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In Hot Water

By Luke Matthews | 1/14/2022
In January 1973, at the Burmese Vihāra in the village of Bodh Gayā, Goenkaji conducted a nine-day course after his annual self-course. In those days the Vihāra consisted of a walled compound containing a main, two-story, concrete building for the few monks who resided there, workers' quarters and kitchen, a dozen or so brick-and-thatch huts, and a cowshed.

At that time of year it can be quite cold in the state of Bihar, with temperatures at night dipping to 40°F. Most of the Westerners on the course were young, in their 20s and 30s, and were housed in the huts; while the Indians, most of whom were older, in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, were accommodated on the second floor of the main building.

At breakfast time a couple of days into the course, I noticed that the Vihāra workers were heating metal buckets of water and carrying them upstairs, apparently under the direction of some older Indian ladies. This went on every morning, and it soon became apparent that these ladies were instructing the workers to deliver hot water to them for bathing. Those of us in the huts, unable to speak Hindi adequately, were neither capable nor bold enough to order the same. We continued bathing in water piped directly to the showers from metal tanks on the roof, which was, just after dawn, exceedingly cold.

This disparate treatment seemed not only inappropriate but unfair, and in my disgruntlement and naïveté I determined that I would, at the first opportunity, inquire of Goenkaji why he permitted it to continue.

At noon on Day 9 I finally got my chance and launched into my “observations.” Goenkaji listened patiently and when I had finished said, “You've been in India for a couple of years now. So where do you usually stay?”

“Mostly in cheap hotels,” I replied. “Sometimes in temples or vihāras, on railway platforms, or under a tree in a village.”

“And do you get hot water in those places?”

“Oh no.”

“So, for you, bathing in cold water is normal then? It's not really a hardship?”

“Well, true. Yes.”

“But these Indian ladies come from Bombay where it is a lot warmer. They are all wealthy and have servants to do their bidding. They have never bathed in cold water, nor have they been before to such a remote place. For them, to travel all the way to Bodh Gayā in winter, to leave their families and come to stay in the rudimentary accommodation they have been provided in this vihāra is a great hardship. Heated water for bathing is a small comfort that we can provide them. You see, it is not necessary that we treat all students exactly the same. But we must treat them above all with compassion, understanding what difficulties they have to overcome in order to receive the Dhamma.”

Then, to finish me off, he asked, “And if your mother came to a course, wouldn't you want her to have hot water?”

 

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