U Makuta

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an Eternal Law.  —Dhammapada, verse 5

     Lately the topic of hatred has been in my mind, and I have tried to remember someone that I have hated. There are lots of people in this world that I consider to be bad people (most of those who immediately come to mind are politicians), and there are some people I do not like, and quite a few that I’d prefer to have as little to do with as possible; but I’m not sure if I can remember really hating someone. Probably when I was a kid I hated people, like the playground bully or some such (children can be really childish for some reason), but I have been searching my memory for someone I’ve really hated during my adult life.

     I suppose I should give an example of hatred, so it can be differentiated from mere dislike, or disdain, or contempt. Let’s say a person that one dislikes, that really causes trouble and is very unpleasant, is hit by a car and is lying in the road with both legs broken. Someone who really hates that person might rejoice at the sight and walk away laughing, not willing to lift a finger even to pull the dying wretch off the roadway. Something along the lines of that would qualify as genuine hatred.

     For starters, I have too much empathy to feel pleasure in another’s pain. I know that there is a deep, subconscious connection between people—between conscious beings of all types—and I feel deep uneasiness even at the thought of shooting a predator threatening my dogs. Even if it has to be done, like harming someone in self-defense or in defense of my woman or our home, I’d still feel that deep unease while doing it, knowing that I’m harming myself at the same time. Also, I suppose I have been fortunate enough, or have earned enough merit, that really noxious, toxic people tend not to bother me much, and certainly not in a prolonged, chronic way. So to some extent I suppose I’ve been sheltered enough that there’s nobody I’ve ever had good reason to hate. I was not abused as a child, I’ve never been tortured physically or mentally by a really evil person, and I’ve been pretty fortunate.

     So I guess one person that I came the closest to actually hating would be a Burmese monk named U Makuta. I doubt that he’s alive now, as he was considerably older than me when I knew him, and that was many years ago. He was my next-door neighbor at a Buddhist monastery in central Burma called Kyauk Hsin Tawya, or Stone Elephant Forest Monastery.

     In my younger years especially I was an extremely strict monk, fiercely strict at times. Partly because of the karma associated with this, and partly because, perhaps, I was a criminally lax monk myself in some former existence, I tended to have the laxest, worst monk at any monastery as my next-door neighbor. At Kyauk Hsin, the first monastery I lived at in Burma, it was this U Makuta.

     The first time I ever saw him was just a few days after I arrived at Kyauk Hsin, while I was walking for alms in the village of Laymyethna with the rest of the monks of the monastery. U Makuta was in the village in question and joined our file of head-bowed, bowl-carrying bhikkhus. Immediately I noticed that he was chewing betel while walking for alms, and spitting ketchup-like, thick, red betel spit on the ground as he walked, and he had one or two red streaks of said betel spit dripping down his chin. It stuck me immediately that the fellow was shameless, and I disapproved of him in my heart.

     Before long we became next-door neighbors, as I’ve already mentioned. I lived in a small cave called Mandalay Gū (Burmese for “Mandalay Cave”), in a small gully on the outskirts of the monastery grounds, and U Makuta lived in a cabin on top of the rise above the gully. My gully continued downhill maybe one hundred yards past my cave and joined with a larger gully. This larger gully had been dammed, creating a reservoir. (This was a good idea in central Burma/Myanmar, as it is semi-desert there, and very dry.) Anyway, U Makuta made a farm on the other side of the dam, where the ground was watered by the reservoir. He had chickens and grew a variety of food crops there in the gully—which of course is against the rules of monastic discipline. A monk is not allowed to dig the ground or damage green plants, the rules of discipline are so strict. They’re so strict in fact that most Burmese bhikkhus, and most Asian bhikkhus in general, hardly even try to follow the rules of discipline conscientiously. But Kyauk Hsin was a relatively strict monastery, and U Makuta was, as I say, the least conscientious monk at the whole place.

     The thing is, he had been a subsistence farmer for most of his life, and when he got older he was ordained as a monk, as is common practice in Burma. Part of the problem was that, even according to the Pali texts themselves, monks who are ordained late in life tend to be set in their ways and difficult to train. There’s a saying in Burmese: Taw htwet, apyaw hket, which means something like, “One who ordains late in life is difficult to admonish.” So U Makuta left the household life and remained a farmer. He was essentially a layman with a shaved head and a reddish brown toga. Once I walked past his cabin and saw a bare-chested man wearing a blue turban made from a towel and digging what looked like a raised bed for melons; when I looked closer it turned out to be my problematic neighbor U Makuta.

     He started out being friendly. Early on during my stay there I heard shouting down in the big gully, so I looked to see what was going on. It was U Makuta swimming in the reservoir and laughing and shouting loudly. When he saw me he invited me to join him in the water…but of course playing in the water is yet another action prohibited by the rules of discipline, in the Patimokkha. I just scowled and ignored the invitation.

     As it turned out, at the base of the dam blocking the gully was a shallow well where monks, including me, could bathe. There was a big flat rock next to the well, and a bucket and rope, so one would just fling the bucket into the well, with water almost at ground level, and then pour the bucket over one’s own head. It was just a short distance from my cave, and I started bathing there. Then one day I notice that someone had constructed a frame of poles over the flat bathing rock. I was tall enough (by far the tallest monk at the monastery) that it was in the way of my bathing, so I kept moving the horizontal poles overhead out of my way. This continued for maybe two weeks. Finally one day I went to bathe and found U Makuta there lashing the frame together with cords made of vines, with living gourd vines trained up the sides of it. After he had finished his work he gestured with his hand to inform me that I could bathe now. 

     The fact that this old buffoon was commandeering the bathing spot to turn it into a gourd-growing trellis, let alone the fact that he was little more than a shaven-headed farmer, caused something to snap in my mind. I walked over to the bathing spot and began yanking the vines out of the ground, of course thereby breaking the rule against damaging green plants myself. While I was systematically removing the gourd vines from the bathing area U Makuta was making sounds like, “Eck!…Ack!…Eck!…Ack!…” And then came the miraculous triumphant crescendo: I reached up to the roof made of poles, gave one yank, and the whole trellis came crashing down. He had lashed the horizontal roof poles together, but had neglected to attach them firmly to the vertical support poles. At this U Makuta said something like, “Blah blah blah blah Sayadaw!” (no doubt meaning “I’m going to go tell Sayadaw!” though I understood almost no Burmese at the time), and rushed off to our abbot sayadaw’s cabin. Evidently the abbot, the late venerable Kyauk Hsin Sayadaw, told him to leave me alone, as I was all alone in a strange land and under a lot of stress. At the time I couldn’t speak Burmese, nobody else there spoke English, and so I had to communicate in broken Pali with the assistant sayadaw, and could occasionally speak English to a few college-educated visitors. So he left me alone, moved his gourd trellis elsewhere, and avoided me as a wild foreign barbarian. A year or two passed, with us meeting civilly at monastic functions but otherwise scrupulously avoiding each other.

     At the bottom of my little gully, just short of where it joined with the big one, was a clump of bamboo. It was one of the few bamboo trees at the whole monastery, as the aridity was not favorable to that sort of plant. (The monastery “forest” consisted largely of scrub trees like acacia, cacti, and large spiky plants like agaves.) I also noticed that someone had been cutting the bamboo, preventing the clump from getting very big. I wondered about that.

     Then one day I decided not to go for alms in the village and simply to fast that day. The trouble at the time was that I was relatively famous in that area, being the only exotic foreign monk, and so crowds would start to accumulate if I took the same alms route too many times. Too many people wanting to put food in my bowl was trouble, as Burmese villagers tend to suck at simple engineering problems and cannot appreciate the fact that fifty people can’t each put in five percent of a bowlful of food. The alms routes were getting “hot” in this way, and so that one particular day I decided to go without food for a day or two, and let things cool down.

     Through karmic coincidence, this was the day that U Makuta decided to harvest the bamboo. He didn’t know anything about my decision to stay at the cave and fast that day, and at the time I was usually walking for alms a mile away, he came down the stone steps into my little gully armed with a machete and a mattock. I didn’t make the connection right away until I heard the sound of chopping down the gully.

     Again something snapped inside me, and I became pretty much hysterical. I rushed out there to catch the guy red-handed, chopping the bamboo. I began bellowing at him in rage—I don’t remember if it was in very broken Burmese or in English—and essentially charged at him. He was alarmed, naturally, at being attacked by the large, pale, hairy barbarian, and held out his hands, one of which was holding the mattock. I snatched it away from him, raging and bellowing, and drove him out of the gully.

     A little later that morning the assistant sayadaw came to meet with me. He was sympathetic, knowing of the hardships I was experiencing with isolation, blazing heat, diarrhea, and so on, but he told me that I really ought to return U Makuta’s mattock. When I snatched it from him I didn’t think that I was depriving someone of their personal property, essentially stealing from them, which can be an extremely serious offense against the rules of discipline. I thought maybe it was monastery or Sangha property, but I found U Makuta’s name engraved on the blade. For awhile I was really worried that maybe I had just excommunicated myself from the Sangha for stealing; though it turns out that there is a loophole that states that a monk can take another monk’s property from him if it is grossly inappropriate for monks to own, like a gun, or a heroin rig, or, presumably, a digging and plant-cutting implement. Besides, at the time I wasn’t aware that it was his own personal property. But, with the occasional lapse like the gourd incident, at the time I was extremely strict, and I was very anxious about the possibility of having expelled myself right out of the monkhood.

     I was fairly ashamed of my conduct after the hysterical rage subsided, and when the assistant abbot asked if I had gone for alms that day I pointed at the scroungy dog who regularly ate my leftovers (his name was Kang), then at myself, and explained that neither of us animals had eaten.

     Anyway, that sealed our dislike for each other completely, and we avoided each other even more scrupulously than before, and we never fought again, or rather I never attacked him again. Our enmity became a running joke at the monastery. After another year or two I moved away to a different place, looking for a good forest for solitary practice, and we saw each other (from a cool, standoffish distance) only a few more times, when I would return to Kyauk Hsin for a visit, or to do ritual penance.

     So that is the tale of possibly the one person I have come closest to hating in my adult life. There were plenty more genuinely rotten monks that I have met, including one or two really famous ones (in Burma anyway) that I thoroughly despised. Ironically, after returning to the USA (a known graveyard for monks), I also began to lapse woefully in my monastic discipline, at least with regard to certain aspects of it. Finally the laxness I was slowly descending into became a deciding factor in my disrobing.

     But getting back to disliking or despising certain extremely lax Burmese monks, I doubt that I could see even U Makuta lying on the ground with broken bones and blood pouring out of him and feel any satisfaction or gladness. That deep empathy I feel would trump any external circumstances.

     I began this little tale with verse 5 of the Dhammapada, and now I end it with verse 6:

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die, but those who realize this settle their quarrels.

the entrance to Mandalay Gū, in the little gully at Kyauk Hsin


  1. You are a hero of mine Good on ya David and Lady

  2. Congratulations David

  3. After I read that title I thought that this post is about the monk whom you've thrown on the floor and who's been chasing after you and kept making you some problems afterwards. And you didn't hate that monk?

    1. He was certainly an exasperating challenge, though I can't say I really hated him. The worst it got was when I was contemplating the possibility that I might have to really beat him up in order to get him to leave the monastery. But my ideas of beating him up or flinging him into the river were wild irrational thoughts magnified by adrenalin.

  4. Following your blog for some time I begin to understand why you disrobed at your ripe age after so many years. The overall behaviour of the sangha reminds me somewhat of the church before the advent of modern thought as a reaction to it.


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