In the spring of 1979, construction of the Dhamma Giri pagoda was in full swing. A combined crew of Indian engineers and labourers, and Western volunteers—some experienced in construction, some not—bustled daily over the rising concrete bell, or dome. Student numbers continued to swell on courses, so there was a push to make the pagoda fully functional as soon as possible.
Not all the foreign servers worked on the pagoda. Another group, which I assisted, performed clerical and course-related duties along with our Indian peers. Some of us had been at Dhamma Giri for many months, and as the hot season advanced we inevitably began to feel the debilitating effects of heat, long hours, and overwork.
Into this strained atmosphere a slightly older Indian server arrived at the centre. Not being the construction-site type, after a few days she began—whether under Goenkaji's instructions or by inclination we did not know—to give attention to the course routine. In a sweet but unambiguous way she started apprising us in detail of what now needed to be done and how. This failed, however, to sit well with those of us who had been devoting ourselves to these same duties for months together. As weeks passed and our weariness increased, we began to bristle under our notion of her irksome intrusion, micromanaging, and perceived lack of tact. Not-so-covert wrong speech ensued.
One afternoon as she dispensed instructions in front of the dining hall, I impulsively concluded that I had heard enough. I interrupted her with a blast of righteous anger and frustration, haranguing and excoriating her publicly for her insensitive, bossy, and high-handed manner. I spared no reproofs. She listened, pained, without saying a word.
Having vented my grievances, I stalked off to my hut. There on my cot I broke into sobs, partly from exhaustion and fatigue, but mostly from the guilt and embarrassment of what I had done. After an hour or so I emerged feeling utterly chagrined, drained and disgraced. My hurtful words could not be unsaid. What to do now?
After some artful coaching from a Dhamma brother who helped me overcome my shame, I asked to speak to Goenkaji who, fortunately for me, was on site. He saw me at once. On my knees and in tears I tried to explain to him the humiliations of working with this woman, her imperious manner, her ordering people about; how I had completely lost it that afternoon and berated her in front of so many other students; how I was sorry and ashamed, but knew there was no excuse.
Expressionless, Goenkaji listened intently. Knowing all that I had to say had been said, still he remained silent for quite a while. Then, uttering only two soft words, he tenderly ended my anguish: “Send mettā,” he said.
I felt better from that instant.