Heng Sure (for Abbot Hsuan Hua)—12/9/76
WALI ALI: Let's start at the beginning.
HENG SURE: Alright.
WALI ALI: And if I have any questions, then I will feel free to interrupt you, okay?
HENG SURE: Alright. Sam Lewis, as we knew him came and this was before my time—I was not present for the very beginning of it.
WALI ALI: I knew some of the people that were. I don't know where they are.
HENG SURE: They're here, they are still here, Ron Epstein, I think is one of them.
WALI ALI: Yeah, I know Epstein.
HENG SURE: He started coming to attend the lectures of the venerable Abbot of Gold Mountain in 1961, back on Sutter Street, every Sunday. That was when the Abbot was lecturing at that time. Once a week on Sunday he would lecture, for instance The Sixth Patriarch Sutra, the Platform Sutra, and he would explain—he would lecture a good part of the text, and there would be someone there who could translate it, and then he would explain the commentary very lively, and you could say, in the tradition of the Chan patriarchs—
WALI ALI: There weren't any translators at that time were there? He didn't have any people who were translating?
HENG SURE: Not in the way that we do it now, certainly, but there were people who could render it into English—it wasn't with the intention of compiling a translation for publication, which is what we do now, but it was largely the work of his Chinese disciples then. Before any great number of Americans had come around regularly, it was a more casual thing on Sutter Street, but—
WALI ALI: This was shortly after the Abbot came to the United States?
HENG SURE: No—in fact he had been in the States for some time practicing and living in isolation on his own. But after the place on Sutter Street he began lecturing every Sunday. People came regularly, and he went public, if you will, at that time. When—we mark the major coming out of the Dharma in America was the summer session of 1968 when five American people went to Taiwan to receive the precepts, Bhiksus and Bhiksunis at that time, but that's getting ahead of myself. At that time in '63, Sam Lewis was really a regular, he came every Sunday for three years. He came in '63, '64, and '65. He didn’t—he rarely missed a Sunday, and he was an inspiration to all the other people because of the sincerity that he showed. In his studies of the Dharma, he bowed to the Abbot , and he recited the ceremonies along with everyone and really involved himself for three full years in the study of the Buddha Dharma. What he did the other six days of the week we do not know, but on Sundays he was—
WALI ALI: These were in the afternoons or the evenings?
HENG SURE: This was Sunday evening that he came around, and actually it was a full day, they often would eat. Of course the master eats once a day, and all his disciples—the monastic disciples—eat just one meal a day, vegetarian food, so they would have eaten before noon, but that was a regular thing anyway, and he—his sincerity just maybe stood out from the other students because of his extreme sincerity. And the fact that he was thoroughly involved with the Buddhist teachings at that time. In 1965, then, he came less regularly and went out on his own to start propagating. He felt like he had absorbed enough of the Buddha Dharma, apparently, to go out on his own, and at that time what he said about the venerable Abbot was that he was—that he considered him to be Boddhidharma, who had, you know, brought the Dharma from India to China, and the Abbot bringing the Dharma from China to the West was, as far as Sam was concerned, was the act of Boddhidharma, and those were the words that he used at that time—we developed into the Buddhist lecture hall on Waverly Place.
WALI ALI: That's where I went to the sessions.
HENG SURE: Right. And that was after ’68 for 2 1/2 years and then we came to Gold Mountain in ’70/’71, and this was an abandoned mattress factory which was turned into a monastery with a lot of hard work, and just after the place was set up and functioning, this extremely interesting incident happened. We had lost touch with the disciples after the move to Gold Mountain, Sam Lewis' disciples, and we just heard occasionally that he had been taking people as disciples and that he taught them Buddhism and a lot of other things too, and that people saw him pretty much as a patriarch of his own establishment, and then we heard that he died, and he hadn't come around for quite some time—but that he had always spoken very highly of the Abbot, very, he had been very—
WALI ALI: Very consistently-
HENG SURE: Then the next thing we knew there were twenty people outside of the door who had showed up at a refuge ceremony. Now at a Refuge ceremony—we become Buddhism disciples by taking refuge with the Triple Jewel—that means that you take the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha as your refuge; you become Buddhists at that time. You may or may not take five lay precepts or the Bodhisattva precepts at that time; it is a matter of choice; but these twenty people had quite a miraculous tale to tell. These were the California Dreamers. I guess it had been a week before they showed up at the door, twenty of them had had one dream in one night, and the dream was that Sam Lewis, with his voice and his presence, told them all, in the same dream, to go to Gold Mountain and to take refuge with the venerable Abbot. So they woke up the next morning and came down and said, "I saw him last night, Sam came in a dream last night to me," "No kidding, me too." "What did he say?" They said, "The strangest—you won't believe it, the strangest thing in the world, he said, "go find this teacher and become Buddhists, take refuge with this teacher." "That's what he told me." "Me too." "Me too." So of the thirty people that took refuge that day, twenty of them were from one group. Those people had all had the same dream that night, and since then known as the California Dreamers to us, and some of them never came back from that day on, and some of them came back regularly, and some came back infrequently, and we still keep contact with a few of them.
WALI ALI: Did any of them become priests?
HENG SURE: No, no one actually left home, but that was obviously—Sam Levis had some good roots, which is to say some very wholesome faculties and some strong affinities with the Dharma to instruct people in to be able to direct people to the Dharma, and these twenty people came as a response. So he is remembered fondly around here—some would call it an amusing incident, but it is not out of the ordinary around here, that things like that happen often. So that is our—that's the Sam Lewis story that we tell.
WALI ALI: I have some questions; I don't know if you will be able to answer them or not, but—
HENG SURE: Try me—
WALI ALI: Let's see; let's start with people. There was a man whom I believe Murshid introduced to the Abbot and who became a priest. I don't know whether he is still associated with the monastery or not, and that was Orne Grant. Do you know anything about him?
HENG SURE: He is a layman at Gold Mountain.
WALI ALI: Oh, he didn't become a priest?
HENG SURE: No, he became a lay person.
WALI ALI: Oh, I see.
HENG SURE: A lay person, a lay priest, a lay clergyman—there is such a thing as lay clergy. We consider a person who takes the Bodhisattva precepts to be lay clergyman.
WALI ALI: I see.
HENG SURE: He is currently on a retreat, he is on a Mountain retreat. But he is tremendously faithful, his room is here, and he also, I believe, went through the Order of Mans for awhile—
WALI ALI: Right. My understanding was, but I would like to get the story from him if possible—and that is that he was having some difficulty with Reverend Slighton or with the teachings at the Holy Order of Mans, and found it difficult to break away because of the pressure or what have you of the situation and—
HENG SURE: Yes, I've heard such things—
WALI ALI: And that Reverend Lewis went over there and enabled him to break that connection and brought him and introduced him to Venerable Abbot Hsuan Hua, and at least that is the story as I understood it, and I just wanted to check and find out how accurate that was, about what the real story actually was.
HENG SURE: Yeah, he has been here from the beginning.
WALI ALI: So it would have been about that time, because during this early period in 1963-64-65 or around the time when that lecture hall was procured—I don’t know when—when exactly that date was, when we went over to—up those four flights of stairs—
HENG SURE: Waverly Place, where his lecture hall was—
WALI ALI: I know that the Abbot at that time occasionally had other people come in and give Dharma talks including Reverend Joe Miller and others who were—he hadn’t become established with disciples as yet—I don't think that really happened until a little bit later, that he really became firmly established with American disciples…
HENG SURE: Transmitting The Three refuges.
WALI ALI: Or even having a faithful group of people who stayed with him as students.
HENG SURE: He was really patient in those early years, just waiting for conditions to ripen and that’s why I say that we mark the real beginning of the Dharma with the transmission of the Precepts to the Bhiksus and Bhiksunis—that first group that came to the summer session in 1968.
WALI ALI: Yeah, because I was around at that same time, and I remember that because when I came into the orb of things, actually I was—I met a man called Daniel Lomax who studied with both Samuel Lewis and Abbot To-Lun as he was known at that time. I was impressed with him, and I asked him to refer me to someone and he wrote down these two names. Samuel Lewis and To-Lun, and I went first to Samuel Lewis to a meeting because he was having a meeting that night, and was tremendously impressed, and decided then to become a disciple. And then I went over and attended a number of the sessions at the lecture hall and that was around that period in the early part of ‘68, the middle of ‘68.
HENG SURE: The Surangama Sutra was being lectured at that time.
WALI ALI: Yes, that’s right and then later the Platform Sutra was translated.
HENG SURE: The 6th Patriarch’s Platform Sutra was then translated before the Surangama because the Surangama was really lengthy, and the Platform Sutra is the Sixth Patriarch Sutra is such a lively entertaining work that—we are just now preparing the second edition; because the first edition is out of print already.
WALI ALI: Oh yeah, it reads like a novel.
HENG SURE: Yes, it’s good form—
WALI ALI: I think I’m trying to get to a question which is, would you have anything to say about the part that people like Joe Miller or Sam Lewis or any of the other American people who had roots in Buddhism prior to that time—what part they played in helping the Abbot get anything established?
HENG SURE: The Master has always been very open and tremendously compassionate about his intention here. He says American Buddhism in the West is going to be propagated and translated and carried by Westerners, and I am here to act as a bridge. My function is to make it possible for you to discover the Dharma and to make it something that Western people can learn to cultivate and study, so he has made a point to give all people who come to study with him a chance to practice speaking the Dharma. Monday nights had always been the Sangha time when we take turns speaking, and he had that policy established back then too. If people had the ability to speak and were very confident—there was a good change that they would speak last; those who were not so confident but who could were willing to learn, were the ones who were urged to speak, that were given the opportunity—even if what they spoke was not 100% Buddha Dharma at the time, slowly and with practice, it could change, the intention being to create a generation of lecturers and speakers, who could really translate the Dharma into terms that the Westerners could absorb. Now this policy carries through until today. I’ve seen people come from pure inarticulateness and develop an astounding ability to catch people’s attention, to turn them on, to make them cry, make them laugh, and hit them with principle, and do it very expediently—just from the practice of talking here in the Buddha hall—and that was what was happening then too.
WALI ALI: I recall the Buddha’s birthday celebration That was held at some church downtown. I forgot the name of it.
HENG SURE: That really goes back doesn’t it?
WALI ALI: That must have been the first one after there had been the ordination of the Bhiksus and Bhiksunis—
HENG SURE: Yeah, there was marching in the street with and walking around the block In Chinatown—we have photos of that and they are invaluable.
WALI ALI: I was there, and if it is the one that I am thinking about there were a group of people—a lot of representatives were invited up on the podium, and everyone had five minutes to talk, and it went on interminably with all of these—
HENG SURE: All taking twenty minutes instead of five—
WALI ALI: Yeah, taking—in fact it is one of my favorite jokes/stories, because the hall was very filled at the beginning—there was the Washing of Buddha and everything and then chanting, and the Chinese thing—and in the course of all the monks getting up to speak that is to say, Murshid—Reverend Lewis had been invited—he was up on the stage—he was one of the people that had come and give a talk also, and—in the course of the speaking of all of these people—the numbers of people in the audience kept dwindling. People were leaving all the time, so there were fewer and fewer people there, and everybody that got up to speak made some mention of the good roots, the really good roots of people that were remaining to really hear the Dharma and felt like I was setting all this praise under false pretences because the reason I was there was that I was his ride home and he was stuck up on the platform.
HENG SURE: That’s alright, you were gaining a virtue as you sat there. Terrific. Yeah, I would say that Joe Miller and the other people who were speaking there were allowed to do as an expedient for their own growth, their own progress—
WALI ALI: In other words you wouldn’t say that the Abbot was giving any kind of formal seal of their—
HENG SURE: Oh for heaven sakes!
WALI ALI: —accomplishment as Buddhist masters or anything?
HENG SURE: If that were the case then every single Shramanera here is a patriarch because we all take turns. This has been a policy from the beginning that everybody gets a chance does it. They were the first ones to come with any regularity so they were the ones who anyone remembers for having done it.
WALI ALI: He gave a series of talks, Joe Miller did, I recall.
HENG SURE: He did the—it was a very interesting series of events how that series came about—the Master has a policy which is—"Everything is okay," which is to say that within the framework of the precepts, any kind of propagation of the Dharma is okay and there are 84,000 Dharma doors—one designed for every nature, and when people suggest ways to teach and transform others and it is okay, everything is okay. Joe Miller spoke to the Abbot in person, and said that he was going to give some talks, he promoted himself and he was—I won’t say it's arrogant, but there was a kind of sense of "anything you can do, I can do better" at that point—and it was his organization, his billing, and the Master said, fine, everything is okay. He was very expedient with him. He had been invited to talk, as well the disciples were, but he took tremendous advantage of it, and it was—I don’t want to say that it wasn’t sanctioned—because he was, in fact, invited to speak, but so was everyone. He was the only one who blew it out of proportion, who took advantage of the opportunity.
WALI ALI: Of course his perspective on it would be that he was trying to draw the people into the orb of the Dharma and help To-Lun build up things.
HENG SURE: We all have that impulse, but as far as his being on the platform by dint of superior virtue, he can come any Monday night and find a different face on the platform, and we are not—we haven’t yet seen the Dharma transmission in America.
WALI ALI: That is your opinion?
HENG SURE: Oh yes, it is my opinion.
WALI ALI: Because, I would say that it is not possible to prove a negative.
HENG SURE: There is nothing negative there; it is a question of hard work. It is a question of who can sit long enough without moving; who can really keep the precepts, who can really do the ascetic practices, with vigor—The Master is simply sifting through sand looking for nuggets of gold—and he is still looking. I have been here for some years, and I have given a tremendous amount of my best efforts to understanding the Dharma, and my accomplishments fall so far short of what I thought I could do at the beginning that I am just now beginning to recognize how much I lack, It is a long, long, long road to real accomplishment—it is not something that happens overnight. We all work together; you need the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and we have just now gotten the Sangha together. It's not something that happens quickly.
WALI ALI: It happened very quickly to Hui Weng.
HENG SURE: Good point; good point. But he left a Sutra and an entire tradition behind him with robes and bowls, and he as the one, in fact, who told the Master that he would be coming to America, interestingly enough so….
WALI ALI: I just don’t want to let the point pass without an exchange on it because I would say that this is one area where there is some question—because the claim is made by the Sino-American Buddhist Federation that they are the first to be the official bringers of the Dharma to America.
HENG SURE: Who is the Sino-American Buddhist Association? It's you!
WALI ALI: The people who make this claim are anyone who does the work, anyone who translates the Sutras, anyone who sits in meditation, anybody who holds precepts. Those are the people who are bringing the proper Dharma, it's a matter of cultivation, it's not a matter of words. Do you do it? This is the question to ask.
HENG SURE: That I accept, the question is if that it is a historical claim that the Abbot is the first to bring the Buddha Dharma to America.
HENG SURE: There's probably no first, and we hope there's no last—this question is not something that we worry about spend our time with. There’s no value there; the important thing is who does the work—are the Sutras being translated? Are the Precepts being held? Are people actually changing their lives? Are they becoming different in their habits, in their life styles? If that is true, then the proper Dharma lives. If people spend their time arguing about who is first and who is last, if they don't change, if they go on being greedy, hateful, and ignorant, and eat a lot of meat and drink a lot of wine, then the chances are that what they are practicing is something else than the Dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha. It’s immediately evident, there is no discussion involved, you can see it.
WALI ALI: I just recall, you know, I am harkening back to this evening in which all these people were on the stage. It was a great point being made at that time that this was the first time and so on that this had been officially done, I don't remember all the various things. I remember that when Samuel Lewis got up to speak he took to task the man from the Mayor’s office who made some very ignorant remarks on the subject and just gave a discussion of the history of Buddhism in America, which really goes back to 1893 and the advent of Shaku Soyen who came over here and who was a Rinzai Abbot I believe. And there are a whole number of people who sowed along the path of the Buddha Dharma, and he was just trying to make the point that you are making; it is not so important to put a personality on it and a claim as to be first, because there are many people who have been sowing the field and that—
HENG SURE: If you are talking about the proper Dharma, once again it's—it's there to be found in the Tipitaka, what was the proper Dharma back then—who had it and what did they do—you can find it in America. If you can find people who practice. It is said that deviant Dharmas, when practiced by proper people are proper Dharmas. Proper Dharmas when practiced by deviant people are deviant Dharmas. When Boddhidharma came to the West, who recognized him first? A parrot? No person did. The person who had set himself as patriarch at the time not only do not recognize him, he also whacked him with his rosary and knocked out two of his teeth. You know, it is a question of roots, whether you recognize the proper Dharma or not. There have been people in America who have set themselves up as Patriarchs. Who is to challenge them? Nobody knows any different. We are witnessing just the beginning of Buddhism in America.
WALI ALI: Oh I quite agree. Now the only reason that I immediately questioned you on this point was because I have such respect for the Abbot for the clarity always of his presentations, the joy that radiates from his being, the essence of Buddha that is there. I recall on a number of occasions that people who would come to the classes that Murshid Samuel Lewis would teach, and they would ask him about meditation and he would say, "We do these simple meditations here; if you want to be really trained in meditation go and study with Venerable Abbot Hsuan Hua," and so on—but this was the one point that he—that if there was any contingent that he had, it was in regard to any doctrinaire or orthodox claim that this was the only valid school of the Buddha Dharma that was functioning in America.
HENG SURE: Anytime anybody claims to be the only sole anything there are going to be other people that dispute him or her. We don't waste energy with that—it's just a matter of chatter. When it comes down to it, it is a question of what are you really talking about? If you are talking about the practices of Shakyamuni Buddha, find out what he did and see who’s doing it.
WALI ALI: It becomes an interesting question, I think, because would one then say that one should imitate every aspect of his practice or the essence of his practice? Do you go around with a begging bowl in the morning house to house?
HENG SURE: No, people have only done that in the warm countries.
WALI ALI: But that is one aspect of…
HENG SURE: So you are saying that there are cultural variances?
WALI ALI: Sure
HENG SURE: But in terms of—does your life change from being a television watching, marijuana-smoking American to being somebody who holds precepts—there's not a lot of cloudiness there; it is fairly clear who does it and who doesn't. Let's talk about some questions that specifically concern your visit today.
WALI ALI: Okay. I am glad to bring up these other questions because they are worth something in terms of any thematic reference that one needs to make in a broader context you understand. To trace the Dharma roots of Samuel Lewis one has to bring in a number of other teachers and beings, one has to make some kind of continuity.
HENG SURE: Right, definitely. As far as there being any Dharma transmission. In the line of the Abbot it is nothing that is done casually—I repeat, we haven't witnessed it yet.
WALI ALI: Let's see what other questions I might have. Is there any further statement that the abbot would have to make about Samuel Lewis as a practicer of the Dharma?
HENG SURE: Basically I could reiterate what he did tell me: that for the three years that he came that he was exceptionally sincere, in his cultivation and his study. That he came regularly, he bowed to the Buddhas and he was sincere in his practice and encouraged other people to look into it. He set an example for them by his own practice. After three years he went out and apparently had studied enough for his own satisfaction, because he stopped coming, and set himself up as a teacher.
WALI ALI: Do you recall any incident which occurred with Dr. Seo and the Abbot? I don't know if you know Dr. Seo, he is a Korean Zen teacher, who is alive and is the director of Buddhist university, Dongguk University, and who was the man who gave Reverend Lewis his Zen name, He Kwang and ordained him as a Zenshi in the Cho-Ke-Jo school of…
HENG SURE: Soyakar?
WALI ALI: Buddhism, but I wanted to ask the abbot about—in the associations with Dr. Seo if he had anything to say on that point. I remember some stories, vaguely, about their meeting. I remember there was a misunderstanding of some sort—I'm not sure. I don't want to put out any seeds that are not right, but I was wanting to ask the Abbot if he had anything to say.
HENG SURE: We have all kinds of Buddhists come through Gold Mountain—all kinds, quasi- Buddhists come through Gold Mountain, all kinds of non-Buddhists come through too and Bert— there was one occasion when this guy came in and said that he was enlightened and was the ex patriarch and the master came up on it right away. He said, "You’re enlightened are you?" And the guy says, "Yes, I'm enlightened," it's going to be a Zen combat, man-to-man, equal/equal. The Master says, "Alright, you're enlightened, I'm going to have your head, give me your head," and he picked up the wooden sword from behind the lecture seat and jumped up and came running at the guy, and the fellow took one look at him and his eves grew wide and he screamed and he ran out of the hall and we never saw him again! And the Master said "Hm, enlightened, if he were really enlightened he would have given me his head." So there are all kinds of people—America, doesn't have any standard yet.
WALI ALI: Excuse me?
HENG SURE: I said, America doesn't have any standard yet to know, we have no concept of the sage.
WALI ALI: You say this without ever having met a particular teacher, I'm asking you about a particular person.
HENG SURE: As far as Dr. Seo, no, I've never heard his name mentioned in all the years that I have been here. Probably it was a minor incident.
WALI ALI: I don't think I have any more questions at the moment. I can ask you to please give my respects to the Abbot.
HENG SURE: You can do it yourself. Every night at 7 o'clock we have the ceremony, the Amitaba Sutra, or The 88 Buddha's Repentance. and we recite the Buddha's name for all the Pure Land School for about 45/50 minutes. The Master comes down and lectures a Section of the Avatamsaka and it is translated on the spot. We finish off with the Surangama Mantra, it is 15 minutes long. Do you know the Surangama Mantra?
WALI ALI: I don't know it but I’ve recited it with you.
HENG SURE: Great. We bow to the patriarchs and that's each evening, about 2 1/2 hours worth—we do it every night, twice on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, and what's more we are having two Winter Chan sessions starting the 17th, the 17th to the 24th, the 24th to the 31st. And on the 31st to the 6th we are having an Amitaba session which is a Buddha Recitation of the Session Limitless Light Dharma door. The Chan sessions are really vigorous. We start at 2:30, when everybody’s up walking and we sit hour periods .
WALI ALI: Is that 2:30 in the morning or 2:30 PM?
HENG SURE: 2:30 AM—and we go around the clock. We have one meal a day, and the Master lectures at night, and, we go on until Midnight sitting, so in all we have 12 hours of sitting, 12 half hours of walking, which is about a mile, and a Sutra lecture in the evening—and we do that for two weeks. Last year's Chan was four weeks right here; this is going to be in the Chan hall here, this is where it was, The Amitaba session is equally vigorous, but we quit at 9:30 at night, we don't go on until Midnight, and we get up at 3:30.
WALI ALI: How large is the community here?
HENG SURE: Oh boy. We have a new place in Ukiah, the city of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we have a new temple in Los Angeles, we have land in Oregon for our community so our group has split. Right now on any given night there will be 30 to 40 people here, lay people and left-home people reciting and translating the Sutras. When we all get together, the Americans and the close Chinese disciples there are a 100 or so regulars and then the people in the outer circle. Around the world there are thousands and thousands.
WALI ALI: I know some disciples of Chan, or people who have become Buddhists, is that what you mean?
HENG SURE: Taken Refuge, that’s the first step to real becoming a Buddhist, the first thing is to take Refuge, the second thing to do if you are really serious you can become a Sramanera—a novice, on your way to becoming a Bhiksu, and then you may be ready, after years of practice, to turn the Dharma Wheel.
WALI ALI: We’ve always been following Murshid Lewis and his pattern there, we always recite the Triratna on Sundays and the Surangama.
HENG SURE: So he carried that on Sundays? So that is really good. That’s fine.
WALI ALI: It has been a pleasure to meet you.
HENG SURE: My pleasure too, and I hope you will come back.
WALI ALI: I will.
HENG SURE: Good.