Filed in Family, Zen (Chan)

After the Monastery

A reconciliation storyBhikshu Heng Ju (Tim Testu)

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Left to right: Bhikshus Heng Yo and Heng Ju in the rain, on their "three steps, one bow" pilgrimage for world peace, which lasted from October 16, 1973 to August 17, 1974. They continued regardless of weather, traveling 1,150 miles from San Francisco up the Pacifc Coast to Marblemount, Washington. 

Introduction by Jeanette (Jetti) Testu

I knew my dad had been writing a lot. He would wake up early every morning, make a hot breakfast, walk the dog, meditate for an hour, write for an hour. Then he would wake me up and report his activities, suggesting that I too should get up and do something vigorous, worthy, contemplative. He would also have a hot breakfast waiting for me. That’s the kind of father he was—he showed his love rather than talked about it.

After he died in 1998, while I was cleaning out his study I found a life insurance policy I never knew he had taken out hidden in his desk drawer. Lying next to it was a floppy disk. Written in big block letters across the disk, inked in Sharpie marker, were the words: “JETTI PLEASE PUBLISH OR GIVE TO THE BUDDHISTS. THIS IS MY LAST AND FINAL WISH.” The disk contained an account of his entire life, spanning over 100 pages, documenting everything from his time as a submariner in the United States Navy to his “hippie days” on an anarchist commune.

I was grateful to have a record of his adventures. I knew that his friends and the rest of the family would be interested in reading it, too. But I was surprised and horrified to see that he expected me to publish the damn thing. (Of all the moral teachings my father learned in his study of Chinese Buddhism, I think filial piety was his favorite.)

I was 18 years old, heartbroken over his death, and didn’t exactly have a lot of contacts in the publishing world. With a mixed feeling of dread and duty, I moved the disk, his notebooks, and the computer itself dozens of times with me, from student housing in Arizona to a houseboat in Seattle; from Bellingham, Edmonds, Poulsbo, and Port Townsend, and then back to Seattle again, always keeping it in the small secret drawer of the dresser he had built me.

Somewhere along the way, the disk got lost. I was relieved of the burden, but sad that I had let him down. I knew his was an unfair request to make from the grave, something I would never impose on my own child. Still, I wanted to make him happy. Also, I was pretty sure his ghost would know I had failed at my task and would come to scold me in my dreams. With the disk left unpublished, our karma was left unresolved. My dad believed in reincarnation. What if he came back as my cat or—my God—my child? He had such a powerful presence. Anything was possible.

I had been raised in the Chan tradition, but as time went by I fell away from the Buddhist community, stopped honoring the five precepts, got a job, got married, had a baby. Then last year I was invited to the Buddha’s birthday celebration at a monastery in Washington where I knew a lot of my dad’s old dharma friends would be. Sure enough, I saw Dharma Master Heng Lai, the abbot of Snow Mountain Monastery, who had known him in the ’70s. He said he had a copy my Dad’s manuscript in a zip file and could email it to me if I wanted. He sent it to me the next day. It was time to take action on my father’s last and final wish.

Bhikshu Heng Ju on his 1973–1974 bowing pilgrimage for world peace.

My dad was an American monk named Heng Ju (Tim Testu), a disciple of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, whom he referred to simply as “the Master.” Hsuan Hua had come from Hong Kong to California in 1962, after having previously directed followers to establish the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, from which many affiliated monasteries and centers would spring, including the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, one of the first Chan temples in the United States and one of the largest Buddhist compounds in the Western hemisphere, where my dad lived on and off throughout his life. (The “city” sits on almost 500 acres of land, which happen to be the former grounds of the county’s 19th-century insane asylum.) The monastery is known for its insistence on strict adherence to the traditional monastic code; the keeping of the five precepts was strongly encouraged, and participating in ascetic practices like eating one meal a day and sleeping while sitting up were commended. In 1973, my dad and another monk, Heng Yo, began a ten-month bowing pilgrimage for world peace through California, Oregon, and Washington, traveling over a thousand miles on foot. It was the first “three steps, one bow” pilgrimage in the history of American Buddhism.

Dad finished his autobiography shortly before he died. It gives the perspective of an older (and maybe wiser) man with a complicated life: two ex-wives, a teenage daughter, alcoholism, and a cancer diagnosis. The last chapter, “After the Monastery,” addresses what happened after he left the structure of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and crashed into the world.

Before seeing Heng Lai, I never knew why Dad had left the monastery. I did know how fervently he loved his life as a monk and how he respected and adored his teacher. The family mythology was that he had sneaked out in the middle of the night, crawling on the dried-up riverbed instead of walking out through the main gate. I thought this was a little dramatic, but then, all of his stories about the monastery were dramatic.

The reason he left had something to do with shame. He had gone out drinking as a monk, breaking a basic precept. This was after being ordained for almost a decade, after completing his bowing pilgrimage, after hundreds of newspaper articles had been written about the trip and he had written his own book about it, and after touring Asia with the Master, giving dharma talks to the sangha. The fall from grace was too difficult for him to face.

I know about shame. Dad had lived with a cancer diagnosis from the time I was 11. He used every available minute to “transmit the dharma” to me, lecturing on everything from vegetarianism and respectable conduct to small engine repair, how to vote (Democratic), how to hold your breath underwater, how to drive a stick shift, how to chop vegetables (according to their nature), how to identify good music, how to identify poisonous mushrooms, and most important, how to avoid ego and suffering through cultivating the Way. I wanted to curl my hair, wear cute outfits, and hang out with my friends; I was embarrassed at his devotion to Buddhism and tired of the constant smell of incense. By the time I graduated high school, my understanding of the religion revolved around all of the “no’s” I associated with it: in summary, don’t be yourself. And in addition—be perfect.

At the end of his life, Dad asked me to come home from college to take care of him, and I did. But we had a fight over my frivolous spending, and I moved out. The night he went to the hospital for the last time, we were supposed to have met, to go out to dinner and make up. I know how shame feels. I know regret.

This article is a dream come true for two people. This article is a life fulfilled.

Bhikshu Heng Ju bows during his pilgrimage for world peace, 1973–1974.

No one could have been more confused than I when I ran out the gate of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The demons of my latent alcoholism, who would guide me right back into the binge drinking patterns from my sailor days, lay waiting to bring me to hell. I didn’t know I was an alcoholic at the time; all I knew was that I wanted to obliterate my unbearable anguish, so I reached out for what was most familiar to me: booze. I drank to kill the pain, and the alcohol created even more pain and remorse.

Driving an old Toyota I’d bought from a faithful layman, I was nailed with a drunk driving ticket before even getting out of California. Once back in the Northwest, it was not long before I’d lost everything of value. My career as a monk vanished . . .

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