An Interview With Dipa Ma
Among the first wave of young Americans venturing into Asia in the early 1970s were Jack Engler, now a prominent psychotherapist and supervising psychologist at Harvard University, and Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. Both men were deeply influenced by Indian meditation master Nani Barua (1911-1989), affectionately known as “Dipa Ma,” and her teacher, Anagarika Munindra (1914-2003). Perhaps what most characterized these young Americans and their approach to the dharma was their boundless enthusiasm—and the plucky belief that enlightenment could be attained in this lifetime. While many Asians had come to believe that such high aspirations were best deferred to a future life, Munindraji and Dipa Ma insisted that such goals were not only to be encouraged but that they were also entirely realizable.
Returning from their travels, Engler and Goldstein were both instrumental in establishing the Vipassana tradition in North America. To this day, both remain deeply indebted to the teachings of Munindraji and Dipa Ma.
In the following section, Jack Engler shares for the first time his conversations with Dipa Ma, which formed the foundation of his doctoral work, and in a candid interview, he speaks with Tricycle about his own journey. Joseph Goldstein, in the wake of Munindraji’s recent death, remembers a teacher for whom he was the first Western student, and ponders a world beyond the life of two of his most treasured mentors.
Nani Barua was her given name, but in accordance with Indian custom, she was known and addressed as Dipa Ma—“Dipa’s Mother”—or even more simply as “Ma.” She was in her late fifties when I met her, in 1975. She was a venerated teacher by then in the small Buddhist community that had migrated from East Bengal, India, to Burma during the British Raj, and then resettled in Calcutta after Burmese independence. She taught out of the one room she shared with Dipa, her daughter and only surviving child.
Dipa Ma (1911–1989) was without any of the outward trappings or symbols of recognized Buddhist teachers—no ashram or center, no titles or ordinations, and no degrees, monastic vows, or attendants. Just a tiny woman in a tiny room in an impoverished neighborhood of old Calcutta, unknown outside her circle of friends and students, teaching in the traditional Indian way, at home all day, every day, for anyone who wanted to come by and talk about dharma. At the same time, she was a great yogi who not only had experienced the depths of liberating insight but had also mastered the deepest levels of samadhi, or singleness of mind, and most of the siddhis, or psychic powers [see final page]—a rare achievement in contemporary Buddhism, especially in Theravada. She was a gifted teacher who had helped many of her students to realize their essential Buddha-nature.
I met Ma in India while doing doctoral research for the University of Chicago on the impact of enlightenment on the structure of consciousness and mental life. There are actually four enlightenment experiences, or “path moments,” in the way Theravada practice is said to unfold. According to the tradition, and the testimony of ancient and contemporary practitioners, it is in these moments that the specific mental factors that produce suffering are progressively eradicated. This is when fundamental and irreversible changes are said to take place in the mind. For purposes of the study, I needed individuals who had experienced this kind of change. With the intercession of her teacher, Anagarika Munindraji, Dipa Ma and some of her most experienced students agreed to be “subjects” in the study. All had experienced at least “First Path” in the Theravada system of practice, or what we call “enlightenment.” All happened to be women. The men who had experienced “path,” Dipa Ma said, were working during the day and not available. So began a series of meetings with remarkable women in that same little room throughout the spring and summer of 1977.
Dipa Ma herself was by far the most remarkable. She was a woman in a setting where teachers were traditionally men. She was a layperson teaching in a monastic tradition. She was a widow and single mother active in the world, without the protection of family, in an environment where women, especially widows, remained at home. Above all, in a Buddhist tradition that historically said the full dharma was only possible if you abandoned family life and “went forth” into homelessness and the monastic life, she had probably gone as far or farther in the practice than anyone I knew or had heard of. That is still true now, thirty years later. She was diminutive in stature, but no one I have ever met had a stronger mind, or a bigger heart.
Amy Schmidt’s book Knee Deep in Grace provides a more detailed account of Dipa Ma’s life and teaching, especially the impact she had on others. In the following interview, Dipa Ma describes in her own words some of the journey she took to becoming the person we knew.
Dipa Ma herself did not speak or read English. Her reflections on her life and the outcomes of her practice were translated by a trilingual Bengali woman translator, Srimati V. Her descriptions of her experiences in practice were translated by her meditation teacher, Anagarika Munindraji, at Dipa Ma’s request.
Early in my interviews with Dipa Ma, I once said, “When I try to imagine the enlightened state, it seems kind of gray and dull to me. Once you’ve extinguished all the desire, anger, and passion, where’s the juice? Where’s the pizzaz? Where’s the chutzpah?” As soon as Dipa translated my question, her mother broke out laughing. “Oh, you don’t understand! Life was dull and boring before. Always the same routine, nothing new. Once you get rid of all that stale stuff you’ve been carrying around, every moment is fresh and new, interesting and alive. Now everything has zest and taste. No two moments are ever the same.” The truth was not in her words; it was in her spontaneous laughter and delight.
On a stifling hot day, Munindraji was talking to some of Dipa Ma’s older female students about rebirth. Ma had not been feeling well and seemed to be dozing against the wall in the heat. Munindraji happened to mention the tradition that one must take birth in a male body to become a Buddha. At that she suddenly bolted upright from the wall and exclaimed, “I can do anything a man can do!” We all laughed because we knew it was absolutely true.
Childhood, Marriage, and Motherhood:
What were some of the major influences on you in childhood? I grew up in an extremely close family in Chittagong [in East Bengal]. We are all still close. Chittagong was a special place in those days. This was the main area where Buddhism survived in India into the twentieth century. It was a very open and tolerant place. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities lived together in the same village. I was very happy as a child, though I kept to myself growing up; I didn’t play much with other children. I was particularly close to my mother. I remember her as quiet and affectionate. She died unexpectedly when I was eighteen. I was married at twelve, and only saw her twice after I joined my husband in Rangoon two years later. Her death came as a great shock; I contracted typhoid immediately afterward. I didn’t get over her death until my first child was born. My father, on the other hand, was strict, though he was affectionate toward me. He was a man of strong principles. He never bowed his head to anything he didn’t think was right. I inherited that trait from him.
People often seem surprised by the extent of your learning. Yet you didn’t go very far in school, did you? I attended the local village school up to Sixth Standard [sixth grade] before I was married. That isn’t very far. But I enjoyed school a lot. Even if I was feeling ill and my parents gave me permission to stay home, I would slip off and turn up in school anyway. I loved to learn. My father was very supportive and used to go over my schoolwork with me at home. After marriage, there wasn’t any opportunity to continue formal schooling. Bengali wasn’t taught in Burma, and it was unthinkable anyway that a married lady of the house in the Bengali community would go to school and study. So I studied at home on my own, mostly books on Buddhism.
You were married very young, in accordance with ancient Indian custom, even though your family was Buddhist. I was twelve. My husband was twenty-five. It was an arranged marriage. Because I was so young, I was allowed to stay with my parents until I was fourteen. When I stayed with my in-laws from time to time, I cried a lot. I couldn’t settle down with them. I can still feel the fear in my heart just thinking of my in-laws’ house. When I finally joined my husband, it was a very difficult adjustment in the beginning, even more difficult because we were living in Burma. I was extremely lonely and homesick. I never feel alone now. Meditation is my constant companion. But I felt terribly alone those first years of marriage.
Many young Indian wives don’t know anything about physical intimacy before marriage. They often find out about it first from their husbands. How did you first learn about it? The women in my family instructed me about my duties toward my husband and about running a household, but my husband was the first one to tell me about sex. I was very shocked, very nervous, and terribly ashamed. I was afraid of him at first. It took me almost a year to get over the shock and the shame. But my husband was very gentle and kind, not the kind of man who insisted on asserting his rights. He was extremely patient, affectionate, and generous. He could get close to people in a very short time. He was a rare human being. I’ve never come across anyone like him. I’ve always considered him my first teacher.
I understand your relationship was tested almost immediately. Young Indian wives are expected to have their first child, preferably a son, within a year or so of marriage. But I couldn’t conceive. Year after year went by, and still I hadn’t borne a child. But in all that time my husband remained unfailingly kind and sweet to me, unlike many husbands. He never criticized, never pushed, was never angry, was always loving and patient. He had a good position and a more than adequate income. We had many friends. Apart from not having children, my life with him was very happy.
You came from an old Buddhist family. Did you start meditation practice early in life? When I was young, meditation practice wasn’t that common. One or two of the older generation practiced meditation, but that was absolutely in private, not the way it is now. They didn’t talk about what they were doing. It was only after I was married that the idea of meditation became popular. I became very interested and wanted to learn, but my husband said, “We’re such a young couple. Why don’t we take it up later when we’re a little bit older?” At that time the feeling was that spiritual practice was not for the young but for the elders, after they had raised their family and finished working. So I took my husband’s suggestion.
How did you finally begin? Out of suffering and desperation. After waiting twenty years to conceive, my first child, a daughter, died three months after she was born. After waiting another long four years, Dipa was born. The following year a son died in childbirth. I never saw him. I mourned the deaths of my two children for several years. Just as I felt I was making some peace with the situation, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which was seriously affecting my heart. My condition worsened to the point that my life was in danger. It finally reached the stage where my doctors expected me to die at any time. At just that time, my husband, who had always been healthy, came home from work one afternoon feeling ill and feverish. Despite a doctor’s efforts, he died suddenly later that day. It was a terrible shock, completely unexpected. I’d been suffering so much, then this blow. Only Dipa was left. She was five, I was forty-one.
When I realized I was dying, I knew I had to begin to practice. I asked myself, “What can I take with me when I die?” I looked around at all the things I had and knew I couldn’t take them. I looked at my daughter and knew that as much as I loved her, I couldn’t take her, either. So I thought, “Let me go to the meditation center. Maybe I can find something there I can take with me when I die.” I decided to leave and live in the meditation center—I could die there as well as in the house. I told my friends of my decision, despite knowing almost nothing about practice. They were very supportive. I’ve always had one trait from an early age: When I make a promise, I keep it. Before going, I gave all my property and money to a neighbor and asked her to care for Dipa, expecting I would never return. “Please take whatever I have and care for Dipa,” I said. I was heartbroken and desperate.
What happened when you got to the center? Friends went with me. We were taken in by the monks, given basic instruction in mindfulness, and told to report the next day at four in the afternoon. I was walking over from the guesthouse the next afternoon to report on my practice when I felt myself suddenly stop. I couldn’t move my feet. I didn’t know why. I stood there puzzled for five or ten minutes or more. Finally I looked down and saw that a very large dog had clamped his teeth around my leg. My samadhi was already so deep that the sense doors had shut down, so I never felt it. Seeing the dog jolted me out of my samadhi and back to ordinary consciousness. The fear for myself and for Dipa came rushing back: “If I die, what is going to happen to my daughter?” They told me the dog wasn’t rabid, but I couldn’t get over my fear. I hurried to the hospital, and then instead of going back to the center, I returned home and resumed my life with Dipa. Gradually my fear of dying receded, and my health slowly improved. I started practicing at home a little each day. Munindraji used to come to the house and ask me about my practice. Eventually he started encouraging me to come to Thathana Yeiktha [a meditation center in Rangoon founded by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw], where he had started teaching. So I made arrangements for Dipa to stay with a trusted friend, and I went.
What happened this time? I completed the first course of practice [i.e., experienced enlightenment or “First Path” in Theravada practice]. It took about six days. After three months, I returned to the center at Munindraji’s urging to practice for Second Path. This time it took about five days. [J.E.: In accordance with Theravada custom, Munindraji stopped me from asking Dipa Ma about her practice for Third Path. She later told me it isn’t talked about because very few people reach it.] [For more on the “paths,” or stages of enlightenment, see the interview with Jack Engler]
Munindraji told me he also trained you and Dipa in the eight jhanas [states of mental absorption]. Yes. My daughter and I used to play at moving back and forth as we wished between the eight jhanas. You can stay in them for predetermined lengths of time and emerge at precisely the time you’ve resolved. Once, with Munindraji’s guidance, I made the resolution to enter and remain in the eighth jhana for three days, eight hours, three minutes, and twenty seconds. That’s just what happened. But jhana practice doesn’t end suffering.
Munindraji also said he trained you and Dipa to access the siddhis just to see if they were real. He did. We experimented with all of them. Once, for instance, I was able to walk into the room of a professor at Magadh University and have a conversation with him while one of his students was watching me meditate in Munindraji’s room. But siddhis aren’t important. Enlightenment brings purity and liberation and understanding. Siddhis often become a hindrance because they tend to inflate ego. I don’t have siddhi powers now. I could practice for them again, but it would take a long time . . . maybe three days, if I really practiced. But it is so much more important to be practicing for liberation.
Outcomes of Practice
What changes did you notice in yourself after experiencing First Path? I had been overweight and had a number of physical ailments: high blood pressure, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, trouble climbing stairs, coldness in my extremities, insomnia. All of these got better. Mentally, I used to worry a lot about the future: how I would live, what would happen to me, how I would take care of my daughter. I felt so much grief over the loss of my husband, and that was a terrible source of suffering. I was burning day and night with it. That burning grief cooled down and left, though I continued to feel sad over losing him. I could accept that where there is birth, there is death. I still think about him. Any question of a permanent self became meaningless. For those who go to the depths of practice, the idea of a permanent “self” disappears.
Sense-desire comes up a lot in people’s practice. Does it come up for you still? It is important to distinguish between sense-pleasure and sense-desire. There is nothing wrong with sense-pleasure. Pleasure and pain are part of our human experience. Sense-desire, on the other hand, is the grasping at pleasure or the avoidance of pain. This is what creates suffering—grasping and avoidance. Sense-desire comes up for everyone. It came up for me, too. When it arose, I knew it—and that’s the way to overcome it. I don’t feel sense-desire anymore. Sense-desire and anger don’t go away after First Path. They are weakened after Second Path and completely go away after Third Path.
Westerners seem to struggle a lot with sense-desire and anger. I was older when I started practice, so naturally my sense-desires weren’t as strong. Sense-desire is also an instinct which remains in you through cycles of rebirth. It is already very weak in those who were born from the Brahma-loka [heaven realms], for instance. . . . You can stay in the world of sense-desires and still be a good Buddhist, though, because you can be out of the world at the same time, in the sense of not being drawn in or attached. All who are householders can proceed in this way. Buddha has said you can even indulge in sense-desire and be a good follower of dharma, and for most people this is part of an average, normal life.
Do you experience anger at all? As soon as it comes, at the very start, I’m aware of it. It doesn’t get any nourishment.
What do you do when you begin to feel irritation or anger? Anger is a fire, but I don’t feel any heat. It comes and dies right out.
Do you still find yourself acting against the precepts sometimes? After First Path, I found I couldn’t intentionally do something which grossly violated the Five Precepts [the precepts lay practitioners agree to follow: to refrain from lying, stealing, improper sexual conduct, killing, and taking intoxicants]. If I did, it was usually a reflex action out of habit. I knew it right away, and I acknowledged it and asked forgiveness. After Second Path, right action became second nature. It seems natural to me now.
Have your relationships changed—the way you relate to others and interact with them? Yes. Before, I used to discriminate: “This is my friend”; “These are my relatives.” And there was attachment. Now I feel loving thoughts and metta [lovingkindness] toward everyone. I don’t discriminate. I don’t say, “This is my daughter—I have to give her more attention.” My love feels the same toward everyone.
Before Dipa was born, I wanted to adopt a son. My husband said, “There are lots of boys everywhere. Why don’t you give your love to them as your son?” I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was a great teaching.
Do you enjoy others’ company now, or do you prefer to be alone? I love to be around people who talk about dharma or the mind, or about themselves. I like to hear about these kinds of things, and I like to help if I think I can. But ordinary or useless talk doesn’t interest me, nor does going out to visit someone just to visit. In that case, I would rather be by myself.
Are you ever lonely? I enjoy being alone. I never feel lonely. I used to spend a lot of time going here and there, meeting this person and that person. Now I’m not interested in that. Whenever I’m alone, my mind automatically turns inward, observing the way body and mind are working. I do what is necessary day to day, but with detachment. If my body needs food, for instance, I eat. Whenever I meet a friend or relative, I don’t get into much conversation about what is going on at home or about daily affairs. I ask whether they are practicing meditation, and if not, why not, and I encourage them to devote themselves to it and not waste time.
Is still living a lay life and having all the day-to-day household and family concerns a hindrance to your practice? No. Whatever I am doing, mindfulness is present. In fact, meditation made me much more certain of my responsibilities toward my family. I became more confident as a mother, for instance, more certain of my responsibilities toward Dipa. I was asked to stay in Burma and become a sayadaw [J.E.: an honorific used for an accomplished teacher; there were no female sayadaws at that time to my knowledge], but I didn’t want Dipa to lose touch with her Bengali roots and people. So I moved us back to Calcutta from Rangoon.
How do you experience this life now? Is it something to be enjoyed, or something to detach from and leave behind? There is nothing ultimately desirable in this world, nothing to cling to. But still, we can make good use of everything in it. So samsara [the phenomenal world of suffering] is not to be rejected. It can be used for personal betterment and to help others.
Has your basic outlook on life changed as a result of your practice? It’s changed greatly. Before, I was too attached to everything. I wanted so much. Now it feels like I am floating free, not attached. I am here, but I don’t want anything for myself any more. I’m living, that’s all. That’s enough.
Are you afraid of death? No. I understand the living death. I have already seen death and dying in living, and I accept them as part of life.
What kinds of things make you happy now? What makes me happy has changed. Before, I used to take a lot of pleasure in nice clothes, nice friends, nice food. Now if I’m allowed to hear dharma, practice meditation, and work in my own way, I’m happy.
Do you think it is possible for a human being to be completely happy in this life? As long as one is not yet arahanta [fully enlightened], has not yet extinguished all the “fetters” [specific types of mental activity that bind one to the wheel of existence], one is not fully happy. My journey is not over. There is still work to be done.
What kind of work? Mind should be entirely free from greed, hatred, and delusion. I still experience some.t
Many thanks to Irene Shemaria for her help in preparing this material. — J.E.
Siddhi, the Pali word loosely translated as “power,” has so many meanings that no one English equivalent can do them all justice. Other definitions that have been suggested include “success,” “accomplishment,” and “prowess.” In the context of “power,” however, the word specifically means the supranormal powers that can be developed through concentration, such as levitation, walking on water, clairaudience, clairvoyance, remembrance of past lives, the ability to read the minds of others, and the cessation of mental effluents. In the Buddhist analysis, only the last of these powers is transcendent; it is the only one absolutely necessary on the path to awakening. The others are optional and not always desirable, for an unawakened person might find that the attainment of any one of them can cause greed, aversion, or delusion to arise in the mind. The texts record cases where even arahants, fully enlightened beings, not fully sensitive to the effect that their actions might have on others, display their powers in inappropriate contexts. This was why the Buddha forbade his monastic disciples to display their powers before the laity. None of the displayable powers, he said, is any match for the wonder of a teaching that gives the promised results when put into practice.
— Access to Insight (www.accesstoinsight.org)
Jack Engler is supervising psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a founding member and teacher at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.