Every day of walking, bowing—often being harassed, sometimes helped—is recorded in Highway Dharma Letters, a new compilation of correspondence written by Chau and Sure to their Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Sure and his protector for the journey, the taekwondo black belt Chau (formerly Martin Verhoeven), followed a strict regimen of prayer, bowing, and writing, stopping only to sleep in a ’57 Plymouth station wagon. Additionally, Sure had made an oath of silence which he would keep for six years.

Sure, who was born Christopher Clowery, came from a white, middle-class background in Toledo, Ohio. What began as a childhood fascination with the TV show Hong Kong turned into a calling that lead him to the Buddhist text, which, after his undergraduate education, brought him to Berkeley in 1971. It was a time when Berkeley streets shook with protest and fury, and Sure found that Buddhism offered a way to live the values that protesters shouted about.

“I walked in the door [at Gold Mountain Monastery] and suddenly felt all my fears and apprehensions just vanish—they just kind of dribbled out my toes, as if I’d pulled a plug,” Sure recounts in a phone call from the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery where, 37 years later, he is now the director and Dharma Master.

Six years later and four blocks past the high school in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, the two young, budding Buddhists had daily encounters that would test their oath to the Buddhist Dharma Sutra and its message of peaceful mindfulness.

“We come up from a bow and here are these six, very tough-looking Chinese mobsters—arms crossed, tattoos, dark glasses—they were no joke. I come up and end up right in front of this guy that the rest had parted to reveal, very cinematic,” Sure says. “This guy’s looking me up and down and he says. ‘So, uh, how long you gonna be doing this?’ and Marty said ‘We’re on a pilgrimage for world peace, we’re establishing a Buddhist temple in Ukiah.’ And the guy spits, and goes ‘I want you guys to know, as long as you’re here, in our territory, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re going to take care of you.’”

Others, like the “zombie-vampire cult” they encountered near the Dodger Stadium and the angry, hung-over Santa Cruz man who almost intentionally ran them over, weren’t nearly as welcoming. But, in the end, many who at first reacted negatively eventually softened toward the two young American Buddhists silently bowing and stepping.  

An array of personalities showed up in Santa Cruz, like the Christian zealots who rather violently attempted to convert them to members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, warning them of an imminent UFO. But one young girl who was biking down a residential street in town left a positive memory for Sure. She handed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and said, “Mister, if you continue like that, before you get to the corner you’re going to need this.”

For him, Sure says, the lesson of the pilgrimage was that we receive what we put out into the world. Only when we move past the anger into our own human potential, he says, can we reach solutions.

“The potential for awakening is really high, but you have to know that you have choices before waking up. That’s the teaching of most sages, of most religions, ‘know thyself’—that sense of gratitude opens, of kindness, of compassion. It’s all waiting to be discovered.”

PHOTO: Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Cau’s journey through the California coast—including Moss Landing, where this photo was taken—are detailed in the new book ‘Highway Dharma Letters.’

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