The Time I Was Hated by a Burmese Dog Owner

Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called “Ego.”  —Nietzsche

     Today I feel like writing a story about my life in Burma that I’ve never mentioned before publicly. I don’t know if it’s an edifying story, but at the very least it gives a little view of remote Burmese village life.

     When I first came to Burma the first monastery at which I resided was Kyauk Hsin Tawya, or Stone Elephant Forest Monastery. It was located in the midst of a desolate wasteland in central Myanmar, about a hundred miles south of Mandalay. There were three villages within easy walking distance to the monastery, Pindaleh, Lay-met-hna, and Tezu. (I’m not sure what Pindaleh means, but Lay-met-hna means “Four Faces,” and Tezu means “Group of Huts.”) The monastery was called a “forest monastery,” but it was more like a desert monastery; the trees were mostly scrub trees like acacias, and there were cacti, vipers, and scorpions in abundance. There was no significant irrigation in the area, and the village farmers’ crops would fail due to lack of rain at least once every three years, sometimes two out of three. The area was, and still is, very poor. (Ironically, I had been pretty much of a vegetarian for many years by the time I became a monk, but eating the food of Pindaleh caused me to start eating meat again. Sometimes during times of drought, like every two or three years, the villagers would have little food to offer besides rice, pork, and ultra cheap badass cookies. So I ate the pork.)

     After a short time the venerable abbot, Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya Sayadaw (alias Pakhokku Sayadaw) instructed me to walk for alms only in Pindaleh village, as it was the least desperately poor of the three, and thus, since I was eating only alms food at the time, I was less likely to suffer from malnutrition. I initially went for alms a few times in Tezu village and got little more than chewy pink rice, a few boiled beans, and some kind of almost flavorless tomato glop. Pindaleh was usually better than that.

     So I started walking the mile and a half or two miles to Pindale village early every morning (at dawn, before the sun got too hot) to obtain my daily food. When the Burmese monks would walk for alms there they walked through the central area of the village, so I preferred the outskirts.

     There was one route I took on which there was one nice village lady who always gave relatively good food. They had a relatively large house in a relatively large compound, and in addition to the standard rice and goop the lady would also give me a piece of cake or some such. There was an old guy, I assume her father or father-in-law, who would sometimes be standing out in the yard as I went by, and who would generally ignore me, or at least pretend to ignore me.

     Then one fine day as I was standing in front of their house waiting for the nice lady to get her offering of food together, the family dog trotted right up to me, moved around behind me, and bit me on the calf of the leg. I’m not sure why he did this, but after he did he began circling around me as though to bite me again. I started making defensive maneuvers, keeping my iron bowl between me and the dog. The old man who usually ignored me let out a groan and hurried over as I circled around, keeping my face to the dog and his teeth. The man drove the dog away and I told him I was all right, it was no big deal, but it turned out that blood was trickling down my leg. The old guy groaned again, went inside the house, and came back out with some Burmese herbal ointment stuff and rubbed it on the bite, the nice lady came out, offered her food and apologized profusely, and I continued on my way. I wasn’t expecting any more to come of it.

     But days later, when I was walking for alms on the opposite end of Pindaleh village, people started asking me, “Did So-and-so’s dog really attack you?” I made little of it, but there was much tongue clucking and head shaking and frowning, which led me to believe that the dog’s family had acquired somewhat of a bad reputation because of the biting incident. I was, after all, the only foreign “holy man” in the area. When I walked for alms again down the road where I was bitten I didn’t see the dog anymore. Apparently they felt obligated to get rid of a dog who had bitten the celebrity western monk, and it may be that the old guy even was constrained to kill it. At any rate he certainly didn’t like me after that. Not only was I eating the family food but I had caused the death (or permanent absence) of his dog.

     I began noticing that this old fellow started going out of his way to demonstrate his disapproval of me—again, I assume because of the trouble he received due to the dog fiasco. If other monks were walking ahead of me when he approached, he’d get off his bike and walk it past the other monks, and walk it past even the child novices following the monks…and then get back on the bike and ride it past me with a defiant look on his face as he stared straight ahead and ignored me. (It’s fairly common for people to dismount from their bicycle and walk it past a monk as a sign of respect; though people riding scooters do not, possibly because of the higher social status of driving a motorized vehicle.)

     Later he took his defiance to a higher level by riding his bike directly at me, sometimes requiring me to literally jump out of his way. He appeared to be taking the dog bite incident very seriously, and not in a good way.

     My last memory of him was at a time months after I was bitten, and after he had joined the enemy camp. I had woken up that morning in a dark state of mind and I was in no mood for playing games. This can happen sometimes, especially for a young western monk living alone in a cave on the outskirts of a blazing hot desert monastery in Asia, with no one around who speaks English, and for the most part nothing to eat but chewy rice and glop. Anyway, I was walking into the village on a very rough dirt road, and ahead of me, I saw bearing down on me the old guy on his bicycle. It became clear that he was heading right for me again, with the intention of making me get out of his way. But I was in a bleak mood, thinking something like “Fuck it. Let him hit me,” and I pretended not to notice him coming, keeping my eyes downcast like a monk is supposed to do in public. At the last split second the guy realized that I wasn’t getting out of his way this time, and so he swerved wildly to avoid hitting me, driving his bike into a deep cart rut. As I continued walking with scowling eyes downcast I heard the crash of him hitting the ground with his bicycle. I truly didn’t give a shit though, and didn’t bother to look back.

Uncle Wiggly and Helen Meyenburg, two NICE Burmese village dogs who didn’t bite ANYBODY



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