You might need a list to describe Heng Sure. He’s a Buddhist monk, director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, scholar, member of several interfaith organizations, GTU alumnus, teacher at Pacific School of Religion (PSR), musician, singer-songwriter of Buddhist folksongs, story teller, youth leader, and most recently, a tweeter on Twitter. Or you could drop the list and just say he is real. His name — given to him by his teacher Master Hsuan Hua when he became a monk — translated from Mandarin, means “constantly real.”
“In Buddhist tradition, monks are given a name signifying what they have to work on,” Heng Sure says. I’d been an actor in summer stock theater, and my bad habit was to continue to act even offstage. So my name is a teaching for me.”
In turn, Heng Sure teaches people about happiness and how to end suffering. He does this in working with youth, singing the dharma or body of teachings expounded by the Buddha, and in his class on Buddhist-Christian Dialogue at PSR. “Dialogue is much more than conversation,” he says. “It can effect change, but it can be tricky because leaders have to be willing to take their hats off.”
“What amazes me is each year I learn more about Buddhism in seeing my faith commitment through others’ eyes.”
In his Buddhist-Christian Dialogue class, Christian students address topics such as compassion, from a Buddhist perspective, and Buddhist students speak from a Christian perspective. “What amazes me,” Heng Sure says, “is each year I learn more about Buddhism in seeing my faith commitment through others’ eyes.
“When I talk to young people about happiness, I ask them, ‘When were you last happy? How did you know? What felt happy? — Your feet? Your heart? Your eyes? Did it last?’ Isn’t it funny, you can’t hang onto it. We want happiness, but it is fleeting. So we work on satisfaction. And often that comes to us through giving and serving.”
Heng Sure grew up in Toledo, Ohio, a “Methodist baseball-playing, Mickey Mouse Club-watching kid”. At age 12, he was captivated by the Chinese characters in a Chinese painter’s exhibition catalog. “I knew they had meaning. They led me to the Tao Te Ching and then the 6th Patriarch’s Sutra — Buddhist scripture centered on enlightenment and direct perception of one’s true nature — and I felt like I’d just been speaking with the Patriarch that morning. My Sunday School teacher was not supportive, but my pastor told me to keep going.”
And Heng Sure did. He became a Buddhist while earning a master’s degree in Oriental Languages at UC Berkeley in the ’60s. He became a monk in 1976, took a six-year vow of silence, and with another monk walked 800-miles from Los Angeles to Ukiah, bowing after every three steps. Heng Sure, who likes to talk, said the hardest part of the pilgrimage was being silent. People threw stones, some threatened them with guns and insults, but more often, they would spontaneously offer to help. The main lessons from the pilgrimage, he says, were about himself — his mental habits, his mind’s tricks, the limits of his understanding.
After 18 years as a monk, Master Hsuan Hua asked Heng Sure if he would like to get a Ph.D. He inquired at two eminent graduate schools, which questioned his wearing monk’s robes on campus — “they worried that believing in something might challenge my objectivity,” he says. “But the GTU welcomed me, robes and all, and affirmed that my faith commitment wouldn’t scare off my classmates. I was a satisfied customer at the GTU.”
Wise ones know
Heng Sure welcomes everyone to the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery: http://berkeleymonastery.org
Check out Heng Sure’s tweets on Twitter: twitter.com/revhengsure
See the lyrics and hear 30-second previews of Heng Sure’s American Buddhist folk music: www.dharmaradio.org