Excerpts from Three Steps, One Bow

Hung Ju's Introduction

In late 1973, a series of circumstances led me to decide to make a religious pilgrimage. Previously, I had heard the story of an elder Chinese Buddhist Meditation Master, the Venerable Hsu Yun, who at the turn of the century made a walking pilgrimage across China. As he walked, he bowed his head to the ground after every third step. In six years, he bowed a total of three thousand miles, or what amounts to the entire breadth of China. During his trip, he encountered incredible hardships, suffering from hunger, thirst, and the cold, but he never gave up. Eventually, he was able to attain a state of mind that can only be described as "single-mindedness." That is, he was able to halt all of his thinking processes, and he experienced a radiant clarity of mind that he had never been able to attain before. His pilgrimage also had a very profound effect on the people he encountered.

Master Yun's trip had given me an idea that began to grow and develop. I had always thrived on adventure, and after so many years as a layman and then a monk inside a Buddhist monastery I was ready for a little change. I began to entertain the thought of making a bowing pilgrimage across America.

In the history of the world there have been many religious pilgrimages. Most of these came about as a response to the fighting and moral decadence of the times. People always need ways to express themselves: ways to display their religious feelings. As people gradually attain peace and understanding, they need ways to share them with humanity. Consequently, there have been countless pilgrimages: pilgrimages on horseback, on foot, in buses; pilgrimages all over the world, by large groups, by individuals. I felt that the conditions had become ripe for me to contribute this way to a great cause: the cause of world peace.

This would also be an excellent opportunity to improve my own cultivation of the Dharma. While I bowed along the road praying for world peace with the actions of my body, I would also be praying in my mind and simultaneously striving to master the six perfections of an enlightened being (a Bodhisattva): giving, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. The more that I thought about it, the more I became resolved on doing it.


I didn't tell anyone about my decision to bow. I figured since it didn't involve anyone else, why talk about it? I didn't even inform the Abbot. One night in early October, after everyone was asleep, I packed up a bag with some books, food, and clothing, and went bowing out the door onto the sidewalk of Fifteenth Street. I would take three long strides, and then stretch down on hands and knees, bringing my forehead down to within an inch of the pavement. The cement was very cold. The streets were empty; it was dark and I felt quite strange. The bag, which weighed about thirty pounds, was a problem. On the third step, I would toss it ahead and then bow up to it. But this act of bowing was extremely invigorating; it was tremendous exercise! I bowed steadily in order to get in as much mileage and experience as possible before daybreak.

As I bowed along, I had the physical work pretty much under control, but my mind was full of conflicting emotions. "My God!" I kept thinking to myself, "I have done a lot of hard-to explain things in my life, but this is going to take the cake." I kept bowing; turned right on Dolores Street, across Market Street, through the big Safeway supermarket lot; and headed in the general direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. At daybreak, I was in the heart of the Tenderloin district ghetto, and I could feel the city coming to life. I could also feel the presence of the San Francisco police, who had been shadowing me for several blocks. I could imagine what they would be thinking.

By noon, I had reached the top of Russian Hill. A lot of people had seen me by now, but none had talked to me. They mostly just stared, with their mouths open. One lady drove by in a big white Chrysler, and right in the middle of the intersection she slammed on the brakes and exclaimed in horror, "Oh, my God!" I tried to keep my mind as centered as best I could, and ignoring the occasional pangs of embarrassment, I kept pounding the pavement. Somewhere down inside of me, beneath all the mixed feelings and scattered thoughts, there was a faint flicker of laughter.

After a miserable lunch of cold rice and some sidewalk weeds, I bowed down Russian Hill, and by late afternoon I made it to a little park just before the entrance to Golden Gate Bridge. I had bowed five miles! I was quite exhausted, so I found a tree to lean against, and immediately fell asleep. Several hours later I awoke, but I didn't feel at all like the same person I had been earlier in the day. My body was wasted, completely drained of energy. I was filled with a silent terror. I had felt this terror before, but never quite so intense. I couldn't go on like this. I looked up at the little lake in front of me with the geese and all the beautiful shrubbery, and the happy couples strolling hand in hand along the shore. Wow! Thirty years old, and this is how far I'd strayed from reality! How did I get so estranged from ordinary life? And bowing for world peace! How was a lost soul like me going to help world peace?


As I sat there in my despair, dressed in Tang dynasty robes with a freshly shaven head, I contemplated my life. As a child in the Pacific Northwest, I was always the wildest kid in the neighborhood, though I'd been born into a good family. And if I wasn't out raising the Devil, then you could find me in dreamland. There, in my flights of imagination, I would perform every heroic act then known to man. Yes, I had won major sports car races throughout the world. Innumerable times, I had whipped the high school ruffian and rescued his girlfriend the cheerleader. And yet, though my mind was in dreamland, I passed successfully through school with only a token effort.

After high school, I plunged into six years of submarine service in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy. My ship, the U.S.S. Rock, visited exotic ports throughout the Pacific, and I was able to actualize many of my wildest schemes. I labored in the very cramped and hot engine rooms, trying to keep thirty tons worth of GMC Diesels and two ancient Badger distillers running properly. On occasion I acted as ship's diver and performed some very exciting recovery and repair jobs down underneath that two-thousand-ton steel shark. I really enjoyed life in the sub, but those long weekends ashore were my downfall. The Executive Officers' report said it all: "Tim Testu is a genuine asset to the ship. His excellent service aboard is only offset by his horrifying conduct ashore."

There was the time when Frank Messerli and I, after a long night of whiskey and bennies, stole the Admirals' launch from the Royal Philippine Navy, and were well on our way out of the harbor before we noticed that there were two torpedo boats after us. Fortunately we outmaneuvered them by heading for shallow water. When we brought the little boat in to that pier, we saw about fifty men and several outraged officers there waiting for us. I don't know how we did it, but we came in to that pier at full speed, and then at the very last second, shifted into all back emergency. The little boat shuddered and moaned, emitting a big puff of black smoke and churning up the crystal blue water. It came to a perfect stop just inches from the pier, and the men on the dock erupted in wild cheering. But the officers weren't at all happy, and before the day was over, we were sentenced to two months confinement. It was a typical escapade, but even so, I emerged from the service with a good record and an honorable discharge.

Afterwards back in the States, I blended with the clamor and chaos of the late sixties. I did a little college, and then later worked as carpenter, railroad mechanic, harbor diver, and even a fry cook in a topless restaurant (I couldn't see anything from the kitchen). I did well enough, but inside of me there was an overwhelming sense of loneliness and frustration. Eventually, I fell into drugs, unemployment, and bad company, but fortunately escaped unscathed and found my way to an anarchistic commune near the foot of Mt. Rainier in Washington. For six months, I didn't have a care in the world, until the whole place burned down.

By my twenty-fifth year, my dilemma was at its peak, but then by a stroke of luck, I ran across a little temple in San Francisco where the teachings of the Buddha were being transmitted to America. It was like walking into a cave of precious treasures. The cave was my own mind, and the treasure was the multi-faceted Dharma. Most important, I had found a teacher with real ability. He was an elder Chinese Buddhist Bhikshu (monk) in the patriarchal succession of Chan Masters, and he had brought to America the whole range of Great Vehicle Buddhism: the Teachings, the Secret Doctrines, the Pure Land School, the Moral Precepts, and Chan. I saw in the Master a living example of the much-sought-after qualities of not only Buddhism but of Taoism and Confucianism as well.

During my first exposure to the Master, I was continually flooded with emotions of all kinds. In his teaching, he instructed us not to be moved or turned around by any kind of situation, but the direct, penetrating manner in which he dealt with my thoughts caused me to respond like an emotional faucet that's running first hot and then cold water. I was overwhelmed with love and respect for the Master. His wisdom, compassion, humor, tact, timing, and understanding of human nature, combined with his penetrating vision and other inconceivable spiritual powers, put him far beyond the scope of any teacher in America. There was no question about it.

Every evening, in a most orthodox and traditional setting, he gave instruction in the Dharma, and what we heard was unspeakably wonderful. There, in that little incense-filled room with thirty or so other people, I many times experienced states of joy and dharma bliss that brought me to tears. For the first time I had met a person who totally understood me and who really cared about my spiritual welfare and was able to do something about it to the ultimate degree.

It soon became obvious that the Master somehow had access to all of our petty little thoughts: past, present, and future. He rarely left his little room in the back of the temple, yet he always knew what was going on, and it all came out in the lectures. His manner of speaking was very penetrating, cutting through the crap and getting down to the problems that we constantly seemed to create for ourselves. Sometimes there would be scoldings. "I'm not scolding you; I'm scolding your ghosts," he once said. But most of the time was spent carefully explaining the ailments of the grasping, calculating mind, and showing us how to cure ourselves.

During my first year of studying Buddhism, I worked part time as an orderly at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco. Seeing all the suffering, sickness and death there gave me a very strong impression of the vanity of self-centered existence. I saw very clearly that, although we people of the West have a great flair for life, we have no idea how to prepare for a dignified exit from this world. We have a thousand false values ingrained in us which we cling to desperately right up to the last minute. Buddhism, I found, could help prepare us for this important transition. After a year as a Buddhist layperson, I shaved my head and became a novice monk. A year later, in 1972, I became a fully ordained Bhikshu, a Buddhist monk.

Living in the monastery, I went through a lot of changes. I began sleeping sitting up and eating only once a day. I was surprised to find that these "ascetic" practices were not as difficult as they seemed, and as time progressed they became more natural. I think that is why in the Chan School there is a saying: "Bitter practice, sweet mind." There were others in the monastery who cultivated much harder than I, some eating only raw vegetables, some not touching money, some following other difficult practices; but we all studied the Sutras ,the sayings of the Buddha ,and there was plenty of time devoted to meditation and the work of daily life. In late 1970, we moved to an old brick mattress-factory in the Mission district, which we converted into what is now Gold Mountain Monastery.

And now, after three years in the monastery ,having already left my family, my jobs, and my old future ,I'd left the monastery and my teacher as well, to take some strange bowing pilgrimage in quest of some impossible goal. Sitting there in a state of quiet terror in the little park by the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn't imagine why I had even started out in the first place. I picked up my bag and drug my weary bones back to the monastery.

I slipped right back into my regular routine. No one had even noticed that I'd been gone. I tried to work up an interest in the activities at the temple, but my heart just wasn't in it. I kept thinking about that one day of bowing. Despite all my false thinking and doubts, I had still gone a very real five miles! And there was something about that experience that was impossible to describe, but which felt like it was reaching to the core. It didn't take long before I decided to take another crack at it.

This time, however, I decided to be a little wiser and a little less mysterious. I revealed my intentions to the Master, and requested his opinion and help. The Master was at first interested, and then delighted with the idea. He gave me encouragement, and I could feel myself begin to overflow with what in Christianity is called the "Holy Spirit." The Master said that the best way to understand the Dharma is to undertake difficult practices. "To do what no one else can do, to be patient when no one can be patient, this is what it's all about!" He recommended that I wait two weeks and start on October 16. Then one evening at the Dharma-lecture, he announced my intentions, and an awesome hush fell over the place. When he said, "Hung Ju is going to bow a thousand miles for the cause of peace," I really felt wonderful. He said it with such authority that it seemed like he was guaranteeing it to be a success. From that point onward, I entered into a very fine state of mind, and everyone else seemed to be delighted with the idea, too. I received all kinds of encouragement; offers of food, clothing, camping equipment, etc. And Bhikshu Hung Yo, alias David Bernstein of Providence, Rhode Island, offered to come along and serve as my Dharma Protector.

This journal is a record of our daily thoughts and actions while involved in bowing for world peace. It has been polished up and rewritten from the original log that Hung Yo so meticulously kept during the entire trip. All of the events were real, and none of the names have been changed. Only the perspective has changed as we look back on the trip from the point of completion.

Speaking for both myself and Hung Yo, we would like to transfer any merit we may have acquired from this journey to living beings throughout the universe, hoping that they may quickly obtain the absolute, perfect enlightenment.

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